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

Source: The Well-Educated Mind (2 edn 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.

  • "And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should." — Max Ehrmann. – Ray Butterworth Mar 10 at 13:56

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.


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.


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.

  • Welcome to Literature Stack Exchange! Could you provide any evidence to back up this answer? Quotes, historical records, etc. We expect answers here to not only say what they think is right, but to explain why they are right. – bobble Mar 10 at 4:35
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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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