“An Essay on Man” by English poet Alexander Pope is a philosophical poem, which was published, in the 18th century during a historical period called the Enlightenment. A huge emphasis was placed on the ability to think and reason during the Enlightenment. People during this era reflected about a variety of topics. Some people concerned themselves with the issue of God, which consequently caused many to question the church. Others were concerned with the organization of the Universe, and man’s place within that Universe. Often times, a literary work can reflect the thoughts and feelings of the society during the period in which it was written. In “An Essay on Man,” Pope effectively illustrates the major concerns of the people during the Enlightenment when he addresses man’s ability o reason and think for himself, and speculates about man’s place in the world, as part of the “great chain of being.”
The ability to reason was the central focus of the Enlightenment also called “The Age of Reason.” Pop begins the poem by appealing to the logic and reason of his audience. He writes, Together let us beat this ample field,/ Try to open, what the convert yield”(lines 9-10). Pope encourages his audience to use the reason they have been given to examine those things that they have been advised against. To reason against those things that have been kept hidden to them. He is trying to bring them into the 18th century, asking them to look for evidence in the knowledge they receive, rather than allowing the church (or other institutions) to spoon-feed them all of their knowledge.
Pope’s attempt, in writing “An Essay on Man” was to “vindicate the ways of God to Man”(Wilkie and Hurt 292) and warn that man himself is not, dissipate what pride would allow him to believe, the center of all things. The concept of “the great chain of being” is well represented in Pope’s “An Essay on Man.” Pope addresses the issue of man’s place in the Universe when he, “vast chain of being which from God Began,/ Nature’s ethereal, human, angel, man…”(lines 237-238). Pope expresses his opinion that a man’s place in the Universe is within Nature’s chain. Therefore, man is just a link in that chain. Pope sets out to demonstrate that no matter how imperfect the world seems to man that it is in fact a perfect work of God. It appears imperfect to humans only due to the fact that their perceptions are limited because they’re not supposed to be able to completely understand the world. His conclusion is that humans must learn to “accept their position in the great chain of being – a middle state, below that of angels but above that of the beasts”(Wilkie and hurt 292).
A prime example of Pope's failure to follow his own advice appears in the first epistle:” Better for Us, perhaps, it might appear, Were there all harmony, all...