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Lecture on Chapters 5 – 8

Dr Daniels discusses Rasselas' contemplating leaving the Happy Valley, and introduces one of the principal characters of the book, Imlac.
12.4
In the next four chapters, Rasselas contemplates the means of leaving the Happy Valley, and meets one of the principal characters in the book, Imlac, a poet who acts as a kind of Greek chorus to Rasselas. First, though, Rasselas meets an inventor who is confined in the Valley and who is trying to construct some kind of flying machine, which Russell last realises might help him to escape from the Happy Valley. Rasselas raises practical objections to the scheme, to which the inventor replies, “nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must be first overcome.” In this reply, we have an early argument in favour of the Promethean bargain and against the precautionary principle.
58.2
Immediately afterwards, however, he reverses himself, explaining to Rasselas why he wants to keep the technique to himself when it might benefit others, but which in the end does not work, of course. He resorts to the precautionary principle, and gives an early description of possible war from the air if everybody were able to construct flying machines. The conflict between the Promethean bargain and the precautionary principle is one that still exists and perhaps is ineradicable, though it seems to me that the precautionary principle is in the ascendant, at least in the West. In the course of an evening entertainment, Rasselas meets a poet, Imlac, who has recited his poem about the various conditions of mankind.
108.3
Imlac, now resident in the Happy Valley, has been out in the world and Rasselas is intrigued to hear his life story, and commands him to tell it. Imlac was the son of a rich merchant who gave him, when he was young, operating capital with which to go out into the world and make his own fortune. Imlac, who disdains his father’s scale of values, as many sons do, says that his father was concerned only with making money, but then concealing it in case government servants should try to despoil him of it.
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At this, the young and naive Rasselas exclaims that his own father, the emperor, must have been failing in his duty if his government servants could or did despoil private citizens, and in Imlac’s answer, we see Johnson’s technique of using his characters to illustrate moral, psychological and political principles. Imlac’s answer is profoundly anti-utopian and an implicit warning against the propensity to examine the present by comparison with some state of perfection that has never been and never will be reached. He says, “oppression is, in the Abyssinian dominions, neither frequent nor tolerated, but no form of government has yet been discovered by which cruelty can be wholly prevented.
192.4
Subordination supposes power on one part and subjection on the other, and if power be in the hands of men, it will sometimes be abused. The vigilance of the supreme magistrate may do much, but much will still remain undone. He cannot know all the crimes that are committed and can seldom punish all that he knows.” Ever the young man, Rasselas finds this hard to credit, though it is obviously true. He goes on to remark on the illogicality of Imlac’s father, accumulating wealth which he cannot use. Johnson, through Imlac, points to an essential fact of human psychology, namely its inconsistency. Inconsistencies, he said, cannot both be right, but imputed to man, they may both be true.
242.9
We never needed Freud to tell us that the human mind operated on different levels.
“Oppression is, in Abissinian dominions, neither frequent nor tolerated; but no form of government has been yet discovered, by which cruelty can be wholly prevented. Subordination supposes power on one part and subjection on the other; and if power be in the hands of men, it will sometimes be abused. The vigilance of the supreme magistrate may do much, but much will still remain undone. He can never know all the crimes committed, and seldom punish all that he knows.” (p. 18)
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Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas: An Introduction

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