Tom Jones on Alexander Pope’s “original vision of humankind”

PopeHighly regarded as one of the most important and controversial works of the Enlightenment, Alexander Pope’s poem, “An Essay on Man” was a way to “vindicate the ways of God to man” in terms of the existence of evil, man’s place in the universe, and how humankind should behave in the world. Tom Jones has provided a comprehensive introduction in his accessible, reader-friendly new edition of the famous poem, An Essay on Man. Recently, Jones answered some questions about the poem, its reception, moral lessons, and distinctive contribution to ethical theory:

What does Pope say about ‘man’ in his essay?

TJ: (I’ll talk about ‘people’ in this interview, to avoid suggesting that the Essay on Man is about men rather than men and women.) Pope says some contrasting things about people in this poem, and one of the pleasures of reading it is working out how they do or don’t fit together. The poem is divided into four epistles, or letters, to Pope’s friend, Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke. Each of the epistles considers man from a different perspective: as one link in a chain of creatures; as an individual; in society; with respect to what makes people happy. Each epistle has a different feel or dominant tone. The first emphasises that people can only know a part of what is going on in the universe. The second, that we are a confusion of antagonistic psychological principles. The third, that self-love and social instincts turn out to support one another very fully. And the fourth, that human happiness rests in learning that individual goods always tend to be goods for others too, and that we ought to widen our perspective to consider other people’s good. So the tone of the fourth epistle is really quite different from the first. Rather than being contradictory, however, I would suggest that the poem is partly a story, the story of how we get from knowing only a part and not the whole, to how we start to consider perspectives above and beyond our own – truly social and more truly human perspectives. The poem is an encouragement to adopt these higher social perspectives.

Why is this essay in verse?

TJ: The kind of moral lessons Pope was trying to make available were, he thought, best communicated and memorized when written in verse. The fact that fragments and couplets from this poem (and others by Pope) have achieved proverbial status (‘For Forms of Government let fools contest; / Whate’er is best administer’d is best’, III.303-4, is amongst the most famous from this poem) is good evidence for that claim. Pope also claimed he could be more concise in expressing these thoughts in rhymed verse. He probably meant that he could communicate exactly what he wanted to in exactly the right number of words, with the slightest possible chance of misinterpretation. But since Pope’s time we have tended also to value poetry not for saying just enough, but for saying too little or too much, and leaving us some work to do with what is missing or what is left over. As well as the memorable quality of its maxims, the poem also gives us this pleasure, as we work out that time frames have been compressed in a single sentence, or that a particularly knotty sentence refers back to an earlier subject, or that the implications of a metaphor or comparison are much more disturbing that we would have thought. The compression and economy Pope was aiming at for the sake of clarity can also produce revealing complexities.

Does Pope make a distinctive contribution to ethical theory or to philosophy more broadly?

TJ: Reason and the passions were often put in opposition to one another in the philosophy of the Renaissance and early Enlightenment. Pope was one of the writers who rehabilitated the passions, even saying that passions could become virtues if they had a tendency towards social goods (II.97-100). Pope also has a view that passions emerge over the course of time and tend to reinforce themselves in daily behavior, so he was a philosopher of custom who edges towards what we might anachronistically call a description of the formation of neural pathways (II.128ff). And, moving from the individual to the species, he had a view that social practices and virtues emerge over the course of human history (III.169ff). So in some ways he is an early instance of, even an inspiration to, philosophers of custom of the later Enlightenment – philosophers like David Hume.

That leads on to another question: Who read the poem and what were their reactions to it?

TJ: It’s hard to overstate how widely and enthusiastically this poem was read. Originally published anonymously, it was positively received for its philosophical and religious views. There were critical responses too, some of which accused Pope of denying free will and of identifying God as the soul of the material world. But the poem was widely echoed and imitated in English poetry, and philosophers with interests in politics, cosmology, metaphysics, social norms and many other topics picked up on phrases, images and arguments from the poem in their published work. I find it particularly interesting to trace the connections between Pope’s writing on the problem of limited human perception in a potentially limitless universe and Immanuel Kant’s work on cosmology and the sublime. Kant cited Pope’s poem in an early work, and his distinction between the mind’s limited capacity empirically to conceive of particular numbers, and its simultaneously existing purely rational capacity to conceive of the infinite may count Pope amongst its inspirations.

Who were Pope’s great inspirations?

TJ: Broadly, those philosophers and theologians who see that the world in front of them is sufficiently bad for the existence of a divine providence to require serious explanation, but who nonetheless believe that such explanations can be given. That’s a very diverse group, and some of the most tempting candidates include people we can’t be certain Pope had read – Plotinus and Leibniz, for example. Amongst the people we know Pope read there are philosophical poets like Lucretius, whose atomism and naturalism might have appealed to Pope, but whose assertion of the indifference or non-existence of the gods was unacceptable to most of Pope’s audience. There are also French essayists of different kinds, many of whom responded antagonistically to one another, such as Montaigne and Pascal. Pope is close to both these writers – to Montaigne on the narrow distinction between animal instinct and human reason, for example, and to Pascal on the pragmatic value of superficial social distinctions such as rank – but Pascal had reacted very strongly to Montaigne’s more moderate form of Christian skepticism: Pascal wanted to reassert the divine reason behind what could appear to be merely arbitrary custom. So like many great writers Pope draws on his predecessors and contemporaries for ideas and images, but his real work is in the imaginative transformation of those sources in the construction of an original vision of humankind, whose natural sociability emerges through a particular institutional history, whose reason and passions are sometimes collaborators in the production of distinctively human virtues, who recognize their limits but nonetheless always aim to broaden the scope of what is contained by them.

Tom Jones teaches English at the University of St. Andrews in St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland. He is the author of Poetic Language: Theory and Practice from the Renaissance to the Present and Pope and Berkeley: The Language of Poetry and Philosophy.