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true and false Governments and Religions should be chiefly delivered in feigned examples.
The FOURTH and last book was to pursue the subject of the fourth Epistle of the first, and to treat of Ethics, or practical morality; and would have consisted of many members ; of which the four following Epistles are detached portions ; the two first, on the Characters of Men and Women, being the introductory part of this concluding book.-Warburton.
The patrons and admirers of French literature usually extol those authors of that nation who have treated of life and manners ; and five of them, particularly, are esteemed to be unrivalled, namely, Montaigne, Charron, La Rochefoucault, Boileau, La Bruyère, and Pascal. These are supposed to have deeply penetrated into the most secret recesses of the human heart, and to have discovered the various vices and vanities that lurk in it. I know not why the English should in this respect yield to their polite neighbours more than in any other. Bacon in his Essays and Advancement of Learning, Hobbes and Hume in their treatises, Prior in his elegant and witty Alma, Richardson in his Clarissa, and Fielding in his Tom Jones, (comic writers are not here included,) have shown a profound knowledge of man ; and many portraits of Addison may be compared with the most finished touches of La Bruyère. But the Epistles we are now entering upon will place the matter beyond a dispute ; for the French can boast of no author who has so much exhausted the science of morals as Pope has in his five Epistles. They indeed contain all that is solid and valuable in the above-mentioned French writers, of whom our author was remarkably fond. But whatever observations he has borrowed from them, he has made his own by the dexterity of his application.- Warton.
These Epistles, in which Poetry has condescended to become the handmaid of Philosophy, to decorate, and set her off to advantage, are written with a spirit and vivacity not exceeded by any production of the kind in any country or language. Their nearest prototypes are the Epistles of Horace and Boileau, and the Satires of Ariosto and Bentivoglio, to none of which they are inferior. In our own language they may be considered as the first attempt to unite sound sense and deep research with the lighter graces of elegant composition, and to promote the cause of virtue and morality by conveying the purest precepts in the most impressive language, and illustrating them by examples which strike the imagination with all the force of reality. As they had in this country no example, so they have as yet had no rival ; nor until a genius shall arise that shall unite in himself, in an equal degree, the various endowments by which their author was distinguished, is it likely they ever will.
The object of this Epistle is to pursue still further a subject which the author had already started in the Essay on Man, and on which this may be considered as a further comment. This subject is, “ The RULING PABSION;" an idea, which although not originally his own, he seems to have delighted to expand and contemplate under every appearance of which it is capable. It is not therefore surprising that some of these views should appear inconsistent with, or contradictory to others; or that they should have led to misapprehensions which it requires some degree of attention to explain. For want of this, his true meaning has been greatly misunderstood, and he has been accused of inculcating opinions, not only doubtful and uncertain, but which, if assented to, would lead to consequences highly injurious. On this head his later Editors seem to have been agreed. “Of any passion,” says Johnson, “ thus innate and irresistible, the existence may reasonably be doubted. Human characters are by no means constant. Men change, by change of place, of fortune, of acquaintance. He who is at one time a lover of pleasure, is, at another, a lover of money. Those, indeed, who attain any excellence, commonly spend life in one pursuit ; for excellence is not often gained upon easier terms. But to the particular species of excellence, men are directed, not by an ascendant planet or predominating humour, but by the first book which they read, some early conversation which they heard, or some accident which excited ardour and enthusiasm.
“ This doctrine is in itself pernicious as well as false. Its tendency is to produce the belief of a kind of moral predestination, or over-ruling principle, which cannot be resisted. He that admits it, is prepared to comply with every desire that caprice or opportunity shall excite, and to flatter himself that he submits only to the lawful dominion of nature, in obeying the resistless authority of his ruling passion.” Johnson's Life of Pope.
With these opinions of Johnson, Dr. Warton, who has quoted them at length, appears to have fully coincided. Two eminent writers, says he, have attacked our author's notion of a ruling passion ; Mr. Harris and Dr. Johnson. The former says, one talks of an universal passion, as if all passions were not universal. Another talks of a ruling passion, and means, without knowing it, certain ruling opinions. Thus when specious falsehood assumes the lyre, we are charmed with the music, and worship her as truth.”—(Warton's Edit. vol. iii. p. 198.) Mr. Bowles thinks this “the worst of Pope's Epistles ;" that it is founded upon an absurd and unphilosophical principle," and that “the whole theory is full of inconsistency.”—(Bowles's Edit. vol. iii. p. 244.) He also observes in his Life of Pope (p. 98), that “what Johnson has said on the principle of this poem, the ruling passion, is most just and incontrovertible.”
I trust it will not be imputed to me as the result of a determination to vindicate the author on all occasions, or of a pertinacious desire of opposing the opinions of my predecessors, when I state it to be my strong conviction, that in thus representing the doctrines of Pope in the following Epistle, they have wholly mistaken his meaning ; and have accused him of
giving rise to consequences which he never intended, and against which he has guarded by every precaution in his power. What is stated in this Epistle, may be considered as a supplement, or practical illustration of what he had before said in the Essay on Man ; where we are told that the ruling passion is implanted in us at our birth, and that if we wish to understand the human character, it is indispensably necessary for us to be acquainted with the ruling passion of each individual. But that this ruling passion is so absolute and uncontrollable as “to produce the belief of a kind of moral predestination, or over-ruling principle that cannot be resisted,” is no where contended. On the contrary it is represented as capable of being modified and restrained ; and as frequently forming a part of, and being mixed up with other causes, on which our conduct is founded :
Add nature's, custom's, reason's, passion's strife,
Moral Essays, Ep. i. ver. 21. And again,
“ Judge we by nature ? habit can efface,
Interest o'ercome, or policy take place.”—Ib. ver. 166. Restrictions which alone are sufficient to show, that the doctrine was never intended, by the author, to be taken in the unlimited sense to which Johnson has carried it.
Again, it is to be observed that Pope has not only cautiously guarded against the undue application of this principle, "to justify a compliance with every desire that caprice or opportunity shall excite,” on the pretext of "submitting only to the lawful dominion of nature, but that he has considered it as the foundation of our highest virtues, and as the stock upon which it is the business of life to ingraft those fruits which are of the greatest value. This subject forms so important a part of the second Epistle of the Essay on Man, that it is astonishing it should not have occurred to his critics. After dwelling at length on the powerful effect of the ruling passion, and the difficulty there would be in the attempt to eradicate it, he not only admits that it is capable of being regulated, but directs how it is to be accomplished :
“ Nature's road must ever be preferr'd;
Essay on Man, Ep. ii. ver. 161. Not satisfied however with showing that the ruling passion may be so moderated and controlled as to obviate its injurious effects on the character, he proceeds further, and demonstrates, that such a principle is positively advantageous to us (as indeed it would not otherwise have been implanted in us), and that we derive from it a consistency of character which we should otherwise have wanted :
“ Th' eternal art, educing good from ill,
Grafts on this passion our best principle ;