Pope's Poems and Prose

What does An Essay on Man focus on?

What does An Essay on Man focus on?

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Pope's Poems and Prose Summary and Analysis of An Essay on Man: Epistle IV


The subtitle of the fourth epistle is “On the Nature and State of Man, with Respect to Happiness” and depicts man’s various attempts to achieve true human happiness. Pope endeavors to prove that virtue alone can generate such happiness.

Here is a section-by-section explanation of the fourth epistle:

Introduction (1-18): The introduction identifies happiness as man’s ultimate aim and establishes man’s search for happiness as the theme of the fourth epistle.

Section I (19-28): Section I enumerates the popular and philosophical false notions of happiness.

Section II (29-92): Section II suggests that happiness is man’s end and that it can be attained by all. Happiness is therefore equal which means that it must also be social since, as Pope establishes in the third epistle, man is governed by general, not specific laws. Because happiness is social, it is necessary for the order, peace, and welfare of society. It cannot, however, be located in external goods since these can be unequal. God balances the happiness of mankind by the two passions of hope and fear.

Section III (93-110): Section III shows that the happiness of individuals is in accordance with God’s greater plan and is consistent with the equality of man. Man, however, might question why a virtuous man dies while a sinful man lives.

Section IV (111-30): Section IV answers man’s concerns in Section III. Pope chastises man’s presumption to question the ways of God; it is absurd to expect God to alter his laws to favor particular individuals.

Section V (131-48): Section V demonstrates that man cannot judge the goodness and righteousness of other men. This is the purview of God alone. Whichever men are most good and righteous must be the happiest.

Section VI (149-308): Section VI elucidates the conflict between vice and virtue. Though sometimes vice seems to prevail, it is part of God’s order; man should be content to be virtuous. External goods, for example, are not the proper rewards for virtue and are often inconsistent with or destructive of virtue. All the riches, honors, nobility, greatness, fame, and superior talents cannot make man happy without likewise having virtue.

Section VII (309-98): Section VII deals specifically with the relationship between virtue and happiness. Virtue can only provide a happiness which seeks to rise above the individual and embrace the universal. Happiness thus born will exist eternally. This perfection of virtue and happiness conforms to God’s order and represents the ultimate purpose of mankind.