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Of the Knowledge and Characters of Men.
Yes, you despise the man to Books confind,
Epistle I. Of the Knowledge and Charucters of Men.] Whoever compares this with the former editions of the Epistle, will observe, that the order and disposition of the several parts are entirely changed and reversed; though with hardly the alteration of a single word. When the Editor, at the Author's desire, first examined this epistle, he was surprised to find it contain a number of exquisite observations, without order, connexion, or dependance: but much more so, when, on an attentive review, he saw, that if the epistle were put into a different form, on an idea he then conceived, it would have all the clearness of method and force of connected reasoning. The Author appeared as much struck with the thing as the Editor, and agreed to put the poem into the present order; which has given it all the justness of a true composition. The introduction to the epistle on Riches was in the same condition, and underwent the same reform. W.
But this reform is not happily made.
Moral Essays.] The Essay on Man was intended to be comprised in four books:
The First of which, the Author has given us under that title, in four epistles.
The Second was to have consisted of the same number: 1. Of the extent and limits of human reason. 2. Of those arts and sciences, and the parts of them which are useful, and therefore attainable; together with those which are unuseful, and therefore unattainable. 3. Of the nature, ends, use, and application of the different capacities of men. 4. Of the use of learning; of the, science of the world; and of wit; concluding with a satire against
The coxcomb bird, so talkative and grave,
5 That from his cage cries Cuckold, Whore, and
the misapplication of them ; illustrated by pictures, characters, and examples.
The Third book regarded civil regimen, or the science of politics; in which the several forms of a Republic were to be examined and explained ; together with the several modes of religious worship, so far forth as they affect Society ; between which the Author always supposed there was the closest connexion and the most interesting relation. So that this part would have treated of Civil and Religious Society in their full extent.
The Fourth and last book concerned private ethics, or practical morality; considered in all the circumstances, orders, professions, and stations of human life.
The scheme of all this had been maturely digested, and communicated to L. Bolingbroke, Dr. Swift, and one or two more; and was intended for the only work of his riper years; but was, partly through ill health, partly through discouragements from the depravity of the times, and partly on prudential and other considerations, interrupted, postponed, and, lastly, in a manner laid aside.
But as this was the Author's favourite Work, which more exactly reflected the image of his own strong and capacious mind, and as we can have but a very imperfect idea of it from the disjecta membra Poetæ, which now remain, it may not be amiss to be a little more particular concerning each of these projected books.
The First, as it treats of man in the abstract, and considers him in general, under every one of his relations, becomes the foundation, and furnishes out the subjects, of the three following; so that
The Second Book was to take up again the first and second epistles of the first book : and to treat of man in his intellectual capacity at large, as has been explained above. Of this only a small part of the conclusion (which, as we said, was to have contained a satire against the misapplication of wit and learning) may be found in the fourth book of the Dunciad; and up and down, occasionally, in the other three.
The Third Book, in like manner, was to reassume the sub
Tho' many a passenger he rightly call,
ject of the third epistle of the first, which treats of Man in his social, political, and religious capacity. But this part the Poet afterward conceived might be best executed in an Epic POEM, as the Action would make it more animated, and the Fable less invidious ; in which all the great principles of true and false Governments and Religions should be chiefly delivered in feigned examples.
The Fourth and last book was to pursue the subject of the fourth epistle of the first, and to treat of Ethics, or practical morality; and would have consisted of many members, of which, the four following epistles are detached portions; the two first, on the Characters of Men and Women, being the introductory part of this concluding book. w.
Ver. 1. Yes, you despise] The patrons and admirers of French literature usually extol those authors of that nation who have treated of life and manners; and five of them, particularly, are esteemed to be unrivalled, namely, Montagne, Charron, La Rochefoucault, Boileau, La Bruyere, and Pascal. These are supposed to have deeply penetrated into the most secret recesses of the human heart, and to have discovered the various vices and vanities that lurk in it. I know not why the English should in this respect yield to their polite neighbours more than in any other. Bacon in his Essays and Advancement of Learning, Hobbes and Hume in their treatises, Prior in his elegant and witty Alma, Richardson in his Clarissa, and Fielding in his Tom Jones (comic writers are not here included), have shewn a profound knowledge of man; and many portraits of Addison may be compared with the most finished touches of La Bruyere. But the Epistles we are now entering upon will place the matter beyond a dispute; for the French can boast of no author who has so much exhausted the science of morals as Pope has in his five Epistles. They indeed contain all that is solid and valuable in the above-mentioned French writers, of whom our Author was remarkably fond. But whatever observations he has borrowed from them, he has made his own by the dexterity of his application.
And yet the fate of all extremes is such, Men may be read, as well as Books, too much. 10 To observations which ourselves we make, We grow more partial for th' Observer's sake; To written Wisdom, as another's less : Maxims are drawn from Notions, those from Guess. There's some Peculiar in each leaf and grain, 15 Some unmark'd fibre, or some varying vein : Shall only Man be taken in the gross ? Grant but as many sorts of Mind as Moss.
Ver. 10. Men may be read,] “Say what they will of the great Book of the World, we must read others to know how to read that.” M. De Sevigne to R. Rabutin.
Ver. 15. There's some Peculiar, &c.] The Poet enters on the first division of his subject, the difficulties of coming to the Knowledge and true Characters of Men. The first cause of this diffi culty, which he prosecutes (from Ver. 14 to 19), is the great diversity of characters; of which, to abate our wonder, and not discourage our inquiry, he only desires we would grant him
- but as many sorts of Mind as Moss." Hereby artfully insinuating, that if Nature hath varied the most worthless vegetable into above three hundred species, we need not wonder at a greater diversity in her highest work, the human mind: And if the variety in that vegetable has been thought of importance enough to employ the leisure of a serious inquiret, much more will the same circumstance in this masterpiece of the sublunary world deserve our study and attention.
" Shall only Man be taken in the gross ?" W. Ver. 18. as many sorts of Mind) It is related in Mr. Harris's Manuscripts, that “ Newton, hearing Handel play on the harpsichord, could find nothing worthy to remark but the elasticity of his fingers. At another time, having asserted that Terence's plays had no plot, and Bentley (in this knowledge his superior beyond all controversy) having copiously endeavoured to shew the contrary, he concluded as he began, that Terence's plays had
That each from other differs, first confess ; Next, that he varies from himself no less : 20 Add Nature's Custom's, Reason's, Passion's strife, And all Opinion's colours cast on life.
Our depths who fathoms, or our shallows finds, Quick whirls, and shifting eddies, of our minds ?
no plot. At another time, being asked his opinion of poetry, he quoted a sentiment of Barrow, that it was ingenious nonsense.
“ Thus will it necessarily happen, when men, even the greatest, are (according to the common saying) got out of their element. No genius, perhaps ever existing, more acute than his in discovering true from false, in the subjects of colour, quantity, and motion. No one had an abler intellect to discern what existed from that which existed not. But among the number of things existing, what were fair, beautiful, graceful, elegant, and what the contrary, of this, by these stories, one would imagine he had no conception.”
Ver. 19. That each from other differs, &c.] A second cause of this difficulty (from Ver. 18 to 21), is man's inconstancy; for not only one man differs from another, but the same man from himself.
Ver. 20. Next, that he varies] A sensible French writer says, that the faults and follies of men chiefly arise from this circumstance, qu'ils n'ont pas l'esprit, en equilibre, pour ainsi dire, avec leur charactere: Ciceron, par exemple, etoit un grand esprit et une ame foible; c'est pour cela, qu'il fut grand orateur et homme d'etat mediocre.
Ver. 21. Add Nature's, &c.] A third cause (from Ver. 20 to 23), is that obscurity thrown over the characters of men, through the strife and contest between nature and custom, hetween reason and appetite, between truth and opinion. And as most men, either through education, temperance, or profession, have their characters warped by custom, appetite, and opinion, the obscurity arising from thence is almost universal. W.
Ver. 23. Our depths who fathoms, &c.] A fourth cause (from Ver. 22 to 25), is deep dissimulation, and restless caprice; whereby the shallows of the mind are as difficult to be found, as the depths of it are to be fathomed. W.
“A mesure qu'on a plus d'esprit,” says the profound Pascal, “ on trouve qu'il y a plus d'hommes originaux."