Critical Reception Upon publication, An Essay on Man made Pope the toast of literati everywhere, including his inveterate foes in London, whom he deceived into celebrating the poem, since he had published it anonymously.His avowed enemy Leonard Welsted, for instance, declared the poem “above all commendation.” This assessment typified the initial critical and popular response in England, which was generally echoed throughout Europe over the next two decades.
These critics determined that its values, despite its themes, were essentially poetic and not coherently philosophical by any means.
Within fifty years of its publication, the prevailing critical opinion of the poem mirrored that of Samuel Johnson, who noted, “Never were penury of knowledge and vulgarity of sentiment so happily disguised.” This consensus persisted throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century, as commentators also trivialized the work's poetic achievements—as they generally did Pope's other writings.
The philosophical poem An Essay on Man consists of four verse epistles, each of which was published separately and anonymously between February 1733 and January 1734 by a bookseller not previously associated with Pope's writings.
Attesting to his belief that “the life of a Wit is a warfare upon earth,” Pope contrived the elaborate ruse partly to defuse the hostility provoked by his recent satires, notably The Dunciad (1728) and his Epistle to Burlington (1731), and partly to secure an impartial audience for the poem.
Divided into four parts, An Essay on Man explicates ideas commonplace among eighteenth-century European intellectuals concerning human nature and humanity's role in the universe.
Proposing to “vindicate the ways of God to man,” the first epistle attempts to show the underlying harmony and virtue of the universe and the propriety of humanity's place in it, despite the presence of evil and apparent imperfection in the world.Articulating the values of eighteenth-century optimism, the poem employs a majestic declamatory style and underscores its arguments with a range of conventional rhetorical techniques.An Essay on Man met with international acclaim upon publication and generated no small share of controversy in ensuing decades.Such notable figures as Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant rhapsodized about the poem's literary aesthetics and philosophical insights.However, the early universal appeal of An Essay on Man soon gave way to controversy inspired by a small but vocal community of metaphysicians and clergymen, who perceived challenges and threats in the poem's themes to their respective authority.Previously acquainted with Pope by mutual association with Jonathan Swift, Bolingbroke retired in 1723 to Dawley, a farm neighboring Pope's Twickenham, and quickly befriended the poet, whose personal beliefs neatly coincided with his own.The friends often discussed much of the subject matter expressed in both Pope's poem and Bolingbroke's own amateur philosophical writings, usually as they walked the grounds of their properties.The third epistle addresses the role of the individual in society, tracing the origins of such civilizing institutions as government and the class system to a constant interaction between the selfish motivations and altruistic impulses of individual humans.The fourth epistle frames the struggle between self-love and love of others in terms of the pursuit of happiness, arguing that any human can attain true happiness through virtuous living, which happens only when selfish instincts yield to genuine expressions of benevolence toward others and God.The poem borrows ideas from a range of medieval and renaissance thinkers, although Pope somewhat modifies them to suit his artistic purposes.The underlying theme of the poem is the idea that there exists an ordered universe which possesses a coherent structure and functions in a rational fashion, according to natural laws designed by God.