This essay was written in preparation for a debate on the relevance and congruence of Pope’s Essay with Christian principles. The position taken in this essay was the one assigned to me, and henceforth not necessarily my complete opinion. In order to keep the spirit of debate and intellectual stimulus alive, I would love to hear your stance on the issue.
DERIVED FROM POPE’S ESSAY ON MAN, EPISTLE 1
While Pope’s Essay on Man does contain religious principles, his religious outlook should not be taken as a Christian, biblical worldview. For within his essay, Pope’s emphasis lies purely on the natural order of things, without taking into consideration that man is a fallen being and that earth itself, while filled with the wonders and signs of God, also possesses the handprints of its fallen inhabitants. As a result, this essay will dispute Pope’s claims of the Great Chain of Being (and all of its implications), the faulty assumption that man is as perfect as he can be in the here-and now, and Pope’s reliance on reason through general revelation and knowledge without considering the implications of faith and special revelation.
Drawing on his Catholic background and faith, Pope advocates for the Great Chain of Being and draws most of his arguments from this rigid hierarchy which states that the great order is God, Angels, Man. While the basic concepts of order, placing man under God is correct, the underlying layers of the concept which come from it, and to which Pope alludes, do not align to a Christian worldview. Among these concepts is complacency with the status quo.
Lines 69 and 80 read, “Then say not Man’s imperfect, Heav’n in fault; Say rather, Man’s as perfect as he ought.” While the claim that heaven is not to be blamed for the bad tidings on earth holds to a biblical standard, the claim that man is as perfect as he should be disagrees with the Christian belief that Christians should strive toward perfection and Christ-likeness. Because man is fallen, he is not as perfect as he ought to be. Romans 1 is just one example where God condemns men for becoming “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity.”
In addition to the rigid hierarchy, Pope uses Nature and the natural way of things in order to establish man’s place in the world. However, while man is organic and natural, the Bible clearly places humans above the natural order of things. The fact that man was created in the likeness of God, takes men out of the realms of angels, fauna and flora. By using the reason and knowledge of which Pope speaks, we can see that while most of the natural world runs in a cyclical sphere (seasons, the “circle of life,” etc), man, as represented in the Bible, runs on a linear scale ranging from the Creation to the Crucifixion and ending at the New Jerusalem. The comparisons Pope uses in section II therefore, are out-of-context for his argument.
Another point deals with Pope’s, almost deistic look on man and reason. Pope expounds on the concept that man is just part of a whole. As a result, he can only see part of the way things are or are to be, and therefore has no right to judge or assess himself or God. In many ways, Pope models the dialogue between Job and God. God does rebut Job for questioning his fairness and remarks on Job’s limited scope of knowledge, but this man who dared to question God ends up with more rewards than the men who passively accepted the way things were. In addition, while man does not have knowledge of everything, God has seen fit to give men wisdom and understanding, prophecies, visions, and other knowledge outside the scope of reason. According to James 1.5 this information, while usually outside the scope of man’s “order in the hierarchy” comes specifically when man refuses to be content with his state of “perfection” and asks for it. As such, it is a form of special revelation.
The idyllic manner in which Pope portrays the Indian draws on the Indian’s use of general revelation in order to come to some understanding of a higher power. General revelation can be an excellent source for reason. As observations are made about the natural world and its systems, conclusions can be drawn. To this extent, Pope draws conclusions about man’s limited, finiteness and places him on the hierarchal scale as a result. However, while many of his conclusions are true to an extent, the use of reason as a whole end in and of itself does not allow for the use of Special Revelation as sent by God. The psalms are filled with special revelations, as are Jesus’ miracles. According to Psalm 8, God created man just a little lower than Himself and in Genesis we find that man is made in the likeness of God, whereas the angels were not. According to natural observations and reason and through perverted pride, the Great Chain of Being has dictated that man is below both God and angels, but this does not hold with scriptures which, while speaking of man’s inferiority, also speaks of man’s great potential.
In the Spring of 1688, Alexander Pope was born an only child to Alexander and Edith Pope. The elder Pope, a linen-draper and recent convert to Catholicism, soon moved his family from London to Binfield, Berkshire in the face of repressive, anti-Catholic legislation from Parliament. Described by his biographer, John Spence, as "a child of a particularly sweet temper," and with a voice so melodious as to be nicknamed the "Little Nightingale," the child Pope bears little resemblance to the irascible and outspoken moralist of the later poems. Barred from attending public school or university because of his religion, Pope was largely self-educated. He taught himself French, Italian, Latin, and Greek, and read widely, discovering Homer at the age of six.
At twelve, Pope composed his earliest extant work, Ode to Solitude; the same year saw the onset of the debilitating bone deformity that would plague Pope until the end of his life. Originally attributed to the severity of his studies, the illness is now commonly accepted as Pott's disease, a form of tuberculosis affecting the spine that stunted his growth—Pope's height never exceeded four and a half feet—and rendered him hunchbacked, asthmatic, frail, and prone to violent headaches. His physical appearance would make him an easy target for his many literary enemies in later years, who would refer to the poet as a "hump-backed toad."
Pope's Pastorals, which he claimed to have written at sixteen, were published in Jacob Tonson's Poetical Miscellanies of 1710 and brought him swift recognition. Essay on Criticism, published anonymously the year after, established the heroic couplet as Pope's principal measure and attracted the attention of Jonathan Swift and John Gay, who would become Pope's lifelong friends and collaborators. Together they formed the Scriblerus Club, a congregation of writers endeavoring to satirize ignorance and poor taste through the invented figure of Martinus Scriblerus, who would serve as a precursor to the dunces in Pope's late masterpiece, the Dunciad.
1712 saw the first appearance of the The Rape of the Lock, Pope's best-known work and the one that secured his fame. Its mundane subject—the true account of a squabble between two prominent Catholic families over the theft of a lock of hair—is transformed by Pope into a mock-heroic send-up of classical epic poetry.
Turning from satire to scholarship, Pope in 1713 began work on his six-volume translation of Homer's Iliad. He arranged for the work to be available by subscription, with a single volume being released each year for six years, a model that garnered Pope enough money to be able to live off his work alone, one of the few English poets in history to have been able to do so.
In 1719, following the death of his father, Pope moved to an estate at Twickenham, where he would live for the remainder of his life. Here he constructed his famous grotto, and went on to translate the Odyssey—which he brought out under the same subscription model as the Iliad—and to compile a heavily-criticized edition of Shakespeare, in which Pope "corrected" the Bard's meter and made several alterations to the text, while leaving corruptions in earlier editions intact.
Critic and scholar Lewis Theobald's repudiation of Pope's Shakespeare provided the catalyst for his Dunciad, a vicious, four-book satire in which Pope lampoons the witless critics and scholars of his day, presenting their "abuses of learning" as a mock-Aeneid, with the dunces in service to the goddess Dulness; Theobald served as its hero.
Though published anonymously, there was little question as to its authorship. Reaction to the Dunciad from its victims and sympathizers was more hostile than that of any of his previous works; Pope reportedly would not leave his house without two loaded pistols in his pocket. "I wonder he is not thrashed," wrote William Broome, Pope's former collaborator on the Odyssey who found himself lambasted in the Dunciad, "but his littleness is his protection; no man shoots a wren."
Pope published Essay on Man in 1734, and the following year a scandal broke out when an apparently unauthorized and heavily sanitized edition of Pope's letters was released by the notoriously reprobate publisher Edmund Curll (collections of correspondence were rare during the period). Unbeknownst to the public, Pope had edited his letters and delivered them to Curll in secret.
Pope's output slowed after 1738 as his health, never good, began to fail. He revised and completed the Dunciad, this time substituting the famously inept Colley Cibber—at that time, the country's poet laureate—for Theobald in the role of chief dunce. He began work on an epic in blank verse entitled Brutus, which he quickly abandoned; only a handful of lines survive. Alexander Pope died at Twickenham, surrounded by friends, on May 30, 1744.
Since his death, Pope has been in a constant state of reevaluation. His high artifice, strict prosody, and, at times, the sheer cruelty of his satire were an object of derision for the Romantic poets of the nineteenth century, and it was not until the 1930s that his reputation was revived. Pope is now considered the dominant poetic voice of his century, a model of prosodic elegance, biting wit, and an enduring, demanding moral force.