Johnson: Rasselas

March 26, 2009

The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759)
Samuel Johnson (New Yale, 1929)
160 p. First reading.

Rasselas is a fable about a young prince who seeks wisdom about how to live the happy life.  All his life he has lived in an isolated valley where his every desire has been granted, yet he finds he is not happy. He says:

I can discover within me no power of perception which is not glutted with its proper pleasure; yet I do not feel myself delighted. Man surely has some latent sense for which this place affords no gratification; or he has some desires distinct from sense, which must be satisfied before he can be happy.

So, with his sister and a guide, he leaves the valley and goes in search of happiness.  They encounter many different people, inquire into their way of life, and ask whether they are content, only to be disappointed.  Not the wealthy man, nor the scholar, nor the ascetic, nor the married man, nor the single, nor the powerful, nor the pastoral, nor the young, nor the old — none are truly happy.  A certain restlessness, a desire for something more, remains, which it seems may be found, if at all, only beyond the grave.  This observation brings their journey to its conclusion — in which nothing is concluded.

That might seem a dour end, and of course Dr. Johnson was subject to bouts of melancholy, but in fact the book is at times quite funny (as when Rasselas is trying to contrive some means to escape from the valley), and it is full of sagacious and astute observations about life.  It bears obvious similarities to Voltaire’s Candide, but it is not satiric, and it is as hearty beef to Voltaire’s thin gruel.  It also reminded me of Pilgrim’s Progress for its systematic examination of various conceptions of the good life, but it is not allegorical, and it is not half so dull as Bunyan.

This would be an excellent book to give to an adolescent who has begun to ponder what course he ought to take through life.  If he has a head on his shoulders, and an ear for strong English prose, he will appreciate the gift.

Thanks to my friend Adam for suggesting that I read the book.

[Good ends and evil means]
When we act according to our duty, we commit the events to Him by whose laws our actions are governed, and who will suffer none to be finally punished for obedience. When, in prospect of some good, whether natural or moral, we break the rules prescribed us, we withdraw from the direction of superior wisdom, and take all consequences upon ourselves. Man cannot so far know the connection of causes and events as that he may venture to do wrong in order to do right. When we pursue our end by lawful means, we may always console our miscarriage by the hope of future recompense. When we consult only our own policy, and attempt to find a nearer way to good by over-leaping the settled boundaries of right and wrong, we cannot be happy even by success, because we cannot escape the consciousness of our fault; but if we miscarry, the disappointment is irremediably embittered. How comfortless is the sorrow of him who feels at once the pangs of guilt and the vexation of calamity which guilt has brought upon him! (Ch.XXXIV)

[The soul]
“Some,” answered Imlac, “have indeed said that the soul is material, but I can scarcely believe that any man has thought it who knew how to think; for all the conclusions of reason enforce the immateriality of mind, and all the notices of sense and investigations of science concur to prove the unconsciousness of matter.

“It was never supposed that cogitation is inherent in matter, or that every particle is a thinking being. Yet if any part of matter be devoid of thought, what part can we suppose to think? Matter can differ from matter only in form, density, bulk, motion, and direction of motion. To which of these, however varied or combined, can consciousness be annexed? To be round or square, to be solid or fluid, to be great or little, to be moved slowly or swiftly, one way or another, are modes of material existence all equally alien from the nature of cogitation. If matter be once without thought, it can only be made to think by some new modification; but all the modifications which it can admit are equally unconnected with cogitative powers.” (Ch.XLVIII)

5 Responses to “Johnson: Rasselas”

  1. Nick Milne Says:

    I’ve heard it said that Johnson wrote the book in the space of a week to pay off some of his mother’s medical bills, and did not value the work highly at the time. What a guy.

  2. Janet Says:

    It reminds me of CSL’s Pilgrim’s Regress.

    AMDG, Janet

  3. Adam Hincks Says:

    As I probably told you at the time, I considered it an equal to Gulliver’s Travels (perhaps an interesting comparison since Johnson didn’t think too much of Gulliver, oddly enough). I should re-read it and see if my judgement still stands.

  4. cburrell Says:

    I do remember you saying as much. I’d have to re-read Gulliver if I were to pass my own judgement.

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