Text: Richard A. Fusco, “Chapter I,” Poe and the Perfectablility of Man (1982), pp. 1-37 (This material is protected by copyright)


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Poe and Perfectability


In his fiction and criticism Edgar Allan Poe steadfastly opposed the doctrine of human perfectibility: his Gothic vision could permit no other stance. Nevertheless, he found his opinions tempered by ambivalence in that he marveled at the grandiloquence of perfectionist treatises — particularly those in eighteenth-century philosophy. In fact, the works of five European social philosophers shaped Poe’s understanding of perfectibility theory. Biographical evidence suggests that this understanding originated in Poe’s academic career. In the grim reality that Poe perceived, however, the visions of these perfectionists degenerated into castles in the clouds — interesting, but unsubstantial.

Poe’s view on the perfectibility of humankind and the influence of that perspective on his fiction present unusual problems for a critic. The dilemma stems from the ambiguity inherent in the abstract term human perfection. Philosophers as divergent as Plato, Aristotle, Luther, Kant, and Descartes have addressed the issue, each arriving at a differing conclusion. In analyzing such themes in world literature, Passmore [page 2:] identifies eight conclusions at which a philosopher may arrive:

1) there is some task in which each and every man can perfect himself technically; 2) he is capable of wholly subordinating himself to God’s will; 3) he can attain to his natural end; 4) he can be entirely free of any moral defect; 5) he can make himself a being who is metaphysically perfect; 6) he can make himself a being who is harmonious and orderly; 7) he can live in the manner of any ideally perfect human being; 8) he can become godlike.(1)

Thus, the critic must ask himself which of these ends Poe had in mind when he discussed perfectibility. The question becomes more complicated when the critic considers the author’s belief in man’s means, inspiration and capability to achieve such goals.

Poe provided sufficient clues in his work so that readers could decipher his personal understanding of perfectibility. In three tales, two reviews and two letters, Poe not only expounded his simultaneous attraction to and repulsion from such theories, he strutted his knowledge of eighteenth-century British and French philosophers, allowing a small, well-read audience to apprehend immediately the parameters of the concept he repudiated. The implication contained in these seven works extends beyond considering anti-perfectibility as an isolated theme: Poe subconsciously applied [page 3:] his reactionary approach throughout many of his tales and poems. Under such light, the estrangement from society to which he reconciled himself becomes imbued with a philosophical dimension, negative in character, denying the possibility of perfectibility but proposing no alternative theory. Only through Poe’s opposition to the idea of human progress can we surmise an interesting element within his mosaic conception of the human condition.

Before tackling Poe’s response to the perfectionists, a brief overview of previous biographical and critical research may prove useful; the topic has been acknowledged, but not fully explored. For example, in “Poe’s ‘Lionizing’: A Quiz on Willis and Lady Blessington,” Benton suggests en passant that the “human-perfectibility man” in the tale burlesqued is Bulwer-Lytton. Hammond supports Benton’s assessment by noting that the human-perfectibility man in “Lionizing” quotes Condorcet and de Staël, as does the narrator in Bulwer’s Conversations with an Ambitious Student in Ill Health.(2)

Many biographers quote either Poe’s 2 July 1844 letter [page 4:] to Lowell or a similar letter sent to Chivers eight days later in which Poe comments on the course of human history, but few explore the poet’s comments at any length. Quinn, for example, tosses aside the passage as just a “striking epigram.”(3) Using the letter to Lowell for evidence, Jacobs concludes more substantially:

Man might progress in knowledge of the natural laws, but he could not progress in wisdom, for wisdom meant the mind’s perfect comprehension of itself. Above all man could not progress in happiness so long as he possessed a body tributary to the pain and frustration that were necessary conditions in the organic life.(4)

In a footnote, McLean suggests that Poe’s views on perfectibility bear a striking similarity to George Tucker’s philosophy, implying that the professor influenced Poe’s thinking either during the latter’s career at the University of Virginia or in Tucker’s 1835 lecture.(5)

Literary criticism of Poe and perfectibility in his fiction is sparse. In “Poe’s Odd Angel,” Gerber erroneously fuses Poe’s discussion in the letters to Chivers and Lowell [page 5:] with the poet’s distaste for reformers such as Channing and Greeley, commenting:

By creating an angel who neither looks, acts, nor speaks as an angel should, Poe demonstrates artistically, as he later wrote, that “in efforts to soar above our nature, we invariably fall below it. Your reformist demigods are merely devils turned inside out.”(6)

Although Poe’s conception of perfectibility influenced his view of contemporary social reform, his definition differs significantly from Gerber’s.

In discussing Poe’s landscape fiction, Hess believes that “the stories themselves refute a belief in artistic perfectibility, and that this refutation becomes clear chiefly upon examining Poe’s use of source material.”(7) In “The Domain of Arnheim” one such source was painter Thomas Cole’s sequence of works The Voyage of Life. Hess suggests that Poe’s and Cole’s efforts resemble each other in portraying the innocent fancies of youth; yet an element of ambiguity exists in such visions:

In using the image of the Edenic Garden as the symbol of artistic perfection, Poe makes the possibility of achieving such perfection extremely ambiguous: for when the creator is man, it is nearly impossible to separate the symbol of Paradise from that of Paradise lost.(8) [page 6:]

Hess errs in the use of the term perfection, for, as demonstrated below, Poe never believed it to mean man’s retrieval of Eden.

Poe’s Perfectionists

When Poe used the phrase human perfectibility, he consistently invoked the names of five social philosophers. In “Lion-izing. A. Tale” (1835), the burlesque of court life included a “human-perfectibility man” who “quoted Turgot, Price, Priestly [sic], Condorcet, De Stael . . .”(9) In the July 1839 issue of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, Poe reviewed Alexander Dimitry’s lecture on the progress of civilization, stating that Dimitry’s views “border somewhat too closely, in our apprehension, upon the eloquent madness of Turgot, Price, Priestly [sic], Condorcet, and De Stael . . .”(10) “The Landscape Garden” (1842) includes the following in the [page 7:] opening paragraph: “The person of whom I speak, seemed born for the purpose of foreshadowing the wild doctrines of Turgot, Price, Priestly [sic], and Condorcet . . .”(11) The tale concludes with “a far greater amount of positive happiness than ever glowed in the rapt day-dreams of De Staël.”(12) When Poe revised “The Landscape Garden” into “The Domain of Arnheim” (1847), he retained both passages quoted above. Not only do the identical philosophers reappear in four works published within twelve years, but, curiously, Poe repeated the same order much in the manner of a student reciting a lesson. A reader can conclude, accordingly, that Poe’s understanding of the theory of human perfection derives from the writings of these five eighteenth-century philosophers.

Of the five, Anne-Marie-Jacques Turgot, a government official and social reformer in pre-revolutionary France, first addressed the question of human progress. While attending the Sorbonne in December 1750, Turgot delivered the second of two discourses mandated by his honorary position as Prior. His topic was Sur les progrés successifs de l’esprit humain. Contrasting the experience of nature with that of man, Turgot established the essence df his optimistic approach to history [page 8:] in the first three paragraphs:

The phenomena of nature, governed as they are by constant laws, are confined within a circle of revolutions which are always the same. All things perish, and all things spring up again; and in these successive acts of generation through which plants and animals reproduce themselves time does no more than restore continually the counterpart of what it has caused to disappear.

The succession of mankind, on the other hand, affords from age to age an ever-changing spectacle. Reason, the passions, and liberty ceaselessly give rise to new events: all the ages are bound up with one another by a succession of causes and effects which link the present state of the world with all those that preceded it. The arbitrary signs of speech and writing, by providing men with the means of securing the possession of their ideas and communicating them to others, have made of all the individual stores of knowledge a common treasure-house which one generation transmits to another, an inheritance which is always being enlarged by the discoveries of each age. Thus the human race, considered over the period since its origin, appears to the eye of a philosopher as one vast whole, which itself, like each individual, has its infancy and its advancement.

We see the establishment of societies, and the formation of nations which in turn dominate other nations or become subject to them. Empires rise and fall; laws and forms of government succeed one another; the arts and the sciences are in turn discovered and perfected, in turn retarded and accelerated in their progress; and they are passed on from country to country. Self-interest, ambition, and vainglory continually change the world scene and inundate the earth with blood; yet in the midst of their ravages manners are softened, the human mind becomes more enlightened, and separate nations are brought closer to one another. Finally commercial and political ties unite all parts of the globe, and the whole human race, through alternate periods of rest and unrest, of weal and woe, goes on advancing, although at a slow pace, towards greater perfection.(13) [page 9:]

For Turgot, evidence for his interpretation was twofold. First, he maintained. that every stage of mankind’s growth was represented by cultures throughout the world. He assumed that if all cultural and physical conditions were equal, each nation would arrive at the same constant truths of nature at a uniform rate; but nature distributes “her gifts unequally” among men and nations, creating a spectrum from anarchistic barbarism to the modern state.(14) Examining his world for evidence to support his theories, Turgot simultaneously reviewed recorded history, noting particularly the rise and fall of great empires. He concluded that even with the most frightening of social change — revolution — eventually “the evil . . . disappears[,] the good remains, and humanity perfects itself.”(15)

Aided by the development of writing and by the advances of the sciences and ethics recorded by each generation when unfettered by superstition or political repression, man proceeds haphazardly yet inevitably toward the summit of his potential. Still, his course is marked by error. Such misfortune is the product of cultural amelioration, for from birth to educational maturity each successive generation must [page 10:] assimilate more information and more abstractions on a greater variety of subjects. Consequently, “[t]his chaotic blend of ideas and expressions grows and becomes more complex all the time; and when man starts to seek for truth he finds himself in the midst of a labyrinth which he has entered blindfold. Should we be surprised at his errors?”(16) It is curious to note, however, that “[t]he real advancement of the human mind reveals itself even in its aberrations; the caprices of Gothic architecture are never found among those who possess nothing but wooden huts.”(17) For Turgot, then, whether by intuitive insight or through experience by error, the furtherance of man’s knowledge prefigures his perfection.

Poe’s second perfectionist was clergyman-philosopher-economist Richard Price. Although much of the Price canon alludes to human progress, his strongest attestation occurs in his 1787 sermon, The Evidence for a Future Improvement in the State of Mankind, . . . As Turgot, Price defined his subject by analogy:

Almost every object in nature grows up gradually, from a weak and low, to a mature and improve state of being. The condition of mankind, in particular, has been hitherto improving. At first they were rude and ignorant. In time several of the arts were discovered. Civilization and agriculture began, and governments were established. By degrees the arts were improved. New ones were discovered, [page 11:] and better forms of government were established; and in the present era of the world, it is evident, that the life of man appears with greater dignity than ever; and that in consequence of a vast-variety of successive improvements and additions, produced by them in the sources of human enjoyment, there is the same difference between the state of our species now and its state at first, as there is between a youth approaching to manhood and a child just born.

It deserves particular consideration here, that it is the nature of improvement to increase itself. Every advance in it lifts mankind higher, and makes them more capable of further advances; nor are there, in this case, any limits beyond which knowledge and improvement cannot be carried. And for this reason, discoveries may, for ought we know, be made in future, which, like the discoveries of the mechanical arts and the mathematical sciences in past time, may exalt the powers of men and improve their state to a degree, which will make future generations as much superior to the present as the present are to the past.(18)

Price’s optimism for the future is, in part, biblically inspired. He cited various passages — such as the prophecy in Revelations of Christ’s thousand year reign (Rev. 11:2,15) to suggest that God predestined man for greatness.(19) Most of Price’s evidence is negative in character, derived from historical analysis. He noted the decline of Catholicism and [page 12:] particularly of the influence of the Jesuits. These circumstances as well as other incidents as the downfall of the Spanish Inquisition “show us man a milder animal than he was and the world outgrowing its evils, superstition giving way, antichrist falling, and the Millennium hastening.”(20)

Similar to Turgot’s cherishing of knowledge, Price promoted education. Despotic governments detract from progress by converting men into unthinking “beasts” ruled by “demons.” “Free governments, on the contrary, exalt the human character.”(21) Like Turgot, too, Price believed that although human history may vacillate between good and evil, the end justifies all suffering:(22)

Ages of improvement have been followed by ages of barbarism; and the several climates of the earth have felt the vicissitudes of knowledge and ignorance just as they have, of light and darkness. Yet what has been lost in one place, or at one time has been gained in another; and an age of darkness and barbarism has been succeeded by ages of improvement more rapid than any that preceded them. There was a time when no man was what whole countries are now. And there may come a time when every country will be what many are now and when some will be advanced to a state much higher.(23)

These sentiments echo the optimism Price had expressed three [page 13:] years earlier in his Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution . . . (1784) . In American Revolution he similarly proposed that human progress oscillates, but

[t]here are certain kinds of improvement which, when once made, cannot be entirely lost. During the dark ages the improvements made in the ages that preceded them remained so far as to be recovered immediately at the resurrection of letters and to produce afterwards that more rapid progress in improvement which has distinguished modern times.(24)

Possessing one of the most eclectic intellects of his time, Joseph Priestley, Poe’s third perfectibility theorist, contributed significantly to the physical sciences and to liberal social thought in eighteenth-century England. Advocating the concept of the advancement of the human race throughout his life, Priestley’s strongest presentation of his views occurred in An Essay on the First Principles of Government, and the Nature of Political, Civil and Religious Theory (1769). Influenced by his training, Priestley’s approach to the subject is scientific, “All civil societies, and the whole science of civil government, on which they are founded, are yet in their infancy. Like other arts and sciences, this is gradually improving; but it improves more slowly, [page 14:] because opportunities for making experiments are fewer.” Consequently, like Turgot but unlike Price, Priestley believed that change has more meaning when it is evolutionary, not revolutionary:

Let us, however, beware, lest by attempting to accelerate, we in fact retard our progress in happiness. But more especially, let us take heed, lest, by endeavouring to secure and perpetuate the great ends of society, we in fact defeat those ends. We shall have a thousand times more enjoyment of a happy and perfect form of government, when we can see in history the long progress of our constitution through barbarous and imperfect systems of policy; as we are more confirmed in the truth, and have more enjoyment of it, by reviewing the many errors by which we were misled in our pursuit of it.(26)

Priestley theorized that the next great step on humanity’s road to destiny would involve the liberalization of rights and institutions:

It is an universal maxim, that the more liberty is given to every thing which is in the state of growth, the more perfect it will become; and when it is grown to its full size, the more amply will it repay its wise parent, for the indulgence given to it in its infant state.(27)

When despotism promotes uniformity in society, mankind retrogresses. In his historical analogy, Priestley commented that the political turmoil of ancient Athens was preferable to the [page 15:] “savage uniformity” of its neighbor Sparta because the former permitted the development of, the individual but the latter restricted such growth to preserve the harmony of the state.(28)

Thus liberty became Priestley’s prescription for the England of his day. Characterized by trial and error, and tempered by patience, greater individual freedom will permit the growth of both individual and society. Priestley used the favorite tool of the perfectionists — analogy — to promote his position:

How many falls does a child get before it learns to walk secure. How many inarticulate sounds precede those which are articulate. How often are we imposed upon by our senses before we learn to form a right judgment of the proper objects of them. How often do our passions mislead us, and involve us in difficulties, before we reap the advantage they were intended to bring us in our pursuit of happiness; and how many false judgments do we make, in the investigation of all kinds of truth, before we come to a right conclusion. How many ages do errors and prejudices of all kinds prevail, before they are dissipated by the light of truth, and how general, and how long was the reign of false religion before the propagation of the true! How late was christianity [sic], that great remedy of vice and ignorance, introduced! How slow and how confined its progress:(29)

The rewards of perseverance are great, though: “In the mean time, let the friends of liberty by no means give way to impatience. The longer it may be before this reformation [page 16:] takes place, the more effectual it will probably be.”(30) Overall, Priestley viewed with much optimism man’s ability to control his own destiny, implying that men influence the rate and effectiveness of improvements to better their condition.

With Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, the Marquis de Condorcet — social philosopher, mathematician and revolutionary leader — Poe returned to a theorist who links human progress to violent social change. As Price saw benefits in the American rebellion, Condorcet viewed the French Revolution as the watershed for a new age of man. This belief underlies his Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrés de l’esprit humain (1795). In the treatise Condorcet distinguished nine separate epochs of man’s growth and alluded to the dawn of a tenth, heralded by the radical cultural changes in late eighteenth-century France. Like Turgot, Condorcet believed:

The history of man from the time when alphabetical writing was known in Greece to the condition of the human race at the present day in the most enlightened countries of Europe is linked by an uninterrupted chain of facts and observations; and so at this point the picture of the march and progress of the human mind becomes truly historical. Philosophy has nothing more to guess, no more hypothetical surmises to make; it is enough to [page 17:] assemble and order the facts and to show the useful truths that can be derived from their connections and from their totality.(31)

Condorcet grafted to Turgot’s idea of human history as a causal train an optimistic assessment of man’s future: that is, the path to perfection is inevitable. The only upward limitation to the degree of man’s ascent is the lifespan of the Earth. Finally,

[t]his progress will doubtless vary in speed, but it will never be reversed as long as the earth occupies its present place in the system of the universe, and as long as the general laws of this system produce neither a general cataclysm nor such changes as will deprive the human race of its present faculties and its present resources.(32)

For Condorcet the future would be determined by three criteria: “the abolition of inequality between nations, the progress of equality within each nation, and the true perfection of mankind.”(33) As for the equality of nations, Condorcet believed that the principles of the French constitution would inspire the downtrodden throughout the world to rebel against despotism. Progress in promoting each aspect of individual liberty tends to influence other aspects: “With greater equality of education there will be greater equality [page 18:] in industry and so in wealth; equality in wealth necessarily leads to equality in education: [sic] and equality between nations and equality within a single nation are mutually dependent.”(34) The same mutualistic process assures the advancement of knowledge:

The progress of the sciences ensures the progress of the art of education which in turn advances that of the sciences. This reciprocal influence, whose activity is ceaselessly renewed, deserves to be seen as one of the most powerful and active causes working for the perfection of mankind.(35)

Condorcet believed so devoutly in man’s potential that he could not imagine limits to perfection. Even when prognosticating future medical advances, he refused to project an upper limitation to the human life span. Throughout the treatise, his rhetoric is characterized by words such as indefinite and infinite. Of all the perfectionists, Condorcet dreamed the highest — perhaps too high — but in such revelries, he found solace:

Such contemplation is for him an asylum, in which the memory of his persecutors cannot pursue him; there he lives in thought with man restored to his natural rights and dignity, forgets man tormented and corrupted by greed, fear, or envy; there he lives with his peers in an Elysium created by reason and graced by the purest pleasures known to the love of mankind.(36) [page 19:]

The last of Poe’s perfectionists was Anne-Louise-Germaine Necker de Staël — novelist, playwright, critic, historian, philosopher, and political figure in four successive French regimes — during which she gained the distinction of becoming a personal enemy of Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1800 Madame de Staël published De la littérature considérée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales. She addressed two areas of human progress: the dissociation of the tenets of perfectionism theory from their unfortunate association with the Reign of Terror, and the reaffirmation of those tenets as part of man’s blind hope for his destiny. On the former subject, de Staël wrote passionately:

This system of the perfectibility of human nature has, it is true, become odious in the eyes of some persons, on account of the atrocious consequences derived from it at certain disastrous periods of the Revolution: Nothing, however, has less connection with these consequences than that exalted system. As nature sometimes makes partial evils tend to the general good, a set of besotted barbarians imagined themselves transformed into supreme legislators, while they drew down upon the human race a train of calamities, the effects of which they vainly expected to direct; but which were in the end productive of nothing but misery and ruin. Philosophy may occasionally look back upon past calamities, and contemplate them as salutary lessons, and as instruments and means of reparation in the hands of time; but this observation can never sanction, under any circumstances whatever, the slightest departure from the positive laws of justice. As the human mind can never arrive at a certain knowledge of futurity, Virtue alone should prompt its divinations. The consequences, whatever they may be, of human actions, can never contribute to render them either innocent or criminal: man is to be guided, not by fanciful and arbitrary rules, but by fixed unalterable duties: and experience itself has proved, that we fail in attaining the moral end we have in view, when guilty means are employed for its attainment. Because [page 20:] men of sanguinary minds have polluted and profaned the language of generous and noble feeling; does it follow that we are to be forbidden to let our breasts expand at the recollection of sublime sentiments and thoughts? The ruffian might thus tear from the man of virtue the dearest objects of his esteem: for it is ever under the name of some virtue that political crimes are perpetrated.(37)

Her defense of perfectionism indicates similar fervor:

To this philosophical creed do I cling with-all the faculties of my mind: I perceive among its chief advantages, that it inspires an high sense of self-esteem, an elevation of soul; and I appeal to every mind of a certain cast, whether there be in this nether world a purer enjoyment than that conferred by this enlargement of mind? To it we are indebted, that there still are moments in which all these mean groveling beings, with all their sordid calculations of self interestedness, fade away and sink before our eyes. Our faculties are inspired with fresh vigors by contemplating the future state of knowledge, of virtue, and of glory: certain vague impressions crowd in upon us, certain sentiments that we cannot well define, which alleviate the load of life; while the whole moral man swells with the pride of virtue, and swims in the overflowings of happiness. If all our efforts were to be exerted in vain; if our intellectual labours were to be employed to no purpose, but irrevocably swallowed up in the oblivious gulf of time; where is the object which a virtuous man could propose to himself in his solitary meditations?(38)

Madame de Staël is a fitting last member among Poe’s set of perfectionists, for her views coincided with Turgot’s, suggesting a philosophical cycle that has completed its circuit. All five writers reviewed above either anticipate or react to [page 21:] revolution, implying that Poe’s understanding of perfectionist theory included its historical development through the last half of the eighteenth century. If so, an interesting possibility arises: Poe may have unintentionally juxtaposed Price and Priestley in his repetitive order of presentation. The bulk of Priestley’s works on perfectibility predate Price’s by over a decade. Philosophically, Priestley’s views more resemble Turgot’s; Price’s conception is closer to Condorcet’s. Thus, the order Turgot, Priestley, Price, Condorcet, and de Staël works better than Poe’s Turgot, Price, Priestley, Condorcet, and de Staël in two ways. First, the chronology of publication among the above works is preserved. Second, the following development in perfectibility theory becomes apparent. Turgot and Priestley thought that such progress ought to be evolutionary: that progress must be gradual in order for it to have any permanent effect upon humanity. Turgot hoped that change could be brought about by government; consequently, he sought social reforms using existing political means. On the other hand, Priestley maintained a discreet distance from government. With Price, the theory of perfectibility became linked with revolution. His observations on the American Revolutionary War, and to some degree the French, promoted the notion that radical change could benefit mankind. Condorcet believed in the efficacy of revolution even more fervently, at times implying that revolt is the most effective [page 22:] tool in man’s effort to control his destiny. Writing during her country’s readjustment, Madame de Staël returned to Turgot and Priestley’s hope for social evolution, repudiating the connection between social violence and man’s perfectibility. Therefore, Poe’s comprehension of the subject demonstrates strong historical insight, resembling in structure an academic lecture — implications of which will be addressed later in this chapter.(39)

Poe’s Reaction to Perfectibility

Poe’s response to these philosophers was essentially negative, but not without ambivalent undertones. He found their methodology intriguing. Subconsciously, he seemed to hope that mankind could achieve greatness; intellectually, he could not reconcile such optimism with his despondent perspective of the human condition. This interpretation tallies with those of critics who view Poe as a negative Romantic, for some of the concepts of perfectibility have been linked to Romanticism, particularly de Staël’s insights in De la littérature . . . which Chateaubriand called a “prospectus of Romanticism.”(40) Evidence for Poe’s foreboding about man’s [page 23:] ultimate fate exists in a number of his tales, reviews and letters.

In “Lionizing” (1835) Poe presented twelve “Lions and Recherches” in obvious sarcastic light, the eleventh of which is: “There was a human-perfectibility man. He quoted Turgot, Price, Priestly [sic], Condorcet, De Stael, and the ‘Ambitious Student in rather ill health.’”(41)

One year later, reviewing James Kirke Paulding’s Slavery in the United States, Poe summed up his definition of perfectibility, describing it with utopian abstractions:

The absolute and palpable impossibility of ever unlearning what we know, and of returning, even by forgetfulness, to the state in mind which the knowledge of it first found us, has always afforded flattering encouragement to the hopes of him who dreams about the perfectibility of human nature. Sometimes one scheme, and sometimes another is devised for accomplishing this great end; and these means are so various, and often so opposite, that the different experiments which the world has encountenanced would seem to contradict the maxim we have quoted. At one time human nature is to be elevated to the height of perfection, by emancipating the mind from all the restraints imposed by Religion. At another, the same end is to be accomplished by the universal spread of faith, under the benign influence of which every son of Adam is to become holy, “even as God is holy.” One or the other of these schemes has been a cardinal point in every system of perfectibility which has been devised since the earliest records of man’s history began. At the same time the progress of. knowledge (subject indeed to occasional interruptions) [page 24:] has given to each successive experiment a seeming advantage over that which preceded it.(42)

Here, though, Poe challenged the optimism inherent in human progress theories with his own historical perspective, supported, interestingly by analogy much in the manner of Turgot and Priestley:

But it is lamentable to observe, that let research discover, let science teach, let art practice what it may, man, in all his mutations, never fails to get back to some point at which he has been before. The human mind seems to perform, by some invariable laws, a sort of cycle, like those of the heavenly bodies. We may be unable, (and, for ourselves, we profess to be so) to trace the causes of these changes; but we are not sure that an accurate observation of the history of the various nations at different times, may not detect the laws that govern them. However eccentric the orbit, the comet’s place in the heavens enables the enlightened astronomer to anticipate its future course, to tell when it will pass its perihelion, in what direction it will shoot away into the unfathomable abyss of infinite space, and at what period it will return. But what especially concerns us, is to marks its progress through our planetary system, to determine whether in coming or returning it may infringe upon us, and prove the messenger of that dispensation which, in the end of all things, is to wrap our earth in flames.

Not less eccentric, and far more deeply interesting to us, is the orbit of the human mind. . . .(43)

For Poe mankind’s cycle included “fanaticism and irreligion” in the pursuit for happiness. The orbit’s nadir is revolution — when the unthinking mob that Poe so abhorred reduces the [page 25:] the human condition back to social barbarism.(44) Whereas the perfectionists looked at history and saw reason to hope, Poe only observed blood-filled parallels in the English, French and West Indian rebellions.(45)

Poe’s brief introductory paragraph to the text of Alexander Dimitry’s “Lecture on the Study of History, applied to the Progress of Civilization” attests to the poet’s delight in reading perfectibility doctrines:

A brilliant and bold production, bearing the impress of the mind of its author. With the tenets, however, here so well supported by Mr. Dimitry we will not altogether coincide. They border somewhat too closely, in our apprehension, upon the eloquent madness of Turgot, Price, Priestly [sic], Condorcet, and De Stael — yet, strange to say, none of these names occur in the Lecture with the exception perhaps of that of Priestly [sic], in an incidental manner: There can be no doubt, however, at what sparking fountains our author has imbibed his scarcely tenable notions of the perfectibility of man. For to this end, more than to any other, tend the doctrines and the arguments of the essay. In the position itself we have little faith, but great faith in the ability of our friend to make the best of a bad topic. This, in the present instance, he has undoubtedly accomplished, as the spirited passage annexed will testify more fully than any assertion of our own.(46) [page 26:]

In “The Landscape Garden” Poe seemingly joined his opposition:

. . . The person for whom I speak, seemed born for the purpose of foreshadowing the wild doctrines of Turgot, Price, Priestley, and Condorcet — of exemplifying, by individual instance, what has been deemed the mere chimera of the perfectionists. In the brief existence of Ellison, I fancy that I have seen refuted the dogma — that in man’s physical and spiritual nature, lies some hidden principle, the antagonist of Bliss. An intimate and anxious examination of his career, has taught me to understand that, in general, from the violation of a few simple laws of Humanity, arise the Wretchedness of mankind; that, as a species, we have in our possession the as of yet unwrought elements of Content; and that, even now, in the present blindness and darkness of all idea on the great question of the Social Condition, it is not impossible that Man, the individual, under certain and highly fortuitous conditions, may be happy.(47)

Note how Poe qualified his statements. He labeled the doctrines of the perfectionists as wild. He couched his observations of Ellison’s principles with the word fancy. Only man the individual, not society as the perfectionists would claim, has the chance for happiness. Finally, Ellison existed only briefly, suggesting that even if happiness is achieved — which does not necessarily imply perfection — it would be ephemeral. As discussed above, moreover, the sources Poe used for his story cast negative overtones on the Edenic descriptions.(48) Consequently, the reader must look askance at the concluding [page 27:] phrase: “. . . that Ellison thought to find, and found, an exemption from the ordinary cares of Humanity, with a far greater amount of positive happiness than ever glowed in the rapt day-dreams of De Staël.”(49)

In a 2 July 1844 letter to James Russell Lowell, Poe reasserted his world-weariness:

. . . I really perceive that vanity about which most men merely prate — the vanity of the human or temporarl life. I live continually in a reverie of the future. I have no faith in human perfectibility. I think that human exertion will have no appreciable effect upon humanity. Man is now only more active — not more happy — nor more wise, than he was 6000 years ago. The result will never vary — and to suppose that it will, is to suppose that the foregone man has lived in vain — that the foregone time is but the rudiment of the future — that the myriads who have perished have not been upon equal footing with ourselves — nor are we with our posterity. I cannot agree to lose sight of man the individual, in man the mass. . . .(50)

Poe directly challenged the perfectionists’ comparison of ancient and modern man. More importantly, Poe’s comments imply that analyzing man through the study of social history denies him the very individuality that philosophers such as Priestley treasured. In his 1848 Marginalia, Poe reaffirmed: “An infinity of error makes its way into our. Philosophy, through Man’s [page 28:] habit of considering himself a citizen of a world solely — of an individual planet — instead of at least occasionally contemplating his position as cosmopolite proper — as a denizen of the universe.”(51)

Obviously, Poe’s psychic drives are antisocial in character. He could not agree with the perfectionists b cause they insisted in measuring man’s growth through civilization’s progress. As was characteristic of negative Romantics, moreover, Poe offered no adequate alternative to interpret human history and destiny.(52)

Origins of Poe’s View of Perfectibility

In tracing the beginnings of Poe’s awareness of eighteenth-century philosophy, attention must be paid to the availability to Poe of the works discussed above. English translations of Condorcet’s and de Staël’s treatises existed in Poe’s time. American publishers issued Tableau in 1798 and 1802. Littérature had American printings in 1813 and 1835, both based on an 1803 English translation printed in London. With his knowledge of French, however, it remains quite possible that Poe read each work in its original language, for both [page 29:] works were published extensively in nineteenth-century Paris. It is likely that Poe read Turgot’s essay in French: none of the major national catalogs record an English translation of L’esprit Humain either before or during Poe’s lifetime. Turgot’s work has likewise been reprinted in many forms, highlighted by his collected works (1808-11). In addition to its eighteenth-century printings, Priestley’s Essay was published in London during 1823 and 1835. Having only two London publication dates, as a pamphlet in 1787 and as part of his complete works in 1816, Price’s Evidence presents some analytical problems for a Poe critic: the question of whether or not Poe read the sermon lingers because of its restricted accessibility. On the other hand, Price’s Observations was extensively published, including many American editions.

Although it remains possible that Poe’s definition of perfectibility was developed through his personal discoveries in reading world literature, significant evidence exists to suggest that he borrowed his identification and organization of his conception from a contemporary. In attempting to establish the composition. of “Lionizing,” Hammond implies that among the origins of Poe’s conception was the 1832 American edition of Bulwer’s Conversations with a Student in Ill Health. This claim is based on the following passage in Conversations: [page 30:]

. . . I confess there are moments when I feel a sort of despondence of our ultimate doom: when I am almost inclined to surrender the noblest earthly hope that man ever formed, and which is solely the offspring of modern times — the hope of human perfectibility.

A. [narrator] You have inclined, then, to the eloquent madness of Condorcet and De Stael: You have believed, then, in spite of the countless ages before us, in which the great successions of human kind are recorded by the Persian epitome of Universal history, “They were born, they were wretched, they died!” — you have believed, despite so long, so uniform, so mournful an experience, despite, too, our physical conformation, which, even in the healthiest and the strongest, subjects the body to so many afflictions, and therefore the temper to so many infirmities — you have believed that we yet may belie the past, cast off the slough of crimes, and gliding into the full light of knowledge, become as angels in the sight of God — you have believed, in a word, that even on this earth, by progressing in wisdom we may progress to perfection.

L. [the student] What else does the age we live in betoken? Look around; not an inanimate object, not a block of wood, not a bolt of iron,

“But doth suffer an earth-change

Into something rich and strange.”

Wherever man applies his intellect, behold how he triumphs. What marvelous improvements in every art, every ornament, every luxury of life! Why not these improvements ultimately in life itself? Are we “the very fiend’s Arch-mock,” that we can-reform every thing, save that which will alone enable us to enjoy our victory — the human heart? In vain we grasp all things within. No! Institutions are mellowing into a brighter form; with Institutions the Character will expand: it will swell from the weak bonds of our foibles and our vices; and if we are fated never to become perfect; we shall advance at least, and eternally, towards perfectibility. The world hath had two Saviors — one divine, and one human; the .first was the Founder of our religion; the second the propagator of our knowledge: The second, and I utter nothing profane, it ministers to the first — the second is the might of the PRESS. By that, the Father of all safe revolutions, the Author of all permanent reforms-by that, man will effect what. the First ordained — the [page 31:] reign of peace, and the circulation of love among the great herd of man.(53)

Hammond is correct in assessing that Poe intended to satirize the beliefs of the British novelist, which undoubtedly inspired the “human-perfectibility man” passage.(54) Poe certainly must have recognized the influence of Priestley on the Bulwer passage. The poet probably sympathized, though, more with the doubt-filled utterances of the narrator than the dreams of the student. In any event, Poe’s adding to “Lionizing” Turgot, Priestley and Price to the Bulwer list challenges the notion that Poe derived his understanding from Conversations. In fact, Poe’s response in his tale suggests that he had a well-formed definition of perfectibility prior to reading Bulwer.

Certainly Poe could not have gotten his ideas from Dimitry’s lecture, for the former had already published his list of philosophers four years previously. He also criticized Dimitry for ignoring the history behind perfectibility in choosing to name only Priestley in “an incidental manner.”(55) [page 32:]

Poe’s conception of perfection theory can best be traced to his years at the University of Virginia. His views coincide remarkably with those of George Tucker, Professor of Moral Philosophy at the institution. A number of biographers and critics have hinted the influence of Tucker on Poe. Quinn suggests that Poe would have benefitted more from contact with Tucker than any other faculty member. Allen reports that Tucker acted as a member of a disciplinary committee when Poe and his cohorts ran afoul of local merchants. In his anxiety over finances in December 1826, Poe visited the home of a faculty member, possibly Tucker.(56) Because of the similarity of subject matter between Tucker’s Voyage to the Moon (1827) and Poe’s “Hans Pfaall” (1835), some debate among modern critics centers upon the relationship between the works: Bailey argues for the possibility, although Allen and Quinn dismiss it.(57)

Of all critics who discuss Poe and Tucker, McLean presents the strongest case: [page 33:]

. . . It seems certain that Poe knew Tucker’s views, since he joined the Southern Literary Messenger only three months after Tucker published in it an article outlining some of his extremely conservative political and social theories (“A Discourse on the Progress of Philosophy and its Influence on the Intellectual and Moral Character of Man,” I [1835], 405-421). Like Poe, Tucker opposed perfectibilian reforms, especially those based upon a priori reasoning; distrusted the “ignorant rabble” of democracies; preferred the life of cities to the joys of rural life; and defended slavery.(58)

The significance of Tucker’s “Discourse” goes beyond what McLean discusses. It was printed in the April 1835 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger. One month later Poe published “Lionizing” in the same magazine. This sequence suggests that the “Discourse” prodded Poe to remember the perfectibility passage in “Lionizing,” and, consequently, he deliberately chose this burlesque piece from his unpublished Tales of the Folio Club collection(59) in reaction to Tucker’s lecture.

Perhaps Tucker’s essay had older associations for Poe. As discussed earlier, analyzing philosophies in the sequence Turgot, Priestley, Price, Condorcet, and de Staël would make [page 34:] for a good academic lecture.(60) Poe may have heard such a presentation, either formally in a classroom or at a dinner table, given by Tucker in 1826 in his capacity as Professor of Moral Philosophy for the University of Virginia. Tucker was most certainly aware of eighteenth-century British and French thought. A careful reading of Tucker’s text reveals that he probably knew the writings of Poe’s five perfectionists. For example, the teacher used the perfectionists’ simple comparison of savage with modern man to demonstrate advancement, especially in thought, tangibly represented by the social science philosophy:

The mind therefore becomes, with the progress of civilization, more capable of perceiving relations — more imbued with a knowledge of these relations — more comprehensive — more capable of making remote deductions. It perceives more truths that are complex and difficult — and has more capacity to detect illusion and error. We thus see human reason gradually extending its empire, successfully assailing former prejudice, and fashioning human institutions to purposes of utility. We see men more and more inclined to value every object only in proportion as it conduces to the happiness of the greater number; and to consider nothing as permanently connected with that happiness, but what gives gratification to the senses without debasing them; to the intellect without misleading it; and to the passions when fulfilling their [page 35:] legitimate objects. It is thus we see each succeeding generation regarding with indifference, and even with contemptuous ridicule, what commanded the veneration of a former age.(61)

In his essay Tucker borrowed concepts from all five of Poe’s perfectionists, yet he names only one, Condorcet. Tucker emulated Turgot’s historical perspective and panegyric to the splendor of language. Priestley’s ideas on the relationship between liberty and science with progress echo in the “Discourse.” Tucker, significantly, included a long digression on advances in chemistry, one of Priestley’s fields of expertise. Like Price, Tucker also paid respect to the role of religion in civilization’s improvement. Although he specifically denounced Condorcet’s position as overly optimistic verging on pure fantasy, Tucker’s views on medicine and revolution had some similarities with the writings of the French philosopher. Not only did Tucker imitate de Stael’s analysis of the progress of literature, he paraphrased her defense of perfectibility theory against association with the French Reign of Terror:

There have been those who would make philosophy responsible for these extravagances and excesses, because it [page 36:] had been assiduously cultivated in Paris, just before the Revolution, and some of its maxims were appealed to in justification of the-excesses. But nothing can be more unjust. There are mingled with the enlightened part of Paris population, a far larger portion which was immersed in the grossest ignorance. They had been brought up as it were in a prison house, into which the surrounding light of heaven could never penetrate; and when set free from the restraints of law, they were powerful instruments of mischief in the hands of those who were at once skillful and unscrupulous in using them.(62)

As McLean suggests, although Tucker advocated progress he looked at man’s future with a conservative eye. As has been seen in this chapter, Poe not only followed his teacher’s conservatism, he developed the critical approach to its extreme — pessimism about the human condition. Thus if his understanding of perfectibility owed some debt to Tucker,(63) Poe’s reaction to the theory reflected his own mistrust of the human character.

Poe’s intellectual posture has implications for the interpretation of his fiction, In the remainder of this essay I investigate two consequences of Poe’s response to perfectibility: his counter-utopian stance and his challenge to the perfectionist view of history. In all, these literary manifestations [page 37:] portray a moral vision that is characteristically Poe — profoundly nihilistic and colored with undertones of resignation.



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 2:]

1.  John Passmore, The Perfectibility of Man (New York: Charles Scribner, 1970), p. 27.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 3:]

2.  Richard P. Benton, “Poe’s ‘Lionizing’: A Quiz on Willis and Lady Blessington,” Studies in Short Fiction 5 (Spring 1968):242; Alexander Hammond, “Poe’s ‘Lionizing’ and the Design of Tales of the Folio Club,” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 18 (3rd Quarter 1972):155.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 4:]

3.  Arthur Hobson Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography (New York: Appleton Century-Crofts, 1941; reprint ed., New York: Cooper Square, 1969), p. 430.

4.  Robert D. Jacobs, Poe: Journalist and Critic (Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1969), p. 414.

5.  Robert Colin McLean, George Tucker: Moral Philosopher and Man of Letters (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1961), p. 142n.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 6:]

9.  Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbott, 3 vols. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 1969-78), 2:176. The 1835 reading has been followed: Unless otherwise noted, future references to Poe’s tales will be made using the Mabbott text and will be cited as Collected Works.

10.  [Edgar Allan Poe], “Lecture on the. Study of History, applied to the Progress of Civilization. Delivered by Appointment before the Union Literary Society, May 2d, 1839,” Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine and Monthly Review 5 (July 1839): 58. The attribution of this article to Poe was made by Mabbott; see Collected Works, 2:712n.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 7:]

11.  Collected Works, 2:703. The 1842 reading is quoted here and in the following note.

12.  Ibid., 2:712.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 8:]

13.  Turgot on Progress, Sociology and Economics, trans. and ed. Ronald L. Meek (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), p. 41.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 8:]

14.  Turgot on Progress, pp. 42-43.

15.  Ibid., p. 44.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 10:]

16.  Turgot on Progress, p. 45.

17.  Ibid., p. 58.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 11:]

18.  Richard Price, The Evidence for a Future Period of Improvement in the State of Mankind, with the means and duty of promoting it, presented in a discourse, delivered on Wednesday the 25th of April, 1787, at the Meeting-House in the Old Jewry, London, to. the Supporters of a New Academic Institution Among Protestant Dissenters (London: T. Cadell, in the Strang; and J. Johnson, St. Paul’s Churchyard, 1787), pp. 11-12. Spelling has been modernized; one silent emendation has been made for clarity.

19.  Ibid., p. 9.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 12:]

20.  Price, Evidence for a Future Period, p. 25.

21.  Ibid.

22.  Price interestingly quoted Condorcet on this subject; see ibid., P. 51.

23.  Ibid., p. 13; [Price’s italics].

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 13:]

24.  Richard Price and the Ethical Foundations of the American Revolution, ed. Bernard Peach (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1979), p. 183.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 14:]

25.  Joseph Priestley, An Essay on the First Principles of Government, and on the Nature of Political, Civil and Religious Theory, 2nd ed. (London: J. Johnson, 1771), p. 252. Here and following, spelling has been modernized.

26.  Ibid., p. 261.

27.  Ibid., pp. 258-59.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 15:]

28.  Priestley, Essay on the First Principles, p. 254.

29.  Ibid., p. 262.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 16:]

30.  Priestley, Essay on the First Principles, p. 271; [Priestley’s italics],

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 17:]

31.  Condorcet: Selected Writings, ed. Keith Michael Baker (Indianapolis, Indiana: Bobbs-Merrill, 1976), p. 215.

32.  Ibid., p. 211.

33.  Ibid., p. 258.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 18:]

34.  Condorcet: Selected Writings, p. 266.

35.  Ibid., pp. 276-77.

36.  Ibid., p. 281.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 20:]

37.  Madame de Staël-Holstein, The Influence of Literature upon Society, 2 vols. (Boston: W. Wells and. T. B. Wait and Co., 1813), 1:63-64.

38.  Ibid., 1:65-66.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 22:]

39.  See pp. 33-36 of this text.

40.  R. P. Adams,’”Romanticism and the American Renaissance,” American Literature 23 (January 1952):430; Encyclopedia. Britannica, 1981 ed., s.v. “Stan, Madame de,” by Robert Escarpit.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 23:]

41.  Collected Works, 2:176.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 24:]

42.  The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison, 17 vols. (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1902; reprint ed., New York: AMS Press, 1965), 8:266. Hereafter this work will be cited as Complete Works. [[Note: Although collected by Harrison, this review is now generally attributed to G. B. Tucker.]]

43.  Ibid., 8:266-67; [Poe’s italics].

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 25:]

44.  In his 1849 Marginalia, Poe wrote: “The nose of a mob is its imagination. By this, at any time, it can be quietly led.” “In drawing a line of distinction between a people and.-a mob, we shall find that a people aroused to action are a mob; and that a mob, trying to think, subside into a people.” See Complete Works, 16:160-61.

45.  Ibid., 8:268-69.

46.  Poe, “Lecture on the Study of History,” p. 58. Poe obviously borrowed the term eloquent madness from Bulwer; compare the text with Bulwer’s Conversations quoted on p. 30 of this text.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 26:]

47.  Collected Works, 2:703. “The Domain of Arnheim” essentially repeats the same text.

48.  See Hess’s interpretation summarized on pp. 5-6 in this text.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 27:]

49.  Collected Works, 2:712; [Poe’s italics].

50.  The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. John Ward Ostrom, 2 vols. (Cambridge:- Harvard. University Press, 1948), 1.:256-57. In the future, this source will be cited as Letters. Poe wrote similar passages in a letter to Chivers dated eight days later;. see ibid., 1:260.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 28:]

51.  Complete Works, 16:167.

52.  Adams, “Romanticism,” p. 430.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 31:]

53.  Edward Bulwer-Lytton, The Student: A Series of Papers by the author of “Eugene Aram;” “England and the English,” &c. &c., 2 vols. (London: Saunders and Otley, 1835), 2:132-34; [Bulwer’s italics]. Note — Bulwer changed the title to the above in the first English printing in book form.

54.  Hammond, “Poe’s ‘Lionizing,’” p. 155.

55.  Poe, “Lecture on the Study of History,” p. 58.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 32:]

56.  Quinn, Poe, p. 102; Hervey Allen, Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Farrar and Rinehardt, 1934), pp. 133, 146.

57.  J. O. Bailey, “Sources for Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym, ‘Hans Pfaall,’ and Other Pieces,” PMLA 57 (June 1942): 513-35; Quinn, Poe, p. 102; Allen, Israfel, p. 143.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 33:]

58.  McLean, Tucker, pp. 142-43n.

59.  For an alternate view, see Hammond, “Poe’s ‘Lionizing,’” pp. 154-56. Robert Regan analyzes a similar case in the close publishing dates of Hawthorne’s “Howe’s Maquerade” and Poe’s “Red Death”; see “Hawthorne’s ‘Plagiary’; Poe’s Duplicity,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 25 (December 1970): 284.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 34:]

60.  Given the analysis on pp. 20-22 of this text to be correct, the fact that Poe accidentally juxtaposed Priestley and Price supports my suspicion that Poe borrowed someone else’s historical analysis.. If he had organized the philosophers based on his own research, he likely would have remembered their order. If he heard the sequence in an academic presentation, he could have later forgotten some nuance and, consequently, jumbled Pride and Priestley in his mind.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 35:]

61.  George Tucker, “A Discourse on the Progress of Philosophy, and its Influence on the Intellect and Moral Character of Man: .delivered before the Virginia Historical and Philosophical Society, February 5, 1835. By George Tucker, Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Virginia,” Southern Literary Messenger 1 (April 1835):405-06.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 36:]

62.  Tucker, “Discourse on the Progress,” p. 413; compare Tucker’s text with de Staël’s quoted on pp. 19-20 of this text.

63.  Given Poe’s willingness to complete even optional collegiate assignments, it is likely that he would have read the works of each philosopher and not rely on Tucker’s summary; for a discussion of Poe as student, see Quinn, Poe, pp. 97-117.



[S:0 - PPM82, 1982] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - Poe and the Perfectability of Man (R. A. Fusco) (Chapter I)