Thanks to Emma of Book Around The Corner and Guy of His Futile Preoccupations. This was one of their Bah - Humbook recommendations for me.
The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia by Samuel Johnson is a novel that was first published in 1759. This is a philosophical but also dynamic and fun book.
Rasselas is the young prince of an Abyssinian Kingdom. He and other royal youths are by tradition sequestered in a paradisiacal valley where they wait to be called into monarchal positions.
Rasselas finds himself extremely unhappy in the placid and pleasant but unchallenging universe of the “happy valley”. After several failed attempts he, along with his sister Nekayah, her attendant Pekuah, and the philosophical minded poet Imlac, manages to escape the confines of the valley.
The remainder of the narrative concerns itself with the question of the elusiveness of human happiness. Faced with dissatisfaction in the Eden-like valley, the group ponders if any situation, lifestyle or philosophy can lead to true contentment. From the beginning, Imlac contends that genuine bliss is impossible. Rasselas initially seems more open-minded and leads his friends on a quest to determine the answer.
As the four travel the region, they sample a variety of lifestyles and encounter a host of characters, each of who advocates various belief systems. Paths of sensualism, gaiety, piousness, mercantilism, political advancement, asceticism, stoicism, scientific curiosity and exploration, marriage, bachelorhood and more are explored.
All these life courses are found to be lacking in long term fulfillment and do not lead to happiness. Sometimes contentment is possible for short stretches of time, but it ultimately fades into dissatisfaction, frustration or disillusionment.
A surprising turn of events occurs when our protagonists visit a supposedly wise and spiritually fulfilled hermit. They are shocked when they discover that he is miserable,
“I have been for some time unsettled and distracted: my mind is disturbed with a thousand perplexities of doubt and vanities of imagination, which hourly prevail upon me, because I have no opportunities of relaxation or diversion. I am sometimes ashamed to think that I could not secure myself from vice but by retiring from the exercise of virtue, and begin to suspect that I was rather impelled by resentment than led by devotion into solitude. My fancy riots in scenes of folly, and I lament that I have lost so much, and have gained so little. In solitude, if I escape the example of bad men, I want likewise the counsel and conversation of the good. I have been long comparing the evils with the advantages of society, and resolve to return into the world to-morrow. The life of a solitary man will be certainly miserable, but not certainly devout.”
For all the novel’s negativity, I do not believe that the ultimate message here is despair or nihilism. At times, an underlying current manifests itself in the text. Though infrequent, there are passages that point to the idea that while life is often difficult and true long term happiness may be impossible to find in this world, one must strive to behave virtuously and morally.
At one point Nekayah comments,
“Whether perfect happiness would be procured by perfect goodness this world will never afford an opportunity of deciding. But this, at least, may be maintained, that we do not always find visible happiness in proportion to visible virtue. All natural and almost all political evils are incident alike to the bad and good; they are confounded in the misery of a famine, and not much distinguished in the fury of a faction; they sink together in a tempest and are driven together from their country by invaders. All that virtue can afford is quietness of conscience and a steady prospect of a happier state; this may enable us to endure calamity with patience, but remember that patience must oppose pain.”
Ethical behavior may not pay off in this life, but there is a promise of immortality and reward in an afterlife.
After visiting catacombs filled the mummified remains of the dead, Imlac through a chain of reasoning, “proves” that the soul is immortal.
Later Nekayah concludes,
“To me the choice of life is become less important; I hope hereafter to think only on the choice of eternity.”
Hence, I believe this to be a work that at its heart champions a moral existence.
In my opinion, Johnson’s message, at least in regards to human satisfaction, is too simplistic. It is true that many people do find it impossible to find fulfillment, even when living in a materially secure state. However, this is not the case with everyone. There is an entire spectrum of happiness as well as unhappiness that is manifested in a wide variety of belief systems and lifestyles. I do believe, however, that the author does tap into the deep frustration and, at times, despair of a large percentage of humanity who cannot find peace, even when they live in somewhat benign environments.
In addition to the philosophical and ethical musings, Johnson’s work is entertaining. The adventures of the group are often interesting and sometimes very funny. The four main characters are intelligent and lively, and each expresses their own well thought out philosophies and conclusions throughout the text.
This is highly recommended for anyone who likes a thoughtful exploration of human emotions. The philosophical musings are presented in a relative straightforward way and can be understood by almost anyone. For all the time spent concerning unhappy people and situations, this book is not a downer but actually an amusing and thought provoking read.