Someone reading Samuel Johnson’s moral fable Rasselas for the first time might find it perplexing. As discussed in a recent post, the tone is often mocking and seemingly ambiguous. I actually found a helpful insight while reading another book: “Each pleasant object holds out a promise of satisfying the soul’s aspirations; but it is found incapable of bringing to an end the restless striving of the soul to complete itself” (Progress Through Mental Prayer, Rev. Edward Leen). Johnson’s tale is not overtly Christian, yet it is incomprehensible without some appreciation of religious values.
The apparent skepticism of Rasselas is better understood as a critique of purely external solutions to man’s internal dissatisfaction: “The causes of good and evil, answered Imlac, are so various and uncertain, so often entangled with each other, so diversified by various relations, and so much subject to accidents which cannot be foreseen, that he who would fix his condition upon incontestable reasons of preference, must live and die inquiring and deliberating.”
What we have here is a psychological dilemma. People are never completely happy with their lot and will always jump from one scheme to another. Johnson was famous for discountenancing the idea that things like weather, locale, or occupation could do much to improve our contentment. Needless to say he was guilty of exaggeration; but he was exaggerating something that is based on an existential fact of human nature.
Johnson also tackles the paradox of virtue and happiness, since the two are not always clearly correlated. As the princess Nekayah says, “Whether perfect happiness would be procured by perfect goodness… this world will never afford an opportunity of deciding. But this, at least, may be maintained, that we do not always find visible happiness in proportion to visible virtue.” So what is the point of leading a moral life? “All that virtue can afford is quietness of conscience, a steady prospect of a happier state; this may enable us to endure calamity with patience.”
Likewise the “old man” tells his young auditors: “My mind is burthened with no heavy crime, and therefore I compose myself to tranquility… and hope to possess in a better state that happiness which here I could not find, and that virtue which here I have not attained.” The princess concludes that “the choice of life is become less important; I hope hereafter to think only on the choice of eternity.”
If Rasselas seems pessimistic it is only because Johnson has turned the skepticism of anti-Christian writers against themselves.