Rasselas and the Search for Happiness

Samuel Johnson’s novel Rasselas offers what may be called a psychological “via negativa.” The author seeks to describe happiness in terms of “what it isn’t” rather than “what it is.” Not surprisingly Johnson critiques certain notions of happiness, like the romantic desire to “live according to nature.” It is an idea that is as vague as it is superficially charming. In Chapter 22, the young Rasselas encounters a self-assured intellectual at an “assembly of learned men” who explains:

“The time is already come when none are wretched but by their own fault…. The way to be happy is to live according to Nature, in obedience to that universal and unalterable law with which every heart is originally impressed; which is not written on it by precept, but engraven by destiny; not instilled by education, but infused at our nativity….”

Rasselas inquires further, asking for details on how to pursue such a blissful existence. The older man replies that “To live according to Nature is to act always with due regard to the fitness arising from the relations and qualities of causes and effects; to concur with the great and unchangeable scheme of universal felicity; to co-operate with the general disposition and tendency of the present system of things.”

The Prince soon found that this was one of the sages whom he should understand less as he heard him longer. He therefore bowed and was silent; and the philosopher, supposing him satisfied and the rest vanquished, rose up and departed with the air of a man that had co-operated with the present system.

Johnson, I think, does a nice job of deflating intellectual pomposity with his gentle satire. Rasselas is an interesting, and subtle, work. One may wonder how we can learn about happiness when only its opposite state is clearly defined. It helps to understand that Johnson was rather shrewdly responding to a society that was steeped in philosophical novelty and religious skepticism. He responded with a skepticism of his own, indicating that true happiness exists, but that it is not something we can fully control or achieve in this life.

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