The 18th-century ushered in a new form of literature that focused on the importance of Reason. It was believed that through Reason man could reach perfection, thereby leading to the perfection of the world. An intellectual elite known as the Augustans endorsed this movement and coined the English Enlightenment “The Age of Reason. ” The contention that man is a rational animal capable of controlling his passion and emotion within the realm of Reason created a philosophical problem; with a society aware of their capacity of reason, how could corruption and absurdity pervade so much of human existence?
This conundrum led to commentaries on reason from Augustan writers, Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift. Pope saw the issue as a struggle between chaos and order, believing that man did indeed have the ability to govern his life by reason; however, this ability was frequently not put into practice. Conversely, Swift prescribed to a more cynical view of this issue by discounting human being’s ability to act in a rational manner.
Pope’s An Essay on Man, a discourse on the underlying philosophies of The Age of Reason, contends that humans, as the sole possessors of reason, are God’s greatest creation. The first epistle begins with the metaphor of the universe as “a mighty maze. ” Pope suggests that man is capable of navigating through this maze because he is endowed with the God-given faculty of Reason: Say first, of God above, or Man below, What can we reason, but from what we know?
Of Man what see we, but his station here, From which to reason, or to which refer? (l. 17-20) Pope addresses the issue of man’s folly as a question of fundamental evil. Within his description of the universal chain of being there lays an impressive resolution that, though order is important, a certain amount of disorder is necessary to maintain the delicate balance of nature. Therefore, if man is so presumptuous as to seek perfection he runs the risk of throwing off the balance of the universe.
The absurdity of man is not caused by the presence of evil but by his inability to accept the evil, by refusing to understand that “Passions are the element of Life” (l. 170). Man, by nature, is an imperfect creature and that is his assigned place in the general order of nature. Animals want for nothing more than their assigned instincts, unlike man who is in want of knowing “Why form’d so weak, so little, and so blind” (l. 36). Each beast, each insect, happy in it’s own; Is Heav’n unkind to Man, and Man alone?
Shall he alone, whom rational we call, Be pleas’d with nothing, if not blessed with all? ” (l. 184-187) Pope’s conclusion of the first epistle demonstrates how every single aspect of nature, Reason, passion and instinct, is necessary for the completion of the whole. Just as a puzzle is assembled through the meticulous placement of its pieces, the dark and the light parts, jagged-edged elements that alone are worthless, so too is the universe assembled: All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee;
All Chance, Direction, which thou canst not see; All Discord, Harmony, not understood; All partial Evil, Universal Good; And, spite of Pride, in erring Reason’s spite, One truth is clear, ‘Whatever Is, is Right. ‘ (l. 289-294). Although Jonathan Swift was a fellow Augustan and good friend of Alexander Pope, his critique of the essence and flaws of human nature, as found in the fictitious travelogues of Gulliver’s Travels, does not ring as optimistic as Pope’s Essay on Man.
In Gulliver’s third voyage to the land of Laputa, Swift seems to share Pope’s assertion that there lies a danger in the wastefulness of pride in human nature; however, by his fourth voyage to the land of the Houyhnhnms, Swift paints a far more cynical picture of mankind as he reveals the barbarism of humanity. With Gulliver’s arrival in Laputa, Swift aims his satirical artillery at eighteenth century academia. The device of an island that floats above the rest of the world represents Swift’s belief that an excess of speculative reasoning disconnects man from the practical realities of life.
The Laputans employed servants, known as “flappers,” to strike them upon the mouths and ears in order to prompt their conversations. Gulliver realizes that “the minds of these people are so taken up with intense speculations, that they can neither speak, nor attend to the discourses of others, without being roused by some external taction upon the organs of speech and hearing” (161). Because the thoughts and minds of these people were so disengaged they were unable to perform simple tasks such as navigating through a room or even remaining balanced upon their own two feet.