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What did Pope intend to say by "Whatever is, is right"?

Source: The Well-Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer (2nd edition, 2016), p. 86, middle.

  Related to this is one final question: What is fiction meant to do? Why are you reading a novel at all? Are you expecting to find out some truth about human nature? Should a novel reveal some difficult, hard-to-face truth about ourselves? Do novels show the inevitable end of certain paths? Or are they, instead, agents of moral change? Do they show us models so that we can amend our ways? This idea—that fiction provides us with a model—itself has a certain assumption behind it: There is some standard of human behavior which applies to all of us, in all cultures, and our quest in life is to uncover it.
  The opposing idea was once expressed by Alexander Pope in the phrase, "Whatever is, is right." The novel doesn't set out an ideal, because to assume that there is such a thing as an unchanging standard of behavior governing all people at all times is narrow minded and myopic. The novel has no business in providing models. It simply explores realities: It opens numerous doors for you to peer through, but makes no suggestions as to which threshold you should cross.

This and this don't explain simply.

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  • What do you mean, what did he intend to say? What makes you think he misspoke? Isn't it possible he intended to say "Whatever is, is right"?
    – user14111
    Sep 3 at 4:47
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In the passage

The first paragraph here proposes (through a somewhat rhetorical line of questioning) that novels are meant to help provide a moral model for society:

they show us models so that we can amend our ways

The second paragraph proposes the exact opposite, by arguing that there is no standard moral model. That is, it argues that there is no "correct" system of moral beliefs, and that whatever someone considers right or wrong, is right or wrong - thus the Alexander Pope quote, "Whatever is, is right". In this case it reformulates the purpose of the novel into

simply explor[ing] realities: it opens numerous doors for you to peer through, but makes no suggestions as to which threshold you should cross.

In other words, instead of providing a definitive moral model it gives you suggestions for moral models that could be followed, but doesn't necessarily encourage you to follow one or another.

In the poem

To quote the relevant section:

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."

The point here is more along the lines that as fallible humans, we cannot really know what is truly right - "All [...] not understood" meaning we don't have the full knowledge of the situation. His last two lines here sum up his point: "And spite of Pride" (though we make think we are wiser and would like to believe otherwise) "in erring Reason's spite" (in spite of the fact many philosophers and moralists believe they have found out their morals using sound, unbreakable logic) "One truth is clear" (amidst all the things we think might be right but aren't sure) "Whatever IS, is RIGHT".

Thus, I'm not completely sure that Pope was quoted exactly as he would've liked to be, but the point still stands, I believe.

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Auden Young's answer discusses the first occurrence of the expression "Whatever is, is right" in Alexander Pope's Essay on Man but overlooks that the other instances. Pope uses the expression three times:

  1. once at the end of Epistle 1,
  2. two times in Epistle 4.

Pope's Essay on Man is an example of theodicy, its goal is to "vindicate the ways of God to man" (Epistle 1, line 16). The poet argues that man sees imperfections in the world (and in himself) because he is unable to see the whole; however, all creatures, including man, are part of the great chain of being and all imperfections and suffering have a place in the world:

All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body nature is and GOD the soul

This is one reason why, as Pope concludes at the end of Epistle 1, "Whatever is, is right".

Epistle 2 makes a similar point about something more specific: the existence of both self-love and reason in human nature:

TWO principles in human nature reign;
Self-love, to urge, and reason, to restrain;
Nor this a good, nor that a bad we call,
Each works its end, to move or govern all:
And to their proper operation still,
Ascribe all good; to their improper, ill.

Self-love is an example of something that appears bad to us but that has its place in the grand scheme of things.

The same principle applies to individuals, some of whom may be virtuous, whereas others are rogues:

Each individual seeks a sev'ral goal;
But heav'n's great view is one, and that the whole:
That counter-works each folly and caprice;
That disappoints th' effect of ev'ry vice:

The importance of the "grand scheme of things" is repeated again in Epistle 4, for example in the following lines:

REMEMBER, man, the universal cause
'Acts not by partial, but by gen'ral laws;'
And makes what happiness we justly call,
Subsist not in the good of one, but all.

The existence of evil is explained (or explained away) explicitly in lines 113-116:

GOD sends not ill; if rightly understood,
Or partial ill is universal good,
Or change admits, or nature lets it fall,
Short, and but rare, till man improv'd it all.

Pope repeats the words "Whatever is, is right" on lines 145 and on one of the last lines (line 384).

Pope's Essay on Man popularised a philosophical optimism that had also been expressed two decades earlier in Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz's Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l'homme et l'origine du mal (source of the phrase "the best of all possible worlds"). Critics such as the Swiss theologian Jean-Pierre de Crousaz (1663–1750) thought that Pope had borrowed ideas from Leibniz, but Pope claimed he was unaware of Leibniz's work until Crousaz mentioned it. It is plausible that there was no direct influence but that Pope absorbed ideas that were circulating in Europe during the Augustan age. Voltaire, originally an admirer of Pope, parodied philosophical optimism in his novel Candide, ou l'Optimisme (1759).

How this is relevant to fiction is not so obvious. Pope does not mention fiction or poetry at all in his Essay on Man. According to Susan Wise Bauer, the phrase "Whatever is, is right" expresses the opposite of the assumption that "[t]here is some standard of human behavior which applies to all of us, in all cultures, and our quest in life is to uncover it". Pope's Essay on Man is not about this at all, nor about the opposite idea. Theodicy is not about what the "standard of human behavior" is or what "our quest in life is". If Susan Wise Bauer assumed that literature inspired by faith, as Essay on Man, necessarily presents a model of behaviour that readers are expected to follow, she would also be wrong. The works of Catholic (see Catholic literary revival) or Christian authors such as G. K. Chesterton, Graham Greene, T. S. Eliot and J.R.R. Tolkien, to name but a few, cannot be reduced to such a simple formula.

References (besides Wikipedia):

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This was a very popular idea of 17th and 18th centuries philosophy. In a very broad stroke, with gross simplification: everything is a manifestation of the single underlying Idea, and since the Idea itself is right, its manifestations must also be right. One may call this Idea God, or Music of Spheres, or Law of Nature.

Hegel summarized it in his famous

Was vernünftig ist, das ist Wirklich; und was wirklich ist, das ist vernünftig.

What is reasonable is real, and what is real is reasonable.

As a side note, while Pope is concerned with is (i.e. which exists), Hegel does not; he only cares about reasonable (i.e. which admits to reason). This lets him reverse the implication. Pope doesn't say the "whatever is RIGHT, IS".

To avoid simplification I'd have to write few volumes.

-2

Pope was not saying that humans make their own morality, but that whatever is, simply is. That what is right is right, and what is wrong, is wrong. We should open our eyes and look for Reality, "what ls", instead of our own selfish wishes and fantasies.

This reflects one notion of his time, that the universe as it stands is the best world possible, the best "of all possible worlds". The way things work, the way GOD has created it, is the way it should be, and it is only our misunderstandings and flawed perceptions that cause us to think otherwise.

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    How does "what is wrong, is wrong" square with the notion that "whatever is, simply is"? If this is the best world possible, then nothing is "wrong". Also, please provide some evidence to back up the claim that this was a popular notion of his time.
    – verbose
    Mar 10 at 5:12
  • Welcome to Literature Stack Exchange. Are you at all familiar with Pope's work? When he wrote " "Whatever is, is right", he wasn't talking about what was morally right or wrong.
    – Tsundoku
    Mar 12 at 18:21

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