On Pope's Philosophical Poem: 'An Essay on Man'

Interview by Richard Marshall.


'There’s no doubt that Pope’s poem is religious, if not always orthodox. He invokes the afterlife, and expresses contempt for false views of the afterlife; he writes about God as the creator of an orderly universe, ranked and rule-bound, whose existence people can be sure of on the basis of reflection; there can be no doubt that this is a poem of naturalised Christianity, even when Pope either slips or reveals his heterodoxy and calls God the soul of the world, or opens up the possibility that God is the last link in the chain of beings, rather than its artificer.'

'A naturalistic view of the universe might say that the first things happen by chance, and that subsequent events are the working out of the contingent interaction of various elements over the course of time – whether as the formation of star systems, the evolution of species or whatever. Although there will be a large degree of contingency in any given event, certain events become more or less likely given the course of the history of the universe. Once an event has occurred, it is no longer contingent, but can be recognised as part of the way the universe has gone, and so the way this universe had to go, or it wouldn’t be this universe but one just a little bit different instead. I think poetry is an art form that is particularly well suited for conveying this kind of attitude to the world.'

'Pope managed to eat fish and flesh perfectly well despite his sensitivity to the suffering of animals in the poem. The poem might well question the sense of animal sacrifice, and be able to see rearing livestock as domesticated murder and cannibalism. But one of the things that came to seem most odd, and most striking, and most telling about the poem as I worked on it was that such suffering and such awareness to it was normalised. I think Pope, who was probably very conscious of his own suffering body for much of his life, really did imagine personal suffering to be part of the great scheme.'

Tom Jonesis a reader in English and his research focuses on poetry and philosophy, particularly in the eighteenth century. He has written on the interrelation of linguistic philosophy and poetic practice with respect to George Berkeley and Alexander Pope, and has also worked on the place poetry occupies in the philosophy of the eighteenth century, particularly at the time when philosophy is divided into various different humanistic disciplines. He is currently running a series of day seminars on this theme, with a selection of essays by contributors to follow. Other current projects are a general book on the theory and practice of poetic language, and a biography of George Berkeley. Here he discusses Pope's Essay on Man, its relation to Milton's Paradise Lost, Pope's religious attitude, whether Leibniz was an influence, on Pope's naturalism, the relation of the poetry to the philosophy, his perspectivalism, Pascal, his relationship to Bacon, Locke, Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume, why 'the world changes' is a key to understanding the poem, on whether his use of rhetoric is a 'perfect cheat', on how he manages to be provisional whilst seeming to be assertive, the relationship between reason and passion, Montaigne and Plutarch, on immortality, bliss, love and sex, on how modern Pope is, on suffering and in particular the suffering of animals, on Pope's attitude to self-love and on why Pope's a philosophical historian rather than a philosopher of sovereignty. Here's philosophy done in the lit critter mode. Enjoy...


3:AM:Is it right to think ofAn Essay on Manas attempting to do what Milton was trying to achieve with Paradise Lostand create a great British religious and national epic? If so, isn’t it odd that he doesn’t actually name the religion and brings in materials that might be seen as too diverse to be held to that aim, even within the grand scope of an epic? You say that the religious attitude encouraged is conditional, so doesn’t that constrain its religious scope in a way that Milton’s epic wasn’t?

Tom Jones:Pope is attempting the vindication of providence in his poem, and one way he signals that attempt is in the echo of Milton’s ambitious claim to justify the ways of God to men. Pope doesn’t say he is going to vindicate providence in the same way Milton does. And any reader of both Paradise Lost and An Essay on Man will be very aware of the differences in strategy. Pope doesn’t write a biblical epic. He doesn’t write a narrative poem at all. And so he cannot give a sense of the foundational tensions of the (English/British) state by showing how the behaviour of certain characters (God, Satan, Adam, Eve) and its underlying motivations might relate to the behaviour and motivations of certain recent political actors (Charles I, Oliver Cromwell). So Pope is not writing a religious national epic; he is writing a philosophical verse essay but hoping to do by that means at least one of the things Milton aspired to in writing his poem.

There’s no doubt that Pope’s poem is religious, if not always orthodox. He invokes the afterlife, and expresses contempt for false views of the afterlife; he writes about God as the creator of an orderly universe, ranked and rule-bound, whose existence people can be sure of on the basis of reflection; there can be no doubt that this is a poem of naturalised Christianity, even when Pope either slips or reveals his heterodoxy and calls God the soul of the world, or opens up the possibility that God is the last link in the chain of beings, rather than its artificer. There are perhaps fewer marks of this being a distinctively British poem, but it does also cue its readers in to the distinctive British political narrative, particularly in the third epistle with the assertion (more forcibly managed in notes by Pope and Warburton than by the text itself, perhaps), that a mixed constitution, balancing monarchic and popular sources of power, is the best. Various other political cues, such as the address of the poem to Bolingbroke, the home key of attacks on political corruption and the exploitation of public resources by a self-interested group of career politicians in epistle IV, make this a British poem. But it is not distinctively British in the way Pope’s planned blank verse epic Brutus would have been if Pope had completed it. That poem would have given a mythical history of the characteristic British institutions of public life, and made much of the banishment of superstition and the introduction of the arts of government to the islands.

If Pope brings diverse resources to his vindication of providence perhaps it is in order to claim that the explanation that provides the best synthesis of the best existing thinking is for that very reason the best explanation? Pope’s ‘Argument’ states a preference for the broad view over the narrow. He might not always manage to bring his materials under control (and some of the things about the poem most interesting to us now might happen when he fails to do so), but bringing together what seems true in the work of very different philosophers and philosophical schools is part of the poem’s ambition.

The religious attitude Pope encourages is conditional only in the sense that on occasion he asks an imagined interlocutor to grant certain suppositions (that the most perfect mind must create the most perfect system of things, for example). Knowing that our conclusions are provisional, that we have only a partial view, that our views tend to change, that others have different views from us, that we will need to talk them into our views – these are the kind of conditions Pope is aware of and working within when it comes to promoting his religious vision. It is not that belief is only one of a range of equally plausible assumptions.

3:AM: How influential was it when it came out and how much did it draw on Leibniz- although he said he’d never read a line of the German?

TJ:Pope does say he never read a line of Leibniz; and yet there are quite strong echoes of the text of the Theodicéein the Essay, and Leibniz is a thinker who made significant efforts to say what it meant that God produced the best of all possible worlds, which is a major subject of Pope’s poem. A major difference in approach between the two authors, however, is Leibniz’s attribution of God’s actions to reason (a principle of absolute reason beyond even God) and Pope’s attribution of those actions to love. People pointed to close connections between the two texts. Perhaps Pope didn’t like that? He had no trouble lying and engaging in deceitful behaviour when he felt his career and self-image required it. The celebrated example is when Pope tricked Edmund Curll, a longstanding enemy, into publishing some of his letters by employing someone to disguise himself and sell Curll a printed copy of the letters Pope himself had prepared. So it’s perfectly possible that Pope preferred not to acknowledge the impact of a reading of Leibniz; and perfectly possible he never read Leibniz.

The influence of a text is very difficult to measure. I tried to show in the introduction that the Essayis a presence in the writings of major philosophers of the European enlightenment. It was widely translated. It was influential in shaping American constitutional thought. Indeed, from Jefferson to Derzhavin, people across a large part of the northern hemisphere were reading, citing and arguing with Pope’s poem. British poetry registers the impact of the poem straight away, with many of its lines and larger gestures imitated very directly in later poems by a wide range of poets (male, female; aristocratic, middling or labouring class). Reading Anglophone poetry and philosophy from the later 1730s onwards one is frequently aware of the echoing of lines, thoughts and attitudes from the poem.

3:AM:You argue that the poem is a philosophical poem where we must take both his poetry and his philosophy seriously. You claim that he ends up instantiating a poetic philosophy with necessity emerging from contingency. Can you sketch out for us what you mean by this?

TJ:A naturalistic view of the universe might say that the first things happen by chance, and that subsequent events are the working out of the contingent interaction of various elements over the course of time – whether as the formation of star systems, the evolution of species or whatever. Although there will be a large degree of contingency in any given event, certain events become more or less likely given the course of the history of the universe. Once an event has occurred, it is no longer contingent, but can be recognised as part of the way the universe has gone, and so the way this universe had to go, or it wouldn’t be this universe but one just a little bit different instead. I think poetry is an art form that is particularly well suited for conveying this kind of attitude to the world. Reading a poem, we are aware of the more or less contingent choices of poets in putting words together, but also of the unfolding of various kinds of determination in the choice of words as the poem progresses. We are aware of the poem evolving from the poet’s compositional perspective. But we’re also aware of the poem’s shape retrospectively, and then it seems necessary – it had to be those words in that order to be the poem it is. I’m not talking about any simple or single moment in time, a definite, singular, present moment of composition as things move from having been contingent to being necessary. Rather I mean there are two different aspects under which we might conceive of the poem, the contingent and the necessary, and that these aspects have a kind of kinship with temporal aspects (or aspect in the linguistic sense, as Russian has aspects, for example). The whole process of revision, republication, changing one’s mind about what one meant – that process has to be included in our sense of what poetic contingency and necessity are, how the shift between them is managed.


I guess also that we will tend to be interested or caught by poems that seem somehow to have made a right or true choice in the selection and placement of their words, and that feeling of rightness cements the aura of necessity carried by poems. One could go further and note that this sense of necessity very often emerges from once contingent and yet now historically elaborated aspects of the language in which a poem is made – their stress patterns, the rhymes they make available, and so on. By making the contingent language feel as if it had to be said that way, poetry can make us feel the coming together of contingency and necessity in the unfolding of history. (I’ve tried to make this point in a book on poetic languagepublished by Edinburgh University Press in 2012).

The providentialist can say that the kind of provisional knowledge people acquire when they trace the historical unfolding of contingencies is a mere shadow of the perfect knowledge that God has of all events, past, present and future. The kind of necessity that we intuit in retrospect by being alive to the rightness of the poem – a providentialist can claim that necessity characterises God’s knowledge of this great poem of the universe, as St Augustine calls it.

3:AM:You say he shifts perspectives between a providential view of the world and a naturalistic one. Does he settle for one side or the other by the end – is he a naturalist philosopher poet or not – or does the way he sets out different perspectives allow him to fudge? You suggest his radical perspectivalism places him very close to Pascal don’t you – can you say more about this?

TJ:I think Pope fudges it, and that’s really one thing that makes the poem very appealing to me. Very few people are content with a bare description of what happened or is happening. Descriptions that make sense of the world tend to fit in with some kind of scheme or broad interpretive project. I think that stands as much for social science and philosophy now as it does for Pope’s provisionally experienced providential universe. It might be a criticism of Pope’s poem that he says the human position is terribly limited, and can only give us a very partial view of what’s going on in the world, and yet that we ought to act as if we had some sense of how the whole of the universe is – we ought to be thinking of the ‘union of the rising Whole’ (IV.337) when we act. This is in part a problem of perspective, one that a sociologist might share. We know that we are social creatures and that all of our behaviours bear the mark of the social groups in which we live. If we try to pick ourselves up by the bootstraps, get outside of the total functioning of a society, say how it works, and think critically about its workings, we will have imagined for ourselves a perspective that we might not have thought to claim – one that sets aside the constraints of our being members of the social group we are analysing, or of any social group at all (the idea of a view from nowhere). In some sense the sociologist has to believe seriously in both propositions at once – that membership of a particular society as a certain type of person implies constraints; that a certain social-scientific method can at least partially or temporarily remove or alleviate those constraints to allow productive analysis to take place (and maybe also give us the means of challenging the constraints). I think Pope is doing something like that as a providentialist rather than a sociologist.

Pascal’s perspectivalism I take to be more absolute than Pope’s. Pascal encourages a resignation in the face of the realisation that the only higher perspective is God’s, that we can never have a reliable intuition about the way the world works, or the tendency of providence. This resignation comes from a strict separation of that which is determined by humans and that which is determined by God. Humans might determine the right perspective for looking at a painting, but who can determine the right perspective from which to judge morality or truth? It is presumption to try to see better than we do, in Pascal’s world. There is a view from nowhere: it is God’s view. It is a real view, that says wheat really is moral or true. But it’s not a perspective that is available to humans. Since the fall, we have lost everything, and the attempt to recover it is futile; all we can do is commit ourselves to God. It takes something to make Pope look like an advocate of institutional and social change as a response to recognised injustice – but Pascal manages it by being entirely committed to an entirely unknowable providence.

3:AM:How does this perspectivalism in the poem connect with British philosophers like Bacon, Locke, Shaftesbury, Hutcheson and Humein its inquisitive attitude and the position that our knowledge is narrow and full of ignorance?

TJ:The main connection here is the passage from one view of things to another. These British and Irish philosophers produce essays and enquiries (on human understanding, on virtue, on the passions, on a variety of subjects in politics and economics). There are also of course a few famous ‘treatises’ (on government, of human nature), but one might say of this broad philosophical tendency that it acknowledges the phenomena don’t speak perfectly for themselves, but require a kind of searching after their explanation, and the kind of writing they practice is or performs for the reader that search. I don’t think this tendency is unconnected to the fact that these philosophers have been lumped together as empiricists, as philosophers for whom the way in which a particular human subject experiences the world, the way phenomena unfold over the course of a particular subjective history, and over the course of universal history, is not irrelevant to our understanding of understanding or of what we understand. There may well be universal attributes of mind underlying particular experiences, but they cannot be reached or understood without careful attention to historical particularity. It is the passage in the self-understanding of a philosophically inclined person from the feeling that the phenomena are confusing to the feeling that one has arrived at the best available or at least a good explanation through a practice of writing that I think is the legacy of these British and Irish writers that is important for Pope. Also, of being polite, friendly, accessible and clear in the writing that reports the transition.

3:AM:‘The world changes’ – is this an important key to understanding what Pope is doing in the poem?

TJ:I think so. The poem may not contain a creation narrative or paraphrase of Genesislike Paradise Lost VII, but it does imagine order emerging from chaos on account of the organising principle of love (the opening of epistle III presents this image without any particularly historical inflection). The poem’s talk of the rise of things (including the union of the rising whole) I take to be a historical or quasi-historical form of talk: Pope is saying ‘look how the world has evolved’. Further, whether or not the great observable physical regularities of the universe are subject to change is an important point of argument in the poem (see I.147), given in reported speech by a voice raising a not unreasonable point of view so that it can be still more reasonably qualified. So the physical world is presented at some points in the poem as open to change, and the moral world is just as open; indeed, that is the point of the comparison in epistle I, that we can no more expect perfect moral consistency amongst humans than we can a physical universe without occasional disturbances such as earthquakes. This is as much as to say that the world is historical, and that it therefore has a partially determined future, and a fully determined past. It is that transition from a contingent future to a necessary past that I think is central to Pope’s perspectivalism, his combination of naturalist and providentialist views.

3:AM:How far can we ignore the poetry and focus on the essayism without losing what’s going on – after all, Locke thought rhetoric a ‘perfect cheat’ - – or is the poeticalness intrinsic somehow to the whole performance?

TJ:As I was saying, essayism itself, in the form that Pope would have been most familiar, was a time-based art form – it draws on experience, on the experience of change over time, and it performs that experience for its readers. That is why I would suggest it makes good sense to talk about essays having a prosody, saying things in a particular order, being sensitive to the timing and distribution in time of their parts. It’s important to an essayistic philosophy that the theoretical reflection emerges from and builds upon the personal realisation of a problem or experience of a crisis. So Locke might have felt rhetoric was a perfect cheat, but his Essaycertainly has a rhetoric (one that John Richetti analysed brilliantly thirty years ago in Philosophical Writing). When we pay attention to Pope’s poetry, we’re simply paying more attention to more qualities of discourse – qualities that every discourse possesses to some degree – than we might do when we think of the rhythms of philosophical prose, for example. The experience of time, the way in which the contingent features of a language, such as its rhyme words, can acquire the feeling of necessity (as it is indeed necessary from the perspective of the development of English as we know it that ‘fine’ and ‘line’ rhyme), these are things to which we are alive when reading any text, but which can become more marked for us reading a poetical text. I think they make poetical texts particularly good at registering and making palpable the experience of change, of events moving from the realm of a future with a contingent and open aspect into a past with a necessary and determined aspect.


3:AM:‘Whatever is, is RIGHT’ doesn’t sound provisional but you argue that to take Pope as clearly being assertive isn’t right. Can you show us why you think this, using this example as an illustration of what Pope is trying to achieve.

TJ:The typography – another feature of texts that straddles the contingent and the necessary – is vital here. The text as it was last published in Pope’s lifetime, and as I represent it, says ‘One truth is clear, “Whatever IS, is RIGHT.”’ [ You have to imagine that IS and RIGHT are here small - ironically, I don't have the know how to reproduce the typography Tom sent me here!] That use of small caps for the first ‘is’ as well as ‘right’ I think makes us give them a similar degree of stress. And adjusting the stress so that it is split more evenly between ‘right’ and ‘is’ means that we are turning our attention away from the rightness of the scheme and towards things as they are – those mucky details of lived experience as opposed to the scheme we might eventually arrive at if we reflect deeply and long enough. So Pope might well be saying that all of these things, the bad things, the seeming imperfections, the pain and suffering, the inexplicable turns of events, all of that is probably part of a universe that makes some sense, that is available to our interpretation, that, even if we can’t see all the rules that govern it, we might get a sense of there being rules, and trust that someone could see them or enact them. That’s a more tentative attitude than the reading that focuses all the stress of the line on the final ‘right’, as if we were being disciplined and told not to complain or say that there could be anything about the world that didn’t seem right or good or correct to us, even on a first viewing.

Other versions of the text Pope presented in his lifetime give us even more of a steer in this direction. The version published in 1736 has “Whatever Is, is RIGHT.” Doesn’t the italic and capitalisation push us more towards recognising that there is plenty of ill, and that it’s real ill; but that nonetheless there may be some scheme, available to others, that we ought to strive to understand, modestly nonetheless. On a more general level, Pope is not trying to sweep physical or moral ill under the carpet and tell us it’s all okay; he is simply giving us the standard religious consolation that God is in charge. There is of course a form of heavy persuasion in the lines that lead up to this closing couplet, a heavy persuasion that uses the standard resources of the rhyming couplet Pope had spent his career mastering:

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[.] (IV.289-92)

There is play with patterns established and varied, expectations created and altered. The first half line offers a redefinition (nature is art), and then states human ignorance; this pattern is repeated twice, with the copula removed. Then the final line cited places the two opposing terms, one of which will be redefined as the other, each in a half line of its own, again omitting the verb. We might feel coerced by the rhetoric; or we might feel that there is something unpersuasive about the pat redefinition of bad as good. But this is a rhetorical effort: it is an effort at managing disappointment and anger with the world through poetry, poetry that makes what is or was entirely contingent seem necessary and right. Pope does try at least to make us attend away from contingency and towards necessity at this point. But I think there is enough of a reminder of the contingency to keep hold of it, and I think in fact that we have a more interesting poem if we do keep hold of it in that first ‘is’ of the final line of the epistle.

3:AM:How does Pope present the relationship between the passions and reason, and how does this contrast and compare with the ideas of Plutarch and Montaigne?

TJ:Passion is good for setting us going; less good at weighing, comparing and coming to reasonable conclusions. That’s a fairly widely held view (Francis Hutcheson states it, for example). But Pope is somewhat unusual in suggesting that passions can become sociable, and therefore virtuous. By the time he says this he has also done one of the more thorough demolition jobs on reason, spending a great deal of epistle I reminding his readers of a severe circumscription of that faculty. In epistle II, then, we might think of reason as the reasonably circumscribed version of it we can allow ourselves given that we are just a small part of the universe.

Reason in Montaigne is charged with producing a sceptical suspension between judgements, so that the soul can be more open to God. The sort of scepticism that Montaigne enjoins leaves a person ‘unfurnish’d of Human, and therefore more apt to receive into him the Divine Knowledge’. This is reason that brings people to a standstill – so it is even more stolid than Pope’s view of reason. But when reason takes knowledge away, people are more open to God’s wisdom. (I’m making Montaigne sound like an academic sceptic here, and I think that’s reasonable, but it is maybe worth pointing out that human diversity, rather than sheer logical indemonstrability, is his reason for reason coming to a standstill.)

Plutarch, it seems to me, believes that reason and the passions are bound together in the human soul. Like many people he believes that reason restrains the passions. And he gives the example of a man restraining his sexual passion by the force of reason when he realises that the woman whom he desires is his mother or his daughter. Reason enforces prohibitions. Plutarch associates reason very strongly with virtue. The subject matter of morality is the passions, but its form is reason. That is, morality is reasoning about the passions. The reasonable and unreasonable are bound together in people: ‘the brutish and reasonles part, in maner of another bodie is combined and knit into reason by a certeine naturall linke of necessitie’. Passion is required to initiate action, so reason ought to work with it, not attempt to extirpate it: ‘verily, reason maketh good use of these passions, when they be well tamed and brought (as it were) to hand: without over weakning or rooting out cleane, that part of the soule which is made for to second reason, and do it good service ... let passions be rid cleene away (if that were possible to be done) our reason will be found in many things more dull and idle: like as the pilot and master of a ship hath little to do, if the winde be laid and no gale stirring.’ Pope is I think very close to Plutarch on the relationship between reason and passion, and the contribution passion can make to a virtuous life; but he perhaps goes even farther than Plutarch in making the (social) passions into virtues, without always highlighting reason’s assistance in the process.

3:AM:Can you explain the role of desire in the poem, and how Pope links this to the idea of immortality, bliss and love?

TJ:I was struck when looking at the manuscript drafts of the poem by the strong presence of desire. I knew that Pope, like many others, put sexual desire at the heart of human sociability: people are attracted to one another sexually, reproduce, discover the intergenerational contract that gives us an interest in loving children and loving parents. But I was surprised to see him present sexual desire as one of the appetites that is thwarted by scarcity of resources – but that need not be if things were only slightly different. Pope imagines an earlier stage in social life where nature’s resources are sufficient to satisfy all the wants of a community, including sexual wants. He says that ‘half the cause of Contest was remov’d, / When Beauty could be kind to all who lov’d.’ That could be an abstraction or personification of Beauty, able to satisfy all of the desires; or it could be a way of talking about females of any species. As I say in my note on this part of the poem, it’s not clear if Beauty is kind by being ample, by there being plenty of beautiful females to pair with the males, or if an individual beauty is unrestricted in her mating. There is just a hint here that Pope found the idea of monogamy socially restraining and possibly socially damaging; that competition between males for females (and all of the secondary competition it spawns) is not necessary, but built on the unnecessary cultural condition of monogamy. Love, desire, the practicalities of gratification are, I think, a little closer to the surface of the poem than has been recognised. People love themselves and one another; they love God; God loves them: the chain of love that unites everything in creation sometimes has a physical expression.

Some people of Pope’s time, among them his friend the philosopher George Berkeley, thought people had a natural appetite for (that is, a love of) immortality. Love of God and love of immortality could hardly be separated. So loving God and wanting to be with God in an infinitely extended future are the same. Bliss in the poem is the pleasure proper to each creature. It is the reward for loving the right things given the kind of thing you are. Pope is working and writing in the context of the ungainsayability of desires, and of the presumption that there are natural and proper desires for each kind of creature. Poetry of this period is not necessarily very good at talking about wrong desires, desires to die, to love the wrong things, the wrong people, and so on, and Pope’s poem is not much of an exception, but I will talk a bit about wrong love below.

3:AM:You suggest Pope is locking together two contrasting views: that of a mystical hierarchical universe (linked to say Plotinus and Ralph Cudworth) and one of interlocking needs of various orders of imperfect creatures. Can you say more about this and how Pope does this. Is it because of this blending that his eighteenth century mind isn’t quite the world of our modern sensibility but is more on the cusp of that?

TJ:Again this is a matter of how Pope presents our condition, one in which we only experience the universe as an unfolding of the histories of creatures with needs, relating to and reacting against one another, all very constrained, all restricted to knowledge of our own part of the creation. We get this feeling when Pope talks about the physical and sensory limits of human, and indeed other creatures, and when he talks about the emergence of animal and human communities over the long course of history. But there is another way of thinking of the universe. We have to be modest and admit that this is a partial intuition of what the whole might be, but nonetheless, having checked the pride of our reason, there is still some sort of pattern or order to phenomena, we can still make (or are still tempted to make) connections between experiences, to posit some deeper theoretical connections between events. The ordered, hierarchical structure of creation is one such thing we ought to be able to intuit with limited confidence, according to Pope. This vision of the universe comes across in the poem when Pope is talking about the chain of love, the union of the rising whole – all those enlarged and comprehensive views he gives that he shouldn’t really be able to, given the partiality of the human position.

Can we really say that Pope is somehow pre-modern because he can’t prize the view of the world as the emergent interaction of variously needy creatures from the view of the world that sees it as orderly? As I was saying above, with reference to a no-doubt crude view of sociology, if we weren’t prepared to say that our experience of and reports on the small section of events to which we have phenomenal access was connected to some larger or more interesting interpretive scheme, and a scheme that might have implications not just for what we know but for how we should behave, wouldn’t we be quite likely to be making trivial claims? We might not like Pope’s suggestion that the historically emergent world of variously needy, variously imperfect creatures is at the same time an ordered hierarchy of beings that gives natural rights to higher classes of being over lower classes. But that doesn’t mean that there is something entirely wrong in the argumentative move Pope makes, nor that we have found a much better way of generalising from individual experiences since his time. But neither, on the other hand, does it prevent his view of a hierarchical order of beings from being politically regressive.

3:AM:Following Judith Shklar, is Pope’s sensitivity to animals and their perspective something that vegetarianism ought to celebrate – is the poem an ur-text for animal rights – and doesn’t the element of Lucretian horror at the viciousness of nature rather undermine any notion of a good deity governing and ordering the universe? Doesn’t this hint at divine imperfection at the very least – or even an absence of deity? How are we to understand Pope’s attitude to fate and providence, the ordering of events and their causes. How far is it fair to say that Pope tends to make excuses and masks the violence of subordination, that his ideological commitments to British providentialism and Stoicism end up defending inequalities and its cruelties? And you also say that although thinkers like Plotinus and Shaftesbury share Pope’s idea that other beings can make use of human suffering and death none of them are a odd as Pope in this. What makes him odder than these others in respect of this?

TJ:Pope managed to eat fish and flesh perfectly well despite his sensitivity to the suffering of animals in the poem. The poem might well question the sense of animal sacrifice, and be able to see rearing livestock as domesticated murder and cannibalism. But one of the things that came to seem most odd, and most striking, and most telling about the poem as I worked on it was that such suffering and such awareness to it was normalised. I think Pope, who was probably very conscious of his own suffering body for much of his life, really did imagine personal suffering to be part of the great scheme. Sometimes his language manages to mask the idea that one organism dies for another with a degree of abstraction – ‘All forms that perish other forms supply’ (III.17). He can say this along with Shaftesbury (‘man ... in his turn submits to other natures and resigns his form a sacrifice to the rest of things’) and Plotinus (‘This devouring of Kind by Kind is necessary as the means to the transmutation of living things ... what grievance is it that when they must go their dispatch is so planned as to be serviceable to others?’).

But at other points Pope is not so calm, and reaches for an image that is troublesome, that of the human relationship to God being like that of a goose being fattened by humans (III.45-6). Earlier versions of the text draw on the image of the goose being over- or force-fed by the person that rears him. That abstract language of forms and kinds hides the fact that it is a thinking and feeling creature that is sustaining another. This image, making the goose think and speak, overloads the scenario with particularity, with thought and with feeling. (It’s also a moment in the poem where Pope hits a vulgar and over-familiar tone that doesn’t quite sort with the poem’s surface; it’s a sore thumb.) I think Pope feels like the goose, like God is making him suffer in ways he does not yet even realise he is suffering, all for the satisfaction of a particular appetite; and that’s normal! That is a cruel God, but at the same time the God that Pope supposes we should love, and loves us. And don’t people who rear animals for food also love those animals, and feel love from them? I said above poetry of Pope’s time wasn’t very good at telling us about bad or odd desires; this is a moment where Pope is good at showing us such a desire, showing us how domesticated the idea of consuming other beings out of desire has become. This might be a quintessentially Lucretian predicament: seeing that the gods torture us for fun, and yet celebrating the god of love as the animator of the universe and model for the poem itself. The love and the cruelty of Pope’s God also come together at this moment.

There is no good logic, as far as I can see, to Pope’s claim that since the universe is orderly there must be inequality. Plotinus says that ‘where there is variety and not identity there must be primals, secondaries, tertiaries, and every grade downward’. But why ought we to think that variety means rank ordering? There are lots of different soft fruits – strawberries, raspberries, blueberries – which is the first, which the second, which the third? Difference without hierarchy is something it seemed very difficult for Pope and others to imagine; it was also very convenient not to imagine it, as it of course makes it much easier psychologically to be complicit in keeping someone in a lower position than oneself if it is ‘natural’ for that person to be there. Pascal might have some more hope to offer here, though his radicalism is of a rather conservative kind in other ways. He says of nature, ‘C’est une sphère infinie dont le centre est partout, la circonférence nulle part.’ There are ways of conceiving of a universe that is not hierarchical; but Pascal was of course a believer in the social value of hierarchy too: given that there is no absolute reason one human should be above another, and yet humans fight to be above one another, it becomes convenient that there is an arbitrary system, such as rank, to determine in advance those to whom the privileges should go. So Pascal has a good image for an unranked world, but when it comes to human interaction, he’s entirely for a regressive and arbitrarily imposed social ranking.


3:AM:Does Pope see self-love as a positive thing, a source of benevolence? How does he reconcile private with social ends without negating self-interest?

TJ:The assertion that self-love and social are the same isn’t as pat or trite or merely convenient as it may seem. Pope shared the recognition with many others that humans are a kind, that they only ever exist in groups, that their most basic desires are social desires – desires that tie in with other people, whether as objects of our desire, or people whose esteem we crave, or people with whom we want to share the satisfaction of our own appetites (the people we want to go for a drink with). Self-love is a kind of love, an expression of something that is animating the universe, that connects us with others, that is proper to the kind of creature we are. To love oneself is not to love oneself only, but to love oneself as part of a family, species, world and so on. Bernard Mandeville did not get a look-in when I wrote about the poem, but his Fable of the Beesis a rather wicked way of suggesting that the pursuit of individual desires is all people do, even when acting benevolently – we only snatch a baby from the flames because we don’t want to live with the shame we imagine would follow if we didn’t. But in evoking a community of praise and blame, and showing how actors internalise the imagined judgments of that community, Mandeville lays out the terrain for all kinds of benevolist and neo-stoic thinking such as Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Pope doesn’t feel the need (like Shaftesbury or Hutcheson) to say that self-love isn’t the central human impulse; but he does make self-love really the same kind of phenomenon as love for others; love for others is an extension of self-love, not a negation of it; we do things for others for ourselves. And, as I was saying just now, Pope vivifies for us the idea that when we say ‘I love lamb’, for example, the fact that I hurt and consume the object of our desire is not necessarily a reason to say it isn’t really love that I feel.

3:AM:Can you say why you think we’d be better seeing Pope as an early philosophical historian in the mode of Voltaire and the Scottish Enlightenment and coming out of the work of Polybius, rather than a philosopher of sovereignty by divine right or election as seen in Hobbes, Filmer and Locke et al?

TJ: Because, whether the historical elaboration of human nature is the revelation of underlying universal principles or the emergence of something contingent and undetermined until that moment (or some amalgam of the two), Pope thinks of humanity historically. I have tried to say already how important I think this historical element in Pope’s thinking is, for his conception of social formation, for his poetic technique, for his provisional/providential perspectivalism. He is not a poet nor a thinker for whom rights exist a-historically (not that Hobbes, Locke or Filmer necessarily are either...). But I think it is truer to Pope’s project to think of him as reflecting on known historical cultures and conjectural reconstructions of those cultures, rather than thinking in terms of universal laws of nature, derived from whatever source – the nature of God and of man as revealed to reason and through scripture, say. For these reasons I prefer to think of Pope as someone who feels that even if there is a universal human nature, it has been elaborated as such in the unfolding of a human history that is only retrospectively perfectly necessary.


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