Pope's Poems and Prose Summary and Analysis
An Essay on Man: Epistle III
The subtitle of the third epistle is “Of the Nature and State of Man, with Respect to Society,” and this section discusses man’s relation to family, government, and religion. Pope states that love connects the universe and that all creatures exchange services in a symbiotic relationship. Individual instances of human tyranny, however, offend nature. Instinct and reason are the guiding principles of man’s behavior and have dictated man’s trajectory since creation.
Here is a section-by-section explanation of the third epistle:
Introduction (1-6): The introduction simply reiterates the points Pope made in the first two epistles.
Section I (7-78): Section I suggests that the whole universe is one system of society. Nothing is made wholly for the benefit to itself, nor wholly for the benefit of others. Instead, everything is bound together in a neighboring embrace and all “parts relate to whole” (21). Those who fail to perform the role that nature has ordained will not be aided by society.
Section II (79-108): Section II states that all creatures are given either reason or instinct, whichever is best suited to the individual. Reason or instinct operates all society in both man and the animals.
Section III (109-46): Section III first demonstrates how far society can be carried by instinct, then shows how much farther society can be carried by reason. In society, creatures are instinctively united by mutual need. Reason extends that instinct into emotional connection.
Section IV (147-98): Section IV discusses the state of man at the time of creation, in particular the harmony between all elements of society. Initially bound by instinct, man looked to other creatures for instruction on how to act and develop their own forms of society, using reason to teach themselves.
Section V (199-214): Section V explains the development of political societies, especially the origins of monarchy and patriarchal government.
Section VI (215-318): Section VI examines the roles of religion and government in society. According to Pope’s argument, the origin of both true religion and government is the principle of love: faith is the love of God and government is the love of man. By contrast, superstition and tyranny both originate from the same principle of fear. Thus self-love, through just and unjust means, can either drive man’s ambition or restrain him. Pope then describes man’s efforts to restore true religion and government on their first principle. Both religion and government take many forms, but their ultimate ends are to govern the soul and to govern society.
The third epistle treats on man’s social contract with family, government, and religion, and Pope focuses on the bonds that unite man with others. While the second epistle shows that self-love governs man’s actions, love governs the universe, binding its disparate elements. Modern readers might be inclined to interpret this to mean erotic or familial love, but Pope actually refers to a sort of contractual love, which forms a building-block of God’s design and the chain of being. Atoms, for example, attract and are attracted to each other, which ensures that they remain in their proper place. Likewise, dirt sustains the growth of plants, and when a plant dies, it returns to dirt to nourish its fellow plants. Man’s grass and flowers provide food for antelope while antelope also nourish man. All parts in the circle of life thus “relate to whole,” and love “connects each being, greatest with the least / Made beast in aid of man, and man of best; / All serv’d, all serving: nothing stands alone” (21, 23-5). Love provides a convenient way for Pope to describe symbiosis in the relationship between God’s creatures, indicative of God’s greater design.
Pope goes on to discuss the effects that instinct and reason have on God’s creation. All creatures are imbued with either instinct or reason, whichever is best suited to their nature. According to Pope’s argument, instinct tends to characterize beasts while man serves reason. Those governed by instinct are largely complacent, needing no assistance from “pope or council” (84). By contrast, reason seems to result in more calculated behavior and these creatures must labor at happiness which instinct quickly secures. While these are hardly original observations, Pope implies that instinct is the work of God while reason is that of man. This conclusion accounts for the development of man. In man’s infancy humans were governed by instinct. Man then learned various behaviors—ploughing from the mole, political arts from the bees, etc.—by copying animals, thus developing human reason.
Through observations of his fellow creatures, man began to build his own cities, demonstrating sociability through government and religion. Man’s early societies were patriarchal, featuring mild and natural rulers. Everyone conducted themselves virtuously and celebrated God until patriarchs directed self-love towards personal ambition and priests perverted religious worship. It was not until man redirected self-love towards its natural sociability through restraint, namely “government and laws,” that man formed a social contract, which established good government and laws by rational agreement for mutual security (272). Pope’s conclusion, therefore, is that private good is best achieved by preventing a conflict with public good: “Thus God and nature link’d the general frame, / And bade self-love and social be the same” (317-8).
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