"Know then thyself, presume not God to scan, The proper study of mankind is Man.": Presenting Man's Position in the Universal Scheme of Things

"Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is Man."

These two lines constitute the beginning of ‘Epistle II of Pope’s Essay on Man, his most didactic poem written in the antithetical mode and presenting man's position in the universal scheme of things.

Alexander Pope
 The lines begin with an inversion. The inverted second half of the antithetical declare that man should not presume to scan or judge Gods ways. This is in fact, as Wilson Knight calls in The Vital Flame, “a reflection from Milton”. If Milton had proposed to “justify the ways of god to man” (Epistle: I). ‘Vindicate’ is a less patronizing and more referential attitude and expression. Like Milton, Pope emphasizes not only the weaknesses of man is general; but emphasizes the weakness of pride in particular. 

Man would, in his pride, have the pretension of examining and judging God’s ways. Pope, on the other hand, has one single and profound impulse – to submit to the world in which he found himself and to stifle the promptings of pride which would suggest that is the world and not man which is out of joint.

The first half of the anti – thesis there fore declares the desirable alternative: Know then themselves’. This is an age old dictum found in Juvenal and ascribed to the Greek God Apollo. Indeed, the phrase gnothi seauton (Words of Pythagoras) or “Know thyself” which was inscribed on the temple of Apollo in Delphi, finds its parallels in both Latin and Sanskrit scriptures. ‘If know than themself’ points to an introspective study, the next line, ‘They proper study of Mankind is Man’ points to the external, the study of fellow human beings. It is noteworthy that Pope finds every man to be the epitome of all human kind. This is because the bed rock of humanity – consisting of the most Nital and fundamental qualities – is the same for all human beings. Man’s difference from man lies, not in the essentials but in the in the incidentals. Thus the first two lines present Pope’s philosophical opinion regarding man needing to examin himself, since the examination would reveal that the cause of human sorrow lies not in God but himself.

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