Profit over Passion: The Rise of Dunces

"Dunce" conjures up memories of little children sitting in a corner of the schoolroom wearing a pointed hat because they have misbehaved. But what if "dunces" had the power to threaten the intelligence of all mankind? This belief is satirized in the poem "The Dunciad", by Alexander Pope. The definition of a dunce is "one who is slow-witted or stupid" (Merriam-Webber Online). The "dunces" in this case represent the literary explosion in the eighteenth century that replaced the love of the literary art with the love of the literary profit. The end result, Pope explains, is a dreaded dullness in literature. He satirizes education, religion, science, and civil society as being the most threatened by the "dunces" and prevails that the literary world is in grave danger of succumbing to this dullness. "The Dunciad" is Pope’s ardent plea for intelligence in the midst of a world where writing is suddenly based on profit rather than passion; where thoughts have been replaced with the exchange of words, enthusiasm is lost to self promotion, personal gain overpowers knowledge, and even religious faith is overcome by greed. This monstrous frame of mind, in Pope’s opinion, occurs early on with a person’s education.

Education is one area in which Pope illustrates the effects of a system where money is more valuable than passion, or in this case, words are taking the place of thoughts. Pope claims that the goal of teachers is to fill the heads of their pupils with needless information in order for them to sound knowledgeable. This process places more emphasis on memorization than it does on the critical thinking skills that Pope feels are so vital to intelligence and thus he accuses, "We ply the memory, we load the brain/Blind rebel wit, and double chain on chain,/Confine the thought to exercise the breath; /And keep them in the pale of words till death" (157-160). He even goes so far as to suggest that students are kept in the "pale of words till death," meaning they are forced within the confines of pedantic learning; their imaginative inclinations are so discouraged that they may never use them again. Pope furthermore explains that the goals of this pedantic teaching are to better prepare students to find solid employment and make the most money they can. However, Pope cautions that once students leave their schools, they will find themselves, "A poet the first day, he dips his quill/And what the last? a very poet still./Pity! the charm works only in our wall,/ Lost, too soon in yonder House or Hall" ( 163-166) and soon discover that thoughts, imaginations, and dreams, not big words or memorized texts, are the keys to real passion in their lives. The knowledge learned in the schools is focused toward one primary goal: if a man sounds smart, he will generate the most profit. Pope argues that this emphasis placed on the exchange of words, rather than the development of thought, leads to the demise of passion and the ascension of greed.

The clash of greed and passion are nowhere more clearly seen, Pope asserts, than in the field of science, where one either aspires to discover for their love of the subject, or for their own personal gain. In "The Dunciad", Pope employs two different characters to reflect this battle. The first character is the botanist who, through endless hours and labor of love, "…reared this flow’r,/ Suckled, and cheered, with air, and sun, and show’r" ( 405-406). After all of this painstaking devotion, the second character, the entomologist, became so absorbed in capturing a butterfly that he destroyed the botanist’s carnation on which it had landed. He described the chase with no remorse: "It fled, I followed; now in hope, now pain;/It stopped, I stopped; it moved, I moved again./At last it fixed, ‘twas on what plant it pleased,/And where it fixed, the beauteous bird I seized:/ Rose or carnation was below my care" ( 427-431). In line 428, Pope clearly expresses the self-absorption of the entomologist by alluding to a biblical passage in which Eve is becomes infatuated with a reflection of herself. The botanist characterizes the true writers, in Pope’s opinion, those who create literature because they have a passion for it; it means something to them. The entomologist represents the booming capitalists who produce literature only if they think they can sell it, or become famous from it, and show no remorse for this greed. Pope explains that those as consumed with greed as the hunter, who only wanted the butterfly for himself, end up destroying the true passions in life, hence the botanist’s beloved carnation. His fear is that the entire practice of science is in jeopardy of falling prey to this greed, and therefore seeing only themselves and what they can gain, instead of seeing themselves as part of a larger plan.

The idea that all people are part of a larger plan implemented by God was a belief central to religious faith and one that Pope fears is also at risk for destruction if mankind continues to exist in this commodity-driven society. To represent this fear in his poem, Pope depicts a "gloomy clerk," referring to an Anglican theologian who was religiously skeptical, therefore making him "gloomy" to Pope. The clerk maintains, "We nobly take the high priori road,/And reason downward, till we doubt of God:/Make nature still encroach upon his plan;/ And shove him off as far e’er we can" ( 471-474). Taking the "high priori road" is to argue a prior truth; that God will not stand up to examination in the real, natural world, and instead, he will be taken over by it. Furthermore, the clerk encourages "Or, at one bound o’er leaping all his laws,/Make God man’s image, man, the final cause,/ Find virtue local, all relative scorn,/ See all in Self, and but for self be born:" ( 477-480). These words are meant to encourage people to see themselves as God’s perfect creation, and therefore they should focus more on themselves than on His plan. "Find virtue local, all relation scorn" or, allow moral relativism, the idea that ethical truths depend upon the individuals holding them, not upon God, to rule all lives. Finally, once people have realized these things to be true, they will be "Wrapped up in self, a God without a thought/Regardless of our merit or default" ( 485-486). In other words, once people have become aware of how much power they posses over themselves, they will not have to worry about God’s judgement of their virtues or their sins; their religion will not be dependant upon faith. All of these lines further reflect Pope’s argument that greed for material wealth is damaging to spiritual faith. By becoming so self-absorbed in want of wealth, people begin to lose sight of God and how they fit into His plan. Pope sees this pattern of putting personal pleasure first, instead of contemplating how one belongs to the whole, as a great danger to not only society’s faith, but to its overall knowledge.

The danger that greed and self-promotion bring to civil society is one that Pope characterizes as a complete loss of the thirst for knowledge. Instead, people desire to gain personal pleasures, giving no thought to the destruction that it might lead them to later in life. In "The Dunciad," Pope portrays this view through the story of a young man who has just returned from a trip to several different countries, which was designed to teach him knowledge of other languages and cultures. Instead, the young man squanders his time with "The stews and palace equally explored,/ Intrigued with glory, and with spirit whored" ( 315-316). Although he was supposed to learn many different languages, he did not want to take the time, so he "Dropped the dull lumber of the Latin score,/ Spoiled his own language and acquired no more" ( 319-320). Here, Pope clearly demonstrates the consequences, (in this case, the young man sounds like an idiot when he is speaking) of wasting a chance for knowledge by being too consumed with personal affairs. Not only does this youth waste all his potential for knowledge, but upon his return: "This glorious youth, and add one Venus more./ Her too receive (for her my soul adore)/ So may the sons of sons of sons of whores…" ( 330-332). The image of the prostitute returning with the young man and producing children is likely Pope’s metaphor that greed breeds upon greed, and once it is introduced into a society, it is very difficult to stop its consumption. It is of this very realism that Pope is the most afraid and through his response, attempts to appeal to his readers to stop this cycle of greed before it is too late.

Pope’s response to all which he advocates against in "The Dunciad" is that if people cannot stop themselves from being overcome with greed, all true passions for the arts, the sciences, and the fulfilled life will be destroyed. The conclusion of "The Dunciad" is centered on a metaphor of the solar system, which represents a never-ending black abyss; the same abyss that Pope feels mankind is in danger of falling into if they do not change their perspective on their lives. The consequences will be: "Wit shoots in vain its momentary fires,/The meteor drops, and in a flash expires./As one by one, at dread Medea’s strain,/ The sick’ning stars fade off th’ ethereal plain;" (633-636). Clearly, Pope is depicting a battle between wit and vanity, in which vanity is the victor, and one by one, virtues, represented by the stars, begin to leave each person, represented by the plain. Coinciding with the images of the solar system are Pope’s metaphors of darkness and night which represent the death of passion and morality, and the results of which are: "Art after Art goes out, and all is night./ See skulking Truth to her old cavern fled,/ Mountains of casuistry heaped o’er her head!/ Philosophy, that leaned on Heav’n before,/ Shrinks to her second cause, and is no more" ( 640-644). Pope continues to list many more arts and sciences, but the ferocity felt by Pope is evident in these lines. Truth is replaced by false reasoning and philosophy must now explain the world through natural causes. Pope demonstrates in this passage the very passion with which he feels is so lacking in society. Although Pope may have meant the poem to appeal writers especially, his metaphoric stanzas at the end of the poem can really be directed towards a vast society where, "Nor public flame, nor private, dares to shine;/ Nor human spark is left, nor glimpse divine!" (651-652). Furthermore, "Religion blushing veils her sacred fires,/ And unawares Morality expires/ (649-650) are important to Pope’s argument because he specifies the two most vital aspects to maintaining a passionate life: religion and morality. Without faith or virtue, people will undoubtedly become concerned only with self-promotion, or lose their "spark" and "glimpse divine." The above lines unveil the response to which Pope has been alluding in his earlier threats: faith and intelligence are the fire of the human spirit, and once they are extinguished by insatiability, that spirit will become a dark void.

"The Dunciad" is Pope’s outstretched hand to rescue the writers of his society from the voids in which they have fallen. He beseeches them to compose with the passion of the past, where ravenousness for commodity did not exist; religious faith was more valuable than money, education was priceless, words were worth nothing without the power of thought, and determination was valued higher than self-promotion. The poem warns that religion, education, science and indeed, civil society, are all in danger of becoming infested and overrun with the sickness of greed, until there is nothing left of the virtuous ways. Pope’s writing seems to be a caution; however, upon completion, it would appear that Pope has realized that it may already be too late for mankind to turn back from the path of voracity, as he finally declares: "Thy hand, great Anarch! Lets the curtain fall;/ And Universal Darkness buries All" ( 655-656).