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The Great Chain of Being in Pope’s Essay on Man
Symposium: Great Books Student Scholarly Journal
The Great Chain of Being in Pope’s
Essay on Man
There are three main issues that Pope talks about in his long poem “Essay on Man.” First, the poet evokes a timeless vision of humanity in which the universe is connected to a great chain that extends from God to the tiniest form of life. Secondly, Pope discusses God’s plan in which evil must exist for the sake of the greater good, a paradox not fully understandable by human reason. Thirdly, the poem accuses human beings of being proud and impious. Pope feels that man claims more insight into the nature of existence then he possesses.
In "An Essay on Man" Pope is trying to make clear the relationship of humanity to the universe, himself, society and also to happiness. He states "For me health gushes from a thousand springs; seas roll to waft me suns to light- me rise; My footstool earth my canopy the skies" (330). Pope implies that the universe is created for man's pleasures and needs and so therefore we are all connected to the chain of universal order. Through this connection man realizes that all are part of one stupendous whole. He then suggests that this order extends further then we know; any interference with it could destroy the whole. Pope asks in the poem, "Is the greater chain, that draws all to agree, upheld by God or thee?" (327).
Here he explains that by conforming to the order of the universe we can all agree on and connect to one goal. Through this connection, we would then reach the purest form of humanity. The belief in this poem is that although things do not turn out well for some individuals, everything falls into place in the great chain of the universe. In the long run everything works out for the best, Pope argues. Because humanity is ignorant of the events of the future, the hope of eternal life gives man the possibility of happiness.
Pope also touches on evil and how God allows evil to exist whether or not humanity can understand it. Man knows that he possesses free will. In order for him to make the right choices, man must know that there is a choice to make between good and evil, and that he has to accept responsibility for his choices. Pope discuses the presence of evil throughout the universal chain: "If the great end be human happiness then nature deviates; and can man do less?" (330). This implies that there is beauty in nature, but there is also evil when nature destroys towns, homes and human life. If nature can be evil, how can man be expected never to be evil? Man has the power of good to help feed the hungry, care for the sick, and cmfort the dying. Yet, man chooses to exercise his evil side: destroying, killing and bringing down those that are weaker.
In addition to discussing evil, Pope also suggests that human beings are full of pride and impiety. "All this dread order break-for whom? For thee? Vile worm!" laments Pope, "Oh madness! Pride! impiety!" (332). He is saying that man sees himself as the center of the universe around which all things revolve. Humanity cares about nothing but itself. Pope draws us into the poem by reminding us that we too have tendencies to make assumptions and that we all have our own desire to see the universe revolving around us. Pope discusses humanity's downfall, writing: "In pride in reasoning pride, our error lies" (329). Here, Pope puts forth the ideas that our pride is our own destruction.
In order to combat this pride, Pope suggests that the true course that man should take is absolute submission to Providence. However is total submission the true answer to happiness? If that were the case why give man the ability to reason? Why have individuality when each man must submit, each man transcending his individual qualities in order to make the connection? Man, Pope says, should use pride positively in realizing he can make a difference or a contribution to the universal order and not to draw attention to himself.
Although I disagree with Pope's view about pride, I agree with his idea of the universal chain. A wonderful line in this poem is "Know thy own point" (Pope 333). This means that man needs to know exactly what his role on earth is. Man needs to find his place in the chain and work to make it stronger rather than weaker. He cannot live his life pretending that the whole universe is something foreign to him, and that he has no effect on the rest of the world. Life is like a chess game in which every move affects the other.
Pope ends the poem with these words: "Whatever is, is right" (333). This implies that things are done or happen for a reason. When humanity tries to change things for individual gain rather than the improvement of the whole it weakens the chain, which in turn affect the rest of the universe. I believe we are all individuals who are connected to a higher power, whatever that power may be. The beauty of humanity is exactly that individuality. I agree with Pope in the sense that we are all connected somehow, but I do not agree with total submission in order to achieve total unity. Rather than total submission, I believe our mission is to connect with the universe by using the special gifts given to us by the power that unites us.