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A Wife that makes conserves; a Steed
He that has these, may pass his life,
[It may be well to preface such introductory remarks as appear called for by the series of poems comprehended by Warburton under the general title of Moral Essays, by a statement of the chronological order in which they were originally given to the world. It will thus be seen at a glance, that their present arrangement was due solely to the editorial ingenuity of Pope's friend and commentator, to whose suggestions, as he informs us, the poet readily agreed.
The 5th Epistle of the Moral Essays (to Addison) was written in 1715, and first published, with the lines on Craggs added, in Tickell's edition of Addison's Works in 1720. The 4th Epistle of the Moral Essays (to the Earl of Burlington) was published in 1731, under the title Of Taste, subsequently altered to Of False Taste, and ultimately to Of the Use of Riches. The 3rd Epistle (Оf the Use of Riches, to Lord Bathurst) followed in 1732. In the same year appeared the first two Epistles of the Essay on Man, the third succeeding in 1733. In this year also came out the Epistle On the Knowledge and Characters of Men, addressed to Lord Cobham, now the first of the Moral Essays. The 4th Epistle of the Essay on Man was published in 1734, when the whole Essay on Man was also brought out in its present form. The Epistle (now the end of the Moral Essays) to a Lady, On the Characters of Women, appeared in 1735; and finally the Universal Prayer, which now appropriately follows the Essay on Man, was not published till the year 1738. Pope died before the entire series had been published in its present order in the complete edition of his works.
From Pope's own statement with regard to the design of his work, repeated in various passages of his correspondence, it is certain that what he actually wrote only formed part of a great scheme which he had long carried about either on paper, or in his mind; but which he never accomplished in its fulness. So much it is impossible to doubt, without in the least degree falling in with the belief that the system as developed at length by Warburton, who in his Commentary, became a kind of moral sponsor to the Essay on Man, was ever clearly in Pope's head. Warburton states that the Essay was intended to have been comprised in four books: the first (which we have in the four Epistles bearing the general title) treating of man in the abstract and considering him under all his relations; the second taking up the subject of Ep. I. and II. of the first, and treating of man in his intellectual capacity at large (of this a part might be found in Bk. IV. of the Dunciad); the third resuming the subject of Ep. III. of the first, and discussing Man in his social, political and religious capacity (which Pope afterwards thought might best be done in the form of an Epic poem); the fourth pursuing the subject of Ep. IV. of the first, and treating of practical morality. Of this fourth and last book, he continues, the epistles, bearing the title of Moral Essays, were detached portions, the two first (on the Characters of Men and Women) forming its introductory part.
In any case, therefore, and even supposing the above scheme to have been Pope's own, the four Epistles which bear the title of the Essay on Man claim to be regarded as complete in themselves. The system which the Essay on Man (to restrict the application of that title in the remainder of these remarks to those four Epistles) developes, or purports to develope, was explained at great length in Warburton's Commentary. Pope's own words (in a letter to Warburton of April 11, 1739) are sufficient to shew the relation between the work and the exegesis: “You have made my system as clear as I ought to have done and could not. It is indeed the same system as mine, but illustrated with a ray of your own, as they say our natural body is still the same when glorified. I am sure I like it better than I did before, and so will every man else. I know I meant just what you explain, but I did not explain my meaning so well as you. You understand me as well as I do myself, but you express me better than I could express myself, Pray accept the sincerest acknowledgments.' It therefore becomes necessary to enquire in the first place, what is the system which the Essay on Man actually places before us; and secondly, from what sources the poet derived the philosophy which he has endeavoured to express. The following brief summary, founded chiefly on Aikin's Introduction, may supply an answer to the former question.
The first Epistle is especially occupied with Man, with respect to the place which he holds in the system of the Universe; and the principal topic is the refutation of all objections against the wisdom and benevolence of the Providence which placed man here, objections derived from the weakness and imperfection of his nature. The first principle of philosophical enquiry is reasoning from what we know to what we do not know. But if we are to inform ourselves as to man's place in the universe, we are hampered by our ignorance of the latter itself, of which we know only a small part, viz. our own earth Observation, however, teaches that the Universe contains a scale of beings, rising in due gradation one above the other, and each endowed with the faculties necessary for its station. Those, who in their imperfect knowledge are fain to interfere with that scale, presumptuously demand to re-settle the Order of Heaven. It is this Pride which surveys the system of the Universe solely from its own point of view, assuming everything to exist for the benefit of the individual as he conceives it. Man cannot read the riddles of Providence; he must therefore accept the double truth that the Universe and all its several parts constitute a divine and perfect Order, but that this order is not visible or recognizable in its perfection to imperfect man. The second Epistle proceeds to lead up to the special truth illustrating the general truth enunciated by its predecessor, viz. that even in the passions and imperfections of man, the ends of Providence and its scheme of universal good are fulfilled. (It is this special part of the scheme of the universe which man is qualified to study; God he may not scan.). In human nature, two principles contend for mastery: selflove, which stimulates, and reason, which restrains. In both, although to us the one appears evil and the other good, the scheme of Creation is working out its beneficent ends. The third Epistle once more resumes the general proposition of which the second presented us with a special application, and insists that the end of divine government is the production of general good, although by means of which we are not always able to distinguish the correlation.
The main argument of this Epistle tends to illustrate this, by proving that in the divine scheme self-love and social work to the same end. The fourth Epistle offers, so to speak, the practical application of the fundamental idea of the entire Essay. The scheme of the Universe being perfect, is of course designed for the happiness of all; all happiness therefore is general, and all particular happiness depends on general. It is therefore necessary, in order to estimate the happiness of the