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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Samuel Johnson on Finding Your Place in Society

Mingling with the locals in Lichfield, England:
Samuel Johnson's hometown.

In The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, Samuel Johnson introduces us to Imlac, a man of uncommon learning. In his long life, he has traveled over much of the known world, and met people from many countries and cultures. While he failed to gain acclaim as a poet, his desire to master that art led him to study nature, individuals, and society in all their varied forms. Then, when the rigors of his life caught up with him, and he realized that he had no home to return to, and no place he truly belonged, he applied to the king of Abyssinia for admission into the Happy Valley. There he spent his days and nights enjoying the comfort and luxuries of the royal palace, and shared with the princes and princesses of the realm all he had learned and experienced. 

After awhile, he realizes that one prince in particular shows interest in him. Prince Rasselas has grown bored with life in the Happy Valley, and wishes to see the world. While he's enjoyed his period of rest, Imlac realizes how static life in the Happy Valley is, where every aspect of life is centered around the interests and comfort of the royal family. He feels the itch to travel again, to continue to learn and grow. Yet the king keeps the one entrance to this valley guarded and gated for a reason: to preserve his family against all harm, so that one of them can take his place on the throne when he dies. Imlac knows it will not be easy, but he agrees to help Rasselas search for a way out that the royal security contingent have overlooked. If they find one, he will accompany the prince, and serve as his advisor and guide. 

Unlike the brilliant mechanist, whose knowledge was mostly theoretical, Imlac's years of observing human societies and nature in minute detail proves valuable immediately. 

As they were walking on the side of the mountain they observed that the coneys, which the rain had driven from their burrows, had taken shelter among the bushes, and formed holes behind them tending upwards in an oblique line. “It has been the opinion of antiquity,” said Imlac, “that human reason borrowed many arts from the instinct of animals; let us, therefore, not think ourselves degraded by learning from the coney. We may escape by piercing the mountain in the same direction. We will begin where the summit hangs over the middle part, and labour upward till we shall issue out beyond the prominence.”

They spend several days searching, and finally discover a small cavern amid the shrubs and plants. This time, Rasselas doesn't have to wait a year for his instructor to construct a fabulous new invention. They procure readily available tools, and dig deeper into the cavern. When Princess Nekayah discovers their efforts, Imlac and Rasselas agree to take her with them, as she likewise desires escape.

After a few days, they emerge on the other side of the valley. Bringing gold and gems to pay their way in the world, Rasselas and Nekayah feel ready to begin their adventure. Yet, after she grows tired of walking, the princess begins to look for another palace, where the attendants can satisfy all her desires. Rasselas discovers that those he meets don’t leap to obey him, or pay him proper obeisance. Imlac watches them carefully, cautions them against actions that might betray their identities, and eventually forces them to remain in one village for several weeks until they grow accustomed to their lowered status in the world. Then they set off for Cairo

As they approached the city, which filled the strangers with astonishment, “This,” said Imlac to the Prince, “is the place where travellers and merchants assemble from all corners of the earth. You will here find men of every character and every occupation. Commerce is here honourable. I will act as a merchant, and you shall live as strangers who have no other end of travel than curiosity; it will soon be observed that we are rich. Our reputation will procure us access to all whom we shall desire to know; you shall see all the conditions of humanity, and enable yourselves at leisure to make your choice of life.”

While Imlac warned them what to expect, as they walk the streets, the prince and princess are overwhelmed by the noise and the crowds. Why should merchants and beggars accost them in the street, while the aristocracy pass them by? Bewildered, they allow Imlac to help them trade in an appropriate portion of their gems for a house, servants, food, and clothes. Imlac teaches Rasselas and Nekayah the value of the riches they have brought with them, so that they cannot be cheated and do not squander it. Imlac orders their house and lifestyles in a sufficiently impressive manner that their neighbors seek them out. Slowly, Rasselas and Nekayah begin to understand how a society works that does not revolve around them. They learn the local language. They observe how people conduct themselves with members of their own class, as well as individuals occupying higher and lower levels.  They witness the rich variety of humankind, and see all the sides of people’s personalities that they would never have observed from their royal subjects.

After two years in Cairo, Rasselas realizes that Imlac's oversight and tutelage have given him the skills and abilities to fulfill his original purpose: to understand how others live outside the Happy Valley. Now he can walk amongst strangers, and by careful observation and study, find his place among them. His time in the classroom may be over, but his education has only begun.

Dragon Dave

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