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Pope's Poems and Prose Summary and Analysis

by Alexander Pope

An Essay on Man: Epistle IV

Summary

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.

Analysis

Despite the significant interpretive problems of the first two epistles, the fourth epistle provides an appropriate conclusion to An Essay on Man, knitting the poem’s arguments together and ostensibly demonstrating man’s relation to and purpose in the universe. According to Pope’s argument, happiness is man’s ultimate goal and can only be attained through virtuous behavior. Of course, as he indicates earlier in the poem, the lines between virtue and vice are often blurred. It is therefore important to assign an appropriate reward for virtue: “What nothing earthly gives, or can destroy, / The soul’s calm sunshine, and the heart-felt joy, / Is virtue’s prize: a better would you fix? / Then give humility a coach and six” (167-70). Pope shows this reward to be a composed serenity free of earthly desires. Indeed, such serenity cannot derive from riches or fame, material goods or currencies which usually serve as an impediment to virtue anyway.

The “soul’s calm sunshine” that Pope describes allows man to transcend his earthly prison and look “through nature up to nature’s God,” allowing man to pursue “that chain which links th’immense design, / Joins heav’n and earth, and mortal and divine” (332). Serenity the thus the natural end of judicious self-love: “God loves from whole to parts; but human soul / Must rise from individual to the whole. / Self-love but serves the virtuous mind to wake” (261-3). This is not, of course, the momentary pleasure that basic self-love and the passions provide but rather the happiness that derives from knowing one is part of a divine plan and accepting one’s place and role in it. In other words, trust God and all will be well because “Whatever is, is right” (I.294).

Although the fourth epistle provides a successful conclusion to Pope’s ambitious philosophical project, this section is not without its problems. Perhaps most distressing is Pope’s argument in Section IV, which dismisses man’s concern that too often virtue appears to be punished while vice is rewarded. While this is addressed to an extent in Pope’s discussion of material goods, Pope also asserts that God acts by general and not specific laws which apply to the whole, not individual parts. This suggests that all men are treated exactly equally by God. Experience obviously contradicts this assertion, but so does Pope himself. He declares that to satisfy God’s hierarchical order as well as man’s social order, there must be differences of wealth and rank. He claims that equality of wealth is opposed to God’s ways because it would breed discontent among those who deserve greater wealth and status. Though Pope qualifies this by suggesting redress in Heaven, this disparity of wealth and rank—a part of reality—undermine Pope’s thesis.

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