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The Essay On Man Epistle 2 Summary


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!

    Know then thyself , presume not God to scan;

This is a case of Antithesis because both parts of the statement which appear in balanced form, reinforce the idea that the knowledge of man is to be achieved by the person himself by looking into himself .

    This is also a case of  Hyperbaton . The normal word order should have been 'don’t presume God to scan' rather than ‘presume not God to scan’ .

    The proper study of mankind is Man .


This is a case of Epigram . At first glance it would appear that knowledge of entire mankind may be gleaned  by observing a single man , But on thinking more deeply , we realize that the commonest and the deepest qualities of mankind --- such as emotion, ambition,   revenge-fulness exist in every man.

    ‘Placed on this isthmus of a middle state’.

This is a case of Metaphor .The position has been compared to the Geographical narrow piece of land which joins two larger land masses. The comparison is not made explicit.

    Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;

This is a case of Antithesis since the balanced structure reinforces same idea of man being subject to many weaknesses, Even though he takes birth he has to inevitable die and even if he tries to reason he is almost certain to make errors.

    ‘Created half to rise and half to fall’.

    This is a case of Antithesis. The two balanced structures reinforce the same idea of man not achieving polar extremes.

He is middle kind of creature.He rises for the first half the first period of time, and fails during the second half of time.

    ‘Great lord of all things, yet a pray to all’

This is a case of Epigram. The statement should appear to be absurd because man who is the lord of nature can hardly be a ‘prey’ yet on thinking more deeply, we realize that although man may have subjugated some aspects of nature, he is still a victim of fortune as well as of other unpredictable aspects of nature such as floods and drought.

    ‘Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled’.

    This is a case of Epigram. A judge of truth, especially it is he in the only judge of truth is unlikely to be full of errors. Therefore this statement would appear to be absurd. But on thinking more deeply we realize that the nature of man is such that his reasoning is often fallacious as even the philosopher David Hume is shown.

    “The glory, jest and riddle of the world”

This is a case of Anti-climax, since there is a sudden fall from ‘glory’, ‘riddle’ and ‘jest’.  

   Ardhendu De 

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.)

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