Some might argue that Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Man" presents the viewpoint of a deist. Others might claim that the poem fails to exhibit Christian concepts of good and evil, especially since the poet concludes his first epistle with the seemingly unchristian claim that "whatever IS, is Right" (I. 1. 294). Yet Pope's arguments actually reflect a traditional Christian perspective, which can be verified by comparing his poem with New Testament teachings. In his attempt to vindicate God in the face of suffering, he does not, like the pantheist, rule out the existence of evil. Pope knows that men are capable of vice and that suffering is real. Pope does not argue that evil does not exist; rather he argues that its existence does not preclude the justice of God. Like the writers of the New Testament, particularly the apostle Paul, Pope claims that pride and envy leads man to question the justice of God, and he insists that men submit to God, remaining content with their lot in life.
Although Pope claims that "[o]ne truth is clear, `Whatever IS, is RIGHT'" (I. 1.294), he recognizes suffering:
But errs not nature from this gracious end,
From burning suns when livid deaths descend,
When earthquakes swallow, or when tempest sweep
Towns to one grave, whole nations to the deep? (I. ll. 140-143)
Pope does not only acknowledge the existence of evil. He describes it in vivid detail. In the above passage, he paints a horrid picture of plagues caused by excessive heat, of destructive earthquakes, and of storms that decimate entire towns and nations. He writes too of Ammon, who was turned "loose to scourge mankind" (I. l. 160). He may argue that nature does not err t...
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...realizes this himself for a moment at the end of the second epistle. For he does not conclude by attempting to explain the existence of evil. Rather, he says only that "one comfort still must rise, / 'Tis this, Tho' Man's a fool, yet GOD IS WISE" (II. ll. 292-293). In the end, it is better to believe that every man (including Pope) is a fool for failing to explain evil than to believe that God is not wise for allowing it. This couplet is one further proof of the Christian influence in Pope's "An Essay on Man." In the Epistle to the Romans, Paul writes: "Let God be true, but every man a liar" (Romans 3:4).
Pope, Alexander. "An Essay on Man." Ed. Gordon N. Ray. Boston: Houghton Miflin Company, 1969.
The New American Bible. Nashville: Catholic Publishers, Inc., 1971.
The King James Bible. Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1967.
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