Providence as the Language of God in Alciphron and An Essay on Man

  • Tom Jones


Joseph Spence reports Pope talking about an episode in the evolution of his philosophical masterpiece An Essay on Man: ‘In the Moral Poem I had written an address to our Saviour, imitated from Lucretius’ compliment to Epicurus, but omitted it by the advice of Dean Berkeley.’ Spence’s editor adds that Joseph Warton said the address was excluded ‘because the Christian dispensation did not come within the compass of his plan’, and remarks himself that the ‘significance of the fact that Pope got Berkeley, one of the greatest philosophers of the age, to pass judgement on parts (at least) of the Essay on Man has not been generally realised’.1 Although this anecdote has become part of the common wisdom surrounding the composition of the Essay on Man, particularly with regard to the limitations of its religious argument, the significance of Berkeley’s relationship to Pope and his philosophical magnum opus has still not been generally realised. William Bowman Piper has recently suggested that Berkeley’s writing on perception forms the appropriate background for a reading of the Essay on Man, and Pope’s attempt to present the perceptual world as a coherent whole.2 I would like to take Piper’s suggestion on, and suggest that Berkeley’s Christian apologetics are also important to Pope by looking at some points of contact in argument and subject between the Essay and Alciphron.


Human Reason Visual Language Personal Happiness Religious Language Phenomenal World 
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  1. 1.
    Joseph Spence, Observations, Anecdotes and Characters of Books and Men, ed. James M. Osborn, 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), I, 135–6, No. 305. See Joseph Warton, An Essay on the Genius and Writings of Alexander Pope, 2nd edn, 2 vols (London: R. and J. Dodsley, 1762–82), II, 182. Warton calls Berkeley a ‘sublime genius and good man’, II, 259.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    William Bowman Piper, Reconcilable Differences in Eighteenth-Century English Literature (Newark: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1999), pp. 115–17, 127–8.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Works, III, i, ‘Editor’s Introduction’. See also George Berkeley, Alciphron in Focus, ed. David Berman (London: Routledge, 1993), Routledge Philosophers in Focus, ed. Stanley Tweyman, pp. 1–2.Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    David Berman, George Berkeley: Idealism and the Man (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), pp. 146–8, presents what he calls Berkeley’s emotive theory of religious terms in relation to the theological argument of Alciphron.Google Scholar
  5. 10.
    Brean Hammond, Pope and Bolingbroke: A Study of Friendship and Influence (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1984), p. 73.Google Scholar
  6. 11.
    The Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, ed. Harold Williams, 5 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963–65), IV, 45, 18 July 1732.Google Scholar
  7. 14.
    David Hume, An Abstract of A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. J.M. Keynes and P. Saffra (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1938), p. 23. I discuss the relationship between Berkeley and Hume in more detail in the following chapter.Google Scholar
  8. 15.
    Cleanthes in Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, in The Natural History of Religion and Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, ed. A. Wayne Colver and John Vladimir Price (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), expresses the opinion that theological language is at least as precise as scientific language, Dialogue I, p. 155. Philo, on the other hand, presents a critique of argument by analogy: ‘What peculiar Privilege has this little Agitation of the Brain which we call Thought, that we must thus make it the Model of the whole Universe?’, Dialogue I, p. 168.Google Scholar
  9. 17.
    Gregory Holingshed, ‘Pope, Berkeley, and the True Key to the Dunciad in Four Books’, English Studies in Canada 10 (1984), 141–55, p. 148.Google Scholar
  10. 19.
    A.D. Nuttall, Pope’s Essay on Man (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1984), p. 54, states that the tension between limited human reason and complete divine reason ‘is perhaps the single most important philosophical tension in the poem’, but that at the level of general argument ‘it becomes, indeed, mere contradiction’. I am trying to show that the tension is an analogy not a contradiction.Google Scholar
  11. 20.
    See Harry Solomon, The Rape of the Text: Reading and Misreading Pope’s Essay on Man (Tuscaloosa and London: The University of Alabama Press, 1993), p. 92, for Pope’s hypothetical reasoning.Google Scholar
  12. 21.
    See, for example, Montaigne’s description of the conservative sceptic, ‘unfurnish’d of Human, and therefore more apt to receive into him the Divine Knowledge’, Essays of Michel Seigneur de Montaigne, trans. Charles Cotton (London: T. Basset, M. Gilliflower and W. Hensman, 1693), II, 283, ‘Apology for Raimond de Sebonde’, and Pascal, Thoughts on Religion and Other Subjects, trans. Basil Kennet (London: A. and J. Churchill, 1704), p. 185, ‘Man knows himself to be Miserable; he is therefore exceedingly Miserable, because he knows that he is so: but he likewise appears to be eminently Great, from this very Act of knowing himself to be miserable.’ For Pope’s knowledge of Montaigne in this translation see Chapter 1 and Fred Parker, Scepticism and Literature: An Essay on Pope, Hume, Sterne, and Johnson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), ‘“Sworn to no Master”: Pope’s Scepticism in the Epistle to Bolingbroke and An Essay on Man’, pp. 86–137. For Pope’s reference to Pascal in the Essay, see Mack, Collected in Himself, pp. 331–2.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 23.
    Benedict de Spinoza, On the Improvement of the Understanding, The Ethics, Correspondence, trans. R.H.M. Elwes (New York: Dover, 1955), distinguishes between nature considered as active, that is as God, and nature considere as passive, that is as an expression of the attributes of God, Ethics, p. 68, Proposition XXIX. He also states that reason perceives of everything as necessary (as resulting from the nature of God), and only imagination conceives of any event, past, present or future as contingent, p. 116, Proposition XLIV. It is not only the relatively crude accusation of pantheism which may have made critics associate the Essay with Spinoza’s writings, but also this assertion that right reason perceives the world as the necessary result of God’s being, and only false imagination which suggests the contingency of any aspect of the creation. Pope defends himself from Louis Racine’s accusations of Spinozism in a letter of 1 September 1742: ‘my Opinions are intirely different from those of Spinoza; or even of Leibnitz; but on the contrary conformable to those of Mons: Pascal & Mons. Fenelon: the latter of whom I would most readily imitate, in submitting all my Opinions to the Decision of the Church.’ Correspondence, IV, 416.Google Scholar
  14. 25.
    Douglas H. White, Pope and the Context of Controversy: The Manipulation of Ideas in An Essay on Man (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1970), p. 5.Google Scholar
  15. 26.
    Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury, Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, ed. Lawrence E. Klein (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy, ed. Karl Ameriks and Desmond M. Clarke, ‘Soliloquy, or Advice to an Author’, pp. 149–50. Further references will be given in brackets in the text.Google Scholar
  16. 27.
    Frances Hutcheson, An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (London: J. Darby, 1725), II, Introduction, p. 101. See also p. 106 where Hutcheson suggests people have a superior sense that approves of moral actions in themselves and others.Google Scholar
  17. 28.
    John Balguy, Divine Rectitude: Or, a Brief Inquiry Concerning the Moral Perfections of the Deity (London: John Pemberton, 1730), p. 14. Balguy refers approvingly to Hutcheson’s Inquiry, p. 17.Google Scholar
  18. 32.
    Pope here seems close to William Dudgeon, The State of the Moral World Considered (Edinburgh: R. Fleming, 1732), pp. 21–2: ‘The Desires are the Springs exciting to Action, our Happiness which is involved in that of the Publick, is the End, and Reason discovers or points out the best Means to that End.’Google Scholar
  19. 34.
    The Ladies Library, Written by a Lady, 3 vols (London: J.T., 1714), III, 188, 197. David Berman and E.J. Furlong, ‘George Berkeley and the Ladies’ Library’ [sic], Berkeley Newsletter 4 (December 1980), 4–13 and Greg Hollingshead, ‘Sources for the Ladies’ Library’ [sic], Berkeley Newsletter 11 (1989–90), 1–9, have done most of the important work of identifying the sources for passages of this work. Hollingshead lists volume three, paragraphs 190–206, which contain the two quotations I have used, amongst the passages still to be identified, p. 9. The text is actually taken from a source identified by George A. Aitken ‘Steele’s Ladies’ Library’ [sic], The Athenaeum: Journal of English and Foreign Literature, Science, the Fine Arts, Music and the Drama, 2958 (Saturday 5 July 1884), 16–17, 16, and recognised by Berman, Furlong and Hollingshead: John Scott, The Glories of Christian Life Part I (London: J. Leake for Walter Kettelby and sold by Richard Wilkin, 1712, 9th edn), pp. 130–1. Eighteenth-Century Collections Online made it possible for me to identify this passage and makes the problem of attribution little more than mechanical.Google Scholar
  20. 35.
    The Guardian, ed. John Calhoun Stephens (Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1982), p. 420, No. 126, Wednesday 5 August 1713.Google Scholar
  21. 38.
    Douglas H. White mentions Gay in a footnote when he discusses the ‘the interplay of self-love with self-love’, p. 179, n.9. Anthony Quinton, Utilitarian Ethics (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1973), New Studies in Ethics, ed. W.D. Hudson, pp. 23–4, discusses Gay as a theological utilitarian. Floyd Medford, ‘The Essay on Man and the Essay on the Origin of Evil’, Notes and Queries 194 (1949), 337–8, p. 337, notes that Law’s translation was actually published in November 1730 despite being dated 1731.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 40.
    John Gay, ‘The Fundamental Principle and Immediate Criterion of Virtue’, in William King, An Essay on the Origin of Evil, trans. Edmund Law (London: W. Thurlborn, 1731), pp. xiii–xiv.Google Scholar
  23. 42.
    Walter Harte, An Essay on Reason (London: J. Wright for Lawton Gilliver, 1735), l. 222. See Pope’s Correspondence, III, 408–9, Pope to Mallet, May or June 1734 for his remarks on Harte’s essay.Google Scholar

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© Tom Jones 2005

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