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Monday, June 9, 2014

Samuel Johnson on the Importance of Partnership

Lichfield, England: the birthplace of Samuel Johnson

In his 18th Century book, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, Samuel Johnson whisks us off to the Happy Valley. This virtual Eden boasts all the varieties of plants, fish, birds, and animals known to Man. There is one way in or out: a gated and guarded tunnel. It is opened once each year, when the king visits to hold a grand celebration. Those who have petitioned to serve the royal household—servants, entertainers, and teachers—arrive at this time. When the king departs, these remain behind, and cater to all the needs and desires of the royal family.

When Rasselas is twenty-six, he grows bored of life in the Happy Valley. Pleasures that formerly delighted his senses or inspired his mind no longer satisfy him. A former instructor notices him withdrawing into himself, and asks him what's wrong.

“I fly from pleasure,” said the Prince, “because pleasure has ceased to please: I am lonely because I am miserable, and am unwilling to cloud with my presence the happiness of others.”

“Sir,” said he, “if you had seen the miseries of the world, you would know how to value your present state.”   

“Now,” said the Prince, “you have given me something to desire.

This is not a desire that can readily be fulfilled. The king has placed his heirs here to preserve them against any future need to rule Abyssinia. The prince spends over a year musing on the idea of escaping the Happy Valley. In the meantime, he attempts to enjoy life as best he can. Then he realizes that he must work hard if he is to discover a means of escape that the king and his advisors have not yet conceived. 

After searching out all conceivable means of escape, Rasselas visits an accomplished master of the mechanical sciences, who has brought running water, air conditioning, and recorded music to every room in the palace. The mechanist dreams of inventing a sailing chariot, and convinces Rasselas that his theories regarding flight are sound. As he's accomplished nothing on his own, the prince prompts the man on, hoping that this theorist and dreamer can help him escape the Happy Valley. One year later, the mechanist completes his first attempt at flight: a set of wings. Rasselas rejoices at the man's invention, and accompanies the man up "a little promontory." He watches eagerly as the mechanist straps on his newly designed wings. 

"He waved his pinions awhile to gather air, then leaped from his stand, and in an instant dropped into the lake."

While Rasselas is disheartened, he's not ready to give up. Still, he recognizes that he needs a partner if he is to escape. This time, he turns to an old man named Imlac, a poet and educator whose ideas have impressed him. Imlac tells him about his childhood. His father "was honest, frugal, and diligent, but of mean sentiments and narrow comprehension; he desired only to be rich, and to conceal his riches, lest he should be spoiled by the governors of the province. When I had once found the delight of knowledge, and felt the pleasure of intelligence and the pride of invention, I began silently to despise riches.”

Eventually, Imlac's father handed him ten thousand gold pieces. Imlac could regard this as a gift, or an investment in his future. If he wished to help run the family business, he must return within four years and with twenty thousand gold pieces. Imlac uses his father's money to travel, see the world, and increase in knowledge and wisdom. By the time he returns home, he finds his father dead, and the family business defunct. So he plies his knowledge as an educator, and eventually petitions admittance to the Happy Valley.

In Imlac, Rasselas finds a mentor, someone who knows what the world has to offer. He advises the prince: “Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured and little to be enjoyed.” But Rasselas will not be put off, and Imlac, who petitioned to enter the Happy Valley because he was worn out by traveling, has now grown weary of this gilded cage.

Rasselas has not yet discovered a means of escape, but now he has a worthy partner who can help him look for one. Should they escape, Imlac can then serve him as an expert guide, having toured all regions of the globe. Thus Samuel Johnson reminds us that desire alone is not enough. We must seek out expert assistance, and find someone with the right kind of real world knowledge. Lacking those, our efforts are destined to fall flat, just like those of the gifted mechanist.

Dragon Dave

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