Imlac and “The Choice of Life”

Disorders of the intellect happen much more often than superficial observers will easily believe…. There is no man whose imagination does not sometimes predominate over his reason…. No man will be found in whose mind airy notions do not sometimes tyrannize and force him to hope or fear beyond the limits of sober probability.—Imlac in Johnson’s Rasselas

Here is Imlac, the mentor of the young Abyssinian prince Rasselas, holding forth on the virtues of patience and wisdom in Johnson’s well-known philosophical novel. The original working title for Rasselas was “The Choice of Life.” Built along the lines of the Eastern tales fashionable at the time, the story opens with the royal heir confined to a fortified palace in Ethiopia. Despite access to every temporal pleasure and convenience, Rasselas is discontented. He plots his escape to the outside world with Imlac, where he hopes to find the right “choice of life” which will guarantee true pleasure.

The setting of the Happy Valley is itself a good natured jab at the persistent utopian desire to return to Eden. Unlike Voltaire who places human happiness in the worldly paradise (the El Dorado of Candide), Johnson was aware that “Infelicity is involved in corporeal nature, and interwoven with our being” (Rambler, No. 32). Of the many characters who struggle with the dilemma of infelicity is the astronomer, who appears near the end of the tale. The astronomer tries to find ultimate meaning in the pursuit of science, but succumbs to intellectual monomania and the mad belief that he actually controls the movements of the heavenly bodies. Fortunately, Imlac’s gentle advice delivers the scientist from his folly.

In the end, the characters admit the limits of purely human aspirations. Whatever pursuit we engage in will never completely spare us from feelings of vexation and discontent. Imlac and the astronomer are “contented to be driven along with the stream of life, without directing their course to any particular port.” But Johnson does not say this in a mood of indifferentism or fatalistic resignation. Not stated outright (though strongly hinted at), he advocates patience in the light of divine revelation, which promises to satisfy man’s desire for felicity in the hereafter.

Thinkers from Epictetus to Thomas à Kempis had cautioned men that true happiness is not dependent on outward circumstances alone, but what they make of those circumstances in their pilgrimage through life. To some extent, every person must discover the opportunities and limitations of life for himself. Johnson, speaking through Imlac, wanted to soften the blow, so that we might temper our disappointment with a realism based on a firmer hope than mere fantasizing or vanity.

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