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A wife that makes conserves; a steed
He that has these, may pass his life,
AN ESSAY ON MAN
IN FOUR EPISTLES
TO HENRY ST.JOHN, LORD BOLINGBROKE
THE DESIGN. HAVING proposed to write some pieces on human life and manners, such as (to use my lord Bacon's expression) 'come home to men's business and bosoms,' I thought it more satisfactory to begin with considering man in the abstract, his nature, and his state: since, to prove any moral duty, to enforce any moral precept, or to examine the perfection or imper. fection of any creature whatsoever, it is necessary first to know what condition and relation it is placed in, and what is the proper end and purpose of its being.
The science of human nature is, like all other sciences, reduced to a few clear points : there are not many certain truths in this world. It is there. fore in the anatomy of the mind as in that of the body; more good will accrue to mankind by attending to the large, open, and perceptible parts, than by studying too much such finer nerves and vessels, the conformations and uses of which will for ever es. cape our observation. The disputes are all upon these last; and I will venture to say, they have less sharpened the wits than the hearts of men against each other, and have diminished the practice more than advanced the theory of morality. If I could flatter myself that this Essay has any merit, it is in steering betwixt the extremes of doctrines seemingly opposite, in passing over terms utterly unintelligible, and in forming a temperate, yet not inconsistent, and a short, yet not imperfect, system of ethics.
This I might have done in prose; but I chose verse and even rhyme, for two reasons. The one will appear obvious; that principles, maxims, or precepts, so written, both strike the reader more strongly at first, and are more easily retained by him afterwards; the other may seem odd, but it is true: I found 1 could express them more shortly this way than in prose itself; and nothing is more certain, than that much of the force, as well as the grace of arguments or instructions, depends on their conciseness. I was unable to treat this part of my subject more in detail, without becoming dry and tedious; or more poetically, without sacrificing perspicuity to ornament, without wandering from the precision, or breaking the chain of reasoning: if any man can unite all
these without dimination of any of them, 1 freely confess he will compass a thing above my capacity:
What is now published, is only to be considered as a general map of man, marking out no more than the greater parts, their extent, their limits, and their connexion, but leaving the particular to be more fully delineated in the charts which are to follow. Consequently these Epistles, in their progress, (if I have health and leisure to make any progress.) will be less dry, and more susceptible of poetical ornament. I am here only opening the fountains, and clearing the passage. To deduce the rivers, to fol. low them in their course, and to observe their effects, may be a task more agreeable.
AN ESSAY ON MAN.
ARGUMENT OF EPISTLE I. Of the Nature and State of Man with respect to
the Universe. Of man in the abstract. I That we can judge only with
regard to our own system, being ignorant of the relations of systems and things, ver. 17, &c. II. That man is not to be deemed imperfect, but a being suited to his place and rank in the creation, agrecable to the general order of things, and conformable to ends and relations to him un. known, ver. 35, &c. III. That it is partly upon his igno. rance of future events, and partly upon the hope of a fu. ture state, that all his happiness in the present depends, ver. 77, &c. IV. The pride of aiining at more knowledge, and pretending to more perfection, the cause of man's error and misery. The impiety of putting himself in the place of God, and judging the fitness or unfitness, perfec. tion or imperfection, justice or injustice, of his dispensa tions, ver. 109, &c. V. The absurdity of conceiting him. self the final cause of the creation, or expecting that perfec ion in the inoral world, which is not in the natural, ver. 131, &c.
VI. The unreasonableness of his complaints against Providence, while on the one hand he deinands the perfection of the angels, and on the other the bodily qualifications of the brutes; though to possess any of the sensitive faculties in a higher degree, would render him miserable, ver. 173, &c. VII. That throughout the whole visible world, an universal order and gradation in the sensual and mental faculties is observed, which causes a subordination of creature to creature, and of all creatures to man. The gradations of sense, instinct, thought, reflec. tion, reason; that reason alone countervails all the other facultics, ver. 207. VIII. How inuch farther this order and subordination of living creatures may extend above and below us; were any part of which broken, not that part only, but the whole connected creation must be des. troyed, ver. 233. IX. The extravagance, madness, and pride of such a desire, ver. 250. X. The consequence of all, the absolute submission due to Providence, both as to our present and future state, ver. 281. to the end.
EPISTLE I. AWAKE, my St. John! leave all meaner things To low ambition, and the pride of kings: Let us (since life can little more supply Than just to look about us, and to die) Expatiate free o'er all this scene of man; A mighty maze! but not without a plan : A wild, where weeds and flowers promiscuous shoot Or garden, tempting with forbidden fruit Together let us beat this ample field, Try what the open, what the covert yield; The latent tracts, the giddy heights explore Of all who blindly creep, or sightless soar; Eye nature's walks, shoot folly as it flies, And catch the manners living as they rise : Laugh where we must, be candid where we can, But vindicate the ways of God to man.
I. Say first, of God above, or man below, What can we reason, but from what we know :
Of man, what see we but his station here,
Is the great chain that draws all to agree,
II. Presumptuous man! the reason wouldst thou
Of systems possible, if 'tis confess’d,
Respecting man, whatever wrong we call,