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ESSAY ON MAN
MARK PATTISON, B.D.
AT THE CLARENDON PRESS
[All rights reserved]
THE Essay on Man consists of four Epistles addressed to Lord Bolingbroke. It is but a portion of a large poem contemplated, but not completed. Hence the title imperfectly describes its contents. It is less a treatise on Man than on the moral order of the world of which man is a part. The Essay is a vindication of Providence. The appearances of evil in the world arise from our seeing only a part of the whole. Excesses and contrary qualities are means by which the harmony of the system is procured. The ends of Providence are answered even by our errors and imperfections. God designs happiness to be equal, but realises it through general laws. Virtue only constitutes a happiness which is universally attainable. This happiness through virtue is only reached in society, or social order, which is only a part of the general order. The perfection of virtue is a conformity to the order of Providence here, crowned by the hope of full satisfaction hereafter.
The argument of the Essay on Man is said to have been supplied to Pope by Bolingbroke. The source of this tradition is Lord Bathurst. Lord Bathurst, a Tory Peer, had lived with the Tory wits of Queen Anne; then with the Bolingbroke and Chesterfield opposition to Walpole ; and having survived all his contemporaries, died in 1775, at the age of 91. We may believe that he was in the habit of stating that Bolingbroke had supplied the scheme of the Essay on Man in prose, and that Pope had done no more than put it into verse. This is reported by two independent and trustworthy witnesses. Joseph Warton states, Pope's Works, vol. 3, p. 7, that Lord Bathurst had “repeatedly assured' him of the fact. Dr. Hugh Blair, dining with Lord Bathurst in 1763, was told by him in still stronger language
that the Essay on Man was composed by Lord Bolingbroke in prose, and that Mr. Pope did no more than put it into verse.' Dr. Blair reported this at the time to Boswell, who repeated it to Johnson. Johnson's immediate remark was, “ Depend upon it, sir, this is too strongly stated. Pope may have had from Bolingbroke the philosophic stamina of his Essay; and admitting this to be true, Lord Bathurst did not intentionally falsify. But the thing is not true in the latitude that Blair seems to imagine. We are sure that the poetical imagery, which makes a great part of the poem, is Pope's own.' (Boswell, Life, vol. 7. p. 283.)
This extemporised judgment of Johnson probably is as near the truth as we can get. It was from Bolingbroke's conversation that the poet derived not only many of his ideas, but the impulse to meddle with speculations for which he was little fit. But the internal evidence alone is inconsistent with the supposition that Pope proceeded on the mechanical plan of versifying Lord Bolingbroke's prose. As to the MS. read by Lord Bathurst, I conceive it to have been the MS. of the 'Essays,' and 'Fragments or Minutes of Essays,' now included in Lord Bolingbroke's printed Works. These' Fragments’ were occasional scraps communicated to Pope as they were written. Single passages in these Fragments resemble passages in Pope's Essay. But even if the communication of the Fragments preceded the composition of the Essay on Man, they are far from containing the whole scheme of the Poem. Both the Essay on Man and Bolingbroke's Minutes derive their colouring from a common source.
The Essay on Man was composed at a time when the reading public, in this country, were occupied with an intense and eager curiosity by speculation on the first principles of Natural Religion. Everywhere, in the pulpit, in the coffee-houses, in every pamphlet, argument on the origin of evil, on the goodness of God, and the constitution of the world, was rife. Into the prevailing topic of polite conversation Bolingbroke, who returned from exile in 1723, was drawn by the bent of his native genius. Pope followed the example and impulse of his friend's more