The philosophical poem An Essay on Man consists of four verse epistles, each of which was published separately and anonymously between February 1733 and January 1734 by a bookseller not previously associated with Pope's writings.
Attesting to his belief that “the life of a Wit is a warfare upon earth,” Pope contrived the elaborate ruse partly to defuse the hostility provoked by his recent satires, notably The Dunciad (1728) and his Epistle to Burlington (1731), and partly to secure an impartial audience for the poem.
During the succeeding centuries, however, critics have perceived Pope's poem as fundamentally flawed, both aesthetically and philosophically.
Nearly three hundred years after its publication, the poem generally merits distinction as, in David B.
Pope eventually identified himself as the author when he collected the epistles under the subtitle “Being the First Book of Ethic Epistles.” He had originally conceived of An Essay on Man as the introduction to an opus magnum on society and morality, but he later abandoned the plan.
To this end, the poem addresses the question of human nature and the potential for happiness in relation to the universe, social and political hierarchies, and the individual.
The third epistle addresses the role of the individual in society, tracing the origins of such civilizing institutions as government and the class system to a constant interaction between the selfish motivations and altruistic impulses of individual humans.
The fourth epistle frames the struggle between self-love and love of others in terms of the pursuit of happiness, arguing that any human can attain true happiness through virtuous living, which happens only when selfish instincts yield to genuine expressions of benevolence toward others and God.
The poem borrows ideas from a range of medieval and renaissance thinkers, although Pope somewhat modifies them to suit his artistic purposes.
The underlying theme of the poem is the idea that there exists an ordered universe which possesses a coherent structure and functions in a rational fashion, according to natural laws designed by God.