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An enormous emphasis was placed on the ability to think and reason during the Enlightenment. People during this era thought and reasoned about a variety of topics. Some people concerned themselves with the issue of God, which consequently caused many to question the church. Others were concerned with the organization of the Universe, and man’s place within that Universe. The first epistle of Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man” can be considered an articulation of the Enlightenment because it encompasses three major concerns of the people during the Enlightenment. Pope addresses man’s ability to reason and think for himself, he questions the church and the nature of Christianity, and he also speculates about man’s place in the world, as apart of the great chain of life.
The ability to reason was the central focus of the Enlightenment also denoted The Age of Reason. Pope begins epistle one by appealing to the reason of his audience. He writes, “Together let us beat this ample field, / Try to open, what the covert yield!” Pope encourages his audience to use the reason they have been given, to examine those things that have been advised against. To reason about those issues which have been kept in secrecy. He then goes on to write “say first, of God above, or man below, / What can we reason, but from what we know?” Pope again is addressing the ability of his audience to reason. He is trying to bring them into the 18th century, asking them to look for evidence in the knowledge they receive, rather then allowing the church to spoon-feed them all of their knowledge.
bodyOffer() During the Enlightenment, people began to question the church for the first time. Pope exemplifies this when he writes, “no Christians thirst for gold.” Pope subtly questions the nature of Christianity and Christians by exposing their own sinful desire for material goods. His words are simple, but they say a lot. By acknowledging that these Christians sin, and “thirst for gold,” he asks then why a man is looked down upon if they do not aspire to be Christian, since Christians have a sinful nature just like that of every other man. Pope was not alone in questioning Christianity and the church. David Hume writes, “the Truth of Christian Religion is less than the Evidence for the Truth of our Senses…” Many writers during the Enlightenment not only questioned Christianity, but also the church in general.
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Another issue that Pope, as well as his readers concerned themselves with during the Enlightenment, was man’s place within the Universe. Pope addresses this issue when he writes, “vast chain of being! which from God began, / Natures ethereal, human, angel, man…” Pope expresses his opinion that man’s place in the Universe, is within “Nature’s chain.” Therefore, man is simply a link within that chain. Pope’s idea that there is this chain or structure to the Universe, is representative of the belief by many Enlightenment thinkers, that there is a “best” way to structure things. During the Enlightenment everything was being organized, and classified. From the structure of society, to the structure of the Universe, there existed a common belief that organization was key to producing the “best” of anything.
It is important to examine literature, because literature is often the best reflection of the people during the time in which it was written. Pope’s “Essay on Man” was written during the Enlightenment, and reflects the attitudes and inquisitions of the people who lived during this time. Pope addresses man’s ability to reason, reason being the central focus of the Enlightenment. He also questions the church, and examines the structure of the Universe, both topics of which were concerns to people during the Enlightenment. The first epistle of “Essay on Man” can serve as an articulation of the Enlightenment because it not only expresses the views that were of concern to Pope, but also to the people of his time.