“‘I fly from pleasure,’ said the prince, ‘because pleasure has ceased to please….'”—Samuel Johnson, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia
Once more I have picked up Johnson’s famous tale. It is a book that I get more out of with each successive perusal. In the early part of the story, Prince Rasselas is struggling with the aimlessness and ennui of his pampered regal existence in the “Happy Valley” before making his escape into the world. While strolling through the hills outside the palace he asks
“What… makes the difference between man and all the rest of the animal creation? Every beast that strays beside me has the same corporal necessities with myself: he is hungry, and crops the grass; he is thirsty, and drinks the stream; his thirst and hunger are appeased; he is satisfied, and sleeps; he rises again, and is hungry; he is again fed, and is at rest. I am hungry and thirsty, like him, but when thirst and hunger cease, I am not at rest…. The intermediate hours are tedious and gloomy; I long again to be hungry that I may again quicken the attention.”
How much of my life is spent along those same lines? To live from distraction to distraction is not much of an existence. As noted recently, people are motivated by what they find pleasant, admirable or conducive to happiness (even if those activities are purely spiritual or intellectual in quality). But some pleasures are more noble than others… and more lasting. Rasselas laments that
“I can discover in me no power of perception which is not glutted with its proper pleasure, yet I do not feel myself delighted. Man surely has some latent sense for which this place affords no gratification; or he has some desire distinct from sense, which must be satisfied before he can be happy.”
Johnson is here examining the nature of happiness more in terms of what it is not rather than by trying to arrive at any positive conclusion. That said, a patient reading of Rasselas shows that the author’s “existentialism” is much more than a catalog of the apparent absurdities and contrarieties of life, as might appear at a cursory glance. For more on this point, see my earlier post, Rasselas and the Search for Happiness.