Use of Reason to Support Polarized Viewpoints
During the Enlightenment great thinkers began to question all things. Rather than just believe in something because an authority (church, political authority, society) claimed it to be true, these men and women set out to find the truth through reason, to provide explanations for all actions and events. Both Alexander Pope and Voltaire discuss some of the more common questions posed during the Enlightenment: What is the nature of humanity and what is our role in the greater picture of the universe? Pope argues that everything in the universe, whether it is good or evil, is essentially perfect because is a part of God’s grand plan. In essence, Pope believed in pre-determined fate, where no matter our actions, our fate remains the same as it was decided upon before you were born. Voltaire will critique this viewpoint by exploring the negative results of the belief that blind faith will lead to the best possible result and that man does exercise free will. While Pope’s “Essay on Man” and Voltaire’s Candide are derived from polarized viewpoints and speak about a very different set of beliefs, they both use the same fundamental concept of reason to provide the basis of their argument.
Alexander Pope set out to write his “Essay on Man” to use reason to justify his viewpoints of optimism, predetermined fate, and God’s use of both good and evil for balance in the universe. Pope begins the essay by claiming that man can only reason about things in which he has experience with and goes on to illustrate that our limited knowledge is not capable of understanding God’s systems by questioning, “What can we reason, but from what we know?” (17) He uses the reason that since man can only understand what is within the scope of his knowledge that he cannot expect to comprehend the greater systems that God knows intimately. Pope also believes deeply of in the Great Chain of Being and it is the foundation on which his arguments rest. This chain is a concept derived from the classical period and is a notion that all elements of the universe have a proper place in a divinely planned hierarchical order, which was pictured as a vertically extended chain (Renaissance). In its most simplistic form God would be at the top of the chain, man would be directly beneath it, and all other beings that existed would be beneath man. In the 2nd section of the essay, Pope begins by mocking men who do not know their own limits within the universe. He exclaims, “Presumptuous Man! The reason wouldst though find, / Why formed so weak, so little, and so blind?” (Pope 35-36) He goes on to say that man is not created in a perfect state and that all men have limitations by nature. He continues with the claim “say not Man’s imperfect, Heaven in fault; / Say rather, Man’s as perfect as he ought: / His knowledge measured to his state and place; / His time a moment, and a point his space” (69-72). Pope is reasoning that the limitations and imperfections in man are necessary for man’s place beneath God in the universe and the Great Chain of Being.
Section III begins with Pope stating that God keeps the future fate of all creatures from them in order to protect them; that all beings are blessed to only be dealing with their present state. He reasons this by questioning if the lamb would happily ”lick the hand just raised to shed his blood” (Pope 84). This symbolizes the predetermined fate that is made from God regardless of our actions and that only God is capable of knowing what the future has in store for all of the universe. In Section V, Pope reasons that God and nature have greater powers than man by speaking about the terrible effects that natural disasters, such as earthquakes, have with little resistance from man, “But All subsists by elemental strife; / And Passions are the elements of Life. / The general Order, since the whole began, / Is kept in Nature, and is kept in Man” (169-172). He is speaking of these...
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