An Essay on Man: Epistle II

Original Text: 
Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man, 4 vols. (London, 1733-34). E-10 1503 Fisher Rare Book Library (Toronto). Facs. edn. Menston: Scolar Press, 1969. PR 3627 A1 1734A ROBA.
2The proper study of mankind is man.
3Plac'd on this isthmus of a middle state,
5With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
7He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
8In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;
9In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
10Born but to die, and reas'ning but to err;
11Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
12Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
13Chaos of thought and passion, all confus'd;
14Still by himself abus'd, or disabus'd;
15Created half to rise, and half to fall;
16Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
17Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl'd:
18The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!
19     Go, wondrous creature! mount where science guides,
20Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides;
21Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
22Correct old time, and regulate the sun;
24To the first good, first perfect, and first fair;
25Or tread the mazy round his follow'rs trod,
27As Eastern priests in giddy circles run,
28And turn their heads to imitate the sun.
29Go, teach Eternal Wisdom how to rule--
30Then drop into thyself, and be a fool!
31     Superior beings, when of late they saw
32A mortal Man unfold all Nature's law,
33Admir'd such wisdom in an earthly shape,
36Describe or fix one movement of his mind?
37Who saw its fires here rise, and there descend,
38Explain his own beginning, or his end?
39Alas what wonder! Man's superior part
40Uncheck'd may rise, and climb from art to art;
41But when his own great work is but begun,
42What Reason weaves, by Passion is undone.
43     Trace science then, with modesty thy guide;
44First strip off all her equipage of pride;
45Deduct what is but vanity, or dress,
46Or learning's luxury, or idleness;
47Or tricks to show the stretch of human brain,
48Mere curious pleasure, or ingenious pain;
49Expunge the whole, or lop th' excrescent parts
50Of all our Vices have created Arts;
51Then see how little the remaining sum,
52Which serv'd the past, and must the times to come!
53     Two principles in human nature reign;
55Nor this a good, nor that a bad we call,
56Each works its end, to move or govern all:
57And to their proper operation still,
58Ascribe all good; to their improper, ill.
61Man, but for that, no action could attend,
62And but for this, were active to no end:
64To draw nutrition, propagate, and rot;
65Or, meteor-like, flame lawless through the void,
66Destroying others, by himself destroy'd.
67     Most strength the moving principle requires;
68Active its task, it prompts, impels, inspires.
69Sedate and quiet the comparing lies,
70Form'd but to check, delib'rate, and advise.
71Self-love still stronger, as its objects nigh;
72Reason's at distance, and in prospect lie:
73That sees immediate good by present sense;
74Reason, the future and the consequence.
75Thicker than arguments, temptations throng,
76At best more watchful this, but that more strong.
77The action of the stronger to suspend,
78Reason still use, to reason still attend.
79Attention, habit and experience gains;
80Each strengthens reason, and self-love restrains.
81     Let subtle schoolmen teach these friends to fight,
82More studious to divide than to unite,
83And grace and virtue, sense and reason split,
84With all the rash dexterity of wit:
85Wits, just like fools, at war about a name,
86Have full as oft no meaning, or the same.
87Self-love and reason to one end aspire,
88Pain their aversion, pleasure their desire;
89But greedy that its object would devour,
90This taste the honey, and not wound the flow'r:
91Pleasure, or wrong or rightly understood,
92Our greatest evil, or our greatest good.
93     Modes of self-love the passions we may call:
94'Tis real good, or seeming, moves them all:
95But since not every good we can divide,
96And reason bids us for our own provide;
97Passions, though selfish, if their means be fair,
100Exalt their kind, and take some virtue's name.
102Their virtue fix'd, 'tis fix'd as in a frost;
103Contracted all, retiring to the breast;
104But strength of mind is exercise, not rest:
105The rising tempest puts in act the soul,
106Parts it may ravage, but preserves the whole.
107On life's vast ocean diversely we sail,
110He mounts the storm, and walks upon the wind.
112Yet, mix'd and soften'd, in his work unite:
113These 'tis enough to temper and employ;
114But what composes man, can man destroy?
115Suffice that reason keep to nature's road,
116Subject, compound them, follow her and God.
117Love, hope, and joy, fair pleasure's smiling train,
118Hate, fear, and grief, the family of pain,
119These mix'd with art, and to due bounds confin'd,
120Make and maintain the balance of the mind:
121The lights and shades, whose well accorded strife
122Gives all the strength and colour of our life.
123     Pleasures are ever in our hands or eyes,
124And when in act they cease, in prospect, rise:
125Present to grasp, and future still to find,
126The whole employ of body and of mind.
127All spread their charms, but charm not all alike;
128On diff'rent senses diff'rent objects strike;
129Hence diff'rent passions more or less inflame,
130As strong or weak, the organs of the frame;
133     As man, perhaps, the moment of his breath,
134Receives the lurking principle of death;
135The young disease, that must subdue at length,
136Grows with his growth, and strengthens with his strength:
137So, cast and mingled with his very frame,
138The mind's disease, its ruling passion came;
140Soon flows to this, in body and in soul.
141Whatever warms the heart, or fills the head,
142As the mind opens, and its functions spread,
143Imagination plies her dang'rous art,
144And pours it all upon the peccant part.
145     Nature its mother, habit is its nurse;
146Wit, spirit, faculties, but make it worse;
147Reason itself but gives it edge and pow'r;
148As Heav'n's blest beam turns vinegar more sour.
149We, wretched subjects, though to lawful sway,
150In this weak queen some fav'rite still obey:
151Ah! if she lend not arms, as well as rules,
152What can she more than tell us we are fools?
153Teach us to mourn our nature, not to mend,
154A sharp accuser, but a helpless friend!
155Or from a judge turn pleader, to persuade
156The choice we make, or justify it made;
157Proud of an easy conquest all along,
158She but removes weak passions for the strong:
159So, when small humours gather to a gout,
160The doctor fancies he has driv'n them out.
161     Yes, nature's road must ever be preferr'd;
162Reason is here no guide, but still a guard:
163'Tis hers to rectify, not overthrow,
164And treat this passion more as friend than foe:
166And sev'ral men impels to sev'ral ends.
167Like varying winds, by other passions toss'd,
168This drives them constant to a certain coast.
169Let pow'r or knowledge, gold or glory, please,
170Or (oft more strong than all) the love of ease;
171Through life 'tis followed, ev'n at life's expense;
172The merchant's toil, the sage's indolence,
173The monk's humility, the hero's pride,
174All, all alike, find reason on their side.
175     Th' eternal art educing good from ill,
176Grafts on this passion our best principle:
178Strong grows the virtue with his nature mix'd;
180And in one interest body acts with mind.
182On savage stocks inserted, learn to bear;
183The surest virtues thus from passions shoot,
184Wild nature's vigor working at the root.
185What crops of wit and honesty appear
187See anger, zeal and fortitude supply;
188Ev'n av'rice, prudence; sloth, philosophy;
189Lust, through some certain strainers well refin'd,
190Is gentle love, and charms all womankind;
191Envy, to which th' ignoble mind's a slave,
192Is emulation in the learn'd or brave;
193Nor virtue, male or female, can we name,
194But what will grow on pride, or grow on shame.
196The virtue nearest to our vice allied:
201The same ambition can destroy or save,
202And make a patriot as it makes a knave.
204What shall divide? The God within the mind.
205     Extremes in nature equal ends produce,
206In man they join to some mysterious use;
207Though each by turns the other's bound invade,
208As, in some well-wrought picture, light and shade,
209And oft so mix, the diff'rence is too nice
210Where ends the virtue, or begins the vice.
211     Fools! who from hence into the notion fall,
212That vice or virtue there is none at all.
213If white and black blend, soften, and unite
214A thousand ways, is there no black or white?
215Ask your own heart, and nothing is so plain;
216'Tis to mistake them, costs the time and pain.
217     Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
218As, to be hated, needs but to be seen;
219Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
220We first endure, then pity, then embrace.
221But where th' extreme of vice, was ne'er agreed:
222Ask where's the North? at York, 'tis on the Tweed;
223In Scotland, at the Orcades; and there,
225No creature owns it in the first degree,
226But thinks his neighbour farther gone than he!
227Ev'n those who dwell beneath its very zone,
228Or never feel the rage, or never own;
229What happier natures shrink at with affright,
230The hard inhabitant contends is right.
231     Virtuous and vicious ev'ry man must be,
233The rogue and fool by fits is fair and wise;
234And ev'n the best, by fits, what they despise.
235'Tis but by parts we follow good or ill,
236For, vice or virtue, self directs it still;
237Each individual seeks a sev'ral goal;
238But heav'n's great view is one, and that the whole:
239That counterworks each folly and caprice;
240That disappoints th' effect of ev'ry vice;
241That, happy frailties to all ranks applied,
242Shame to the virgin, to the matron pride,
243Fear to the statesman, rashness to the chief,
244To kings presumption, and to crowds belief,
245That, virtue's ends from vanity can raise,
246Which seeks no int'rest, no reward but praise;
247And build on wants, and on defects of mind,
248The joy, the peace, the glory of mankind.
249     Heav'n forming each on other to depend,
250A master, or a servant, or a friend,
251Bids each on other for assistance call,
252'Till one man's weakness grows the strength of all.
253Wants, frailties, passions, closer still ally
254The common int'rest, or endear the tie:
256Each home-felt joy that life inherits here;
257Yet from the same we learn, in its decline,
258Those joys, those loves, those int'rests to resign;
259Taught half by reason, half by mere decay,
260To welcome death, and calmly pass away.
261     Whate'er the passion, knowledge, fame, or pelf,
262Not one will change his neighbour with himself.
263The learn'd is happy nature to explore,
265The rich is happy in the plenty giv'n,
267See the blind beggar dance, the cripple sing,
268The sot a hero, lunatic a king;
270Supremely blest, the poet in his Muse.
271     See some strange comfort ev'ry state attend,
272And pride bestow'd on all, a common friend;
273See some fit passion ev'ry age supply,
274Hope travels through, nor quits us when we die.
275     Behold the child, by nature's kindly law,
276Pleas'd with a rattle, tickl'd with a straw:
277Some livelier plaything gives his youth delight,
278A little louder, but as empty quite:
281Pleas'd with this bauble still, as that before;
283     Meanwhile opinion gilds with varying rays
284Those painted clouds that beautify our days;
285Each want of happiness by hope supplied,
286And each vacuity of sense by Pride:
287These build as fast as knowledge can destroy;
289One prospect lost, another still we gain;
290And not a vanity is giv'n in vain;
292The scale to measure others' wants by thine.
293See! and confess, one comfort still must rise,
294'Tis this: Though man's a fool, yet God is wise.


1] Pope's summary of the Epistle II is as follows. ARGUMENT OF 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, ver. 1 to 18. The limits of his capacity, ver. 19 etc.
II. The two principles of man, self-love and reason, both necessary, ver. 53 etc. Self-love the stronger, and why, ver. 67 ff. Their end the same, ver. 81 ff.
III. The Passions and their use, ver. 93 to 130. The predominant Passion, and its force. Its Necessity, in directing men to different purposes, ver. 165, etc. Its providential Use, in fixing our Principle, and ascertaining our Virtue, ver. 177.
IV. Virtue and Vice joined in our mixed Nature; the limits near, yet the things separate and evident: What is the Office of Reason, ver. 203 to 216.
V. How odious Vice in itself, and how we deceive ourselves into it, ver. 217.
VI. That, however, the Ends of Providence and general Good are answered in our Passions and Imperfections, ver. 238, etc. How usefully these are distributed to all Orders of Men, ver. 242. How useful they are to Society, ver. 249. And to the Individuals, ver. 261. In every state, and every age of life, ver. 271, etc.
scan: criticize, judge by a certain rule or standard. Back to Line
4] darkly wise: Cf. I Cor. 13:12. Back to Line
6] Stoic's pride: the idea that man can eliminate passion and become a purely intellectual being. Back to Line
23] empyreal sphere: the outermost sphere of the universe, abode of God and (for Pope) of Plato's archetypes. Back to Line
26] quitting sense: not only common sense, but also bodily perception and hence the body. Back to Line
34] Newton. Cf. Pope's epigram on Newton: "Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night:/God said, let Newton be! and all was light." Back to Line
35] rules ... bind: Newton's Principia discussed the trajectory of comets. Back to Line
54] self-love: applied to the faculties which maintained the individual, hence self-fulfilment, not selfishness. Back to Line
59] acts: puts into action; actuates. Back to Line
60] balance: the balance wheel of a watch. Back to Line
63] peculiar: individual. Back to Line
98] List: enlist. Back to Line
99] Those: the passions. that: reason's care. Back to Line
101] apathy: apatheia, a technical Stoic name for the passionless state. Back to Line
108] card: mariner's map. The OED has: "The circular piece of stiff paper on which the 32 points are marked in the mariner's compass. Back to Line
109] Cf. I Kings 19:11-12 where God is "a still small Voice" with Ps. 18:10 where God is described as "flying on the wings of the wind." Back to Line
111] Elements: refers to the notion of personality as a union of the four humours, the elements of man. Back to Line
131] master passion: ruling passion (see below, line 138). Back to Line
132] Aaron's serpent. In Jehovah's contest with the Egyptian gods, the Egyptian magician's rods became serpents, but Aaron's rod became a bigger serpent, and devoured all the rest. Back to Line
139] vital humour ... the heart, or fills the head: appears to mean the several kinds of subtle spirits (see Essay on Criticism, note on line 77). The vital spirits are produced in the heart, animal spirits in the head. Back to Line
165] "[Pope] Its necessity [the ruling passion's] in directing man to different purposes. The particular application of this to the several pursuits of men, and the general good resulting thence, falls into the succeeding books." Back to Line
177] mercury of man. The variableness of the human character is compared to the volatility of mercury (quicksilver). The ruling passion controls the emotional elements of man's nature, just as "sulphurs" (in eighteenth-century metallurgy) "fix" the primal mercury of which all metals were thought to be composed. Back to Line
179] refin'd: continuing in part the metallurgical image of line 176. Back to Line
181] fruits: equivalent here to "grafts." ungratefill: "not responding to cultivation." Cf. Absalom and Achitophel, line 12. Back to Line
186] spleen: Cf. Rape of the Lock, IV. Back to Line
195] pride: i.e., the Stoic pride (see above, line 6). Back to Line
197] byass: "the construction or form of the bowl causing it to swerve when rolled the curved course in which it runs" (OED). Back to Line
198] Titus: Roman emperor, A.D. 79-81, who Suetonius reports considered a day lost if he had not done good to anyone. Back to Line
199] Catiline: anarchic conspirator exposed by Cicero in 63 B.C. Back to Line
200] Decius. "Decius, instructed by a vision ... that the general on one side and the army, on the other, was doomed, rushed into the thick of the fight to ensure by his own death the destruction of the enemy" (Elwin and Courthope).
Curtius: M. Curtius, a Roman youth, who leapt armed and mounted into a chasm which had opened in the forum, the soothsayers having declared that the chief strength of Rome must be sacrificed before the chasm would close. Back to Line
203] Alludes to the creation. See Gen. 1:4; Paradise Lost, VII, 249 ff. Back to Line
224] Zembla: Novaya Zembla, a group of arctic islands. Back to Line
232] degree. Pope puns on the geographical sense of degree. Back to Line
255] sincere: possibly in the sense of pure or unmixed. Back to Line
264] Cf. Prov. 15:21. Back to Line
266] Cf. Matt. 5:3. Back to Line
269] chemist: alchemist. views: contemplation or vision. Back to Line
279] Scarfs, garters: symbols of distinction in church (doctors of divinity) and state (knights of the Garter). Back to Line
280] beads: rosaries. Back to Line
282] life's ... play: Macbeth, V.v.25. Back to Line
288] bubble. In addition to the usual sense, it also includes the common eighteenth-century senses of (1) dupe, (2) deceptive show. Back to Line
291] mean: (1) ignoble, (2) in the middle.
291-92: "[Pope] See further of the use of this principle in Mor. Epist. 3 vers. 121, 124, 134, 194, 199, etc. And Epist. 4 ver. 358, and 368." Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
D. F. Theall
RPO Edition: 
3RP 2.137.