The Doctor’s infinite wisdom

"Samuel Johnson's Rasselas is calculated to destroy the illusions of dreamers"

Theodore Dalrymple

: Is dissatisfaction the permanent state of Mankind?

Samuel Johnson, author of the poems “London” and “The Vanity of Human Wishes”, weekly essayist of The Rambler and The Idler, and lexicographer of his celebrated Dictionary of the English Language, has now given us a philosophic fable entitled The Prince of Abissinia: A Tale. Rumour has it that he wrote it in a week to pay first the medical bills and then for the interment of his mother. But notwithstanding the swiftness of its composition, we may with assurance say that, so long as men have eyes to read and brains to think, this short tale will find its readers and encourage the reflective.

This is not to say that everyone will find it immediately to his liking, for it is calculated to destroy the illusions of dreamers, who think that, contrary to what our Redeemer expressly said, His kingdom is indeed of this world. To the contrary, Doctor Johnson, as we must now address and refer to him, intimates from his very first lines that dissatisfaction is the permanent state of Mankind, whatever earthly progress it might make. The Doctor begins:

YE who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope; who expect that age will perform the promises of youth, and that the deficiencies of thepresent day will be supplied by the morrow, attend to the history of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia.

It is precisely to undeceive those who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy that this tale was written. There are those still alive who remember with clarity the hopes placed in swift enrichment by investment in the South Sea Company, and it may confidently be predicted that in the future, great schemes, both political and economic, preached by the unscrupulous to those who listen with credulity to the whispers of their fancy, will continue to lead Mankind to disaster, as they led investors in the South Sea Company to bankruptcy.

Some have accused the Doctor of orotundity, heaviness and grandiloquence of style, but his prose is so dense with meaning that there is scarcely a sentence that is unworthy of close attention: and it is this that those who are accustomed to read with inattention, or with their minds half-elsewhere that in the book they are reading, object to.

The hero of the tale, if such he can be called, is Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. The offspring of the Emperor of that immense African empire are enclosed, as is Rasselas, in the Happy Valley, a mountainous grove completely separated from the rest of the world, in which everything possible that can be done or provided to make them perfectly content is done or provided. The food and drink is abundant, varied and delicious, and the entertainments amusing and without cease. There is always delightful music on hand to soothe any disquiet, should it ever arise.

But despite the prelapsarian nature of the Happy Valley, and the fulfilment of his every wish as and when it arises, Rasselas suffers from a strange discontent that is like a pain whose precise location it is impossible for the sufferer to point to. The young man asks the difference between a man such as himself and the animals:

Every beast that strays beside me has the same corporal necessities with myself: he is hungry, and crops the grass; he is thirsty, and drinks the stream; his thirst and hunger are appeased; he is satisfied, and sleeps; he rises again, and is hungry; he is again fed, and is at rest. I am hungry and thirsty, like him, but when thirst and hunger cease, I am not at rest. I am, like him, pained with want, but am not, like him, satisfied with fulness.

The Prince needs more than the satisfaction of his material appetites: 

I can discover in 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 desire distinct from sense, which must be satisfied before he can be happy.

When he tells his old instructor this, the instructor replies:

“Sir, if you had seen the miseries of the world, you would know  how to value your present state.”

“Now,” said the Prince, “you have given me something to desire. I shall long to see the miseries of the world, since the sight of them is necessary to happiness.”

Does this not go with admirable precision to the heart of Mankind’s predicament on earth, that without unhappiness there can be no purpose, and without purpose there can be no happiness? We are destined by our nature, then, never to be perfectly happy. He spoke truly when he said that His kingdom is not of this world.
Rasselas, his sister Nekayah, and an older man experienced in the ways of the outside world, Imlac, escape from the Happy Valley and begin a philosophical peregrination to find what Rasselas calls “the choice of life”, which is to say the perfect way to live. Imlac knows that it does not exist, but is wise enough to let Rasselas discover this for himself, since example and experience are more powerful than precept.

Disillusion swiftly follows illusion. When Rasselas is impressed by the stoic teaching of a professor in Cairo who preaches a disengagement from the world as the way to avoid suffering, Imlac warns him, “Be not too hasty to trust or to admire the teachers of morality: they discourse like angels, but they live like men.” And indeed, the very next day Rasselas discovers the stoic philosopher in a state of despair because his daughter has died overnight. Rasselas says to him:

“Have you then forgot the precepts which you so powerfully enforced? Consider that external things are naturally variable, but truth and reason are always the same.”

The mourning philosopher says: “What comfort can truth and reason afford me? Of what effect are they now, but to tell me that my daughter will not be restored?”
The heart truly has its reasons that reason knows not of, and therefore the Prince “went away, convinced of the emptiness of rhetorical sounds . . .”

Rhetorical sounds—are they not the curse of Mankind? Doctor Johnson has compressed immeasurable wisdom into the smallest of compasses, and his book will live for ever.   

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