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In Samuel Johnson’s novel Rasselas, the eponymous character discovers that happiness does not derive from a beautiful place, luxurious palace, or constant entertainment, but depends upon a composed state of mind in possession of truth…

Throughout the eighteenth century novel theories of happiness and utopian ideas of perfect societies gained respectability and popularity. The exploration of the New World in the discoveries of North and South America in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries produced a genre of writing known as travel literature, notorious for its fictional account of voyages claimed to be authentic accounts based on recorded data and empirical evidence. From these books of travel readers encountered reports that idealized the Noble Savage and Happy Indian and learned of primitive, undeveloped cultures uncorrupted by the vices of European nations.

Travel books portrayed the representatives of civilization—corrupt rulers, greedy merchants, devious lawyers, foolish philosophers, and mad scientists as the agents of vice and folly formed by immoral societies responsible for war, disease, poverty, and crime—a condition that Jonathan Swift portrays through the eyes of Gulliver, the great worldwide traveler who witnesses warmongering Lilliputians who bicker about which end of the egg to break first, the king of Brobdingnag horrified at the English use of gunpowder and the machinations of politicians, scientists (“Projectors”) studious about experiments to extract sunbeams from cucumbers, and innovators experimenting with novel theories of building houses from the roof and prolonging life by reducing speech and using objects to communicate.

Gulliver, once the man of the Enlightenment in quest of knowledge, the proponent of progress and science, and the champion and advocate of the British way of life, undergoes a dramatic conversion after he discovers the primitive society of the horses during his final voyage to the country of the Houyhnhnms—an image of the Noble Savage unspoiled by the greed, malice, fraud, lust, envy, drunkenness, and sexually transmitted diseases of Western civilization. The horses have no constitutional government, no courts of law, no educational institutions, no commercial transactions, and no need for physicians. Like the horses whom he praises for their rational, benevolent, pure way of life, Gulliver too wishes to “return to Nature,” exchange his English heritage for a primitive life, and live the rest of his days in an absolute utopia rather than continue in the barbaric land of Yahoos in England.

Rousseau propagated the notion that man is naturally good and that society, not fallen man with original sin, is the source of all evil. He advocated a retreat from the baneful influences of society to recover original innocence. Travel literature also produced the caricatures of the civilized as the agents of evil and the Noble Savages as paragons of innocence and purity without the temptations of worldly influences ruining their natural goodness as if they were not affected by original sin or possessed a fallen human nature subject to the lures of the world, the flesh, and the Devil. Like Jonathan Swift, a fellow classicist, Dr. Samuel Johnson repudiated these prevalent ideas of his age as farfetched nonsense and illusory fantasies with no basis in experience, history, or tradition. Rasselas, Johnson’s own travel book that avoids all the notorious faults of mediocre travel writers guilty of promoting the impression of relative truth with the phrase “Different nations have different customs,” depicts the truths of human happiness in the most universal sense—ones that remain constant for all people in all times in all places.

In his “Preface” to Father Lobo’s Voyage to Abyssinia, Johnson clarifies the criteria for travel literature at its best and praises the Portuguese Jesuit’s travel book for many reasons. First, it avoids extremes with “no romantic absurdities or incredible fictions,” and it “tells nothing exceeding the bounds of probability.” Second, the travel writer makes observations “as he saw them” and “consulted his senses, not his imagination,” avoiding exaggeration and sensationalism. Third, the book does not idealize or romanticize primitive life or presume to depict a utopian society or perfect people, “no Hottentots without religion, polity, or articulate language; no Chinese perfectly polite, and completely skilled in all sciences.” Lastly, Father Lobo honestly depicts the universal human condition and recognizes that “wherever human nature is to be found, there is a mixture of virtue and vice, a contest of passion and reason.” Johnson incorporates all these standards in his own version of a travel book in the search for human happiness in Rasselas.

When the story begins, Rasselas, the prince of Abysinnia, lives in a palace in Happy Valley designed to afford its inhabitants the perfect ideal of a utopian existence. Securely protected by mountains from the evils of the outside world, constantly entertained by diversions and pleasures, and surrounded by peaceful tranquility and natural beauty, Rasselas dwells in an environment of paradise replete with trees, flowers, fruits, and pastures: “Every desire was immediately granted; all the artificers of pleasure were called to gladden the festivity.” However, despite a life of luxury, abundance, and leisure without toil or responsibilities, Rasselas suffers unhappiness in the valley designed to be a utopian paradise. Although Happy Valley gratifies the five senses and satisfies all the bodily and material needs with delights and comforts, he experiences no happiness because he suffers restlessness, boredom, idleness, melancholy, and daydreaming. Though the body basks in rest and comfort, the mind finds no peace or solace.

Rasselas discovers that happiness does not derive from a beautiful place, luxurious palace, or constant entertainment but depends upon a composed state of mind in possession of truth. When he sees the lambs and kids chasing each other in the pasture, Rasselas realizes the need for a goal to direct his life and a sense of accomplishment in its achievement: “I fancy that I should be happy if I had something to pursue.” However, satiated with pleasure and lulled by idleness, Rasselas dreads the monotony of every day with its repetitious activities. He complains, “I find one day and one hour exactly like another…. I have already enjoyed too much; give me something to desire.” The first truth about human happiness Rasselas discovers is the need for mental stimulation to resist the intellectual stagnation of a life that requires no thought or effort to achieve goals.

He uncovers a second truth about happiness: The mind needs variety and contrast, a change from work to play and from leisure to activity to gain the right balance of moderation. Once Rasselas occupies his mind in exploring ways to escape from the Happy Valley and seek “the choice of life” (the secret of happiness) in the larger world outside the valley, he curbs the restlessness and boredom that burden him. Motivated by a worthy goal and filled with enthusiasm, Rasselas no longer laments the tedious passage of time: “The time, however, passed cheerfully away: in the morning he rose with new hope, in the evening applauded his own diligence, and in the night slept sound after his fatigue.” In the course of these ten months of adventure into new territory, Rasselas escapes the tedium of repetition because his search leads to new interests, a discovery of places “replete with wonders” and various animals and plants that captured his interest and “diversified his thoughts.”

Rasselas learns more truths about happiness from an older inhabitant of the Happy Valley, the sage Imlac who accompanies the prince in his travels into the wider world in the quest for knowledge of happiness. Imlac, based on his varied life as a merchant, sailor, and scholar, has gained knowledge of men and manners that grant him wisdom about the human condition and the truth about human nature. He educates Rasselas about the importance the life of the mind—the possession of truth—plays in the attainment of happiness: “Knowledge is certainly one of the means of pleasure…” because all persons by nature delight in learning and acquiring new ideas, and ignorance “is a vacuity in which the soul sits motionless and torpid for want of attraction.” Like the body that needs activity, the mind too needs movement. The mind flourishes when it learns from diverse sources of knowledge like travel, conversation, and books and from varied experiences and conversations with people from all social classes, educational levels, and different professions. Imlac summarizes his advice about the mind’s health in the pursuit of happiness in two statements: “… we grow more happy as our minds take a wider range” and “I am less unhappy than the rest because I have a mind replete with images which I can vary and combine at pleasure.”

In other words, nothing can come from nothing. A life of the mind kept in motion always adds to its repertory of knowledge to keep it “replete with images”—ideas, memories, impressions—from the myriad of sources that enrich the life of thought.

Whether it is leaving the Happy Valley and seeing the sights of Cairo and the pyramids, conversing with Imlac to learn from his wisdom, or visiting the shepherds to understand the pastoral life, Rasselas enlarges his range of thought, supplies his mind with more images for reflection, and keeps his life active and engaged to prevent stagnation and apathy. As a result of his experience both in and out of the Happy Valley, his conversations with Epicureans, Stoics, shepherds, rulers, and philosophers, and the rich and the poor, Rasselas gains an honest, realistic idea about happiness gathered from real life, not abstract theories.

The first universal truth that strikes him is that no place is utopia—neither the Happy Valley, the palace of the Bassa of Egypt, nor the quiet pastures of the shepherds. None of these places satisfies all man’s emotional, mental, or material needs. Rasselas gains a second invaluable truth: no human being is ever perfectly happy or escapes some degree of restlessness or unfulfilled desires—neither the learned astronomer nor the ignorant maids in the harem, neither political rulers nor simple shepherds, neither the hermit nor the married. A third truth Rasselas discovers is “the insufficiency of human enjoyments” to satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart—an insight he acquires from his visit to the pyramids, a monument to “that hunger of imagination which preys incessantly upon life and must be always appeased by some employment.” Even the wealthiest and most powerful, who count their possessions but have nothing to do, must invent some activity, wasteful or frivolous, to divert the boredom or restlessness that oppresses them. This insufficiency of human pleasures to gratify the longings of the soul for infinite happiness awaits fulfillment in the next life that Rasselas’ sister Nekayah calls “the choice of eternity.”

Although human life is not utopia or paradise but “a state in which much is to be endured and little to be enjoyed,” as Imlac observes, it offers greater or lesser degrees of happiness depending on the practice of the art of living. Those who live an active rather than an idle life, who stock their minds with images and value the importance of knowledge in living a life in truth rather than daydreams, who live in a wider, varied world of social interaction and exchange with others to increase learning rather than exist in the seclusion of a narrow valley dominated by the dangers of the imagination fantasizing about utopias—these are the simple, timeless, universal truths about happiness that have passed the test of time and resist all the fabrications about ideal societies and perfect human beings devoid of original sin.

In Memoriam: Mitchell Kalpakgian passed away on August 28, 2018.

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2 replies to this post
  1. One of the saddest lines I have read is this, “In Memoriam: Mitchell Kalpakgian passed away on August 28, 2018.” I was smoking a cigar and relaxing and reading when I came across this essay. With every puff and blowing out of smoke I found myself nodding my head in affirmation, smiling, and sometimes laughing. Samuel Johnson’s writing, believe it or not, always makes me laugh. His profundity floors me. I was a graduate student in 1978, really just a kid, enamored of nothing more than girls, beer, and a need to get a degree. I took a course in Johnson (I think I had to, not sure) and I started to read. Somehow, Johnson grabbed me by the throat and made me look at things differently. At the time, If there was any writer lower on my radar of important writers it would have been Johnson–because, of course, I knew nothing. Reading Mr. Kalpakgian’s article I found myself saying “Yes! No one reads Johnson anymore! I must contact the writer of this essay!” So, I looked forward to sending him a note and thanking him. I always told my students, when I was an adjunct English professor, “if you can read and understand Johnson, you can read anything.” His essays were some of the first things assigned for the semester. The students bucked like a colt with the first saddle on its back. But after discussion, almost all of them agreed that there was a hefty percentage to be gained by reading him. Rasselas is a tough read by today’s standards, but the wisdom imparted is sublime. Johnson took me out of myself and into the world. I wish I could have thanked Mr. Kalpakgian for this essay, but it will have to content myself with thanking The Imaginative Conservative for printing it.

  2. Johnson tempers a mans rough edges, he becomes aware of a better, deeper existence, an elevated literacy, a better and different life.

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