By N.S. Palmer
Let’s take a break from current events to contemplate some truths that will out-last the next news cycle.
You’ve probably heard this quote, but you might not know its source:
Hope springs eternal in the human breast.
That’s the only line most people know from “Essay on Man” by the English poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744). The more complete version of the quote hints at the wisdom contained in the rest of the poem:
Hope springs eternal in the human breast:
Man never is, but always to be, blest.
In other words, people are never satisfied with what they have. We always hope for a “blessing” that is yet to come. Rich people want to be richer, or to be loved; tyrants want more power; humble people wish for more material comforts or security. What we have is seldom good enough for us. We always want more, and we think ourselves ill-used because we don’t have it yet.
Pope’s “Essay” is replete with such insights, beautifully and often poignantly expressed.
About the complexity of human nature, he writes:
What would this man? Now upward will he soar,
And little less than angel, would be more;
Now looking downwards, just as grieved appears,
To want the strength of bulls, the fur of bears.
But Pope has a prescription for all that discontent:
Presumptuous man! The reason wouldst thou find,
Why form’d so weak, so little, and so blind?
Ask of thy mother earth, why oaks are made
Taller and stronger than the weeds they shade.
Then say not man’s imperfect, Heaven in fault;
Say rather, man’s perfect as he ought.
Who finds not Providence all good and wise,
Alike in what it gives and what it denies?
God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
Pope saw that people are not merely thinking beings, as some contemporary writers insist. They are also buffeted by self-love, emotion, and instinct that bias their judgment:
Two principles in human nature reign:
Self-love, to urge, and Reason, to restrain.
Self-love and Reason to one end aspire,
Pain their aversion, pleasure their desire;
But greedy that its object would devour,
This taste the honey, and not wound the flower.
If only the executives of BP had used their reason to “taste the honey without wounding the flower,” the Gulf of Mexico wouldn’t have been damaged by BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill. But like all of us, the people running BP fought an internal battle. In their case, the battle was joined between self-love (the desire for more, more, and more profit regardless of consequences) and reason (understanding the importance of protecting the Gulf, its people, and its other living creatures).
The same principle applies to Wall Street banksters who wrecked the world economy. In a different way, it applies to politicians who lead their countries into wars of aggression to enrich themselves and their friends by destroying other nations and killing hundreds of thousands of people.
Even if it’s sometimes hard to overcome self-love, reason gives us the ability to see and do the right thing:
This light and darkness in our chaos join’d,
What shall divide? The God within the mind.
But we need to be careful how we live and what we do, because repeated exposure to evil can make it seem normal:
Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As, to be hated, needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.
Every person is vulnerable to the siren song of self-love, so we must be on our guard against it:
Virtuous and vicious every man must be,
Few in the extreme, but all in the degree;
The rogue and fool by fits is fair and wise;
And even the best by fits what they despise.
Pope alludes to the joys and the brevity of human life:
Behold the child, by Nature’s kindly law,
Pleased with a rattle, tickled with a straw.
Some livelier plaything gives his youth delight,
A little louder, but as empty quite.
Scarfs, garters, gold amuse his riper stage,
And beads and prayer-books are the toys of age.
Pleased with this bauble still, as that before,
Till tired he sleeps, and life’s poor play is o’er.
What insight he packs into those eight lines! All through our lives, one trifle after another catches our attention. Shallow and stupid as they often are, such trifles fill our days with joy. And though the toys get more expensive as we get older, mostly they’re still just toys, whatever ponderous nonsense we tell ourselves about them. We love them not because they’re precision instruments, or because they’re important, but simply because they make us happy.
We occupy ourselves with rattles, then romance, and early or late with religion. At the end, as Shakespeare says, we fly away to “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns,” our life’s poor play over at last. And we barely pause to take a bow before the curtain falls on our little drama:
Hope humbly, then; with trembling pinions soar,
Wait the great teacher, Death, and God adore.
What future bliss, He gives not thee to know,
But gives that hope to be thy blessing now.
We live with our little joys for the moment and with our giant hope for the future. It’s less poetic than Pope, but “what’s not to like?”
Copyright 2010 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.