GradeSaver(TM) ClassicNotes: Pope's Poems and Prose
Home : Pope's Poems and Prose : Study Guide : Summary and Analysis of An Essay on Man: Epistle II

Pope's Poems and Prose Summary and Analysis

by Alexander Pope

An Essay on Man: Epistle II

Summary

The subtitle of the second epistle is “Of the Nature and State of Man, with Respect to Himself as an Individual” and treats on the relationship between the individual and God’s greater design.

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

Section I (1-52): Section I argues that man should not pry into God’s affairs but rather study himself, especially his nature, powers, limits, and frailties.

Section II (53-92): Section II shows that the two principles of man are self-love and reason. Self-love is the stronger of the two, but their ultimate goal is the same.

Section III (93-202): Section III describes the modes of self-love (i.e., the passions) and their function. Pope then describes the ruling passion and its potency. The ruling passion works to provide man with direction and defines man’s nature and virtue.

Section IV (203-16): Section IV indicates that virtue and vice are combined in man’s nature and that the two, while distinct, often mix.

Section V (217-30): Section V illustrates the evils of vice and explains how easily man is drawn to it.

Section VI (231-294): Section VI asserts that man’s passions and imperfections are simply designed to suit God’s purposes. The passions and imperfections are distributed to all individuals of each order of men in all societies. They guide man in every state and at every age of life.

Analysis

The second epistle adds to the interpretive challenges presented in the first epistle. At its outset, Pope commands man to “Know then thyself,” an adage that misdescribes his argument (1). Although he actually intends for man to better understand his place in the universe, the classical meaning of “Know thyself” is that man should look inwards for truth rather than outwards. Having spent most of the first epistle describing man’s relationship to God as well as his fellow creatures, Pope’s true meaning of the phrase is clear. He then confuses the issue by endeavoring to convince man to avoid the presumptuousness of studying God’s creation through natural science. Science has given man the tools to better understand God’s creation, but its intoxicating power has caused man to imitate God. It seems that man must look outwards to gain any understanding of his divine purpose but avoid excessive analysis of what he sees. To do so would be to assume the role of God.

The second epistle abruptly turns to focus on the principles that guide human action. The rest of this section focuses largely on “self-love,” an eighteenth-century term for self-maintenance and fulfillment. It was common during Pope’s lifetime to view the passions as the force determining human action. Typically instinctual, the immediate object of the passions was seen as pleasure. According to Pope’s philosophy, each man has a “ruling passion” that subordinates the others. In contrast with the accepted eighteenth-century views of the passions, Pope’s doctrine of the “ruling passion” is quite original. It seems clear that with this idea, Pope tries to explain why certain individual behave in distinct ways, seemingly governed by a particular desire. He does not, however, make this explicit in the poem.

Pope’s discussion of the passions shows that “self-love” and “reason” are not opposing principles. Reason’s role, it seems, is to regulate human behavior while self-love originates it. In another sense, self-love and the passions dictate the short term while reason shapes the long term.

Pope's Poems and Prose Essays and Related Content