Essay on Man—the Philosophical Approach

The essay on man can be both a challenging assignment and the most banal, depending on how you approach it. The angles with which to view it could be manifold, and this would determine your handling of the subject. The crucial concerns here would be how you approach the concept of “man,” and which aspects you would like to focus on. Various writers have written essays on this subject, and these throw up some fascinating ideas. Most famous among these are the ones written by Alexander Pope and centuries later, by Mark Twain.
One of the most famous is Essay on Man, a poem by Alexander Pope. This is like a philosophical treatise explaining God and His methods of working to Man. The contemporary controversy around this poem centered on the fact that Pope tried to show how Man was not the center of the universe as people were wont to believe in the early 18th century. As David Cody, of Hartwick College puts it, the poem tries to affirm faith in God by showing how, “life seems chaotic and patternless to man when he is in the midst of it, but is in fact a coherent portion of a divinely ordered plan” (Para 4, The Victorian Web).
Mark Twain’s excellent essay What is Man explores the “make” of man as an engine that is made, propelled, and run by outside influences. It is a compelling discussion between an old and a young man on whether man is a creature in control of the self, changing and altering himself, or whether he is only externally influenced and thus made and remade many times over. The paradigm is that of an engine made from material by an external hand, in which the machine or the materials used have no independent role to play. The young man’s incredulity mirrors our own as we read through Twain’s discussion, and the idea gradually begins to dawn that man is a creature of his circumstances.
These essays raise important questions of their time, more so in the case of Pope than Twain. By Twain’s time, the church was not as supreme an entity as during Pope’s, when to question the Church and its diktats was to question God Himself. Man’s position in the universe was not questioned, yet Pope did so, in his own inimitable style. Twain has a more tongue-in-cheek and ironical style of questioning the Ego. Both the essays force you to think on the position of man in the universe, in society, and with himself/herself. And here, we refer to man as “human beings,” not a gender specific entity.
The essay on man is a difficult subject to deal with when you approach it philosophically. Other and more mundane approaches and essays exist, but these do not raise the issues and concerns that have helped in the development of mankind. It is the philosophical approach to man that has helped us confront ourselves and learn about the ego and the human condition.