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I came across a line from the poem An Essay on Man: Epistle II by Alexander Pope, and I don't understand it in terms of grammar and meaning. Could you help me understand it, please? The passage is:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is Man.

The part that I don't understand is "presume not God to scan". As far as I understand, it means "Don't think about God you could deeply research him". But I am not exactly sure.

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Building on the answers of verbose and Acccumulation, “verb not” was a way of expressing a negative imperative (equivalent to “don’t verb”).  Some examples I was able to find:

This usage is archaic, but you should learn to recognize it, especially if you’re going to read 300-year-old literature.

On the other hand, you should be aware that “subject verb not” is sometimes used for simple negation:

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    wrt your last example: Descartes was once asked if he wanted a beer. He considered, then said, "I think not" and disappeared. – verbose Nov 29 '20 at 2:31
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    I'll add that this usage is not unheard of even in relatively recent times. In President John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural speech he said, somewhat famously: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." – jwh20 Nov 29 '20 at 12:47
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It means that human beings should not try to study God, because God is beyond human understanding. To presume is to exceed limits undesirably. The first definition for presume on the Merriam-Webster page is:

to undertake without leave or clear justification : DARE

"Scan" means survey or examine. Pope says it is an unjustified act of daring to try to understand or study God. Instead, it is "proper" that we study our fellow humans.

The Merriam-Webster page for proper has some pertinent meanings:

belonging to one : OWN

strictly limited to a specified thing, place, or idea

marked by suitability, rightness, or appropriateness : FIT

In other words, the most suitable thing for humans to study is other humans, rather than God. To seek to understand God is a presumptuous act. And to study other humans, we have to being with ourselves, hence: "Know then thyself."

Edit, based on a couple of comments:

  1. @EddieKal points out that "without leave" in the definition of "presume" given above means "without permission". Thanks for pointing that out.

  2. "Presume not" is what's called a negative imperative and is a poetic or archaic way of saying Do not presume. As a deviation from the expected word order, it is an example of anastrophe. Thanks @jack-oflaherty for mentioning this in a comment, since moved to chat.

  3. There is at least an argument to be made that "Presume not God to scan" is deliberately ambiguous: Presume to scan that which is not God, i.e., Man. In this interpretation, the relevant meaning of "presume", also from Merriam-Webster, would be "to expect or assume especially with confidence": Expect that you will be studying humans, not God. This would be a secondary way to read the line, a meaning layered on top of the primary meaning, which is simply "Don't take the liberty of trying to understand God."

Hope this helps.

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  • Thank you so much for your wonderful answer Verbose! So "presume not God to scan" equivalent to "Don't presume god to scan". Saying "Presume not" instead of "Don't presume" is not a usage that I am familiar with. So is there any rule or name for this usage as far as you know? – grammarian Nov 27 '20 at 9:27
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    You're welcome, and thanks for the kind words. "Don't presume to scan God" is more grammatical than "Don't presume God to scan". Generally speaking, "Don't verb" is called a negative imperative, and "Verb not" is just an archaic or poetic way of stating the negative imperative. See this question on ELU and the answer there for details. – verbose Nov 27 '20 at 9:33
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    Maybe it's worth noting that "leave" in that M-W definition of "presume" means "permission", a somewhat antiquated usage that only appears in formal or dated writing. – Eddie Kal Nov 29 '20 at 2:24
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    @grammerian That backward structure of "presume not god to scan" rather than "do not presume to scan god" definitely reads as archaic for modern English speakers. Most of us would stumble when reading that and have to go over it a few times to get the meaning of it. – Darth Pseudonym Nov 29 '20 at 6:34
  • @verbose Where you writing something in that 3rd bulleted point? – Dhanishtha Ghosh Nov 29 '20 at 8:24
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Normally in modern English, non-auxiliary verbs can't be directly negated, so we need the dummy verb "do". Also, the object of a verb follows the verb. Here, the verb "presume" is being directly negated, and "God" is placed before "scan", despite being the object of the verb. So the standard form of this would be "Do not presume to scan God".

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Know then thyself, presume not God to scan, The proper study of mankind is Man.

You can't find out about man by studying (scanning) God. That is beyond understanding. Know yourself by studying yourself.

Merriam-Webster "scan"
1 to investigate thoroughly by checking point by point and often repeatedly

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