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.
–Alexander Pope, “Essay on Man”

“Essay on Man” is a rotten poem.

I don’t say this as a detractor of Alexander Pope. Just the opposite. I think that he was the greatest poet of the eighteenth century, and—with Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton—one of the greatest poets in the English language. So when I say that “Essay on Man” is a rotten poem, it is like a huge Beatle’s fan saying that “Revolution #9” is a lousy song. This is the critique of a true fan.

The problem with the poem is not the writing—it is very well written—the problem lies in the ideas themselves. “Essay on Man” is built around a neoclassical conceit called “the great chain of being,” which sees everything in the universe connected in a rigid hierarchy that starts with God and works its way down through angels, men, good horses, dogs, women, insects, all the way down to the most microscopic organism we can know anything about.

The main point of “Essay on Man,” then, is that thing are always exactly the way they are supposed to be because that’s how God wants them, and He knows how to change the world if he wants it changed. The poem itself was designed to popularize the philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, which was called “optimism,” though not in the way that we Moderns use the term. Optimism was based on a syllogism that went something like this:

If God is all good and all powerful, then he must have created the best possible world.
God is all good and all powerful.
Therefore, the world that God created is the optimum world (hence “optimism”) .

In other words: whatever is is right; so quit complaining and get on the bus.

Leibnitz’s syllogism is perfectly sound, but the major premise is flawed. We know from deep experience that some configurations of “how the world works” are better than others. Smallpox, for example, used to exist in God’s world. It does not exist now because human beings figured out a way to get rid of it. And a world without smallpox is objectively better than a world with smallpox—unless, of course, you happen to be a smallpox virus.

Whatever-is-is-rightism has been used to justify all sorts of things that most people now recognize as objectively bad: slavery, imperialism, misogyny, poverty, and disease, just to name a few. We are innately resistance to change even without theological imperatives because any state of affairs that has not killed us has, at least, not killed us and therefore has an advantage over other states of affairs that might. So it is hard enough to change things even when you don’t see the status quo as the will of God. It becomes almost impossible when you believe that, by simply existing, every cultural institution and social configuration in the world qualifies for an absolute divine imprimatur.

Latter-day Saints are pretty good at seeing all of the things that are wrong with “the world.” We instinctively reject the idea that worldly things must be good simply because they exist. But we often apply Pope’s whatever-is-is-right logic to the Church itself: it is the Lord’s Church, we reason; therefore, it must be exactly the Church that the Lord wants. If God wants it otherwise, He knows how to change it. Whatever the Church is is right, so quit complaining and get on the bus.

But if the logic of whatever-is-is rightism does not work for the world simply because it is God’s world, then it does not work for the Church simply because it is God’s church. Making the world a better world is the job of everyone in it. Making the Church a better church is too. Every month many of us stand up in Testimony Meeting and declare that we “know the Church is true.” True in this sense means something like “authorized by God.” But, really, being “true” is easy. It is more of an accident than an accomplishment. Being good is harder.

If having a sense of divine authorization helps us become kinder, more compassionate, less selfish, and less judgmental, then it can be a good place to start our journey to discipleship. But this same sense of rightness can be a spiritual danger when we see it as the end point of that journey. And it becomes a fatal flaw when we see it as proof that whatever is is right—which, when applied to the Church, is just another way to say “all is well in Zion.”


  1. Left Field says:

    I have often opined on this very subject. “Whatever we do is God’s will, because if it wasn’t, he would have changed it.”

    Nonsense. Nothing could be a more un-Mormon idea. We’re a people who believe in revelation. We’re a people who believe in change. We believe that God will yet reveal many great and important things. There are many great and important things that God hasn’t changed yet, but will. Whatever-is-is-rightism denies this core belief. Whatever-is-is-rightism is based on the opposite belief, that the heavens are closed, and that God has nothing more to say or do. If we already have and know the Right Way, what further need do we have of revelation?

    Whatever-is-is-rightism is exactly the philosophy that got us into this situation that necessitated the restoration. We have to stop insisting that God has already revealed everything, or else we’ll have to stop calling ourselves Mormons.

  2. Brother Sky says:

    The counterpoint to this, of course, is Voltaire’s Candide. It’s a shattering satire of Leibniz’s ideas and should be required reading for every Latter Day Saint. Of course, its anti-war message might cause trouble for folks who believe that the Book of Mormon stamps its approval on the notion of just war.

  3. Ah! I’ve often thought to protest these very lines of Pope in a post before–we must have had the same prompting. It’s the difference between religion as an opiate (well, if God wanted a clean earth or equal rights for all people, he would have made it so) and religion as activism (God wants a clean earth and equal rights for all people, and this is how he wants me to help him do it). I love Pope, too, but it’s a shame he was so hung up on the Great Chain of Being.

    Lady Mary Wortley Montagu skewers the essay with “Poor Pope philosophy displays on / With so much rhyme and so little reason, / And though he argues ne’er so long / That all is right, his head is wrong.”

  4. That is a great response by Montague. I was not familiar with it (but I just Googled it, so now I’m a expert). Thanks for the reference.

    Re: Pope: I have often thought that Moderns are virtually incapable of appreciating his real status as a poet because we no longer consider his greatest accomplishment to be a great accomplishment. Translating the entire work of Homer–the Iliad and the Odyssey–into heroic couplets (and very good heroic couplets at that) was a tremendous thing. In my opinion, it was, by far, the greatest literary achievement of the century. But we tend not to consider translations to be original work any more. And we certainly don’t read Pope’s Homer anymore. (Mostly we don’t ready anyone’s Homer anymore, but, when we do, it is probably going to be Fagels’ or maybe Fitzgerald’s). And we would certainly never anthologize it.

    So we are left reading around the edges of Pope’s accomplishment: “The Rape of the Lock,” “The Essay on Man,” and if we are really ambitious, “The Dunciad.” This leaves most students feeling underwhelmed by somebody who was, in his own time, anything but underwhelming.

  5. Well, I misread the poem! I thought it was a critique of that what-is-is-right view, Man being much less omniscient than God – and, as you noted, much more likely to want the status quo to remain, or seek justification for our own misdeeds.

    I much prefer the part of Mormonism that calls us to “do what is right”. Like you, I wish we could reflect that lens back to our own church and not just aim it towards the “world”, as if we were not just as much a product of our culture.

  6. Tracey Snoyer says:

    At the macro level, yes, a thousand times yes. However at the micro-level (at the level of my own suffering), the “whatever is is right” perspective can relieve a whole lotta suffering. It is conceived in the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, which basically teach that suffering is caused by attachment to expecting that things should be different than they are. I believe the two concepts can co-exist. There is a way to accept what is in such a way that I am not at all times suffering, and further to trust that what breaks my heart might also break God’s heart, and then become an agent of change for the things that cause the suffering.

  7. But what if God created the universe, ultimately, so that smallpox could exist? It’s not gay marriage He’s mad about, it’s our unwillingness to put up with smallpox.

  8. Thanks, Michael. We need constant reminders that just because we sustain men as prophets and apostles does not mean they are always inspired. Often they are left on their own to figure things out as best they can. And sometimes they have failed.

  9. Tracey — Did you mean become an agent of change for the things that relieve suffering? I’m not sure I understand your statement if its to be an agent for the things that cause the suffering. I liked what you were saying and was just trying to understand it a little better. Thanks.

  10. I still like the Essay on Man. I’m just fond of it. So there.