"Whatever is, is right": Learned Ignorance and The Coincidence of Opposites in
An Essay on Man
Alexander Pope concludes his Essay on Man by asserting that
WHATEVER IS, IS RIGHT;
That REASON, PASSION, answer one great aim;
That true SELF-LOVE and SOCIAL are the same;
That VIRTUE only makes our Bliss below;
And all our Knowledge is, OURSELVES TO KNOW.
(IV, 394-398) <1>
The triumphant tone of these proclamations may induce the reader to forget
that they proudly oppose man's common knowledge. The great poet of common
sense seems intent on blasting common sense. The first assertion dismisses the
existence of evil in the world; the second unites a pair of exact opposites as
does the third; the fourth denies almost all man's strivings after happiness;
the last implicitly denies the existence of God. This discrepancy between the
tone of certainty and the content of contradiction is but the final opposition
in a poem full antitheses. <2>
The entire argument of Essay on Man and many of the particulars of Pope's
thoughts in it seem to follow those of Nicholas of Cusa, whose ideas I have
discussed in chapter one. This passage from the end of the poem makes foolish
most of man's wisdom, as it, like the entire poem, encourages the reader to
let go of his insistence of reason, on the law of non-contradiction, in order
to achieve a higher vision, or at least a higher acceptance of the universe of
God. Like Cusanus, Pope uses techniques of learned ignorance to present his
As shown in this passage, the task of the poet is to inform us that we
have made the wrong separations: ourselves from God, ourselves from each
other, and even ourselves from ourselves. Once he makes us aware of the
separations, he then reconciles them in his poem and urges us to do likewise
in our lives. In trying to teach the reader this lesson, the poem moves from
wandering confusion to blissful certainty, which resolves the very oppositions
which had produced that uncertainty. Apparent separations are resolved into
intermingled parts of the whole.
The most important opposition in the poem, around which all the others
focus, is the infinite gulf between God and man. That infinite gulf was also
the major concern of Cusanus, who proposed the solution of Christ, the
coincidence of the opposites of God and man. Although Pope was also a staunch
Catholic, he does not explicitly introduce Christ into his poem. But in a way
similar to that of Cusanus, Pope insists that since man's finite limitations
can never grasp the infinity of God, he must go beyond ordinary human logic in
order to think about God at all. Cusanus's formulation fits Pope's poem
In every enquiry men judge of the uncertain by comparing it with an object
presupposed certain, and their judgment is always approximative; every
enquiry is, therefore, comparative and uses the method of analogy. . . .
the infinite as infinite is unknown, since it is away and above all
No matter how much man learns, his learning is but ignorance: the more he
knows about himself and about God, the more he knows that he does not know. He
does not find himself any closer to God than he was before; he finds himself
instead in a state of learned ignorance. This oxymoron foreshadows the larger
coincidence of opposites that learned ignorance leads to. If God, who is
beyond our direct knowledge, is infinite in time and space, then he includes
everything in time and space. He is A and non-A at the same time and to the
same degree. Therefore ordinary Aristotelian logic, which does not allow such
contradictions, fails the thinker who wants to investigate the infinite. Such
a thinker needs a logic which allows for the coincidence of opposites, for the
co-existence of A and non-A in defiance of the rules of ordinary logic.
How can God and man be united when they are separated by an infinite gap?
The answer to that question, worked out through the course of the poem, is
encapsulated in the epigrams, quoted above, which end the poem. A summary of
the meanings of the last lines of the poem will prepare for a more detailed
examination of the poem as a whole.
In the chiasmus, "Whatever is, is right," the world of finite man and the
universe of infinite God are the terms. The first two words posit the
existence of certain finite facts which can be verified by observation; the
last two words reverse the terms and see them from an infinite perspective,
which cannot be verified by man's direct observation, but which must be
accepted on faith. "Whatever" exists in the finite world is "right" from the
perspective of the infinite world. <4>
As I point out in my introduction, Leopold Damrosch in Symbol and Truth in
Blake's Myth says that a true coincidence of opposites can be achieved only by
someone who fundamentally accepts things as they are: "A true acceptance of
opposites demands a skeptical temperament and a commitment finally to things
as they are". <5> This kind of complacency, so attacked by the Romantics, is
the foundation of Pope's poem. He allows his elitist conception of society to
infect his picture of the universe. In his satires he will excoriate the
abuses he sees; here he seems rather to excuse them.
Elizabeth Tebeaux explains how Pope's ideas here fit into the tradition of
Pyrrhonism. <6> In that form of skepticism, rational arguments are rejected
because all arguments generate equally valid counter-arguments. Many
Catholic Pyrrhonists, like Pope, used this principle to suspend judgment and
to allow themselves to accept the teachings of the Church, since their reason
was incapable of answering ultimate questions on its own.
At the beginning the poet's easygoing manner, that of a country gentleman
strolling around his estate, complacently surveys the dangerous mysteries
which lurk behind the foliage. He will
Expatiate free o'er all this scene of Man,
A mighty maze! but not without a plan;
A Wild, where weeds and flow'rs promiscuous shoot,
Or Garden, tempting with forbidden fruit.
Throughout the poem Pope seems to stand complacent before the horrors of
existence. Where the environment is wild, there beautiful and ugly sex and
violence burst forth; where it is tamed, there the temptation of the fruit of
tree of the knowledge of good and evil threatens man's peace.
Canfield sees the theme of the Fall worked in throughout the poem. Although
the poem explicitly seems to deny the Fall, frequent images of rising and
falling and frequent use of the word "fall" imply a theological stance:
Pope insists again and again that the entire world, including man, could
never have existed in any other than its present state of imperfection.
In fact, in Canfield's interpretation, Pope starts to sound quite like Blake:
Pope reinterprets the Fall as a metaphor for something which occurs not
once but perennially, synchronically, in man's continual fall through
'reas'ning pride.' <8>
False reason opposes the mysterious coincidentia oppositorum of God, which
includes all oppositions, including garden and wild.
The contrast of the garden and the wild contains one of the basic
oppositions of the poem: the uncontrolled passion of self-love, which can
destroy, versus the overweening pride of reason, which can presume to usurp
God's knowledge. Only God's knowledge can discern the plan that informs the
apparent maze; <9> man's speculations toward knowledge of the nature of garden
or wild must begin with his own experience, as they must in Cusanus:
Say first, of God above, or Man below,
What can we reason, but from what we know?
Reasoning from what we know can somehow lead us to some knowledge of God.
Cusanus abstracts from mathematical knowledge in order to speculate about
God after making a statement very similar to Pope's:
it is only by way of postulates and things certain that we can arrive at
the unknown. . . . but the more we abstract from sensible conditions, the
more certain and solid our knowledge is. <10>
Instead of presenting us with various analogies from our world which
correspond to the higher world, as Cusanus does, Pope prefers to present us
with puzzles and paradoxes as a way of contradicting ordinary sense and
raising us to a vision of the infinite. Man's knowledge can not rise above
his own sphere, yet he can be sure that there is a grand plan through his
faith. Carefully concealing any explicit consideration of God's revelation to
man and to the incarnation of Christ, Pope limits his poem to the realm of
man. His Christianity is kept implicit throughout.
The distance between the realm of man and the realm of God remains
absolute: "'Tis but a part we see, and not a whole" (l. 60). As long as we
are living, we can never hope to see the whole. Pope's emphasis on our
limited knowledge places him in the skeptical tradition:
Pope's scepticism leads him to place truth in the reality of the
spiritual, the One, Whose presence and order pervade all things. . . .
Like Nicholas of Cusa, Pope can still be very much a sceptic and find
consolation in the Christian Neo-Platonic notion that man is a future
creature who must die to be able to apprehend and comprehend the highest
level of cognition. <11>
Any attempt to judge God by human standards foolishly falls under its own
futility. Like Cusanus's learned ignorance, man's knowledge must not succumb
to hubristic attitudes:
Go, wiser thou! and in thy scale of sense
Weigh thy Opinion against
Call Imperfection what thou fancy'st such,
Say, here he gives too little, there too much;
Destroy all creatures for thy sport or gust,
Yet cry, If Man's unhappy, God's unjust;
If Man alone ingross not Heav'n's high care,
Alone made perfect here, immortal there:
Snatch from his hand the balance and the rod,
Re-judge his justice, be the GOD of GOD!
The handling of oppositions in this passage of imagined disturbance of the
Great Chain of Being typifies Pope's method of confounding man's finite reason
on its own terms, thus forcing man to acknowledge, if not actually understand,
the need to yield to the infinite knowledge of God. The part cannot be wiser
than the whole. The balanced phrases ironically echo man`s attempts to upset
the balance of God's universe. In line 116 "here" opposes "there"; "too
little" opposes "too much." The balanced oppositions highlight the fact that
such an opinion accuses God of not distributing his gifts in a balanced way,
and thus shows man's refusal to acknowledge the ignorant aspect of learned
ignorance. Line 113, the only line in this quotation that does not contain a
balanced opposition within its limited ten syllables, scorns the puny scales
of man's limited perspective in relation to the grand balance of God. Trying
to weigh his tiny opinion against God's unlimited providence, the presumptuous
man dares to contemplate usurping God's distribution of happiness (the
balance) and therefore tries to usurp God's authority of rulership (the rod).
114, "thy Opinion" opposes "
primary contrast between man and God. However, when in line 118 "unhappy" is
balanced by "unjust," these two terms do not contradict each other; instead,
their almost synonymous parallelism provides a variation on the series of
antonymous parallelisms. The hypothesis of the proposition--"If Man's
unhappy"--is true, certainly, but if the conclusion is true--"then God's
unjust"--then man has presumed that he knows more than God knows; he has, in
fact, made himself into a God over the real God.
If man is God, then God is not God; the infinite being does not exist, and
man's presumptuous reason has destroyed the structure of the whole universe.
However, the danger here is no more real than it is later when Pope pictures
the whole universe careening out of control (I, 241-258). Rather like the
attaining any such heights as he pridefully may attempt to scan. The near
repetition of the word "justice" and the exact repetition of the word "God,"
repetitions balanced in the two hemistiches of line 122, reassure us of the
security of the grand scheme, for the only judge of justice is God and the
only God of God is God. This certainty of the entire scheme anticipates
Blake's safety net--the impossibility of falling past certain merciful limits-
-that I discuss later.
It is crucial for Pope to make sure that the distinctions that he wishes
to maintain are not lost in his coincidences of opposites, as later when he
says that black and white still exist even though they often blend. Any
theory of the coincidence of opposites first puts heavy emphasis on the
opposites themselves and on their irreconcilable nature, the better to perform
the miracle of coincidence or interpenetrability.
But if this God cannot be grasped by man, if He is an infinite distance
away, then what is his relationship to the finite world? If he simply created
the world and then stepped away, we don't need him any more. On the other
hand, if he is in everything, then there is no separation between God and the
world. Pope accepts neither of these extremes. Instead he leans toward a
neo-Platonic explanation which combines God's transcendence and his immanence:
All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body, Nature is, and God the soul;
That, chang'd thro' all, and yet in all the same,
Great in the earth, as in th'aethereal frame,
Warms in the sun, refreshes in the breeze,
Glows in the stars, and blossoms in the trees,
Lives thro' all life, extends thro' all extent,
Spreads undivided, operates unspent,
Breathes in our soul, informs our mortal part,
As full, as perfect, in a hair as heart;
As full, as perfect, in vile Man that mourns,
As the rapt Seraph that adores and burns;
To him no high, no low, no great, no small,
He fills, he bounds, connects, and equals all.
As Cusanus explains of the neo-Platonists:
They were of opinion that all movement came from this Soul of the World
which, they said, was entire in the whole and entire in each part of the
world though its influence is not the same in different parts; just as
with the rational soul, which is entire in the whole and in each part of
man, and yet its activity in the hairs and the heart is not the same.
The whole equals more than the sum of its parts because God as the soul gives
it life, just as man is more than the sum of his parts because he possesses a
soul. The chiasmus of line 269, the terms of which are "chang'd-all" and
"all-same," embodies the paradox of simultaneous unity and multiplicity.
The other chiasmus in this long passage of comparisons and oppositions
occurs in the statement of the essential metaphor: "body:Nature::God:soul."
(l. 28) The two chiasmi both illustrate that the infinite world reverses the
terms of the finite world, even while being analogous to it. Lines 270-272
show a physical world fully infused with the presence of God. (In line 271,
the ambiguous verb forms even make it sound as if God himself enjoys the sun
and the wind.) The virtual tautologies of line 273 imply that without God as
the soul life does not exist. The anaphora of lines 276-277 echoes the
content: God is no less full and perfect in hair than in heart, in man than in
seraph. The two lines of ten monosyllables each (lines 269, 279) show the
equalizing effect which God exerts on the creations (and he is equal to all of
it). In line 280 the four verbs sum up much of the poem: he fills all by
virtue of his immanence; he bounds all by virtue of his position as creator;
he connects all through the power of his love; and he equals all because he is
fully in every thing.
When A.O. Lovejoy's discusses this concept in many writers, his insistence
on unit-ideas and Aristotelian logic leads him to comment:
He [God] was the Idea of the Good, but he was also the Idea of Goodness;
and though the second attribute was nominally deduced dialectically from
the first, no two notions could be more antithetic. The one was an
apotheosis of unity, self-sufficiency, and quietude, the other of
diversity, self-transcendence, and fecundity. <13>
Lovejoy further complains of
the permissibility and even necessity of contradicting oneself when one
spoke of God. . . . It might appear easy to affirm of the divine nature
what to us must seem incompatible metaphysical predicates; but it was
impossible to reconcile in human practice. <14>
Lovejoy thus reveals the difficulty of accommodating the elusive coincidence
of opposites that Pope is asserting here.
God's simultaneous immanence and transcendence make it absolutely clear
that each aspect of finite life finds its correspondence and even its raison
d'etre in the infinite life; the perspective of any part is necessarily only a
part of the perspective of the whole:
All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee;
All Chance, Direction, which thou canst not see;
All Discord, Harmony, not understood;
All partial Evil, universal Good:
And, spite of Pride, in erring Reason's spite,
One truth is clear, 'Whatever IS, is RIGHT.'
The poet insists that his reader submit to an infinite perspective which man
cannot know, see, or understand as fully as God can. The four sets of
apparent opposites hammer home the message: finite Nature equals infinite Art;
finite Chance equals infinite Direction; finite Discord equals infinite
Harmony; finite Evil equals infinite Good; finite actuality equals infinite
correctness. Any refusal to accept these paradoxical formulas brands the
recalcitrant reader as a presumptuous, prideful rebel who desires to upset the
whole universe, as a weak creature who has let his reason blind him to his own
weakness and who has set himself up as the judge of God, in an attempt to
disturb the Great Chain of Being by presuming that learning is not ignorant
and that man is equal to God in the wrong way.
Immediately after this passage, having peremptorally disposed of any wrong
notions of man's relationship to God, Pope begins Epistle II with a portrait of
man himself. Since we know that God eludes our analysis, perhaps we can do
better looking at ourselves, by beginning with what we can know. However,
even within our own realm, our own qualities and desires baffle and confuse
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of Mankind is
Plac'd 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 confus'd;
Still by himself abus'd, or disabus'd;
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!
Once man has accepted the contradictions between his wisdom and God's, he must
now accept the contradictions within himself. At first reading, the passage
seems simply to delineate, in the most cynical manner possible, the hopeless
middle state in which man finds himself, but upon closer examination, it
reveals the seeds of hope that will find fruition in the progress of the poem,
after long and difficult struggle.
Included in the harshly phrased realities are the equally real optimistic
possibilities, which will build back up to reunite the man and God who were so
definitely separated in Epistle I. First of all, an isthmus, however gloomy,
is not as gloomy as an island. An isthmus, although threatened on two sides
by oceans, is also connected on its two ends to the mainlands, in this case
God and Nature. Furthermore, man is wise and great, albeit his wisdom sees
through a glass darkly and his greatness is primitive compared to God's.
Because he knows of his own darkness and rudeness, he may want to reject
reason altogether and become a sceptic. However, he has too much knowledge to
do that. But if he puts too much faith in his knowledge, then he may take on
the pride of a stoic, who relies exclusively on reason. His own inescapable
weaknesses, however, prevent that attitude. Pope thus refuses to allow man
the comfort of embracing either extreme or the comfort of ignoring either
extreme. In fact, in Pope's formulation, the limits of human knowledge seem
positively good instead of to be resented.
Man cannot change the position in which God has placed him, but he can
choose what to do about it. The oppositions have been carefully chosen and
balanced, and absolutely true, unmistakably admitting the existence of two
extremes in each case. But man's thinking too much or too little leads him
into various errors, in which he separates those things which should not be
separated. In Epistle I it very important to make the correct separations
between oppositions; in Epistle II it is very important to put together things
which should not be separated.
The poet allows foolish man to pose false separations: action or rest, God
or beast, mind or body. Each of these three pairs is preceded by the
anaphoric "in doubt," the opposite of an implied "in faith." The faith which
led to an acceptance of the coincidences of opposites in the universal scheme
at the end of Epistle I now has turned to doubt, which refuses the oppositions
within the individual, and tries to make false choices. Instead of admitting
his middle state, man tries to make up his mind about which of the two
extremes he really belongs to. He should certainly lean toward the first of
each of the pairs; he should prefer the first terms in their proper hierarchy,
but he should not deny the lower terms. And if he allows himself to think too
curiously on his condition, he will become too passive:
Fix'd like a plant on his peculiar spot,
To draw nutrition, propagate, and rot.
Of course on the other extreme, thinking too little and taking too much
action, like a physical beast, will make him
meteor-like, flame lawless thro' the void,
Destroying others, by himself destroy'd.
If man allows himself to fall into these false distinctions and
separations, then he can become a chaos of thought and passion, all confused.
This condition echoes the condition before the creation, before God said, "Let
there be light." Once God, in the original act of Creation, has created the
light and separated it from the darkness, it is up to man to maintain or re-
create that balance or alternation within himself. Later in the Epistle he is
instructed how to do so:
This light and darkness in our chaos join'd,
What shall divide? The God within the mind.
The power of God within the mind must re-establish order within the mind.
Thus Pope implies a dynamic, continual creation, analogous to that of Blake.
He also anticipates Coleridge's definition of the imagination in which man's
primary and secondary imaginations are echoes of the great "I AM" of God. Man
does not create the order, but must re-create within himself the order which
God has already created. Man's power is analogous to God`s, which was so
definitely and vehemently separated from man's in epistle I.
In between the chaos at the beginning of Epistle II (1-18) and the
seemingly obvious and simple solution near the end of the epistle (203-204) the
poet explains the understanding necessary to re-create God's order. First he
traces the inevitable course of a proud reason which tries to reach God by its
own power. If it tries to rise in the wrong way, then in effect it tries to
usurp the place of God. Trying to escape the lowness and confusion of the
human condition, man may proudly try to mount above his condition, but he then
finds that too much height can lead to sudden depth:
Go, wond'rous creature! mount where Science guides,
. . .
Go, soar with Plato to th' empyreal sphere,
. . .
And quitting sense call imitating God;
. . .
Go, teach Eternal Wisdom how to rule--
Then drop into thyself, and be a fool!
(II, 19, 23, 26, 29-30)
The extremes, however confusing and painful, cannot be simply escaped. And
straining to go too high leads to the diametrical opposite of depth. In
either case, man is trying to explore the self; this poem insists that there
is a right way and a wrong way to do so. The mind must learn to exist in a
state of dynamic tension combining contraries, a simultaneous separation
between man and God with a recognition of the combinations of apparent
opposites. Earl Wasserman, writing of the concordia
discors in "
when an appetite is not brought into concordant clash with a contrary
force it paradoxically both grows to its own excess and in this act
destroys itself by becoming its own opposite. <15>
Or, to put it in words which Pope himself had read:
He, who acts in a conformity to the nature of things, carries on the
system of God, and cooperates with him: and surely to put the system of
divine wisdom in execution, and to cooperate with the creator is honor
enough for the creature. Thus we may attain to the perfection of our
nature, and, by pretending to no more, we may do it real honor: whereas,
by assuming that we imitate God, we give the strongest proof of the
imperfection of our nature, whilst we neglect the real, and aspire vainly
at a mock honor. <16>
A man who climbs with his proud reason thinks he is becoming more self-
sufficient. But self-sufficiency is possible for God only, not for man. If
man presumes to becomes God, he presumes to become complete unto himself; the
result, however, is not ultimate self-knowledge, but ultimate self-deception,
self-abuse. Man alone does not rise, but instead drops into himself. Instead
of knowing himself by trying to see what he is, he falls into the very lowness
that he was trying to escape.
The proper condition of reason is prescribed in II, 43-46.
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.
Reason must be spartanly stripped down to its essentials, accompanied by
modesty, not pride.
Once Pope has shown the wrong and right uses of reason, he contrasts it
with self-love. Although the impulses of the two forces are contrary to each
other, Pope explicitly refuses to exalt one over the other:
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.
Pope anticipates Blake in his refusal to separate good and bad absolutely.
Rather the separation is in the use of the forces. Passion and reason are
thus in a reciprocal relationship, each necessary to the other.
Three metaphors for the relationship between passion and reason explain
the complex balancing that man must maintain within himself. These images
progress from the mechanical through the natural to the creative. A
mechanical metaphor makes self-love and reason into parts of a watch:
Self-love, the spring of motion, acts the soul;
Reason's comparing balance rules the whole.
Another metaphor, chosen from nature, has the two principles performing
complementary functions, but in this one reason exerts no force of its own:
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.
Whether the word "card" is interpreted to mean map or compass, in either case
it still fills only an advisory function. In another metaphor, however,
reason becomes a vigorous artist:
Passions, like Elements, tho' born to fight,
Yet, mix'd and soften'd, in [God's] work unite:
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.
Here the balance to be maintained is not between reason on the one hand and
passion on the other, but between two sets of passions. Like the dark and
light paints on an artist's palette, the passions must be mixed and ordered by
reason, which confines the passions to their proper bounds just as God
confined the elements at the creation. <17>
The power of the infinite dwells in men both in their reason ("the God
within the mind") and in their passion ("like Aaron's serpent"), and so reason
and passion can work together to help man find happiness. Self-love, the
desire for sexual gratification and for safety, founds families and societies,
and so unites individual and social goals. The bliss which men seek on this
earth comes only from acknowledging the rightness of God's plan, incorporating
the power of God inside themselves in their reason and their passion, loving
those outside themselves as much as they love the souls within themselves, and
realizing that only virtue allows men to find this bliss. Paradoxically, to
find this proper relationship to God, self, and others, man must admit that he
can know nothing but himself; he must accept learned ignorance.
Having shown us the extreme of overweening reason and the proper balance
of reason and passion, Pope then proceeds to show us the extreme of passion in
any individual, which may be termed one's "ruling passion":
. . . one master Passion in the breast,
Like Aaron's serpent, swallows up the rest.
The image of Aaron's serpent swallowing up the serpents of the magicians of
Pharaoh implies that one's ruling passion is a sign of God's power, that He
sends it to work his ends. In similar fashion one's ruling passion delivers a
person from the confusion and chaos which beset him because it allows him a
chance to organize his life around some consistent principle.
Bertrand Goldgar points out that Pope makes relatively new use of a
complex body of ideas about the passions. Goldgar even goes so far as to
Pope elevates the notion of a ruling passion into the principle which
makes the ultimate reconciliation between the elements of apparent discord
in man's nature and the contrasting attitudes which he has held in balance
throughout the Epistle. <18>
Goldgar's assertion seems to over-ride the savage destructiveness of the
ruling passion (II, 133-138) and the continuing necessity for reason (II,
197). As a force analogous to instinct in animals, it is in a sense a direct
manifestation of the power of God within man. However, the ruling passion not
only fails creatures with life, but also destroys them:
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.
The implication is that man begins to die as soon as he is born and even more
than that, the cause of his death is the same force which is the cause of his
active life. Here the relationship between reason and passion is a savage
one; like a parasite, the ruling passion parallels the growth of the mind and
constantly threatens to destroy it. Because the principle of death does
indeed destroy every person, the image implies that the ruling passion always
destroys the mind.
Extreme ease (as in the earlier dichotomy between body and mind, rest and
action), would turn man into a vegetable, and so some dis-ease is necessary to
animate him, but surely the poet expresses deep melancholy here (perhaps
colored by his own view of his life as a long disease) in the admission that
life is inextricably entwined with death. The final hemistiches of lines 133-
134 balance the "moment" of breath against the "principle" of death. The
former is fleeting, finite; the latter, eternal, infinite.
Although the ruling passion unites and directs the efforts of men, it
violates a very important principle which is the direct cause of its
destructiveness. Instead of vital humors flowing to the whole and thus
creating the proper balance in the body and soul, they flow only to the ruling
passion, thus creating an imbalance which leads to destruction (II, 139-150).
Just as proud reason can repeat the sin of Eve in desiring to know all that God
knows, so the ruling passion can usurp the wholeness of man by trying to
Each individual can, however, attempt to imitate the grand balance of God's
whole universe by following the better aspect of his ruling passion:
Th'Eternal Art educing good from ill,
Grafts on this Passion our best principle:
'Tis 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 interest 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 vigor 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 ally'd;
Reason the byass turns to good from ill.
And so the wild at the beginning of the poem becomes one with the garden.
Using the knowledge he has now gained about God's relation to the world and
about the proper relation of reason and passion, man can use the God within
his mind to re-create the order which belongs there.
Immediately after the phrase "The God within the mind," Pope draws an
analogy between the function of extremes within the individual and the
function of extremes within the world:
Extremes in Nature equal ends produce,
In Man they join to some mysterious use;
Tho' each by turns the other's bound 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?
On one level, this warning reminds us that no matter how necessary it is to
unite opposites, we must always remember that they remain opposites still. If
they lose their own characters, then we lose the dynamic balance. But a much
more important message dwells in these lines. A careful distinction must be
made between the opposites of reason and passion, both of which are beneficial
if used correctly, and the opposites of vice and virtue, one of which is to be
shunned. This distinction anticipates the distinctions between Contrary and
Negation in Blake and between contrary and opposite in Coleridge. Although it
is impossible to extirpate vice entirely (II, 231-232), we should not try to
balance it with virtue as we should try to balance reason and passion. Vice
does not work with virtue, but cancels it out.
But even if individual men fail to balance their reason and their passion
and choose vice over virtue, still the infinite wholeness of God maintains the
integrity of the universe:
Each individual seeks a sev'ral goal;
But HEAV'N's great view is One, and that the Whole:
That counter-works each folly and caprice;
That disappoints th' effect of ev'ry vice:
. . .
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.
(II, 237-240, 249-252)
See! and confess, one comfort still must rise,
'Tis this, Tho' Man's a fool, yet GOD IS WISE.
After humbling man in Epistle I and humiliating him in Epistle II, the poet
begins to reassure him in Epistle III by showing him the cycle of Nature.
Pope has broken down man's preconceptions in order to build up a better view
of the universe. Man does not need to trust to himself alone, indeed must not
do so, but instead must see himself as part of the whole, where strength and
weakness, life and death sustain each other:
Look round our World; behold the chain of Love
Combining all below and all above.
. . .
See dying vegetables life sustain,
See life dissolving vegetate again
. . .
Nothing is foreign: Parts relate to whole;
. . .
All serv'd, all serving! nothing stands alone;
The chain holds on, and where it ends, unknown.
A view of the supposedly lowly beast reveals to proud man that animals do
not have to worry about combining reason and passion, for there is no
distinction between their instinct and their reason. Although Pope does not
quite say so, this point is reminiscent of Cusanus's point that reason in men
is equivalent to instinct in beasts:
See then the acting and comparing pow'rs
One in their nature, which are two in ours,
And Reason raise o'er Instinct as you can,
In this 'tis God directs, in that 'tis Man.
Understanding this principle can help men to understand that the self-love
that they consider to be part of their lower nature can be used for the good
of all. Just as the ruling passion can be transmuted into virtue instead of
vice, so the passionate desire for sexual gratification is the foundation of
the family and therefore of society:
Each loves itself, but not itself alone,
Each sex desires alike, 'till two are one.
Nor ends the pleasure with the fierce embrace;
They love themselves, a third time, in their race.
Another aspect of self-love leads to another aspect of the establishment of
society, which fully combines the opposites of self and society:
All join to guard what each desires to gain.
Forc'd into virtue thus by Self-defence,
. . .
Self-love forsook the path it first pursu'd,
And found the private in the public good.
Thus the desire for sex and the desire for safety, both springing from
self-love, benefit the society as a whole.
Thus God and Nature link'd the gen'ral frame,
And bade Self-love and Social be the same.
Just as each man's mind must re-create in itself the order which God first
so mankind as a whole must re-create in his environment the
which God first gave him by re-uniting wild with garden and reason with
The platitudes in the beginning of Epistle IV seem a far-too-simple
resolution of the complicated concepts which the poet has fronted in the
Take Nature's path, and mad Opinion's leave,
All states can reach it, and all heads conceive;
Obvious her goods, in no extreme they dwell,
There needs but thinking right, and meaning well.
The simplicity which the poet asks us to believe in has been hard won out of
the complexities, just as the simple realization of the unity of infinity must
be hard won out of the multiplicity of direct experience. The man who finds
happiness is he who
Pursues that Chain which links th'immense design,
Joins heav'n and earth, and mortal and divine;
Sees, that no being any bliss can know,
But touches some above, and some below;
Learns, from this union of the rising Whole,
The first, last purpose of the human soul;
And knows where Faith, Law, Morals, all began,
All end, in LOVE of GOD, and LOVE of MAN.
This linking of the finite and the infinite is the beginning and end of the
poem. A staunch Christian, Pope has written an entire poem about the
coincidence of finite and infinite without once mentioning Jesus Christ, the
prime example of such a coincidence of opposites. But the voice of Christ
enters before the poem concludes:
Self-love thus push'd to social, to divine,
Gives thee to make thy neighbour's blessing thine.
Is this too little for the boundless heart?
Extend it, let thy enemies have part.
This passage echoes a portion of Christ's Sermon on the Mount:
Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate
thine enemy; but I say unto you, Love your enemies, and pray for them that
persecute you; that ye may be sons of your Father who is in heaven: for he
maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the
just and the unjust. For if ye love them that love you, what reward have
ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren
only, what do ye more than others? do not even the Gentiles the same? Ye
therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Not only do these words provide much of the material of An Essay on Man,
including the most difficult coincidence of opposites--love (instead of hate)
your enemies (not only your friends)--they also promise infinite perfection
for man. Pope has gone to great pains to convince his reader that he must
accept his humanity and not presume to be God, and yet here he invokes words
of Christ which explicitly promise that greatest coincidence of opposites: man
can be as perfect as God is, not perfect in his nature, but perfect in his
The paradox can be solved only be refusing to dissolve the paradox. Man's
condition must be accepted on faith. If God can be immanent and transcendent
at the same time, and if all the other coincidences of opposites in the Essay
can be true, as Pope has asserted that they are, then such things can exist
only if man refuses to be bound by finite logic even while speaking in finite
words. And this is precisely the tour de force which Pope has performed.
Using not only limited words but the limited form of the heroic couplet, and
claiming to limit his inquiry to the condition of man, the poet brings the
reader to an understanding of the mysterious unity of finite and infinite in
God, in Christ, in the poem, and in man. Analogous to the Christ who unites
God and man, the poem becomes the mediator which unites poet and word and
leads us into the logic of the infinite by taking a specific limited form.
The poem contains so many antitheses because it takes on the form of its
subject: learned ignorance and the coincidence of opposites which necessarily
follows. The mind can approximate understanding of the infinite by
intentionally looking at coincidences of opposites until the mind performs a
leap into a different dimension. Similarly, Pope's overwhelming variations on
antitheses and opposition, both in content and in style, force the reader
either to dismiss the poem as illogical confusion or to accept it as super-
logical truth. Both come together in the injunction to love enemies, because
knowledge has become less important than right action.
By embracing the seemingly nonsensical command to love his enemies, man
reciprocates the benevolence of God:
God loves from Whole to Parts: but human soul
Must rise from Individual to the Whole.
Thus man's love is identical to that of God, except that it is reversed, a
mirror image. God's love unquestionably takes in all of creation; man,
starting from his own finite position, can mirror that love by extending his
natural self-love into universal benevolence, starting from self-knowledge
which realizes its limitations and can overcome those limitations only by
accepting them in the first place. But man can accomplish this expansion of
his epistemology and his ontology only if he contradicts his natural finite
concepts with infinite ones and sees the universe as it appears to God. And
the only way that he can achieve that vision is to accept himself as part of
that total universe. He cannot know God directly; he cannot even know the
rest of creation. But he can partially know himself and allow his own
opposites to coincide. In this sense, then, a part can contain the whole.
Not only the immanence of God, but man's full knowledge of himself makes him
part of the holding together of the universe. Only if he accepts the
coherence of the universe can he accept himself, and only if he accepts
himself can he accept the coherence of the universe.
The poem serves as a mirror in which the reader can confront the opposites
within the universe and within himself, and see them duplicated, and yet
contradicted and reversed. The mirror of art and the immanence of God in the
form of Christ together illuminate the finite in a way which aids it to see
For Wit's false mirror held up Nature's light;
Shew'd erring Pride, WHATEVER IS, IS RIGHT;
That REASON, PASSION, answer one great aim;
That true SELF-LOVE and SOCIAL are the same;
That VIRTUE only makes our Bliss below;
And all our Knowledge is, OURSELVES TO KNOW.
Notes to Chapter 2: Whatever is, is right.
1. All quotations of An Essay on Man are taken from the Twickenham edition,
Mack, ed. (1950; rpt.
2. Martin Kallich has counted the antitheses. The number is immense, larger
than in any of Pope's other poems. See "Unity and Dialectic: The Structural
Role of Antitheses in Pope's Essay on Man," in Papers on Language and
Literature, 1 (1965), 109-124.
3. Cusanus, Of Learned Ignorance, p. 7.
4. Compare John Locke's much less distressing (and much less elegant) phrase,
"Whatever is, is," at the beginning of his Essay Concerning Human
5. Damrosch, p. 242.
6. "Scepticism in Pope's 'Essay on Man,'" College Literature 10 (1983): 158-
7. Douglas Canfield, "The Fate of the Fall in Pope's Essay on Man," The
Eighteenth Century 23 (1982), p. 142.
8. Canfield, p. 144.
9. William Empson explains how the basic meanings and ambiguities of this
passage remain the same, or at least just a complicated, even in a manuscript
reading, "A mighty maze of walks without a plan." Seven Types of Ambiguity
(1930; rvsd. ed.,
10. Of Learned Ignorance, p. 25.
11. Tebeaux, p. 160.
12. Cusanus, Of Learned Ignorance, p. 99.
13. Lovejoy, pp. 82-83.
14. Lovejoy, p. 83.
Earl Wasserman, The Subtler Language (1959; rpt.
UP, 1964), p. 63.
16. Henry St. John, Lord Viscount Bolingbroke, qtd. in Kallich, "Unity," p.
17. Leo Spitzer points out that, in Latin texts dealing with the concordia
discors, the frequency of words containing the syllable "con," meaning "with,"
is a visual and aural reminder that the subject is the joining of opposing
things. The frequency of "con" (and "com") is of course very high in Pope's
poem and in my commentary on it. Classical and Christian Ideas of World
Harmony (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1963), p. 149.
18. Bertrand Goldgar, "Pope's Theory of the Passions: The Background of
Epistle II of the Essay on Man," Philological Quarterly, 41 (1962), p. 731.