An Essay on Man
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 reas’ning but to err;
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 hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!
—Alexander Pope (1688–1744)
Today, when we turn to read Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man,” the debate between religion and reason rages around our ears. Books with titles such as “God Is Not Great” and “The God Delusion” have provoked many to wonder if God is merely a lie. Then with a dainty but deadly little cough, Pope interrupts to say perhaps it is our own existence that should first come under the microscope.
“Know then thyself,” the passage begins, echoing the famous words carved into the Temple of Apollo at Delphi in ancient Greece—words that have been taken up by philosophers from Socrates to Descartes and may now sound little more than a cliché. But how well do we truly understand ourselves? Many of us repeat patterns of behavior for years without ever realizing it.
For Pope, we live on an “isthmus of a middle state.” Literally a “neck,” an isthmus is a narrow strip of rock between two great landmasses. So, in other words, we are forever stuck in the middle, neither one thing nor another. Does this make us perfectly balanced or merely mediocre? Aristotle talks of the golden mean between extremes as his ideal moral position. The Buddha recommends the middle way as the path out of ignorance. Will we stick our neck out and say which of these figures we agree with?
In the word, “isthmus,” Pope may be making a pun on “is,” for even a claim as uncomplicated as something “is” something, threatens to send us plunging into the murky philosophical waters between rigid certainty and endless doubt. A simple statement such as “life is good” has the power to start a raging argument!
As the passage develops, Pope illustrates the many ways in which we fall between extremes. We should linger over these lines and think of examples from our lives. Pope teaches us to both laugh and despair at our contradictions.
The poem uses “man” to refer, of course, to both men and women. Yet within the definition of “humanity,” there are incalculable distinctions. Men and women are sometimes poles apart in the way they think and feel; and, compared to a child of 8, a grandparent of 88 gazes on the passing panorama of life with vastly different eyes. Whenever we look for one definitive, universal perspective, we find it constantly shifting and drifting.
Pope’s work is so polished that it may initially appear to be the poetic equivalent of a grand neoclassical building: formally rather imposing and a little bit chilly. Yet, look again and the statues inside are laughing.
Pope’s crisp, throat-clearing, theatrical diction, love of rhyming couplets, and spirit of mischief make his work easier to grasp than many post-modernist poets whose poems aim to disturb and darken. He may be speaking to the elite literary culture of 18th-century London, and yet—in another wonderful paradox—his language is far more lucid than many academics today who protest their commitment to social equality in jargon no one comprehends.
Above all, Pope’s poetry fulfills W.H. Auden’s definition that poetry is “memorable speech.” His resounding declaration that man as “The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!” is both unforgettable and full of good sense. Well-meaning rationalists are constantly trying to crack this riddle—yet perhaps our very imperfection is our pride and glory. Perhaps it is only when we celebrate our maddening confusions and inconsistencies that we come closest to sanity.
Alexander Pope (1688–1744) was an 18th-century English poet, best known for such poems as “The Rape of the Lock” and “The Dunciad.”
Christopher Nield is a poet living in London.