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Thinking, from "An Essay on Man -- Epistle II," a poem by Alexander Pope

Subthemes: Philosophy, Man is a Rational Animal, Language

Alexander Pope wrote “An Essay on Man” and starts Epistle II with oft-quoted lines about the cognitive abilities of Man. The passage refers frequently to the efforts of mankind to think, but mocks those efforts as inadequate and unsure. Other themes of Thinking come to mind from the poem.

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.
Plac’d 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 confus’d;
Still by himself abus’d, or disabus’d;
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 hurl’d:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

Philosophy: The opening couplet of Epistle II urges humans to learn and think about themselves, not deities. Thinking clearly falls in the discipline of philosophers, who strive to clarify how we can and should reason precisely about ultimate questions: what makes a flourishing life, how do we know what we know (epistemology), what can we say about existence (ontology), where is justice, and what defines good and evil. Inevitably, aspiring philosophers must read carefully and absorb the books of predecessors. The skills of a philosopher include the ability to create persuasive arguments, to parse other people’s arguments, and to deploy words as skillfully as possible. The logical positivists carried that last desideratum further as they tried to have words mean and be used even more precisely as they considered that the only meaningful philosophical problems are those which can be solved by logical analysis. Philosophical thinking hones our tools to grapple with abstract, difficult, and even ineffable questions.

Man Is a Rational Animal: Studying and thinking pervades the poem, but to little avail: humans are darkly wise, reas’ning but to err and in endless error hurled.

In the classic formulation, the Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry defined man as a “mortal rational animal.” Evolution has uniquely endowed human beings with the ability to put facts and thoughts together effectively – to be rational. Not that animals cannot learn, figure out problems, and respond to new circumstances, but none of them have been shown to reason abstractly. The capabilities of human brains have produced the most sublime art, thought, and artifacts, but also the most horrific evils, suffering, and wrongs. A good head on the shoulders does not assure a good heart in the chest.

Language: This portion of a much longer work exemplifies one style of poetry. Each rhythmed couple tersely makes a point. Pope’s didactic poetry expresses thoughts or feelings in a compact form. For example, lines 11 and 12 makes the point that humans know too little – they are ignorant – whether they devote much effort to considering an issue or wing a quick decision.

Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:

All the cerebration in the world amounts to nothing unless you can communicate what you have concluded. Language, either written or oral, exists as a primary tool for making thinking manifest. Extracting learning from books. But ideas gleaned from them must find expression for them to influence other people. If you cannot or will not articulate your thoughts, whether with words or art, no one can understand how you arrived at your decision or conclusion; no one benefits from a silent brainstorm of thinking.

 

Pope acknowledges the intellectual pretensions of humankind, and those shortcomings mix with other challenges, such as the passions. Exalted, as *Sole judge of truth,” yet constantly falling far short of true and accurate understanding, humans should still learn and think about their own world, not the ethereal realms of religion and gods.

If you are interested in further thoughts on the concept of Thinking, consider other subthemes that don’t fit as directly to the poem, painting, rock song, and movie written about in this series. For an overview, this article explains Themes from Art or click on the navigation bar, About.

We invite you to read about other poems discussed on this blog, and their themes. Here they are:

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