Friday, February 20, 2009

Essay on Man

Alexander Pope (21 May 1688 – 30 May 1744)

Of the Nature and State of Man with respect to Himself, as an Individual.

EPISTLE II. Part II. The two Principles of Man, Self-love and Reason, both necessary, v.53, etc. Self-love the stronger, and why, v.67, etc. Their end the same, v.81, etc.

Two principles in human nature reign;
Self-love to urge, and reason, to restrain;
Nor this a good, nor that a bad we call,
Each works its end, to move or govern all,
And to their proper operation still,
Ascribe all good; to their improper, ill.
Self-love, the spring of motion, acts the soul;
Reason’s comparing balance rules the whole.
Man, but for that, no action could attend,
And but for this, were active to no end:
Fixed like a plant on his peculiar spot,
To draw nutrition, propagate, and rot;
Or, meteor-like, flame lawless through the void,
Destroying others, by himself destroyed.
Most strength the moving principle requires;
Active its task, it prompts, impels, inspires.
Sedate and quiet the comparing lies,
Formed but to check, deliberate, and advise.
Self-love still stronger, as its objects nigh;
Reason’s at distance, and in prospect lie:
That sees immediate good by present sense;
Reason, the future and the consequence.
Thicker than arguments, temptations throng.
At best more watchful this, but that more strong.
The action of the stronger to suspend,
Reason still use, to reason still attend.
Attention, habit and experience gains;
Each strengthens reason, and self-love restrains.
Let subtle schoolmen teach these friends to fight,
More studious to divide than to unite;
And grace and virtue, sense and reason split,
With all the rash dexterity of wit.
Wits, just like fools, at war about a name,
Have full as oft no meaning, or the same.
Self-love and reason to one end aspire,
Pain their aversion, pleasure their desire;
But greedy that, its object would devour,
This taste the honey, and not wound the flower:
Pleasure, or wrong or rightly understood,
Our greatest evil, or our greatest good.

I am presenting this Poetry Friday piece because it is a small part of a very large work in which Mr. Pope tries to explain the Nature of Man among his series of poems dedicated to the relationship between God and Man. I find the epistle form and the philosophical function of this work quite interesting as he stabs at the separate roles of self-love and reason in the life of man; I certainly don’t agree that there is such a dichotomy between them.

In learning some about Mr. Pope, what surprised me most was some of his more famous lines: (from Wikipedia)"A little learning is a dang'rous thing" (from the Essay on Criticism on ); "To err is human, to forgive, divine" (ibid.); "For fools rush in where angels fear to tread" (ibid); "Hope springs eternal in the human breast" and "The proper study of mankind is man" (Essay on Man). He also wrote Sir Isaac Newton’s epitaph:

“Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night;
God said "Let Newton be" and all was light.”

To read, or print and read, the entirety Pope’s Essay on Man, go here to project Guttenberg.

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