Home  »  Complete Poetical Works by Alexander Pope  »  Epistle II. Of the Nature and State of Man with Respect to Himself As an Individual

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

An Essay on Man

Epistle II. Of the Nature and State of Man with Respect to Himself As an Individual

  • I. The business of Man not to pry into God, but to study himself. His middle nature; his powers and frailties, verses 1 to 19. The limits of his capacity, verse 19, etc. II. The two principles of Man, Self-love and Reason, both necessary. Self-love the stronger, and why. Their end the same, verse 81, etc. III. The passions, and their use. The predominant passion, and its force. Its necessity, in directing men to different purposes. Its providential use, in fixing our principle, and ascertaining our virtue, verse 93, etc. IV. Virtue and Vice joined in our mixed nature; the limits near, yet the things separate and evident: what is the office of Reason, verse 203, etc. V. How odious Vice in itself, and how we deceive ourselves into it, verse 217, etc. VI. That, however, the ends of Providence, and general goods, are answered in our passions and imperfections. How usefully these are distributed to all orders of men: how useful they are to Society; and to individuals; in every state, and every age of life, verse 238, etc., to the end.

  • I. KNOW then thyself, presume not God to scan,

    The proper study of mankind is Man.

    Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,

    A being darkly wise and rudely great:

    With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,

    With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,

    He hangs between, in doubt to act or rest;

    In doubt to deem himself a God or Beast;

    In doubt his mind or body to prefer;

    Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;

    Alike in ignorance, his reason such,

    Whether he thinks too little or too much;

    Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;

    Still by himself abused or disabused;

    Created half to rise, and half to fall;

    Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;

    Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d;

    The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

    Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides;

    Go measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides;

    Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,

    Correct old Time, and regulate the sun;

    Go, soar with Plato to th’ empyreal sphere,

    To the first good, first perfect, and first fair;

    Or tread the mazy round his followers trod,

    And quitting sense call imitating God;

    As eastern priests in giddy circles run,

    And turn their heads to imitate the sun.

    Go, teach Eternal Wisdom how to rule—

    Then drop into thyself, and be a fool!

    Superior beings, when of late they saw

    A mortal man unfold all Nature’s law,

    Admired such wisdom in an earthly shape,

    And show’d a NEWTON as we show an ape.

    Could he, whose rules the rapid comet bind,

    Describe or fix one movement of his mind?

    Who saw its fires here rise, and there descend,

    Explain his own beginning or his end?

    Alas! what wonder! Man’s superior part

    Uncheck’d may rise, and climb from art to art;

    But when his own great work is but begun,

    What Reason weaves, by Passion is undone.

    Trace Science then, with modesty thy guide;

    First strip off all her equipage of pride;

    Deduct what is but vanity or dress,

    Or learning’s luxury, or idleness,

    Or tricks to show the stretch of human brain,

    Mere curious pleasure, or ingenious pain;

    Expunge the whole, or lop th’ excrescent parts;

    Of all our vices have created arts;

    Then see how little the remaining sum,

    Which serv’d the past, and must the times to come!

    II. Two principles in Human Nature reign,

    Self-love to urge, and Reason to restrain;

    Nor this a good, nor that a bad we call;

    Each works its end, to move or govern all:

    And to their proper operation still

    Ascribe all good, to their improper, ill.

    Self-love, the spring of motion, acts the soul;

    Reason’s comparing balance rules the whole.

    Man but for that no action could attend,

    And but for this were active to no end:

    Fix’d like a plant on his peculiar spot,

    To draw nutrition, propagate, and rot;

    Or meteor-like, flame lawless thro’ the void,

    Destroying others, by himself destroy’d.

    Most strength the moving principle requires;

    Active its task, it prompts, impels, inspires:

    Sedate and quiet the comparing lies,

    Form’d but to check, delib’rate, and advise.

    Self-love still stronger, as its objects nigh;

    Reason’s at distance and in prospect lie:

    That sees immediate good by present sense;

    Reason, the future and the consequence.

    Thicker than arguments, temptations throng;

    At best more watchful this, but that more strong.

    The action of the stronger to suspend,

    Reason still use, to Reason still attend.

    Attention habit and experience gains;

    Each strengthens Reason, and Self-love restrains.

    Let subtle schoolmen teach these friends to fight,

    More studious to divide than to unite;

    And Grace and Virtue, Sense and Reason split,

    With all the rash dexterity of Wit.

    Wits, just like fools, at war about a name,

    Have full as oft no meaning, or the same.

    Self-love and Reason to one end aspire,

    Pain their aversion, Pleasure their desire;

    But greedy that, its object would devour;

    This taste the honey, and not wound the flower:

    Pleasure, or wrong or rightly understood,

    Our greatest evil or our greatest good.

    III. Modes of Self-love the passions we may call;

    ’T is real good or seeming moves them all:

    But since not every good we can divide,

    And Reason bids us for our own provide,

    Passions, tho’ selfish, if their means be fair,

    List under Reason, and deserve her care;

    Those that imparted court a nobler aim,

    Exalt their kind, and take some virtue’s name.

    In lazy apathy let Stoics boast

    Their virtue fix’d; ’t is fix’d as in a frost;

    Contracted all, retiring to the breast;

    But strength of mind is Exercise, not Rest:

    The rising tempest puts in act the soul,

    Parts it may ravage, but preserves the whole.

    On life’s vast ocean diversely we sail,

    Reason the card, but Passion is the gale;

    Nor God alone in the still calm we find,

    He mounts the storm, and walks upon the wind.

    Passions, like elements, tho’ born to fight,

    Yet, mix’d and soften’d, in his work unite:

    These ’t is enough to temper and employ;

    But what composes man can man destroy?

    Suffice that Reason keep to Nature’s road;

    Subject, compound them, follow her and God.

    Love, Hope, and Joy, fair Pleasure’s smiling train,

    Hate, Fear, and Grief, the family of Pain,

    These mix’d with art, and to due bounds confin’d,

    Make and maintain the balance of the mind;

    The lights and shades, whose well-accorded strife

    Gives all the strength and colour of our life.

    Pleasures are ever in our hands or eyes,

    And when in act they cease, in prospect rise:

    Present to grasp, and future still to find,

    The whole employ of body and of mind.

    All spread their charms, but charm not all alike;

    On diff’rent senses diff’rent objects strike;

    Hence diff’rent passions more or less inflame,

    As strong or weak the organs of the frame;

    And hence one Master-passion in the breast,

    Like Aaron’s serpent, swallows up the rest.

    As man, perhaps, the moment of his breath,

    Receives the lurking principle of death,

    The young disease, that must subdue at length,

    Grows with his growth, and strengthens with his strength:

    So, cast and mingled with his very frame,

    The mind’s disease, its Ruling Passion, came;

    Each vital humour, which should feed the whole,

    Soon flows to this in body and in soul;

    Whatever warms the heart or fills the head,

    As the mind opens and its functions spread,

    Imagination plies her dangerous art,

    And pours it all upon the peccant part.

    Nature its mother, Habit is its nurse;

    Wit, spirit, faculties, but make it worse;

    Reason itself but gives it edge and power,

    As Heav’n’s bless’d beam turns vinegar more sour.

    We, wretched subjects, tho’ to lawful sway,

    In this weak queen some fav’rite still obey:

    Ah! if she lend not arms as well as rules,

    What can she more than tell us we are fools?

    Teach us to mourn our nature, not to mend,

    A sharp accuser, but a helpless friend!

    Or from a judge turn pleader, to persuade

    The choice we make, or justify it made;

    Proud of an easy conquest all along,

    She but removes weak passions for the strong:

    So when small humours gather to a gout,

    The doctor fancies he has driv’n them out.

    Yes, Nature’s road must ever be preferr’d;

    Reason is here no guide, but still a guard;

    ’T is hers to rectify, not overthrow,

    And treat this passion more as friend than foe:

    A mightier Power the strong direction sends,

    And sev’ral men impels to sev’ral ends:

    Like varying winds, by other passions toss’d,

    This drives them constant to a certain coast.

    Let Power or Knowledge, Gold or Glory, please,

    Or (oft more strong than all) the love of ease;

    Thro’ life ’t is follow’d, ev’n at life’s expense;

    The merchant’s toil, the sage’s indolence,

    The monk’s humility, the hero’s pride,

    All, all alike, find Reason on their side.

    Th’ Eternal Art educing good from ill,

    Grafts on this passion our best principle:

    ’T is thus the mercury of man is fix’d,

    Strong grows the virtue with his nature mix’d;

    The dross cements what else were too refin’d,

    And in one int’rest body acts with mind.

    As fruits ungrateful to the planter’s care,

    On savage stocks inserted, learn to bear,

    The surest Virtues thus from Passions shoot,

    Wild Nature’s vigour working at the root.

    What crops of wit and honesty appear

    From spleen, from obstinacy, hate, or fear!

    See anger, zeal, and fortitude supply;

    Ev’n av’rice prudence, sloth philosophy;

    Lust, thro’ some certain strainers well refin’d,

    Is gentle love, and charms all womankind;

    Envy, to which th’ ignoble mind ’s a slave,

    Is emulation in the learn’d or brave;

    Nor virtue male or female can we name,

    But what will grow on pride or grow on shame.

    Thus Nature gives us (let it check our pride)

    The Virtue nearest to our Vice allied:

    Reason the bias turns to good from ill,

    And Nero reigns a Titus if he will.

    The fiery soul abhorr’d in Catiline,

    In Decius charms, in Curtius is divine:

    The same ambition can destroy or save,

    And makes a patriot as it makes a knave.

    IV. This light and darkness in our chaos join’d,

    What shall divide?—the God within the mind.

    Extremes in Nature equal ends produce;

    In Man they join to some mysterious use;

    Tho’ each by turns the other’s bounds invade,

    As in some well-wrought picture light and shade;

    And oft so mix, the diff’rence is too nice

    Where ends the Virtue or begins the Vice.

    Fools! who from hence into the notion fall

    That Vice or Virtue there is none at all.

    If white and black blend, soften, and unite

    A thousand ways, is there no black or white?

    Ask your own heart, and nothing is so plain;

    ’T is to mistake them costs the time and pain.

    V. Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,

    As to be hated needs but to be seen;

    Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,

    We first endure, then pity, then embrace.

    But where th’ extreme of Vice was ne’er agreed:

    Ask where ’s the north?—at York ’t is on the Tweed;

    In Scotland at the Orcades; and there

    At Greenland, Zembla, or the Lord knows where.

    No creature owns it in the first degree,

    But thinks his neighbour farther gone than he;

    Ev’n those who dwell beneath its very zone,

    Or never feel the rage or never own;

    What happier natures shrink at with affright,

    The hard inhabitant contends is right.

    Virtuous and vicious ev’ry man must be,

    Few in th’ extreme, but all in the degree:

    The rogue and fool by fits is fair and wise,

    And ev’n the best by fits what they despise.

    ’T is but by parts we follow good or ill;

    For Vice or Virtue, Self directs it still;

    Each individual seeks a sev’ral goal;

    But Heav’n’s great view is one, and that the Whole.

    That counterworks each folly and caprice;

    That disappoints th’ effect of every vice;

    That, happy frailties to all ranks applied,

    Shame to the virgin, to the matron pride,

    Fear to the statesman, rashness to the chief,

    To kings presumption, and to crowds belief:

    That, virtue’s ends from vanity can raise,

    Which seeks no int’rest, no reward but praise;

    And build on wants, and on defects of mind,

    The joy, the peace, the glory of mankind.

    Heav’n forming each on other to depend,

    A master, or a servant, or a friend,

    Bids each on other for assistance call,

    Till one man’s weakness grows the strength of all.

    Wants, frailties, passions, closer still ally

    The common int’rest, or endear the tie.

    To these we owe true friendship, love sincere,

    Each home-felt joy that life inherits here;

    Yet from the same we learn, in its decline,

    Those joys, those loves, those int’rests to resign;

    Taught, half by Reason, half by mere decay,

    To welcome Death, and calmly pass away.

    Whate’er the passion—knowledge, fame or pelf—

    Not one will change his neighbour with himself.

    The learn’d is happy Nature to explore,

    The fool is happy that he knows no more;

    The rich is happy in the plenty giv’n,

    The poor contents him with the care of Heav’n.

    See the blind beggar dance, the cripple sing,

    The sot a hero, lunatic a king,

    The starving chymist in his golden views

    Supremely bless’d, the poet in his Muse.

    See some strange comfort ev’ry state attend,

    And Pride bestow’d on all, a common friend:

    See some fit passion every age supply;

    Hope travels thro’, nor quits us when we die.

    Behold the child, by Nature’s kindly law,

    Pleas’d with a rattle, tickled with a straw:

    Some livelier plaything gives his youth delight,

    A little louder, but as empty quite:

    Scarfs, garters, gold, amuse his riper stage,

    And beads and prayer-books are the toys of age:

    Pleas’d with this bauble still, as that before,

    Till tired he sleeps, and life’s poor play is o’er.

    Meanwhile opinion gilds with varying rays

    Those painted clouds that beautify our days;

    Each want of happiness by Hope supplied,

    And each vacuity of sense by Pride:

    These build as fast as Knowledge can destroy;

    In Folly’s cup still laughs the bubble joy;

    One prospect lost, another still we gain,

    And not a vanity is giv’n in vain:

    Ev’n mean Self-love becomes, by force divine,

    The scale to measure others’ wants by thine.

    See! and confess one comfort still must rise;

    ’T is this, Though Man ’s a fool, yet God is wise.