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Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas: An Introduction

Explore the humane realism of Samuel Johnson in a deep dive into his only novel with Theodore Dalrymple as your guide.

647 enrolled on this course

Portrait of Samuel Johnson after John Opie, from the National Portrait Gallery (NPG 1302)

Explore the humane realism of Samuel Johnson in a deep dive into his only novel

Learn from Theodore Dalrymple

Theodore Dalrymple, the pseudonym of Anthony Daniels, is an English cultural critic of great distinction. He has written extensively on culture, its contemporary neglect, and its enduring potential.

In this six-week course, Dalrymple will facilitate an encounter with Samuel Johnson, a towering figure of English literature. The course contains the full text and an original audiobook production of The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, which depicts its hero’s “choice of life.”

The novel will show you that human life, far from being perfect—or even perfectible—inevitably contains a large measure of dissatisfaction. Johnson teaches us that the best way forward is not to ignore this fact and embrace the false hope of utopianism, but rather to accept that life involves many trade-offs. The art of life, for Johnson, is largely about making such compromises.

Enjoy a Free Audiobook

This course includes a free audio version of Rasselas, read for you by Theodore Dalrymple, along with the full text of the novel.

Understand Johnson’s humane vision of life

As you delve into Johnson’s novel, the elegant explanations given in Dalrymple’s lectures will allow you to understand the importance of Rasselas and to appreciate the ultimate lessons which the novel teaches.

This course will help you see that the “realism” of Johnson’s vision of human life, one constrained by limitations, choices, and trade-offs, is not at all pessimistic. It is, instead, lucid, liberating—and even cheerful.

Throughout the course, you’ll also be able to savor Johnson’s wonderful prose style as read by Dalrymple in the audiobook provided in the course.

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Skip to 0 minutes and 12 seconds When I was in my early teens, I saw a production in Zulu of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. I don’t remember a great deal about it except one impression that it made on me, namely, that literature can transcend time and differences in culture. It was the first time that I had realised this. Afterwards, I came to work as a doctor in different parts of the world and travelled widely. I never encountered a country or a culture which the literature of another country could not, in some way, illuminate, because humanity, although very various, is also one. Dr. Johnson, the great English writer of the 18th century, was a ruthlessly honest observer of himself and a clear-sighted observer of others.

Skip to 0 minutes and 56 seconds In his philosophical fable, Rasselas, he used his accumulated observation of himself and others to ask the question, what is the good life for man? How should we best live? His answers are simultaneously surprising and obvious, as well as conciliatory to all who are disappointed by the imperfections of human existence. It is testimony to Dr. Johnson’s greatness that a book written in a week more than 260 years ago to pay for his mother’s funeral has never been out of print since. Every page, every paragraph, almost every sentence contains rich material for reflection. I hope you will join me for an exploration of this astoundingly rich work. I think it will repay the effort.

Syllabus

  • Week 1

    Introduction & The “Happy” Valley

    • Introduction to the Course

      An introduction to the course, to Ralston College, to Theodore Dalrymple and an orientation to the FutureLearn platform.

    • Introducing Samuel Johnson

      Learn about Samuel Johnson and the background of Rasselas.

    • Unhappy in Paradise

      Exploring Chapters 1 - 4 of The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia

    • Finding a Wise Guide

      Exploring Chapters 5 - 8 of The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia

  • Week 2

    Escape from Paradise

    • Imlac’s Story

      Exploring Chapters 9 - 12 of The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia

    • Out of the Valley

      Exploring Chapters 13 - 16 in The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia

  • Week 3

    Rasselas’ Search Begins

    • Innocence and Experience

      Exploring Chapters 17 - 20 in The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia

    • Of Hermits, Philosophers, and Rulers

      Exploring Chapters 21 - 24 in The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia

  • Week 4

    Conversations and Excursions

    • Private Life Considered

      Exploring Chapters 25 - 27 in The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia.

    • Marriage & Monuments

      Exploring Chapters 28 - 32 in The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia

  • Week 5

    Separation and Sorrow

    • Pekuah’s Loss, Nekayah’s Grief

      Exploring Chapters 33 - 36 in The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia

    • A Prisoner’s Tale

      Exploring Chapters 37 - 40 in The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia

  • Week 6

    The Choice of Life

    • Imagination and its Dangers

      Exploring Chapters 41 - 44 in The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia

    • Vanishing Illusions

      Exploring Chapters 45 - 48 in The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia

    • In Which Nothing Is Concluded

      Exploring Chapter 49 in The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia

When would you like to start?

Start straight away and join a global classroom of learners. If the course hasn’t started yet you’ll see the future date listed below.

  • Available now

Learning on this course

On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Describe Johnson’s Rasselas and the vision of life that it offers
  • Apply the perspectives of Johnson's novel to contemporary situations
  • Critique the utopianism that Rasselas brings into focus
  • Assess Johnson’s understanding of human nature

Who is the course for?

This course is designed for anyone interested in humanities and literature.

What software or tools do you need?

This course includes online video, an audiobook, plus text versions of the novel.

Who developed the course?

Ralston College

Ralston College is a new institution of higher education committed to an educational vision that enables students to lead lives of self-knowledge, freedom, and substance.

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