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Alexander Pope (1688–1744). Complete Poetical Works. 1903.

Moral Essays

Epistle I. Of the Knowledge and Characters of Men

  • Est brevitate, opus, ut currat sententia, neu se
  • Impediat verbis lassas onerantibus aures:
  • Et sermone opus est modo tristi, sæpe jocoso,
  • Defendente vicem modo rhetoris atque poetæ,
  • Interdum urbani, parcentis viribus, atque
  • Extenuantis eas consulto.
  • The present order of the Moral Essays is very different from that of their original publication. The fifth epistle (to Addison) was written in 1715, and published five years later in Tickell’s edition of Addison’s works. The fourth epistle (to the Earl of Burlington) was published in 1731, under the title Of Taste. The third epistle (to Lord Bathurst) was published in 1732, and followed in 1733 by the first epistle (to Lord Cobham). The second epistle (to a Lady) was published in 1735. The whole series appeared in their present order, under the direction of Warburton, after Pope’s death.
  • Though it is doubtful how far it suggests Pope’s primary intention, Warburton’s Advertisement is here printed because Pope undoubtedly wished it, with its flattering implication of his philosophical breadth, to be accepted as a true statement of a plan which was plainly broader than its execution.
  • The Essay on Man was intended to be comprised in four books:—
  • The first of which the author has given us under that title in four epistles.
  • The second was to have consisted of the same number: 1. Of the extent and limits of human reason. 2. Of those arts and sciences, and of the parts of them, which are useful, and therefore attainable; together with those which are unuseful, and therefore unattainable. 3. Of the nature, ends, use, and application of the different capacities of men. 4. Of the use of learning; of the science of the world; and of wit; concluding with a satire against the misapplication of them, illustrated by pictures, characters, and examples.
  • The third book regarded civil regimen, or the science of politics; in which the several forms of a republic were to be examined and explained; together with the several modes of religious worship, as far forth as they affect society: between which the author always supposed there was the most interesting relation and closest connection. So that this part would have treated of civil and religious society in their full extent.
  • The fourth and last book concerned private ethics, or practical morality, considered in all the circumstances, orders, professions, and stations of human life.
  • The scheme of all this had been maturely digested, and communicated to Lord Bolingbroke, Dr. Swift, and one or two more; and was intended for the only work of his riper years; but was, partly through ill health, partly through discouragements from the depravity of the times; and partly on prudential and other considerations, interrupted, postponed, and lastly, in a manner, laid aside.
  • But as this was the author’s favourite work, which more exactly reflected the image of his strong capacious mind, and as we can have but a very imperfect idea of it from the disjecta membra poetæ that now remain, it may not be amiss to be a little more particular concerning each of these projected books.
  • The first, as it treats of man in the abstract, and considers him in general under every one of his relations, becomes the foundation, and furnishes out the subjects of the three following: so that—
  • The second book was to take up again the first and second epistles of the first book, and to treat of man in his intellectual capacity at large, as has been explained above. Of this only a small part of the conclusion (Which, as we said, was to have contained a satire against the misapplication of wit and learning) may be found in the fourth book of the Dunciad; and up and down, occasionally, in the other three.
  • The third book, in like manner, was to reassume the subject of the third epistle of the first, which treats of man in his social, political, and religious capacity. But this part the poet afterwards conceived might be best executed in an epic poem, as the action would make it more animated, and the fable less invidious; in which all the great principles of true and false governments and religions should be chiefly delivered in feigned examples.
  • The fourth and last book was to pursue the subject of the fourth epistle of the first, and to treat of ethics, or practical morality; and would have consisted of many members, of which the four following epistles are detached portions; the two first, on the characters of men and women, being the introductory part of this concluding book.
  • Epistle I

    To Sir Richard Temple, Lord Cobham

    Of the Knowledge and Characters of Men

  • I. That it is not sufficient for this knowledge to consider Man in the abstract; Books will not serve the purpose, nor yet our own Experience singly. General maxims, unless they be formed upon both, will be but notional. Some peculiarity in every man, characteristic to himself, yet varying from himself. Difficulties arising from our own Passions, Fancies, Faculties, &c. The shortness of Life to observe in, and the uncertainty of the Principles of action in men to observe by. Our own Principle of action often hid from ourselves. Some few Characters plain, but in general confounded, dissembled, or inconsistent. The same man utterly different in different places and seasons. Unimaginable weaknesses in the greatest. Nothing constant and certain but God and Nature. No judging of the Motives from the actions; the same actions proceeding from contrary Motives, and the same Motives influencing contrary actions. II. Yet to form Characters we can only take the strongest actions of a man’s life, and try to make them agree: the utter uncertainty of this, from Nature itself, and from Policy. Characters given according to the rank of men of the world; and some reason for it. Education alters the Nature, or at least the Character, of many. Actions, Passions, Opinions, Manners, Humours, or Principles, all subject to change. No judging by Nature. III. It only remains to find (if we can) his Ruling Passion: that will certainly influence all the rest, and can reconcile the seeming or real inconsistency of all his actions. Instanced in the extraordinary character of Clodio. A caution against mistaking second qualities for first, which will destroy all possibility of the knowledge of mankind. Examples of the strength of the Ruling Passion, and its continuation to the last breath.

  • YES, you despise the man to books confin’d,

    Who from his study rails at humankind;

    Tho’ what he learns he speaks, and may advance

    Some gen’ral maxims, or be right by chance.

    The coxcomb bird, so talkative and grave,

    That from his cage cries cuckold, whore, and knave,

    Tho’ many a passenger he rightly call,

    You hold him no philosopher at all.

    And yet the fate of all extremes is such,

    Men may be read, as well as books, too much.

    To observations which ourselves we make,

    We grow more partial for th’ observer’s sake;

    To written wisdom, as another’s, less:

    Maxims are drawn from Notions, those from Guess.

    There ’s some peculiar in each leaf and grain,

    Some unmark’d fibre, or some varying vein.

    Shall only man be taken in the gross?

    Grant but as many sorts of mind as moss.

    That each from other differs, first confess;

    Next, that he varies from himself no less:

    And Nature’s, Custom’s, Reason’s, Passion’s strife,

    And all Opinion’s colours cast on life.

    Our depths who fathoms, or our shallows finds,

    Quick whirls and shifting eddies of our minds?

    On human actions reason tho’ you can,

    It may be Reason, but it is not Man:

    His Principle of action once explore,

    That instant ’t is his Principle no more.

    Like following life thro’ creatures you dissect,

    You lose it in the moment you detect.

    Yet more; the diff’rence is as great between

    The optics seeing as the objects seen.

    All Manners take a tincture from our own,

    Or come discolour’d thro’ our Passions shown;

    Or Fancy’s beam enlarges, multiplies,

    Contracts, inverts, and gives ten thousand dyes.

    Nor will life’s stream for observation stay,

    It hurries all too fast to mark their way:

    In vain sedate reflections we would make,

    When half our knowledge we must snatch, not take.

    Oft in the Passions’ wide rotation toss’d,

    Our spring of action to ourselves is lost:

    Tired, not determin’d, to the last we yield,

    And what comes then is master of the field.

    As the last image of that troubled heap,

    When Sense subsides, and Fancy sports in sleep

    (Tho’ past the recollection of the thought),

    Becomes the stuff of which our dream is wrought:

    Something as dim to our internal view

    Is thus, perhaps, the cause of most we do.

    True, some are open, and to all men known;

    Others so very close they ’re hid from none

    (So darkness strikes the sense no less than light):

    Thus gracious Chandos is belov’d at sight;

    And ev’ry child hates Shylock, tho’ his soul

    Still sits at squat, and peeps not from its hole.

    At half mankind when gen’rous Manly raves,

    All know ’t is virtue, for he thinks them knaves:

    When universal homage Umbra pays,

    All see ’t is vice, and itch of vulgar praise.

    When Flatt’ry glares, all hate it in a Queen,

    While one there is who charms us with his spleen.

    But these plain Characters we rarely find;

    Tho’ strong the bent, yet quick the turns of mind:

    Or puzzling contraries confound the whole;

    Or affectations quite reverse the soul.

    The dull flat falsehood serves for policy;

    And in the cunning truth itself’s a lie:

    Unthought-of frailties cheat us in the wise:

    The fool lies hid in inconsistencies.

    See the same man, in vigour, in the gout;

    Alone, in company, in place, or out;

    Early at bus’ness, and at hazard late,

    Mad at a fox-chase, wise at a debate,

    Drunk at a Borough, civil at a Ball,

    Friendly at Hackney, faithless at Whitehall!

    Catius is ever moral, ever grave,

    Thinks who endures a knave is next a knave,

    Save just at dinner—then prefers, no doubt,

    A rogue with ven’son to a saint without.

    Who would not praise Patricio’s high desert,

    His hand unstain’d, his uncorrupted heart,

    His comprehensive head? all int’rests weigh’d,

    All Europe saved, yet Britain not betray’d!

    He thanks you not, his pride is in Piquet,

    Newmarket fame, and judgment at a bet.

    What made (say, Montaigne, or more sage Charron)

    Otho a warrior, Cromwell a buffoon?

    A perjured prince a leaden saint revere,

    A godless regent tremble at a star?

    The throne a bigot keep, a genius quit,

    Faithless thro’ piety, and duped thro’ wit?

    Europe a woman, child, or dotard, rule;

    And just her wisest monarch made a fool?

    Know, God and Nature only are the same:

    In man the judgment shoots at flying game;

    A bird of passage! gone as soon as found;

    Now in the moon, perhaps now under ground.

    In vain the sage, with retrospective eye,

    Would from th’ apparent What conclude the Why,

    Infer the Motive from the Deed, and show

    That what we chanced was what we meant to do.

    Behold! if Fortune or a Mistress frowns,

    Some plunge in bus’ness, others shave their crowns:

    To ease the soul of one oppressive weight,

    This quits an empire, that embroils a state,

    The same adust complexion has impell’d

    Charles to the convent, Philip to the field.

    Not always Actions show the man: we find

    Who does a kindness is not therefore kind;

    Perhaps Prosperity becalm’d his breast;

    Perhaps the wind just shifted from the east:

    Not therefore humble he who seeks retreat;

    Pride guides his steps, and bids him shun the great:

    Who combats bravely is not therefore brave;

    He dreads a death-bed like the meanest slave:

    Who reasons wisely is not therefore wise;

    His pride in reas’ning, not in acting, lies.

    But grant that Actions best discover man;

    Take the most strong, and sort them as you can:

    The few that glare each character must mark;

    You balance not the many in the dark.

    What will you do with such as disagree?

    Suppress them, or miscall them Policy?

    Must then at once (the character to save)

    The plain rough hero turn a crafty knave?

    Alas! in truth the man but changed his mind;

    Perhaps was sick, in love, or had not din’d.

    Ask why from Britain Cæsar would retreat?

    Cæsar himself might whisper he was beat.

    Why risk the world’s great empire for a punk?

    Cæsar himself might whisper he was drunk.

    But, sage historians! ’t is your task to prove

    One action, Conduct, one, heroic Love.

    ’T is from high life high characters are drawn;

    A saint in crape is twice a saint in lawn;

    A judge is just, a chancellor juster still;

    A gownman learn’d; a bishop what you will;

    Wise if a minister; but if a king,

    More wise, more learn’d, more just, more ev’rything.

    Court-virtues bear, like gems, the highest rate,

    Born where Heav’n’s influence scarce can penetrate.

    In life’s low vale, the soil the virtues like,

    They please as beauties, here as wonders strike.

    Tho’ the same sun, with all-diffusive rays,

    Blush in the rose, and in the diamond blaze,

    We prize the stronger effort of his power,

    And justly set the gem above the flower.

    ’T is education forms the common mind;

    Just as the twig is bent the tree’s inclin’d.

    Boastful and rough, your first son is a Squire;

    The next a Tradesman, meek, and much a liar;

    Tom struts a Soldier, open, bold, and brave;

    Will sneaks a Scriv’ner, an exceeding knave.

    Is he a Churchman? then he ’s fond of power:

    A Quaker? sly: a Presbyterian? sour:

    A smart Free-thinker? all things in an hour.

    Ask men’s opinions! Scoto now shall tell

    How trade increases, and the world goes well:

    Strike off his pension by the setting sun,

    And Britain, if not Europe, is undone.

    That gay Free-thinker, a fine talker once,

    What turns him now a stupid silent dunce?

    Some god or spirit he has lately found,

    Or chanced to meet a Minister that frown’d.

    Judge we by Nature? Habit can efface,

    Int’rest o’ercome, or Policy take place:

    By Actions? those Uncertainty divides:

    By Passions? these Dissimulation hides:

    Opinions? they still take a wider range:

    Find, if you can, in what you cannot change.

    Manners with Fortunes, Humours turn with Climes,

    Tenets with Books, and Principles with Times.

    Search then the RULING PASSION: there alone,

    The wild are constant, and the cunning known;

    The fool consistent, and the false sincere;

    Priests, princes, women, no dissemblers here.

    This clue once found unravels all the rest,

    The prospect clears, and Wharton stands confest:

    Wharton! the scorn and wonder of our days,

    Whose Ruling Passion was the lust of praise:

    Born with whate’er could win it from the wise,

    Women and fools must like him, or he dies:

    Tho’ wond’ring Senates hung on all he spoke,

    The Club must hail him master of the joke.

    Shall parts so various aim at nothing new?

    He ’ll shine a Tully and a Wilmot too:

    Then turns repentant, and his God adores

    With the same spirit that he drinks and whores;

    Enough if all around him but admire,

    And now the Punk applaud, and now the Friar.

    Thus with each gift of Nature and of Art,

    And wanting nothing but an honest heart;

    Grown all to all, from no one vice exempt,

    And most contemptible, to shun contempt;

    His passion still to covet gen’ral praise;

    His life, to forfeit it a thousand ways;

    A constant bounty which no friend has made;

    An angel tongue which no man can persuade!

    A fool with more of wit than half mankind,

    Too rash for thought, for action too refin’d;

    A tyrant to the wife his heart approves;

    A rebel to the very king he loves—

    He dies, sad outcast of each church and state,

    And, harder still! flagitious, yet not great!

    Ask you why Wharton broke thro’ ev’ry rule?

    ’T was all for fear the Knaves should call him Fool.

    Nature well known, no prodigies remain;

    Comets are regular, and Wharton plain.

    Yet in this search the wisest may mistake,

    If second qualities for first they take.

    When Catiline by rapine swell’d his store,

    When Cæsar made a noble dame a whore,

    In this the Lust, in that the Avarice

    Were means, not ends; Ambition was the vice.

    That very Cæsar, born in Scipio’s days,

    Had aim’d, like him, by chastity at praise,

    Lucullus, when Frugality could charm,

    Had roasted turnips in the Sabine farm.

    In vain th’ observer eyes the builder’s toil,

    But quite mistakes the scaffold for the pile.

    In this one passion man can strength enjoy,

    As fits give vigour just when they destroy.

    Time, that on all things lays his lenient hand,

    Yet tames not this; it sticks to our last sand.

    Consistent in our follies and our sins,

    Here honest Nature ends as she begins.

    Old politicians chew on wisdom past,

    And totter on in bus’ness to the last;

    As weak, as earnest, and as gravely out

    As sober Lanesb’row dancing in the gout.

    Behold a rev’rend sire, whom want of grace

    Has made the father of a nameless race,

    Shov’d from the wall perhaps, or rudely press’d

    By his own son, that passes by unbless’d;

    Still to his wench he crawls on knocking knees,

    And envies ev’ry sparrow that he sees.

    A salmon’s belly, Helluo, was thy fate;

    The doctor call’d, declares all help too late.

    ‘Mercy!’ cries Helluo, ‘mercy on my soul!

    Is there no hope?—Alas!—then bring the jowl.’

    The frugal crone, whom praying priests attend,

    Still strives to save the hallow’d taper’s end,

    Collects her breath, as ebbing life retires,

    For one puff more, and in that puff expires.

    ‘Odious! in woollen! ’t would a saint provoke’

    (Were the last words that poor Narcissa spoke);

    ‘No, let a charming chintz and Brussels lace

    Wrap my cold limbs, and shade my life-less face:

    One would not, sure, be frightful when one’s dead—

    And—Betty—give this cheek a little red.’

    The courtier smooth, who forty years had shined

    An humble servant to all humankind,

    Just brought out this, when scarce his tongue could stir:—

    ‘If—where I ’m going—I could serve you, sir?’

    ‘I give and I devise (old Euclio said,

    And sigh’d) my lands and tenements to Ned.’

    ‘Your money, sir?’—‘My money, sir! what, all?

    Why—if I must—(then wept) I give it Paul.’

    ‘The manor, sir?’—‘The manor! hold,’ he cried,

    ‘Not that—I cannot part with that!’—and died.

    And you, brave COBHAM! to the latest breath

    Shall feel your Ruling Passion strong in death;

    Such in those moments as in all the past,

    ‘O save my country, Heav’n!’ shall be your last.