Johnson’s Existential Quest

“Happiness… must be something solid and permanent, without fear and without uncertainty.”—Samuel Johnson, Rasselas

I am returning to the roots of my journal with a discussion of Samuel Johnson’s novel Rasselas (1759), an exotic imaginary travelogue in which the characters examine the manners and vocations of various people in order to determine the proper “choice of life” that will help them attain true happiness.

Recently I came across an essay through my local library: “Teleology in Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas,” by Chance David Pahl, from Marquette University’s Renascence Journal (Spring 2012).* Pahl’s article discusses Johnson’s metaphysics in terms of Aristotelian and Thomistic philosophy. Johnson’s vision, we are told, is both teleological—life has a telos (“end”) or purpose—and eudaimonistic—human beings strive for happiness.

It is an oft-stated platitude that in life it is not the goal but the journey that matters. The implication is that our existence is aimless. On the contrary, says Pahl

Rasselas does not depict an open-ended or failed existential quest: although the travelers do not obtain their earthly goals, neither do they return empty-handed.

The following passage from the novel shows how closely Johnson’s teleology is tied to his sense of eudaimonia (“happiness” or “fulfillment”):

Pleasure, in itself harmless, may become mischievous, by endearing to us a state which we know to be transient and probatory, and withdrawing our thoughts from that of which every hour brings us nearer to the beginning, and of which no length of time will bring us to the end. Mortification is not virtuous in itself, nor has any other use, but that it disengages us from the allurements of sense. In the state of future perfection, to which we all aspire, there will be pleasure without danger, and security without restraint (Ch. 47).

According to Pahl, Johnson adopts Aristotle’s method for determining what it is that humans desire, but he goes beyond the Greek vision of worldly contentment by adopting a Thomistic, or classically Christian, view of how it may be attained. Johnson repeatedly “emphasizes the futility of the intellectual quest for happiness.”

People yearn for beatitude, though it so often eludes them. Such a craving would seem entirely vain except that it an indelible part of human nature. Pahl says that for Johnson the quest has a purpose and “happiness is found in God.” The fact that Rasselas and his companions fail to discover an easy path to eudaimonia only points to their growing spiritual maturity. In this way Pahl characterizes the tale as an early Bildungsroman—a “novel of human emergence” in which it is not the action and the scenery which changes, leaving the protagonist untouched and self-sufficient, like some ready-made action hero; but a story where the most important transformation is that which occurs in the main character himself. For more on this topic, see my earlier post “When Pleasure Has Ceased to Please.”

*The full text of the article is available via online catalogues of participating library systems.

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