Outline for Essay on Man Selections

Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke, a famous deist and friend of the Roman Catholic Alexander Pope, had charged the poet with writing a natural theological answer to the problem of evil. This limited Pope to using only arguments that could be found explicitly outside Christian scripture and dogma. The long poem as an essay is not intended to be a tightly structured, linear argument but a series of informal reflections on the topic. In particular, Pope takes an approach found in the wisdom tradition.

He presents a number of sapiential reflections that if judged systematically, contradict each other, but if seen as a series of limited claims from humanity's partial perspective, each serve to deliver a truth in certain situations. The poem, also like the wisdom tradition, moves back and forth between reflections that inspire awe, that reflect on order, and that decry vanity.


Invitation to Lord Bolingbroke

  Pope's invocation to Henry St. John invokes a world of order and chaos, of mystery and certainty, one that requires a modicum of c'est la vie. He invokes John Mitlon's famous argument for Paradise Lost: "That to the highth of this great Argument/ I may assert Eternal Providence,/ And justifie the wayes of God to men." But he does so by substituting the early modern legal term "vindicate" (to show that the evidence is not sufficient to convict) for the term "justify" (to clear of all charges and find innocent).

Section I

Human beings can only understanding their own sphere of life, while God has the full perspective of the organization and plan of the universe.

Section II

It is presumptuous of human beings to challenge the state of their existence since they are foolish compared to the eternal Wisdom of God's design. It is better to claim that humans are as perfect as they should be; this is the path of blessing.

Section IV

It is foolish pride to judge God as if we had God's understanding. To do so is to leave our place in the chain of being and violate God's order of things.

Section V

Considers the question of natural and moral evil, comparing the disasters of plague and earthquake with the evil deeds of dictators and corrupt popes. Again, we are charged to submit to God's design and wisdom.

Section VIII

Pope gives an awe-inspiring description of the great chain of being before again decrying those who would seek to break this order by leaving their place in the chain.

Section X

Summary of Epistle I's explorations, encouraging a wise attitude and wise living from birth to death by trusting in the hidden design of God in a seemingly chaotic world.


Section I

Opening with a detailed and paradoxical reflection on the nature of humanity as both great and poor, Pope cautions against not letting the successes of natural science (as exemplified by Isaac Newton) lead to arrogant claims that outstrip human limitations in understanding. Instead, science should be pursued with a measure of humility.

Section V

Pope reflects on both the nature of vice becoming acceptable and the lack of human consensus on assessing the good.

Section VI

Each person is a mixture of virtue and vice and is motivated often by self-love. No one really wants to change stations with another for each station in life has its own strange hope and comfort. The human state if one of hope and vanity, self-love and folly, all ordered finally by God's perfect understanding.


A hymn on the great chain of being that praises God's design as one that is ultimately benevolent in its mutual service and connectedness. Pope stresses that the universe is not just for human happiness, but that each species receives some consideration and pleasure, though paradoxically humans also have the burden of being aware of death.


Section I

Humans desire above all happiness, yet fixing the location happiness is almost impossible.

Section IV

The principle of general laws does not make exceptions for particular suffering, such as the passing on of STDs from father to son or volcanic eruptions, a friend's asthma, or a criminal's demise.

Section V

This world does not content us, and those truly good are impossible to identify. Yet virtue is the purpose of life, even if it is not rewarded consistently by physical prosperity, health, and power. Humans cannot know why God gives what he does. The purpose of humanity is finally love of God and neighbor, ground in hope and faith. 


Pope concludes the poem by recommending the flexibility of response that his friend has modeled. He wonders if the poem will outlast political rulers and others will reflect on its adages, summed up in the last five lines.


"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding