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:
- once at the end of Epistle 1,
- 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.
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