Pope was not as philospher in any systematic sense, though he had obvious philosophical concerns, which manifested themselves most strongly in works like his An Essay on Man. He read a great deal of philosophy, but casually rather than formally: he was deeply interested in attempts to discern man's place in the universe and his relationship with God, but his interest was primarily poetic, not philosophical.
Like many of his contemporaries, Pope believed in the existence of a God who had created, and who presided over, a physical Universe which functioned like a vast clockwork mechanism. Important scientific discoveries by men like Sir Isaac Newton, who explained, in his Principia, the nature of the laws of gravitation which helped to govern that universe, were seen as corroborating that view. "Nature, and Nature's Laws lay hid in Night," Pope wrote, in a famous couplet intended as Newton's epitaph, but "God said, Let Newton be ! and All was Light." This view of the universe as an ordered, structured place was an aspect of the Neoclassical emphasis on order and structure which also manifested itself in the arts, including poetry. How does An Essay on Man reflect this perspective? Remember that Pope could also portray Belinda in The Rape of the Lock in the following fashion:
"The skilful Nymph reviews her Force with Care;
Let Spades be Trumps ! she said, and Trumps they were."
Pope's work also echoes, of course, Neoclassical philosophical concerns which were intimately bound up with religious ones. Human beings were seen as imperfect creatures who occupied a middle place in the great scheme of things; in the great chain of being. What assumptions did Pope assume that man could make about his role in the universe, based upon his perception of mankind's place in it? Pope believed, as Swift believed (it is one of the many attitudes which these two very different men shared in common) that God intended that Man should be rational, thoughtful, logical, and reasonable , but that, too often he was not; and that it was one of the poet's primary tasks to point out error, to instruct, to show the way. Pope was uniquely positioned to assume this role precisely because he maintained, all his life, (despite all of his literary feuds and squabbles) a crucial psychological distance — because he was a chronic invalid, because he was a Catholic during a period of Protestant ascendancy, because he was, physically, a dwarf — from the upper levels of English society to which his poetic genius had given him access.
Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000