The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia is very much a book about philosophy. With all the various chapters, each dealing with some moral or another, it would appear at first to be a book primarily concerned with that aspect of philosophy known as ethics. However, what we find repeatedly are actions by moral teaching characters that undermine the very things they teach. In that sense it doesn t seem to be a very moralistic book at all for no conclusion seems to be ever drawn. The undermining of the morals, coupled with the understanding that Samuel Johnson himself was a moralist in every sense of the word only confounds the inconsistencies to be found in it. With all these inconsistencies, there is still one thread that keeps this a tightly woven philosophical book nonetheless. That thread is Rasselas journey. The journey in Rasselas is not only a physical journey through an exotic country, it is also an intellectually progressive journey. It is a journey of experience and learning. Thus, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia a story about an epistemological journey, one that ends in the realization that the journey in search of happiness is in itself the very core of what of he is looking for.
Rasselas appears to have all that is needed in his valley kingdom of Abyssinia. So perfect is the location, inhabitants, wealth and shelter of Abyssinia that it is described by Johnson, almost as a Garden of Eden. Here in the valley there are no enemies, nor beasts of prey (40). In keeping with the biblical metaphor the narrator goes on to say [a]ll the diversities of the world were brought together, the blessings of the nature were collected and its evils extracted and excluded, almost alluding to the final destination of Noah s Ark. While the biblical allusions convey a sense of paradise, things aren t always as they seem. Rasselas is restless and is no longer able to tolerate his condition. He has come to know everything there is to know about his small and isolated internal world. His knowing that an outside world exist, could be compared to the eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge by Adam and Eve. In contrast to how the fall of man, or the leaving of the Garden of Eden was a punishment for Adam and Eve, for Rasselas, it would be considered a reward. Although Abyssinia could be considered one persons heaven, it is most certainly is Rasselas hell. Johnson, gives us subtle clues about his condition by describing his home as blissful captivity (40). This ideal world is actually and ideal prison that encloses its occupants with gates of iron (39). Rasselas, realizing his condition becomes unhappy.
While contemplating his condition Rasselas begins the intellectual process that will ultimately begin his journey in search of happiness. His thoughts are provoked as he watches goats graze in the pasture and thinks that they share the same corporeal necessities with [him]self (42). His observations cause him to make sense of the benefits of being human. This dialogue not only reveals his depression in this captivity, but it also looks for the source of his desire. Using some basic logic to help with his question, he begins to make the comparisons first: [the goat] is hungry and crops the grass, he is thirsty and drinks the stream, his thirst and hunger are appeased; he is satisfied and he sleeps I am thirsty and hungry like him, but when thirst and hunger cease I am not at rest (43). Though about 100 years before Darwin s time, it seems that Johnson himself was looking at the relationship man shared with Nature. The last line is the answer to the difference between humans and animals. While our baser necessities may be similar to those of beasts, providence (as Johnson would believe it), unlike animals, has given us the ability to reason. His conclusion, is somewhat pessimistic and Rasselas realizes that rationality has its costs. The hunger of the mind is never to be satisfied and therefore will remain in constant need of intellectual nourishment; something Abyssinia can no longer provide for him. His inexperience doesn t allow him to draw a conclusion as to what that nourishment is, however he does realize that Man has 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 (43).
The latent sense that is alluded to here, is that intrinsic curiosity that is found in all humans; a curiosity that can be thought of as a necessity to human intellectual progress. The challenge posed by discovery occupies us and makes the time that passes by feel like productive time. Attempting to avoid the occupation of the mind is futile. If it is not occupied actively, then it will find some manner to do so at least passively. This is precisely what happens to Rasselas. Since he cannot leave his prison Abyssinia, he uses reverie to compensate for his restriction: His chief amusement was to picture to himself that world which he had never seen; to place himself in various conditions Thus passed twenty months in the life of Rasselas (46). This reverie can be a detrimental thing. For Rasselas, it appears to have wasted almost two years of his life. Nonetheless, the mind must be stimulated. This intellectual hunger is at once both gift and curse for while it affords certain pleasures unattainable by animals, it likewise plagues humans with other afflictions also. Rasselas experience here serves as the first lesson to be learned about the minds need and the consequences if it is not met: Here he recollected himself, and smiled at his own useless impetuosity (47). Soon after this experience Rasselas is told by an artist how to avoid this same folly. begins to learn the way to avoid this same folly.
It is reasonable to acknowledge that any new experience, especially one where that has potential risk, may be met with some internal resistance. Rasselas dialogue with the artist offers insight into this resistance. During a dissertation on flying, Rasselas begins to assail the artist with numerous arguments as to why one should have great difficulty to fly, or against being able to fly at all. However, the artist retorts, [n]othing will ever be attempted, if all possible objections must be first overcome (52). It is clear that the artist is telling Rasselas that at some point he needs to stop contemplating and start acting. While, Rasselas arguments may someday prove to be true, he will not know for show unless he, or someone else, experience them first. The moral here not only concerns flight, but all things in which knowledge is sought. Experience works better than the sages in Abyssinia for it provides learning through active participation as where the sages provide it through passive participation. While it cannot be argued that experience is essential to learning, one interesting point that the book does bring into question is the type of experience that should be thought of as having value.
Since the beginning of the novel we have seen how Rasselas unhappiness has been relative to his inexperience. Reversibly, his happiness should therefore be relative to experience. However, one point does remain unclear; that is, does the experience have to be first hand, or can one learn, and consequently find happiness through someone else s experience? I believe that Johnson may be arguing that happiness is best encountered with the fusion of both types, rather than the separation of them. For instance, when Rasselas meets Imlac he is suddenly intrigued by his experience and the way he is able to convey that experience in his poetry. For the first time since the story begins we see that Rasselas is actually happy and looks forward to the coming days: he thought himself happy in having found a man who knew the world so well and could so skillfully paint the scenes of life [he] regretted the necessity of sleep, and longed till the morning should renew his pleasure. (54). Thus, Rasselas is still experiencing life though the experience is being conveyed to him by the poet Imlac. Nonetheless, it is satisfying, at least to some degree, the curiosity that his mind is hungry for. You can see, how this may have a negative effect if in fact the poet is wrong and the information that Rasselas gets is only exaggerated fiction. Therefore, the experiential journey is still necessary to augment the conveyed one. However, experience alone will not suffice if the experience lacks variety. This necessity is shown metaphorically in the novel.
Johnson not only expects the reader to understand the necessity of experience in order to bring about happiness, he would also like for us to understand that the experience should be as varied as possible. Varied experience simplistically amounts to more experience; and for Johnson, the more experience the better. Johnson projects this idea in Imlac s discussion of his ocean voyage:
When I first entered upon the world of waters, and lost sight of land, I looked round about me with pleasing terrour, and thinking my soul enlarged by the boundless prospect, imagined that I could gaze round for ever without satiety; but in a short time, I grew weary of looking on barren uniformity, where I could only see again what I had already seen (57-58).
In this passage the ocean is much like Abyssinia, it lacks variety and one soon grows weary of it. Again, the mind is no longer being actively occupied nor engaged. The result in this event is similar to one seen earlier in Rasselas. Here, Imlac enters the hull of the ship and began forming schemes for [his] conduct in different situations (58). Like Rasselas, he was engaged in reverie passively occupying his mind. The result of his reverie is was a waste of time also for he admits that he was never placed in anyone of the situations which he mentally rehearsed. It is understood here that the journey not only needs to take place but it itself must take one to places which will provide variety.
With all these examples revealing that experience, metaphorically described in the novel as the journey, is by far the most important moral to be drawn from this work, it would seem logical that Rasselas would figure this out also. Unfortunately for Rasselas he does not. Instead, he believes his journeys were made in vain and ultimately draws the conclusion that happiness cannot be found. Thus, story of Rasselas is also a tragic story. It is tragic because our protagonist fails to see the source of happiness, and reverts to Abyssinia only to dream about the kingdom he would like to command. He never recalls that the only times he appeared happy during his journey was when he was setting out to satisfy that insatiable curiosity that had brought him there to begin with. He clearly saw all the negative contradictory results that his travels brought him, although neglected to see that the happiness was the experience that brought him there. Even with the guidance of Imlac, Rasselas decides to return to Abyssinia to spend the remainder of his days passively awaiting his death (150). Thus, our protagonist ends the story a failure in his quest. While Rasselas becomes the failure in the novel, Imlac and the Astronomer are presented as the heroes.
Two elements in the novel reveal how Imlac and the Astronomer both succeed where Rasselas fails. The first element is revealed in the metaphorical power of the Astronomer. The Astronomer is like Imlac in so far as that they are both very learned men. They have spent their lives actively pursuing their curiosity s, each with no other reason if for the sake of experiencing as much as they can. They, both being older than Rasselas have a fuller understanding of things and are content with who they have become as the result of this experience. The Astronomer is described to us as one who has possessed for five years the regulation of weather, and the distribution of the seasons (129). The Astronomer s power over the elements conveys a sense of godliness. It elevates him and extends an understanding of forces that elude accurate prediction even today. His ability appears to be the highest of sciences and all learning for that matter. This is the metaphorical reward for his success. Metaphorically speaking, his power is a power that transcends common understanding. His knowledge is superior to others because his quest for it endless. Thus, the Astronomer is portrayed as having the highest of learning so as to convey the greatest value in his grasping of the benefits of experience. His knowledge of the elements is a secret that can only be trusted to someone who has also embraced the concept that the path to happiness is also the destination. Imlac is such a person.
Imlac is also unlike Rasselas in that he was fortunate to learn that the key to happiness is only to be found in the search for it. His father taught him this lesson and Imlac learned this at an early age. Though he tried numerous times to convey this to Rasselas, the prince was too na ve to understand. However, Imlac certainly knows the value in this and uses the very experiential philosophy to be his guide in life: Imlac and the Astronomer were contented to be driven along the stream of life without directing their course to any particular port (150). This line echoes Confucius s belief that the greatest traveler has no destination. There is no destination because the very means are also the ends. Realizing this himself, Imlac is chosen to be successor to the Astronomer. Hence, Imlac, like the Astronomer, is rewarded with this tremendous knowledge for his understanding. Rewarding Imlac with this knowledge sends the powerful message to the reader of the benefits of experience. With this message being conveyed, Johnson ends his novel and accomplishes his philosophical task in great skill.
Rasselas is a book about an epistemological journey that is realized in various stages. During his residence in Abyssinia, we see how what appears to be a paradise, is actually a prison. It is a prison both of the mind and the body. The body because there are gates of iron sealing him in and of the mind for it does not accommodate the need for stimulation. Rasselas begins to sense the desire for experience but does not fully realize what this sense is and consequently falls into a state of depression. Johnson starts to perpetuate the moral, by introducing Imlac who attends to helping Rasselas realize what he needs to do to find happiness in life is to experience it. Ultimately Rasselas fails to realize that experience is the source of happiness and believes that his quest should end by returning to Abyssinia. In this sense the story is a tragedy for our hero. However, Imlac and the Astronomer do realize the path and are rewarded with god-like knowledge of the universe. They realize that they should pursue life with no destination. Thus, the novel ends with Johnson accomplishing the task of revealing how the journey in itself, as it pertains to The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, is the very destination in ones search for happiness.