January 14, 1998

From Gerald R. Lucas

Essay on Critical Man

Whatever is, is right” (Man I.294). Pope’s concluding statement of Essay on Man appears to contradict his raison d’être as a satirist and critic. How can the writer of this statement critique human faults? If God is omniscient, and God made the world, then the world is perfect and humans were made as well as God wanted them made — no improvement is necessary or realizable. There must be more to Pope’s syllogism that would warrant a less confusing and more profound interpretation of this ostensibly inexplicable statement. With this pronouncement in Essay on Man, Pope’s Essay on Criticism seemingly becomes irrelevant. I am interested here in how Whatever is, is right relates to criticism and writing. Rather than negating criticism altogether, Whatever is, is right only supports the critic’s endeavor further.

Alexander Pope by Jonathan Richardson.jpg

However difficult it might be to agree with and support Pope’s conclusion, it must be accepted as the premise if any subsequent interpretation is to prove fruitful. Can Pope be serious? Does he really believe that “If plagues or earthquakes break not Heav’n’s design / Why then a Borgia, or a Cataline” (Man I.155-6)? I suggest exchanging “Borgia” with “Hitler” and “Cataline” with “Stalin” to provide some twentieth-century perspective. Pope seems to commit a logical fallacy be comparing moral action with natural occurrences — as if the hurricane has a choice about destroying New Orleans. Well, explains Pope, God created human morality and natural phenomena; therefore, his design, no matter how it appears distorted to our limited perspective, is correct. Pope also suggests that we have a restricted position on the universe because we see only a fraction of God’s creation on Earth: “’Tis but a part we see, and not a whole” (Man I.69).

Echoing Milton, Pope’s thesis in Essay on Man is to “vindicate the ways of God to Man” (I.16). In his exculpation, Pope suggests that God made the best of possible creations, evidenced by his omniscience and the Great Chain of Being:

Of Systems possible, if ’tis confessed
That Wisdom infinite must from the best,
Where all must full or not coherent be,
And all that rises, rise in due degree;
Then, in the scale of reas’ning life, ’tis plain
There must be, somewhere, such a rank as Man;
And all the question (wrangle e’er so long)
Is only this, if God has plac’d him wrong? (Man I.43-50)

Between animal and angel, man must be content with his position on the great chain—knowing that God has placed him correctly. The above passage might suggest a lack of free-will governing man, in which case, Pope has no business criticizing. However, Pope’s oeuvre suggests that while man might not be able to change his position in God’s great hierarchy, and the presence of evil is an integral part of the system, man does have the power to improve himself within his own sphere. Yet, since man’s nature is fallen, corrupted, marred in Christian terms by original sin, men are not inherently benevolent, nor rational. In Jonathan Swift’s words, man is not the “rational animal,” but only “rationis capax,” i.e., capable of reason. So men need guidance to be the best men they can be; enter, then, the satirist and critic.

Out of this belief comes the Neoclassical idea that because man’s nature is flawed, restraint is important. Man should be distrustful of his inner impulses, and self-knowledge of man’s frailty is the beginning of wisdom, shown by some of Pope’s advice to the critic:

Be sure your self and your own Reach to know,
How far your Genius, Taste, and Learning go;
Launch not beyond your Depth, but be descreet,
And mark that Point where Sense and Dulness meet. (Crit. 48-51)

While this know thyself applies to the individual, seemingly Pope suggests also that man know his place in the order of things. This moral instruction, for the Neoclassicists, appears to be the purpose of literature and criticism.

The form of poetry may support this statement. The heroic couplet is exact and constraining, relying on the precise turn of phrase rather than long-winded prose to make its point. Pope suggest in his prologue to Essay on Man that he uses verse to make his points more memorable and that he “could express them more shortly this way than in prose itself” (121). The Neoclassical poet relies on wit to make his points, and since Pope is only second to Shakespeare in pithy aphorisms, he seems to have succeeded. Pope gives a concise (and probably the best I have read) definition of wit: “True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest, / What oft was Thought, but ne’er so well Exprest” (Crit 297-8). The heroic couplet, then, provides an example to man on how to approach morality. The couplet is precise and restrained, just like man should do to his animal nature.

Also, Pope suggests to the critic, one must be know the ancients, and know them well for

A little Learning is a dang’rous Thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again. (Crit 215-8)

Echoing Cicero in his De Oratore, Pope states that the true writers and critics must know what they are talking about, and the best education lies in the ancient poets and philosophers, for “You then whose Judgment the right Course wou’d steer, / Know well each Ancient’s proper Character” (Crit 188-9). Pope also gives rules for the writing of poetry beginning with “The Sound must seem an Echo to the Sense” (Crit 365). His subsequent lines illustrate masterfully the rules they give. Pope suggests that “Nature’s chief Master-piece is writing well” (Crit 724). Seemingly if one follows Pope’s advice in Essay on Criticism, one will, by writing well, be morally upright and restrained. So the role of the writer, critic, and satirist is a moral one.

Basically, to Pope, the satirist is one who defends Virtue and attacks Vice whatever the consequences; he is one who supports friends and attacks those who are enemies of the truth no matter what their social position or seeming importance. The satirist is one who cares for his country, its people, and their way of life. Dunces affect us all, and “When Truth or Virtue and Affront endures, / Th’ Affront is mine, my Friend, and should be yours” (Dunciad 199-200)