Saturday, 28 November 2015

The proper study of mankind

An orb, a Newton and a Pope that features in the last part of Dan Brown's book, da Vinci Code, comes from this piece that remains very much relevant today. In addition to Plato and Newton, after Alexander Pope, we have Einstein and Internet to add to humanity but the void in the knowledge about ourself remains. While we build telescopes and space stations, we must also build more nano- and pico-scopes after the micro-scopes to study the structure. We should also think for new ways and dig deeper into ancient literature and revisit on the science of the mind. After all, what makes a man is not his body but his mind (this can be explained in so many ways, let a doctor answer).
A beautiful piece, The proper study of mankind by Alexander Pope.

The proper study of mankind

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of mankind is man
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 reasoning but to err
Alike in ignorance, his reason such
Whether he thinks too little, or too much
Chaos of thought and passion, all confused
Still by himself abuse, or disabuse
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 hurled
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world
Go, wondrous creature!
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 the 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
Superior being, when of late they saw
A mortal man unfold all Nature’s law
Admired such wisdom in an earthly shape
And showed a Newton as we show an Ape
Could he, whose rules the rapid comet bind
Describe or fix one movement of his mind
Who saw its fires here rise, and there descend,
Explain his own beginning, or his end?
Alas what wonder! Man’s superior part
Unchecked may rise, and climb from art to art
But when his own great work is but begun
What reason weaves, by passion is undone
Trace science then, with modesty thy guide
First strip off all her equipage of pride
Deduct what is but vanity, or dress
Or learning’s luxury, or idleness
Or tricks to show the stretch of human brain
Mere curious pleasure, ingenious pain
Expunge the whole, or lop the excrescent parts
Of all, our vices have created arts
Then see how little the remaining sum
Which served the past, and must the times to come!

From Alexander Pope (1688–1744). An Essay on Man.
As reproduced in Poetical Works, ed. Cary HF (London: Routledge, 1870), 225–6.