Posted by: N.S. Palmer | July 30, 2010

Where Hope Springs Eternal

By N.S. Palmer

Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man

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?

Pope recommends an attitude of serenity and acceptance toward things we can’t control. In this, he anticipates the serenity prayer written by 20th-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr:

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.


Responses

  1. Hi, Scott,

    Wow, there’s quite a lot of new stuff here. You’ve been holding out on us. 🙂

    You’ve written, as always, a deep, insightful, and skillful piece. I’m persuaded by it up to a point, but in the end I find the underlying theme disquieting (ironic, given the nature of the piece) and I would like to propose a shift in focus—from my own perspective, of course.

    I should preface my remarks by saying that I don’t believe in an afterlife or a deity. That’s not to say there isn’t one; no human being can pronounce on that with any certainty in either case; merely that I’ve never been shown any sort of evidence I’d consider compelling for the supernatural.

    The base note of what I get when I read this is that we ought to be content in our lives and not strive in their duration because the real reward comes later. I don’t believe that, and I don’t see any reason to. It seems to me that this is all we have, and we have to make the very best of it circumstance and ability allow. One thing is certain: we do know we’re here. We exist. Beyond that, we do not know. We merely suppose, on the basis of rumours and tomes left to us from antiquity, that are supposedly, but in no way definitively, of supernatural origin. They may be right, but they may be not. I find the suggestion of limiting one’s horizons in favour of something that, very likely, is a fiction, troubling on many levels.

    First of all, it’s clear to me that it is not in our nature to be content, truly and completely content. Whether this is by design or simply a highly successful survival strategy is immaterial; it’s part of what makes us human. In fact I don’t think it’s taking things too far to say that it’s the sine qua non of our humanity. Other animals dream, love, collaborate, war; there are ones that are naturally far faster than us, far stronger, more agile, hardier, and far more capable predators. But where we excel, where we have the chance to beat them at their own games even, is as innovators. And innovation is driven primarily by dissatisfaction with thing as they are. I don’t for a second doubt that other higher animals are capable of asking the question (at least non-verbally), “This is terrible; how can I make it better?” and strategizing along that line… find shelter from the rain, dig a hole to hole to hide from a predator, drive a stick into a termite mound, even observe ‘gee, humans seem friendly enough and they’ve got some good stuff going on, maybe I could hang around with them a little…”. But I think we’re the only ones so far who shade over into thinking, “This is good, but how could it be better?” I read recently that spear points didn’t improve markedly for most of a million years. Then, suddenly, in the last hundred thousand years or so, there was an abrupt, dramatic, and ongoing improvement in design, function, and subtlety of craft in spear points. Something changed in us, something that made us who we are. Something that made us perpetually dissatisfied innovators. It also corresponds with the approximate time we really began to spread out from Africa.

    Everything that we’re proud of, everything we’ve really achieved since then, is based on that. Every book, every building, every city, every ocean voyage, every device, every trip to the moon, was about wondering how this could be better. If there was something superior about life over the next hill, or something that at least could be used to our advantage. Being content with that’s here in this valley would never have seen us achieve anything. Taken to the limit of subsistence, we’d still be without fire or tools, simply eating the berries at hand or the carcasses we could steal from more effective predators in lands where naked human beings can survive. There was a time when that’s all we were.

    More emphasis ought to be placed on Neibuhr’s quoted last two lines, and the credit they give humanity: the courage to change what we can and the wisdom to know the difference. On our own, there’s much we can’t change. As a species, there’s far more that we can. Contenting ourselves to wait for a better day beyond our own capacities to realize is to abandon the obligation we ourselves have to make things better here and now. If there’s a God and a Heaven, great. Bonus round. But if there isn’t (and even if there is), we have a responsibility to improve our lot here and now. Cure cancer. End war and poverty. Spread out to other worlds. Stop waiting for invisible beings to come and do it for us, because they just might never show up, or if they do, they might resent us expecting them to do what we’ve been given the ability to do ourselves.

    I suspect the point might be made I’m pitching the ball too high here; that you’re speaking of our individual lives. And yes, being the sort of civilization that we are now, with most of our fundamental needs seen to almost automatically, that biological urge to improve things for the sake of doing so has the potential to go haywire, as the border collie who needs to work can make a poor pet locked up in a house. And so, yes, it has a tendency to make us avaricious and neurotic. The ubiquity of suicides, both deliberate and accidental, in the entertainment industry is probably the most obvious instance; the venality of the plutocratic hierarchies of our corporate world a close second (the arguably the far more wicked because it’s deliberately externalized). In such instances your words find their truest merit: to identify when striving for something will in fact cause suffering either to oneself or others… serenity is also a human goal driven by dissatisfaction, of course. Whether it’s achievable without instituting a whole other neurosis is debatable. Clearly, a balance needs to be struck. But if real serenity became widespread, I think the effect on our society would be devastating. It would be as though all mankind took heroin at once. Such complacency would be the death of motivation. Human achievement would end.

    For good or bad, we above all other animals are fated to be wanderers who need to look over the next hill, and the next, and the next. But on the whole, I think it’s for the good.

  2. Hi, LP —

    Thanks very much for your thoughtful and well-reasoned comment!

    (( I don’t believe in an afterlife or a deity. That’s not to say there isn’t one; no human being can pronounce on that with any certainty in either case; merely that I’ve never been shown any sort of evidence I’d consider compelling for the supernatural. ))

    We don’t disagree as much as it might appear. As a general principle of knowledge, I don’t think that evidence within a system can prove anything about a meta-system that gives rise to it. If there is a reality that transcends our universe, then the most we can hope for are hints and suggestive evidence — “cosmic background radiation,” if you will, that is open to a variety of interpretations. Even Alexander Pope alludes to that fact:

    “What future bliss, He gives not thee to know,
    But gives that hope to be thy blessing now.”

    I have not seen “compelling” evidence of God’s existence or human immortality: of course, it depends on how you define “compelling” and “evidence.” But I’ve seen enough to convince me that there’s more to reality than physical science tells us. The exact nature of that transcendent reality is less certain, but some evidence suggests that it is spiritual and benevolent.

    William James, the Harvard philosopher and “the father of American psychology,” wrote about this dilemma in “The Will to Believe.” He argued that when two hypotheses were equally well-supported by the evidence, and there was no logical way to choose one or the other, we were entitled to make the choice on pragmatic grounds. Which hypothesis is more helpful, more supportive, more appealing? It amounts to the suggestion that if logic and evidence can’t help us, we should simply choose the hypothesis that we like.

    I grant that empirical evidence fails to prove transcendent reality, the existence of God, or the immortality of the human personality, but “proof” is a very high standard. I think that logic and evidence provide adequate grounds for a reasonable person to believe in all of those things, as I do. And note that belief in God on less than conclusive evidence is not unique. We almost never have conclusive “proof” of what we believe, but most of our beliefs work fine for us.

    When I wrote that article, I was also looking around for a statement of the Buddhist attitude toward the afterlife, but I couldn’t find it. However, it’s very much in the spirit of Pope: something like, “If there’s an afterlife, I’ll enjoy it then. In the meantime, I’m happy now.”

    (( The base note of what I get when I read this is that we ought to be content in our lives and not strive in their duration because the real reward comes later. I don’t believe that, and I don’t see any reason to. ))

    That’s a valid and very common criticism of religious faith in an afterlife.

    I agree with you, but I also think there needs to be a balance between serenity and seeking. You are absolutely right that without our “divine discontent” in our present circumstances, no one would be motivated to improve those circumstances. The list of such improvements is almost endless: indoor plumbing, antibiotics, instant coffee, and so forth. But it’s also true that unless we can enjoy the present moment, we’ll always be seeking and we will never be happy.

    (( One thing is certain: we do know we’re here. We exist. Beyond that, we do not know. We merely suppose ))

    Agreed. Though I don’t base my beliefs primarily on claims that certain tomes are supernatural. Those tomes are testimony by the people who wrote them, and most of our beliefs are based on testimony from other people. And as with testimony about any matter of fact, we assess the testimony’s plausibility, including its consistency with our own experience. If it passes muster, we accept it as true, subject to revision in the light of new evidence.

    (( It’s clear to me that it is not in our nature to be content, truly and completely content. ))

    Alexander Pope agrees with you: “Man never is, but always to be, blest.” Complete contentment is neither likely nor particularly helpful in this world. Note that the Buddhists see contentment as a way of freeing themselves from a cycle of repeated reincarnation in this world, which they regard as a place of suffering. I agree with them that as long as we want to be here and we need to be here, we’ll stay here.

    (( other higher animals are capable of asking the question (at least non-verbally), “This is terrible; how can I make it better?” ))

    Cats have been known to meow that things are terrible, but they normally ask, “How can YOU make it better?” 🙂

    (( More emphasis ought to be placed on Neibuhr’s quoted last two lines, and the credit they give humanity: the courage to change what we can and the wisdom to know the difference. ))

    Again, we agree. I think it’s “wisdom to know the difference” that is hardest to acquire.

    (( Stop waiting for invisible beings to come and do it for us, because they just might never show up, or if they do, they might resent us expecting them to do what we’ve been given the ability to do ourselves. ))


    If history has taught us anything, it’s that God doesn’t intervene in details very often — at least, not in any way that we can readily discern. There’s a 1978 movie called “Oh, God!” in which George Burns plays God. In response to a question from John Denver, who plays His mortal interlocutor, God avows that He rarely does miracles because they’re “too flashy.” He says that the last miracle he performed “was the 1969 Mets” — the year that the New York Mets won the baseball World Series.

    (( Clearly, a balance needs to be struck. But if real serenity became widespread, I think the effect on our society would be devastating. ))

    Again, we agree completely. Balance is the key. Whether you go to Aristotle (moderation in all things) or Buddha (the middle way), the message is the same: enjoy the present while working for the future. If we pursue either of those things to excess, we are living as less than the people we could be.

    (( But on the whole, I think it’s for the good. ))

    Or as Alexander Pope says:

    “Who finds not Providence all good and wise,
    Alike in what it gives and what it denies?”

  3. “He argued that when two hypotheses were equally well-supported by the evidence, and there was no logical way to choose one or the other, we were entitled to make the choice on pragmatic grounds. Which hypothesis is more helpful, more supportive, more appealing? It amounts to the suggestion that if logic and evidence can’t help us, we should simply choose the hypothesis that we like.”

    In this case, I would suggest that there actually is a logical bias that precludes a chocolate-or-vanilla choice. We know that we exist: this universe exists. That’s established and unquestionable; its characteristics might be quibbled upon but not that it exists in and of itself. But there’s nothing about what does exist that necessitates the existence of anything beyond, such as a meta system giving rise to it—at least not that’s been brought to my attention. Occham’s Razor suggests we should not multiply the number of entities beyond necessity… the universe exists, and if there’s nothing that precludes its simply being a perpetual system of some sort (and to the best of my knowledge, there isn’t), then logically, we’re obliged to accept that that simply is the most likely picture of reality. Anything else is possible, of course, but less likely, and chosen against the logic of it, at least as we understand things at the moment, generally speaking. That could change, of course, but even then, I would have to wonder why a being who supposedly loves us and knows us as individuals would choose to let his beloved children wander in ignorance and the mutual hatred fostered by the misconceptions that inevitably follow from it. If a God exists, the preponderance of the experience of life on Earth strongly suggests to me that he may be either all-powerful or all-loving, but not both… and possibly neither. A God who simply made his presence and will manifest to one and all could be forgiven a lot, it seems to me; but we don’t even have that. If we did, I couldn’t be saying this in the first place.

    “Cats have been known to meow that things are terrible, but they normally ask, “How can YOU make it better?” :-)”

    I think this is the basis of religion. 🙂 But at least cats know we’re here! 🙂

    “There’s a 1978 movie called “Oh, God!” in which George Burns plays God.”

    I remember it, and I remember liking it. It stood up well and I think it spoke for a lot of people. Certainly, I would like a God like that to exist, even now; I’m not devoid of such yearnings. I don’t really believe anyone is. For a long time growing up and beyond, that’s the version of God I clung to; a loose-fitting, comfy God you could simply wear around and be yourself in. But I had to give it up. There’s just too much about the world ill-suited to the notion that anyone who has a real, deep, personal and affectionate interest in it and us could possibly be behind it. I have to wonder what the life lesson or purpose of a two-year-old dying in agony of bone cancer could possibly be, either for her or anyone who knows her. If I created a world of people I loved, I couldn’t visit that upon them; what reason could I possibly have, unless I didn’t care about them at all, or worse, simply enjoyed randomly inflicting torture? I see a lot more of God’s modus operandi in the real world in Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger than in Oh, God!. Twain was supposed to be writing about Satan, but I think if you read between the lines, he’s saying something else, something more disquieting, something Randy Newman touched upon in God’s Song.

    It’s possible, and usual, to let such a God off the hook by suggesting that his nature is unknowable. But in almost the same breath, his champions will remind us that understanding his nature and following his will precisely are prerequisites of salvation. They’re asking to have it both ways, it seems to me: that we live in a world of seeming pain and suffering that we don’t understand due to the inscrutable nature of a being whose nature and will we must perfectly glean and follow in order not to be damned. Again, who would put children he loved in such peril; a spiritual minefield at midnight with scraps of contradictory maps that may or may not be valid and flashlights that wink on and off like taunting fireflies…

    I’m not convinced there’s a God. And given the evidence of his nature, on the whole, I sure hope there’s not.


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