An Essay On Man Analysis Know Then Thyself



I. The business of Man not to pry into God, but to study himself. His middle nature; his powers and frailties, ver. 1 to 19. The limits of his capacity, ver. 19, &c. II. The two principles of Man, self-love and reason, both necessary, ver. 53, &c. Self-love the stronger, and why, ver. 67, &c. Their end the same, ver. 81, &c. III. The passions, and their use, ver. 93–130. The predominant passion, and its force, ver. 132–160. Its necessity, in directing men to different purposes, ver. 165, &c. 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. 202–216. 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, &c. How usefully these are distributed to all orders of men, ver. 241. How useful they are to society, ver. 251. And to the individuals, ver. 263. In every state, and every age of life, ver. 273, &c.

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 reasoning but to err; 10

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!89

Go, wondrous creature! mount where science guides,

Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides; 20

Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,

Correct old Time, and regulate the sun;

Go, soar with Plato to the 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! 30

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; 40

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; 50

Then see how little the remaining sum,

Which served 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. 60

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 through 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, deliberate, and advise. 70

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. 80

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: 90

Pleasure, or wrong or rightly understood,

Our greatest evil, or our greatest good.

III. Modes of self-love the passions we may call:

’Tis real good, or seeming, moves them all:

But since not every good we can divide,

And reason bids us for our own provide;

Passions, though 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. 100

In lazy apathy let Stoics boast

Their virtue fix’d; ’tis 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. 110

Passions, like elements, though born to fight,

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

These ’tis 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 confined,

Make and maintain the balance of the mind: 120

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 different senses different objects strike;

Hence different passions more or less inflame,

As strong or weak, the organs of the frame; 130

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: 140

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 Heaven’s blest beam turns vinegar more sour.

We, wretched subjects, though to lawful sway,

In this weak queen, some favourite still obey: 150

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 driven them out. 160

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

Reason is here no guide, but still a guard:

’Tis hers to rectify, not overthrow,

And treat this passion more as friend than foe:

A mightier power the strong direction sends,

And several men impels to several ends:

Like varying winds, by other passions tost,

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; 170

Through life ’tis follow’d, even 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:

’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 refined

And in one interest body acts with mind. 180

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;

Even avarice, prudence; sloth, philosophy;

Lust, through some certain strainers well refined,

Is gentle love, and charms all womankind; 190

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: 200

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;

Though each by turns the other’s bound invade,

As, in some well-wrought picture, light and shade,

And oft so mix, the difference is too nice

Where ends the virtue, or begins the vice. 210

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;

’Tis 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. 220

But where th’ extreme of vice, was ne’er agreed:

Ask where’s the north? at York, ’tis 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 further gone than he;

Even 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. 230

Virtuous and vicious every man must be,

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

The rogue and fool by fits is fair and wise;

And even the best, by fits, what they despise.

’Tis but by parts we follow good or ill;

For, vice or virtue, self directs it still;

Each individual seeks a several goal;

But Heaven’s great view is one, and that the whole.

That counterworks each folly and caprice;

That disappoints th’ effect of every vice; 240

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 interest, no reward but praise;

And build on wants, and on defects of mind,

The joy, the peace, the glory of mankind.

Heaven forming each on other to depend,

A master, or a servant, or a friend, 250

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 interest, 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 interests to resign;

Taught half by reason, half by mere decay,

To welcome death, and calmly pass away. 260

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 given,

The poor contents him with the care of Heaven.

See the blind beggar dance, the cripple sing,

The sot a hero, lunatic a king;

The starving chemist in his golden views

Supremely bless’d, the poet in his Muse. 270

See some strange comfort every state attend,

And pride bestow’d on all, a common friend;

See some fit passion every age supply,

Hope travels through, nor quits us when we die.

Behold the child, by Nature’s kindly law,

Pleased 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: 280

Pleased 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 given in vain; 290

Even mean self-love becomes, by force divine,

The scale to measure others’ wants by thine.

See! and confess, one comfort still must rise,

’Tis this, Though Man’s a fool, yet God is wise.


VER. 2, first edition —

The only science of mankind is Man.

After VER. 18, in the MS. —

For more perfection than this state can bear,

In vain we sigh, ‘Heaven made us as we are.’

As wisely, sure, a modest ape might aim

To be like Man, whose faculties and frame

He sees, he feels, as you or I to be

An angel thing we neither know nor see.

Observe how near he edges on our race;

What human tricks! how risible of face!

‘It must be so — why else have I the sense

Of more than monkey charms and excellence?

Why else to walk on two so oft essay’d?

And why this ardent longing for a maid?’

So pug might plead, and call his gods unkind,

Till set on end and married to his mind.

Go, reasoning thing! assume the doctor’s chair,

As Plato deep, as Seneca severe:

Fix moral fitness, and to God give rule,

Then drop into thyself, &c.

VER. 21, edition fourth and fifth —

Show by what rules the wandering planets stray,

Correct old Time, and teach the sun his way.

VER. 35, first edition —

Could He, who taught each planet where to roll,

Describe or fix one movement of the soul?

Who mark’d their points to rise or to descend,

Explain his own beginning or his end?

After VER. 86, in the MS. —

Of good and evil gods what frighted fools,

Of good and evil reason puzzled schools,

Deceived, deceiving, taught, &c.

After VER. 108, in the MS. —

A tedious voyage! where how useless lies

The compass, if no powerful gusts arise?

After VER. 112, in the MS. —

The soft reward the virtuous, or invite;

The fierce, the vicious punish or affright.

After VER. 194, in the MS. —

How oft, with passion, Virtue points her charms!

Then shines the hero, then the patriot warms.

Peleus’ great son, or Brutus, who had known,

Had Lucrece been a whore, or Helen none!

But virtues opposite to make agree,

That, Reason! is thy task; and worthy thee.

Hard task, cries Bibulus, and reason weak:

Make it a point, dear Marquess! or a pique.

Once, for a whim, persuade yourself to pay

A debt to reason, like a debt at play.

For right or wrong have mortals suffer’d more?

B—— for his prince, or —— for his whore?

Whose self-denials nature most control?

His, who would save a sixpence, or his soul?

Web for his health, a Chartreux for his sin,

Contend they not which soonest shall grow thin?

What we resolve, we can: but here’s the fault,

We ne’er resolve to do the thing we ought.

After VER. 220, in the first edition, followed these —

A cheat! a whore! who starts not at the name,

In all the Inns of Court or Drury Lane?

After VER. 226, in the MS. —

The colonel swears the agent is a dog,

The scrivener vows th’ attorney is a rogue.

Against the thief th’ attorney loud inveighs,

For whose ten pound the county twenty pays.

The thief damns judges, and the knaves of state;

And dying, mourns small villains hang’d by great.


The subtitle of the second epistle is “Of the Nature and State of Man, with Respect to Himself as an Individual” and treats on the relationship between the individual and God’s greater design.

Here is a section-by-section explanation of the second epistle:

Section I (1-52): Section I argues that man should not pry into God’s affairs but rather study himself, especially his nature, powers, limits, and frailties.

Section II (53-92): Section II shows that the two principles of man are self-love and reason. Self-love is the stronger of the two, but their ultimate goal is the same.

Section III (93-202): Section III describes the modes of self-love (i.e., the passions) and their function. Pope then describes the ruling passion and its potency. The ruling passion works to provide man with direction and defines man’s nature and virtue.

Section IV (203-16): Section IV indicates that virtue and vice are combined in man’s nature and that the two, while distinct, often mix.

Section V (217-30): Section V illustrates the evils of vice and explains how easily man is drawn to it.

Section VI (231-294): Section VI asserts that man’s passions and imperfections are simply designed to suit God’s purposes. The passions and imperfections are distributed to all individuals of each order of men in all societies. They guide man in every state and at every age of life.


The second epistle adds to the interpretive challenges presented in the first epistle. At its outset, Pope commands man to “Know then thyself,” an adage that misdescribes his argument (1). Although he actually intends for man to better understand his place in the universe, the classical meaning of “Know thyself” is that man should look inwards for truth rather than outwards. Having spent most of the first epistle describing man’s relationship to God as well as his fellow creatures, Pope’s true meaning of the phrase is clear. He then confuses the issue by endeavoring to convince man to avoid the presumptuousness of studying God’s creation through natural science. Science has given man the tools to better understand God’s creation, but its intoxicating power has caused man to imitate God. It seems that man must look outwards to gain any understanding of his divine purpose but avoid excessive analysis of what he sees. To do so would be to assume the role of God.

The second epistle abruptly turns to focus on the principles that guide human action. The rest of this section focuses largely on “self-love,” an eighteenth-century term for self-maintenance and fulfillment. It was common during Pope’s lifetime to view the passions as the force determining human action. Typically instinctual, the immediate object of the passions was seen as pleasure. According to Pope’s philosophy, each man has a “ruling passion” that subordinates the others. In contrast with the accepted eighteenth-century views of the passions, Pope’s doctrine of the “ruling passion” is quite original. It seems clear that with this idea, Pope tries to explain why certain individual behave in distinct ways, seemingly governed by a particular desire. He does not, however, make this explicit in the poem.

Pope’s discussion of the passions shows that “self-love” and “reason” are not opposing principles. Reason’s role, it seems, is to regulate human behavior while self-love originates it. In another sense, self-love and the passions dictate the short term while reason shapes the long term.

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