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ARGUMENT OF EPISTLE II.
Of the Nature and State of Man with respect to
Himself as an Individual.
I. The business of Man not to pry into God, but to study himself.
His Middle Nature; his Powers and Frailties, Ver. 1 to 19. The Limits of his Capacity, Ver. 19, &c. II. The two Principles of Man, Self-love and Reason, both necessary, Ver. 53, &c. Self-love the stronger, and why, Ver. 67, &c. Their end the same, Ver. 81, &c. III. The Passions, and their use, Ver. 93 to 130. The Predominant Passion, and its force, Ver. 132 to 160. Its Necessity, in directing Men to different purposes, Ver. 165, &c. Its providential Use, in firing our Principle, and ascertaining our Virtue, Ver. 177. IV. Virtue and Vice joined in our mixed Nature; the limits near, yet the things separate and evident: What is the Office of Reason, Ver. 202 to 216. V. How odious Vice in itself, and how we deceive ourselves in it, 217. VI. That, however, the Ends of Providence and general Good are answered in our Passions and Imperfections, Ver. 238, &c. How usefully these are distributed to all Orders of Men, Ver. 241. How useful they are to Society, Ver. 251. And to Individuals, Ver. 263. In every state, and every age of life, Ver. 273, &c.
I. Know then thyself, presume not God to scan, The proper study of Mankind is Man.
VARIATIONS. Ver. 2. Ed. 1st,
The only science of Mankind is Man.
Ver. 1. Know then thyself,] Not content with the fame acquired by writing those fine tragedies, Zaire, Alzire, Merope, and Mahomet, Voltaire must needs descend to didactic poetry; for a descent it is ; out of an ambition to be a universal genius; and produced, in emulation of Pope, five Discourses on Man ; the first is, on the Equality of Happiness in the different Conditions of Man; the second, on the Freedom of man; the third, on the Mischiefs of Envy, and that it is the chief Obstacle to our Happiness; the fourth, to shew that, to be Happy, we must be moderate in all Things; the fifth, that Pleasure must proceed from God ; the sixth, that Perfect Happiness cannot be attained in this Life, and that Men ought not to complain ; the seventh and last is, to shew that Virtue chiefly consists in Acts of Beneficence to our Fellow-creatures. A close resemblance is visible in the following lines of the sixth discourse to the Essay on Man. Ep. i. v. 173.
“ Un vieux Lettre Chinois, qui toujours sur les bancs
Plac'd on this isthmus of a middle state,
Pourquoi suis-je en un jour si las de ses attraits ?
Pars !” – Though there are many sensible and sprightly passages in these discourses, yet their inferiority to Pope is indisputable. As much as we may lament and reprobate the loose and libertine principles wantonly scattered up and down in the writings of Voltaire, yet is it impossible not to admire the fertility of his genius, the brilliancy of his wit, and the variety of his talents ? It is vain to think it possible to destroy and depreciate the man who, with such an unparalleled versatility of mind, could produce, not only thetragedies just mentioned, and some parts of the Henriade, but Comic Fales, a certain Mock-Heroic Poem, and Familiar Epistles in verse, equal to the facility and naiveté of La Fontaine; as well as such histories as that of Charles XII. Louis XIV. and the Essay on General History; which last work has had the great merit of giving a new turn to historical compositions, and carrying them from accounts of battles, and sieges, and negotiations alone, to investigations of the progress of manners, laws, and arts; and this in a style of marvellous perspicuity and precision : so that his prose is quite equal to his verse, perhaps superior. They who are fond of attributing the disorders and enormities in France to the influence of Voltaire's writings, ought in common justice to be reminded, that even in one of his most exceptionable works, the Dictionnaire Philosophique, are various passages, strongly pointed, against Atheism, Equality, and Democracy, and the very impious tenets of the Systeme de la Nature,
Ver. 3. on this isthmus] From Cowley, in the Ode on Life and Fame. As also line 205, in the 4th Epistle,
To Kings, or to the Favourites of Kings.