Dr. Johnson’s Rasselas

A book of wisdom by the most eminent man of letters and renowned moralist in the eighteenth century who valued the practical truth of literature (“The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it”), Rasselas explores the most universal of subjects, the quest for happiness. A writer most critical of fantasies about utopias and sentimentalized versions of  happiness based on “the noble savage” and “happy Indian,” Johnson consistently ridiculed what he called the “cant” about imaginary views about the human condition that his age produced whether it was deism (“Whatever is, is right”) or primitivism (“return to nature”).

In this short novel the young prince Rasselas finds himself in the utopian environment of The Happy Valley surrounded by comfort, security, beauty, and pleasure: “Every desire was immediately granted. All the artificers of pleasure were called to gladden the festivity.”  In this so-called paradise, however, the prince suffers a state of mind ruled by melancholy, restlessness, boredom, and daydreaming. Oppressed by idleness, the tedium of time, and his own solitary company, Rasselas contrasts his own discontent with the satisfaction of the animals grazing in the field:  while the cow that “crops the grass” and “drinks the stream” finds gratification in eating and drinking, the prince finds no satisfaction in the mere delight of the five senses or the bodily pleasures. Rasselas discovers a fundamental truth about happiness: it is a peaceful state of mind more than a perfect place: “Man has surely 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.”

Samuel_Johnson_by_Joshua_ReynoldsAnother experience in the Happy Valley provides a further insight into the truth of happiness. When Rasselas notices the lambs and kids frisking and running, he concludes that man needs an object or goal to attain to keep his life in motion and give it purpose: “When I see kids and lambs chasing one another, I fancy I should be happy if I had something to pursue  … ; give me something to desire.” Man must have something to look forward to in the future and anticipate the happiness that lies ahead as well as enjoy the moment. As the prince concludes, if he had a “want,” it would produce a “wish,” and that wish would inspire “endeavor.” Once Rasselas resolves to leave the Happy Valley, his state of mind changes from stagnant listlessness to active engagement in finding some way of escape to the world beyond the mountains. Time now longer burdens him with monotony but passes enjoyably because “in the morning he rose with new hope, in the evening he applauded his own diligence, and in the night he slept sound after his fatigue.”

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Rasselas acquires greater understanding about happiness in his conversation with the sage Imlac who befriends the young prince and leads him on the journey to discover “the choice of life,” that is, the philosophy, profession,  or social position that affords the greatest sources of human contentment. A fellow inhabitant of the Happy Valley, Imlac explains that he suffers less restlessness than Rasselas because of the state of his mind: “I am less unhappy than the rest because I have a mind replete with images which I can vary and combine at pleasure.” Nothing can come from nothing. An empty mind cannot think. Happiness is increased when the mind has acquired a variety of “images”—memories, ideas, and data gathered from a myriad of sources (travel, conversations, books, acquaintance with people from all walks of life)—that fill the mind with the food for thought and reflection. Because man spends much time in his own company and cannot always be socializing or seeking diversion, the mind needs a storehouse of images that needs constant renewal and stimulation lest it become a stagnant pool. Happiness, then, requires a life of the mind, the desire for knowledge, and the ability to think.” As Imlac explains, the mind thrives when it experiences the fullness of a larger world rather than narrow confinement in an isolated Happy Valley: “Ignorance is mere privation, by which nothing can be produced: it is a vacuity in which the soul sits motionless and torpid for want of attraction; … we grow more happy as our minds take on a wider range.”

Once Rasselas escapes from the Happy Valley with Imlac and his sister Nekayah, he mingles with people from all walks of life and many professions, his mind becoming “replete with images” to compare and contrast as he determines the truth about happiness. Rasselas encounters the young men of Cairo who live the Epicurean life of eat, drink, and be merry; he acquaints himself with the Stoic idea of rational self-control and “the conquest of passion” by the cultivation of patience; he examines the pastoral life of shepherds celebrated by the poets for its simplicity and temperance; he visits the wealthy in luxurious palaces and the powerful rulers who occupy thrones; and he considers the domestic happiness of homes renowned for sweet contentment. From these travels, observations, and conversations Rasselas acquires the raw material for thinking from both experience and learning. Now that he possesses the food for thought, he can “vary and combine” the images to generalize and conclude—intelligence that requires both “wit” (the ability to see resemblances) and “judgment” (the ability to discern differences) to use these words as Johnson defined them in his famous Dictionary. The similarity that Rasselas discovers is that no one—neither the hermit nor the Bassa of Egypt—is perfectly happy. In every profession and in every social class, to cite Imlac’s words, “Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed.” In short, there is no utopia, no one special place, no one occupation, and no one status like marriage or celibacy that offers perfect happiness.

However, distinguishing among the many images he has acquired, Rasselas concludes that some ways of life are more conducive to contentment than others and provide a greater degree or possibility of happiness. One can live like the solitary hermit or live in the circle of a family, but the family offers “a wider range” of variety, stimulation, and participation than the isolation of the recluse who complains “if I escape the example of bad men, I want likewise the counsel and conversation of the good.” One can dwell in fantasy in the Happy Valley or escape into an ivory tower of an observatory like the astronomer afflicted with “the dangerous power of the imagination” that makes him believe he controls the weather, or one can enjoy a life of the mind like Imlac who unites study and activity, lives both in and out of the Happy Valley, and tests theoretical ideas of happiness with the actual experience of the human condition. One can keep traveling to find utopias, or one can recognize that nothing in the human world can possibly satisfy man’s desire for perfect, infinite happiness except “the choice of eternity.” The knowledge that this life offers no utopia, that restlessness comprises the human condition, that “some desire is necessary to keep life in motion,” that happiness is increased by a mind in possession of the truth, and that happiness multiplies as a person’s world enlarges is the timeless wisdom of Johnson’s classic.


  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian (1941-2018) was a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children’s Literature.

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