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Theodore Dalrymple on Samuel Johnson and Rasselas

Theodore Dalrymple introduces Samuel Johnson and "The History of Rasselas, the Prince of Abissinia".
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Human life has changed enormously over the millennia since the dawn of civilization. And yet there are constants in human existence, which means that literature from centuries past is not only comprehensible to us but may actually teach us something, or at any rate, illuminate our repeated errors and difficulties. There could be no better example of how something written more than a quarter of a millennium ago speaks to the present day than Dr. Johnson’s short philosophical fable Rasselas, or to give it its full title, the history of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia. This little book, which is Dr. Johnson’s only novel, was first published in 1759 and has never been out of print since.
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It is dense or highly compressed, not in the sense that it is difficult to read, but in the sense that there is so much meaning in each page, even in each sentence, that one cannot afford to let one’s mind merely glide over the pages in the reading equivalent of autopilot. In fact, most books that are much longer than Rasselas have much less content worthy of reflection. Samuel Johnson was born in the small cathedral city of Lichfield in 1709, his father being a rather unsuccessful bookseller. He attended Oxford but was too impoverished to complete his degree.
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He first became known as a poet and then famous as the author of his Dictionary of the English Language on historical, that is to say, etymological, principles, using 100,000 quotations as sources, at the same time writing weekly essays in The Rambler and The Idler that, like Rasselas, have never since been out of print, and any page of which gives evidence of what the great Belgian sinologist and literary essayist Simon Leys called Johnson’s inexhaustible wisdom. Johnson was impoverished for much of his life despite his fame, but he was very generous. It is said that he never saw a beggar without giving him something, though he was by no means in easy circumstances himself and could ill afford to do so.
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Generous in person, he was a very acerbic literary critic when he thought adverse criticism was deserved. For example, when asked whether he thought many men could have written the poems of Ossian, he replied, “Yes, sir, many men, many women and many children.” when asked whether Derek or Smart were the better poet, he replied, sir, there is no settling the point of presidency between a louse and a flea. In 1759, Johnson’s beloved mother, who was then 90 years old, fell ill and died. Johnson, though famous, was not rich, and he wrote Rasselas in a week in order to pay for his mother’s funeral.
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There is, however, evidence that he had been thinking of the story long past, which no doubt is why he was able to dash it off in so short a time. No doubt also, his choice of Abyssinia as the starting point of his story was affected by the fact that his first published work was a translation of a French translation of the adventures of a Portuguese priest, Father Lobo, in Abyssinia. Johnson was a believing Christian, though he was not as observant as his conscience dictated that he should have been. His attendance at church was sporadic at best. Theodicy, the attempt to reconcile the goodness of God with the manifest existence of evil in the world, was a constant preoccupation of his.
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And he could not accept the facile belief that all was for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds, simply because all that happened was by definition part of God’s plan. Rasselas is intended as a reflection on, though not as an answer to, the question of how we should live. Unless I have missed developments in philosophy over the last 40 years, this is the question that has still not been definitively answered. In Rasselas, Dr. Johnson calls it the choice of life, that is to say, what kind of life we should choose to live. And again, unless I am much mistaken, young people in particular are still faced with this difficult and puzzling question.
“There could be no better example of how something written more than a quarter of a millennium ago speaks to the present day than Dr. Johnson’s short philosophical fable Rasselas.”

This week, you will learn about the background, abilities, and character of Samuel Johnson.

You will also learn about the way that Johnson’s qualities are reflected in a famous portrait of him painted by his friend, Sir Joshua Reynolds.

You will begin your exploration of Johnson’s novel, Rasselas.

And you will start reflecting on questions about human nature, and the connection between happiness and a life of total ease, complete security, and abundant material comforts.

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Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas: An Introduction

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