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Lecture Chapters 1 – 4

Theodore Dalrymple gives a lecture on the first chapters of Rasselas.
The very first words of the first chapter of Rasselas warns us that Dr. Johnson is not going to suggest that his answer to the problem of how life is best lived is an easy categorical or final one. “Ye who listen to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope, who expect the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow, attend to the history of Rasselas, prince of Abyssinia.” After that warning, we can expect no utopian schemes to be propounded. In fact, Rasselas is a profoundly anti-utopian book.
The first four chapters tell us that Rasselas, who is a son of the emperor of Abyssinia, is confined to what is called the happy valley, that is, until such time, if ever, he is called to the throne. The happy valley is a delightful place where Rasselas wants for nothing. There is delicious food in the happy valley. Even animals are friendly with one another, and there are entertainments constantly laid on. Indeed, Rasselas has lived all his life in the kind of comfortable paradise that might be compared to a perpetual luxury cruise. And yet, he suffers from a discontent upon whose origin he cannot quite put his finger.
In chapter 2, Rasselas compares the life of man with that of the animals and asks, where lies the difference? The answer, he says, is that while the animals are content to satisfy their immediate wants, such as thirst and hunger, man– and Rasselas is made by Johnson here to stand for the whole of humanity– requires something more. His capacity both to recollect the past and anticipate the future gives rise to much greater complexity of need and desire than that of the animals. It is fashionable these days to shrink the difference between man and the animals. But Dr. Johnson would not have been of this mind. Between man and the rest of creation there is a great gulf fixed.
In this sense, Dr. Johnson is anti-Darwinian, at least if Darwinism is taken to be a total explanation of human existence. In the chapter cleverly titled, “The Wants of Him Who Wants Nothing,” Rasselas confides his discontent to an old tutor, who having lived in the outside world, is now himself happily confined to the happy valley. The tutor describes the horrors of the outside world by comparison with the perfection of the happy valley, but his description has a very different, indeed precisely opposite, effect on Rasselas from that which the tutor expected or hoped for. So much for teaching by prescription. “Now,” Rasselas says to his former tutor, “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.” “All judgement,” says Johnson elsewhere, “is comparative.” Kipling makes a similar point when he asks, “And what should they know of England who only England know?” in his autobiography. John Stuart Mill tells of the terrible realisation that even if all his utopian schemes of human perfection were to come to pass, he would still not be entirely happy or content. Perfection, itself, would be a form of imperfection. It surely took a great effort of the imagination on the part of Dr. Johnson to realise that the perpetual Caribbean cruise concept of human happiness was shallow and false.
He lived in London at a time when a half of children died before the age of five, and poverty, squalor, and dirt and disease were everywhere, although, also great wealth, luxury, and elegance. But even if the wealth became universal and disease were conquered, Johnson would evidently not have expected perfect and lasting contentment to ensue. Perhaps this helps to explain why depictions of heaven are so insipid and lacking in imagination, because we cannot easily imagine a perfect existence for ourselves while depictions of hell are so vivid, so varied, and so easily imagined. For humans, perhaps, perfection would before long be a kind of hell. Johnson is a fine psychologist.
He says that Rasselas derives pleasure and self-satisfaction from his own sense of dissatisfaction. By implication, Johnson is suggesting that the human mind is not straightforward like an old fashioned calculating machine. In his own eyes, Rasselas’s dissatisfaction proves him superior to those who are content to be satisfied and satisfied to be content. Better to be Socrates discontented than a pig contented. Although Johnson writes in Augustine or classical prose, the hero or protagonist of the story is a kind of romantic.
“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 the present day will be supplied by the morrow; attend to the history of Rasselas, prince of Abissinia.” (p.1)

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Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas: An Introduction

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