The subtitle of the second epistle is “Of the Nature and State of Man, with Respect to Himself as an Individual” and treats on the relationship between the individual and God’s greater design.
Here is a section-by-section explanation of the second epistle:
Section I (1-52): Section I argues that man should not pry into God’s affairs but rather study himself, especially his nature, powers, limits, and frailties.
Section II (53-92): Section II shows that the two principles of man are self-love and reason. Self-love is the stronger of the two, but their ultimate goal is the same.
Section III (93-202): Section III describes the modes of self-love (i.e., the passions) and their function. Pope then describes the ruling passion and its potency. The ruling passion works to provide man with direction and defines man’s nature and virtue.
Section IV (203-16): Section IV indicates that virtue and vice are combined in man’s nature and that the two, while distinct, often mix.
Section V (217-30): Section V illustrates the evils of vice and explains how easily man is drawn to it.
Section VI (231-294): Section VI asserts that man’s passions and imperfections are simply designed to suit God’s purposes. The passions and imperfections are distributed to all individuals of each order of men in all societies. They guide man in every state and at every age of life.
The second epistle adds to the interpretive challenges presented in the first epistle. At its outset, Pope commands man to “Know then thyself,” an adage that misdescribes his argument (1). Although he actually intends for man to better understand his place in the universe, the classical meaning of “Know thyself” is that man should look inwards for truth rather than outwards. Having spent most of the first epistle describing man’s relationship to God as well as his fellow creatures, Pope’s true meaning of the phrase is clear. He then confuses the issue by endeavoring to convince man to avoid the presumptuousness of studying God’s creation through natural science. Science has given man the tools to better understand God’s creation, but its intoxicating power has caused man to imitate God. It seems that man must look outwards to gain any understanding of his divine purpose but avoid excessive analysis of what he sees. To do so would be to assume the role of God.
The second epistle abruptly turns to focus on the principles that guide human action. The rest of this section focuses largely on “self-love,” an eighteenth-century term for self-maintenance and fulfillment. It was common during Pope’s lifetime to view the passions as the force determining human action. Typically instinctual, the immediate object of the passions was seen as pleasure. According to Pope’s philosophy, each man has a “ruling passion” that subordinates the others. In contrast with the accepted eighteenth-century views of the passions, Pope’s doctrine of the “ruling passion” is quite original. It seems clear that with this idea, Pope tries to explain why certain individual behave in distinct ways, seemingly governed by a particular desire. He does not, however, make this explicit in the poem.
Pope’s discussion of the passions shows that “self-love” and “reason” are not opposing principles. Reason’s role, it seems, is to regulate human behavior while self-love originates it. In another sense, self-love and the passions dictate the short term while reason shapes the long term.
Pope’s principle for understanding man is the Great Chain of Being, which orders all creation according to God’s will. The disorders which man sees in the universe are actually parts of some larger perfection which man’s limited knowledge cannot perceive. Man’s prideful speculations, not the external universe, are the cause of his misery.
Within man himself, there is also an order based on the workings of self-love (the faculty of desire) and reason (the faculty of judgment). Right living depends upon the two working in harmony, since neither is good or evil in itself. Rather, good or evil arises out of their proper or improper use.
Human society also partakes of this universal order. The imitation of nature and rational self-love enable man to create a successful social order, but his favoring of a particular government or religion, instead of reliance on general principles, creates dissension and tyranny. Man’s end--happiness--is attained when he submits to Providence and dispenses with pride.
Part of the essay’s greatness is Pope’s unity of structure and theme. The poem’s orderly exposition of ideas, its concentration on universals rather than specifics, and its heroic couplet verses, reflect the ideas of balance, subordination, and harmony better than even the finest prose.
Cutting-Gray, Joanne, and James E. Swearingen. “System, the Divided Mind, and the Essay on Man.”...
(The entire section is 430 words.)