“A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.” —Alexander Pope
In Pope’s Essay on Man the content and form are both distinct. He conveys a strong and compelling message but he does so in poetry, specifically rhyming couplets. He could equally have used prose or essay form. These methods could be considered more suitable by someone else seeking to make the same argument but Pope is very effective.
He is arguing that mankind should value reason above passion, and explore science, not the supernatural (e.g. line 1, “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan”). He wrote during the age of Enlightenment and Reason and it is of this age that the idea of man’s power over nature was first formed.
Pope says that man is “darkly wise, and rudely great” (line 4) and he is referring to both man’s knowledge and awesome power. However, he contrasts this view of man with one of weakness and fallibility, man is “born but to die, and reasoning but to err” (line 10). While man may understand the forces of nature there are still things that he is powerless to control, most notably his own death.
The value of man’s knowledge is also put into question. Hume, writing at the time, says that unless we can show how the mind works then how can we rely on any of man’s knowledge. This is echoed by Pope. Man, he says, has “too much knowledge for the sceptic side” (line 4). Man is aware that what he knows may be worthless because it cannot be explained. Pope carries this theme through to line 18.
In line 19 Pope calls man a “wondrous creature” and tells him to follow science. This was the age when it seemed that man would uncover all the secrets of the world through reason and understanding. Already there had been great progress in a wide variety of fields. Pope suggests man “measure earth, weigh air, state tides; Instruct the planets in what orbs to run, Correct old Time, and regulate the sun” while he is really alluding to what man has already achieved.
Under the guidance of eminent scientists, Newton in particular, the false science of alchemy was disposed of. Though Newton himself believed in astrology, the idea was that man had understanding of all things natural. Pope reflects this view when he writes “As Eastern priests in giddy circles run, And turn their heads to imitate the sun” (lines 27-28).
Pope continues “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.” Here he does two things; he demonstrates that man has understanding of nature. He also says that man’s knowledge is confined to the natural. Newton is to God what ape is to man.
In lines 35 to 38 Pope again demonstrates mans position. To paraphrase him; ‘Can man, who can chart the course of a comet, similarly map the course of his brain?’ If man cannot “explain his own beginning, or his end” then he must be careful what he believes.
In lines 41 and 42 Pope says, “But when his own great work is begun, What reason weaves, by passion is undone.” Pope’s last comment in this extract is that man should “Trace Science then, with modesty thy guide.” His argument then is that mans knowledge, a worthwhile pursuit, is limited by his ability to reason and so he must proceed aware of his own passions.