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The third book would discuss politics and religion, while the fourth book was concerned with "private ethics" or "practical morality." The following passage, taken from the first two paragraphs of the opening verse of the second epistle, is often quoted by those familiar with Pope's work, as it neatly summarizes some of the religious and humanistic tenets of the poem: Placed on this isthmus of a middle state, A Being darkly wise, and rudely great: With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side, With too much weakness for the Stoic's pride, He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest; In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast; In doubt his mind or body to prefer; Born but to die, and reas'ning but to err; Alike in ignorance, his reason such, Whether he thinks too little, or too much; Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus'd; Still by himself, abus'd or disabus'd; Created half to rise and half to fall; Great Lord of all things, yet a prey to all, Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl'd; The glory, jest and riddle of the world. mount where science guides, Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides; Instruct the planets in what orbs to run, Correct old time, and regulate the sun; Go, soar with Plato to th’ empyreal sphere, To the first good, first perfect, and first fair; Or tread the mazy round his followers trod, And quitting sense call imitating God; As Eastern priests in giddy circles run, And turn their heads to imitate the sun.
Go, teach Eternal Wisdom how to rule— Then drop into thyself, and be a fool!
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According to his friend and editor, William Warburton, Pope intended to structure the work as follows: The four epistles which had already been published would have comprised the first book.
The second book was to contain another set of epistles, which in contrast to the first book would focus on subjects such as human reason, the practical and impractical aspects of varied arts and sciences, human talent, the use of learning, the science of the world, and wit, together with "a satire against the misapplication" of those same disciplines.
On its publication, An Essay on Man received great admiration throughout Europe.
Voltaire called it "the most beautiful, the most useful, the most sublime didactic poem ever written in any language".