Pope, Alexander (1688–1744)

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Alexander Pope, England's leading poet of the Age of Reason, was born in London, the son of a prosperous Roman Catholic linen draper. His Catholicism barred him from public school and university; and he was educated by private tutors and by extensive reading and study on his own, largely at Binfield in Windsor Forest, where his father had retired. About the age of twelve, a severe illness stunted Pope's growth and deformed his spine, and for the rest of his life he was infirm. His devotion to poetry came early, and his genius was immediately recognized by William Wycherley and William Walsh. Early publications of note include the Pastorals (1709), An Essay on Criticism (1711), The Rape of the Lock (1712, enlarged 1714), and Windsor Forest (1714). During frequent visits to London, he became the friend of many prominent literary figures: Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, John Arbuthnot, John Gay, and Lord Bolingbroke. Although not an ardent party man, Pope inclined more to the Tory than to the Whig. In 1718, after the death of his father, he removed to Twickenham, on the Thames near London. Pope's translations of the Iliad (17151720) and the Odyssey (17251726) were well received and financially successful. The edition of William Shakespeare appeared in 1725.

Author of the Essay on Man (17331734), Moral Essays (17311735), and Imitations of Horace (17331737), and of the Dunciad (17281743) and various other satires, Pope was a philosopher-moralist-poet. He was generally so regarded throughout the eighteenth century, both at home and abroad. There is little of the original in Pope's thought, nor did he pretend to any, the very notion of originality being distasteful to the rationalistic mind. In the Essay on Criticism, he stated that his aim was to present "What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed." His writing in general admirably fulfills this precept, and his memorable formulations of traditional and familiar ideas bear the stamp of literary genius.

Despite frequent allegations to the contrary, Pope was not a deist. Indeed, in the Dunciad he specifically attacks Anthony Collins, Bernard Mandeville, Thomas Morgan, Matthew Tindal, John Toland, and Thomas Woolston, the leading deists of the day. He eschewed the role of Christian (Catholic) poet, however, preferring to represent what he considered the best in Western thought, both pagan and Christian. His universality is best seen in the Essay on Man, where in Epistle I a rationalistic metaphysics is presented, centering on the "Great Chain of Being," a concept as old as Plato's Timaeus that was a part of the heritage of Western man and was influential until well into the eighteenth century. The rationalistic myth of a "chain of being" extending from the Godhead at the one extreme to the lowliest atom at the other, with man as the middle link between the pure reason of angelic spirits and the pure instinct of lower animals, is presented by Pope as a means of chastising presumptuous man for attempting to be too rational, for attempting to deny the earthbound aspect of his nature. Such generic "pride" on the part of man would necessarily push him into a higher link and thus destroy the entire chain. The moral is clear: "The bliss of Man (could Pride that blessing find)/Is not to act or think beyond mankind." Man must submit to his ordained place in the universe because "Whatever is, is Right."

Pope has been frequently ridiculed for ending Epistle I on this seeming note of "easy optimism," as it has been erroneously labeled. A moment's recollection, however, of the fact that Pope devoted much of his career to satirizing contemporary mores and morality will make it evident that his "optimism" was not ordinary or glandular optimism but strictly metaphysical optimism, which is not necessarily of any comfort to humankind. Granted the "chain of being" as ordained by Deity, that plan and that chain must be right, even though, according to the "principle of plenitude," evil is just as necessary as good. Thus, apart from the totality of cosmic rightness, many circumstances of life may not be good for man himself. Small comfort, therefore, to man to be assured that what seems evil to him personally is actually good from the cosmological point of view: God, but not man, can afford to be optimistic. In fact, the theme of the entire Essay is the problem of reconciling the contrary, apparently irreconcilable elements of man's nature with the infinite wisdom of a God of order and harmony. Thus it is that in the opening lines of Epistle II, Pope makes an effort to dismiss the prior metaphysical optimism with the homely precept: "Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;/The proper study of Mankind is Man." The remainder of the Essay is concerned with the world of real existence, insofar as this is possible given the background of rationalistic formalism. Epistle II treats of man as an individual; Epistle III treats of man and society; and Epistle IV treats of man and happiness. Here there is little "easy optimism."

Pope teaches that self-love is superior to reason and that the passions are requisite for action. The "dominant passion" (which varies from man to man) rules life in different ways, and virtue and vice are joined in man's mixed nature. In the second epistle reason is "The God within the mind" that distinguishes between virtue and vice, to which in the third epistle are added instinct and social love. The fourth epistle, after much deliberation, declares that only in virtue is happiness to be found. Pope then ends the Essay with the affirmation that he has

Shew'd erring Pride, Whatever is, is Right ;
That Reason, Passion, answer one great aim;
That true Self-Love and Social are the same;
That Virtue only makes our Bliss below;
And all our Knowledge is, Ourselves to Know.

The major sources of Pope's philosophy have been much disputed, with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the earl of Shaftesbury, Bolingbroke, and William King the most frequently mentioned modern authors. There is no direct evidence that Pope knew Leibniz, and he specifically denied any influence by him. Pope had certainly read parts of Shaftesbury's Characteristics and undoubtedly acquired something from the reading. The case for Bolingbroke's Fragments or Minutes of Essays was widely accepted until recent investigations adduced evidence that the Fragments were composed later than Pope's Essay; what Pope may have received from Bolingbroke in the course of conversation, however, remains unknown. Archbishop King's De Origine Mali (1702), probably in Edmund Law's translation of 1731, contains much of the metaphysical thinking of the first epistle of the Essay on Man ; and there is little doubt that Pope found much useful information and many references in Law's elaborate notes. Gleanings from the ancient Platonists, Neoplatonists, and Stoics are to be assumed, as are, of course, some from the Christian tradition.

The Essay on Man first appeared anonymously, and Pope did not claim it until 1735. On the Continent it was translated (poorly) into French prose in 1736 and the following year into French verse (even more poorly). It ran through several editions with considerable praise until attacked in 1737 by J. P. de Crousaz in his Examen de l'essai de M. Pope sur l'homme. The Swiss theologian, ignorant of English, deliberately used the poem as a means of assailing the Spinozistic and the Leibnizian philosophies, of which Pope was innocent. The attack was taken up by several English pamphleteers until William Warburton (later bishop of Gloucester and editor of Pope's Works ), that colossus of controversy, came to the defense with a series of articles in the History of the Works of the Learned, published as a book in 1739 and revised in 1742. Warburton vindicated Pope against allegations of unorthodoxy, including that of deism.

Another Continental attack came in 1742 from Louis Racine in a poem titled La religion. In 1755 Gotthold Lessing and Moses Mendelssohn, in Pope ein Metaphysiker!, ridiculed both the Prussian Royal Academy for using a poet as the subject of a prize essay in philosophy and Pope for attempting to be a metaphysician in poetry. To Immanuel Kant, on the contrary, Pope was a favorite poet from whom he quoted frequently and whose thought he took seriously. Arthur O. Lovejoy has ventured the statement that "it would be hardly excessive to say that much of Kant's cosmology is a prose amplification and extension of the 'philosophy' of the First Epistle of the Essay on Man." Scorned or admired, at any rate, Pope's venture into verse philosophy was exceedingly popular, as is indicated by its translation into at least fifteen European languages and by scores of editions in English during the eighteenth century. And his century was the last that would have approved of such a venture.

Pope's original plan as poetical philosopher and moralist was ambitious, although somewhat vague. His magnum opus, to be titled "Ethic Epistles," was to consist of four books: the Essay on Man, as we now have it in four epistles; four more epistles dealing with "the extent and limits of human Reason," arts and sciences both "useful" and "unuseful," "the different Capacities of Men," and the "Use of Learning," science and wit; the "Science of Politics," to treat "of Civil and Religious Society in their full extent"; and "Private Ethics or Practical Morality." The planbut not the philosophyis curiously reminiscent of that of David Hume as stated in the "Advertisement" to the Treatise of Human Nature (1739). (Incidentally, Hume probably took from Pope such terms as "the science of man," "the science of human nature," "the soul's calm sunshine," and "the Feast of Reason.") In 1741 Hume was to devote an entire essay, "That Politics may be reduced to a Science," to the refutation of Pope's lines (Essay on Man, III, 303304): "For Forms of Government let fools contest;/Whate'er is best admister'd is best."

The Essay on Man was the only part of the magnum opus completed as planned. However, the Epistles to Several Persons, commonly known as the Moral Essays, constitute part of the original design and would have been portions of the fourth book, "Private Ethics or Practical Morality." These four epistles or essays are "To Cobham" ("Of the Knowledge and Character of Men"); "To a Lady" ("Of the Characters of Women"); "To Bathurst" ("Of the Use of Riches"); and "To Burlington" (also "Of the Use of Riches"). Pope was always the philosopher-moralist-poet whose description of his own career (Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, ll. 340341) is essentially accurate: "not in Fancy's Maze he wander'd long,/But stoop'd to Truth, and moraliz'd his song."

See also Addison, Joseph; Bolingbroke, Henry St. John; Collins, Anthony; Deism; Gay, John; Hume, David; Kant, Immanuel; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; Lovejoy, Arthur Oncken; Mandeville, Bernard; Mendelssohn, Moses; Morgan, Thomas; Neoplatonism; Plato; Platonism and the Platonic Tradition; Shaftesbury, Third Earl of (Anthony Ashley Cooper); Stoicism; Swift, Jonathan; Tindal, Matthew; Toland, John; Woolston, Thomas.


Primary sources include The Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope, John Butt, general editor, 6 vols. in 7 (London, 19391961); and Pope: The Correspondence, edited by George Sherburn, 5 vols. (Oxford, 1956).

Secondary sources include Arthur Friedman, "Pope and Deism," in Pope and His Contemporaries: Essays Presented to George Sherburn, edited by J. L. Clifford and Louis A. Landa (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1949); Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1936); Geoffrey Tillotson, The Moral Poetry of Pope (Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K.: Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne, 1946), On the Poetry of Pope, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1950), and Pope and Human Nature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958); Jonathan Barnes, "Partial Wholes," Social Philosophy and Policy (8 [1] [1990]: 123; David J. Leigh, "Alexander Pope and Eighteenth Century Conflicts about Ultimacy," Ultimate Reality and Meaning (20 [1] [1997] 2340.

Ernest Campbell Mossner (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)