The History of Rasselas: Prince of Abissinia

The History of Rasselas: Prince of Abissinia Quotes and Analysis

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.

Rasselas, p. 11

This is one of Rasselas's musings when he is still ensconced in the happy valley, dreaming of escaping to explore the world outside. His unhappiness rests in something intangible, for he knows that he has a life of comfort and ease and should not have a reason to be so gloomy. This "latent sense" is interesting from a metaphysical perspective, for it clearly is the thing that separates humans from animals (seen in Rasselas's discussion of birds a few sentences earlier). In Johnson's 18th-century perspective, it probably has to do with the soul and was bestowed upon humans by God. God desires us to do and seek more than simple satisfaction of material needs. Rasselas's quest embodies this human motivation for deeper satisfaction on an intellectual and spiritual level.

“Nothing,” replied the artist, “will ever be attempted if all possible objections must be first overcome."

The Artist, p. 19

It is an interesting irony of the text that the artist, who is a rather ludicrous figure in his attempt to build a flying contraption, offers some of the sagest advice in the text - one must be courageous and get to a point where one moves beyond obstacles and hesitations and what-ifs so one can attempt to follow one's dreams. Johnson scholars note the allusion to Persian emperor Xerxes, who when he was told of all the potential difficulties in invading Greece responded with, "For if in each matter that comes before us you look to all possible chances, never will you achieve anything." Johnson wrote an essay on heroic failure for The Adventurer as well, celebrating those who attempted something (in these cases, science-related inquiries) even if they failed, noting that "when they fail, [they] may sometimes benefit the world even by their miscarriages."

“But the knowledge of nature is only half the task of a poet; he must be acquainted likewise with all the modes of life… He must divest himself of the prejudices of his age and country; he must consider right and wrong in their abstracted and invariable state; he must disregard present laws and opinions, and rise to general and transcendental truths, which will always be the same. He must, therefore, content himself with the slow progress of his name, contemn the praise of his own time, and commit his claims to the justice of posterity. He must write as the interpreter of nature and the legislator of mankind, and consider himself as presiding over the thoughts and manners of future generations, as a being superior to time and place.”

Imlac, p. 28

Imlac spends a great deal discussing the value and practice of poetry. His explanation of how a poet must speak to the general, eschew bias, avoid fame, and interpret nature and mankind illustrate just how revered the position of poet is, and how difficult it is to attain. Rasselas notes this when he affirms that he understands it is not an easy thing to attempt, and that he wishes Imlac to move on in his history. Critics question whether or not Johnson himself actually thought so highly of poetry, calling attention to certain skeptical and derogatory comments regarding the profession. Regardless, the position espoused by Imlac gives insight into the perception of poets held by many during the 18th century; Johnson might have been hesitant to ascribe such power and relevance, but it was not uncommon for many other intellectuals to do so at the time.

“The Europeans,” answered Imlac, “are less unhappy than we, but they are not happy. Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured and little to be enjoyed.”

Imlac, p. 32

The question of an Occidental bias on the part of Johnson is rather complicated. On the one hand, his protagonist and nearly every other character are African. They are all very "civilized" and intelligent. Even the Arab chief is magnanimous and learned. However, the discussion of the merits of the Europeans and how they are wiser and lead higher-quality lives is worth considering as evidence of Johnson's belief that they are ultimately superior. Furthermore, his characters might be African but they are completely indistinguishable from Europeans in their mannerisms, discourse, mores, etc. They appear to have been rendered as European as possible in order not to incorporate African culture and flummox any contemporary readers. Thus, it is rather difficult to definitively claim whether Johnson intended to be Euro-centric or not.

Their dress was such as might not bring upon them the suspicion of having anything to conceal; yet the Prince, wherever he came, expected to be obeyed, and the Princess was frighted because those who came into her presence did not prostrate themselves.

Narrator, p. 39

This quote exemplifies the reality that Rasselas and Nekayah are from the highest echelon of society and thus view things with a particular class bias. They have never experienced anything other than pleasure, leisure, or ease, and they only know admiration and subservience. Their entry into the world is eye-opening, as not everyone is inclined to be deferential to them, especially before their wealth is known. Furthermore, the brother and sister never venture into poor society; they are too much a part of their social echelon that their probing into the way the world works never includes observing the mores and lifestyles of the poor. Although Johnson was rather liberal, and has Imlac discuss the fact that most people do not get to choose their "choice of life," Rasselas and Nekayah still come across as unsympathetic and unrelatable.

The Prince, whose humanity would not suffer him to insult misery with reproof, went away, convinced of the emptiness of rhetorical sounds, and the inefficacy of polished periods and studied sentences.

Narrator, p. 46

Johnson may be one of the most esteemed intellectuals of his day, but he does not always have positive things to say about intellectuals and philosophers. First, Imlac is swayed by the wise words of a Stoic philosopher, who turns out to be incapable in adhering to his own tenets and precepts. Rasselas then spends time with an assembly of learned men, but they are boisterous and coarse. The quote here refers to Rasselas’s particular interest in one learned man, but he realizes that the more the man speaks, the less he makes sense. He is, as Shakespeare said, full of sound and fury and signifies nothing. Simply being learned does not mean that one has attained real wisdom.

I have been long comparing the evils with the advantages of society, and resolve to return into the world to-morrow. The life of a solitary man will be certainly miserable, but not certainly devout.

The Hermit, p. 50

Rasselas and Nekayah assume that the hermit will be happy - after all, he made the choice of solitude himself, he is very learned, and he has everything he could want. However, the hermit confesses that he is not happy at all. In fact, he states that he wants to return to the world immediately. This is not surprising once the reader comes to observe how many times Johnson enforces the idea that prolonged solitude is enervating, distracting, and even dangerous. The hermit is only one of several figures whose lonely lives are not palatable to them. Solitude has no guarantee of happiness, and, interestingly, no guarantee of virtue.

In families where there is or is not poverty there is commonly discord. If a kingdom be, as Imlac tells us, a great family, a family likewise is a little kingdom, torn with factions and exposed to revolutions.

Nekayah, p. 57

Rasselas and Nekayah engage in a sustained discussion of the possibilities of private life to bring about happiness. Nekayah spends time with various families, observing and analyzing how, in essence, families are full of strife and selfishness. She observes that the girls are prone to silliness and petty disputes. Parents are sometimes in conflict with their own children. Those who marry young are apt to have more problems with their children, while those who marry later are apt to have more conflicts between themselves, as they are more fixed in their behavior and opinions. The comparison of a family to a kingdom is apt, as it represents the prevailing biblical, social, and philosophical ideals of the day.

The truth is that no mind is much employed upon the present; recollection and anticipation fill up almost all our moments.

Imlac, p. 67

When Rasselas and Nekayah exhibit the folly of youth in assuming that history has no bearing on their lived experience, Imlac rebukes them and offers a discourse on the meaning of the past. He says that it is impossible to understand men if one does not understand what has motivated and inspired them in the past. As most people live their lives remembering and feeling nostalgic for their past, the past is worth thinking about. Furthermore, the lessons of history are important, especially if one wants to be merciful and just in a position of power. People learn by example rather than precept, so the study of history is relevant.

Of those wishes that they had formed they well knew that none could be obtained. They deliberated awhile what was to be done, and resolved, when the inundation should cease, to return to Abyssinia.

Narrator, p. 109

The end of the novel is admittedly anticlimactic. The group spends nearly the entire book talking about their plans for happiness and exploring numerous options and avenues to secure that happiness. They seem to have resolved upon what they want to do once the rains stop, and their options seem sensible and fitting. However, once the rains end, they return to Abissinia, the site of so much of their former unhappiness. This may appear odd, but in fact it seems to be in line with Johnson’s message. First of all, there is no indication that they are actually returning to the happy valley – just to their country. Second, by acknowledging that their plans are fanciful, they are rationally and wisely avoiding putting stock in their choices to bring about their happiness. Happiness is elusive and much of life is miserable, so one ought to live life simply and without expectations; by abandoning their impractical plans, they demonstrate wisdom and discernment.