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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Samuel Johnson on Pleasure and Reason

The pursuit of life in Lichfield, England,
Samuel Johnson's hometown.

In Samuel Johnson’s novella, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, we follow young Rasselas on his quest for a lasting happiness and fulfillment. Along with his sister and advisor, the prince has escaped the unsatisfying diversions of the Happy Valley, and traveled to Cairo. Amid the rich social strata of this bustling metropolis, he expects to find ample opportunities to discover the people and situation in which he truly belongs.

Rasselas rose the next day, and resolved to begin his experiments upon life. “Youth,” cried he, “is the time of gladness: I will join myself to the young men whose only business is to gratify their desires, and whose time is all spent in a succession of enjoyments.”

Like Arthur Huntington in Anne Bronte’s novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, he joins Cairo’s equivalent of London’s gentleman’s clubs. Time passes swiftly in such society, but his hilarity and mirth evaporate when he returns home, leaving him feeling empty and depressed. This hardly seems like the foundation for a life of happiness and fulfillment.

Nonetheless, he cannot deny that he enjoyed their company. Perhaps he could help spur his new friends on to forge a purpose for their lives that would provide them all with lasting happiness and satisfaction. So he returns to reason with them. “Perpetual levity must end in ignorance,” he argues, “and intemperance, though it may fire the spirits for an hour, will make life short or miserable.” His friends listen to him, and study each other’s features. Then, just as Arthur Harrington responds to Helen's reproaches, the room erupts with laughter.

Of course, cities not only provide ample opportunities for relaxation and indulgence, but also for discourse and instruction. Having tried the former, Rasselas seeks out the latter. In a grand hall choked with people, he listens to an old man preach that everyone should direct his life by reason alone, and ignore fancies and passions. He compared reason to the sun, of which the light is constant, uniform, and lasting; and fancy to a meteor, of bright but transitory lustre, irregular in its motion and delusive in its direction.

Given his recent experience among the rich gentlemen his age, Rasselas welcomes the old man’s teaching. Yet when he seeks out the sage later, he finds the teacher overwhelmed by sadness, as his daughter has just died. Rasselas gently reminds him that death is a part of life, the inevitable consequences of which should not divert the man from following reason's straight, guiding course. The man responds that reason has abandoned him, and his daughter’s death has stripped his life of meaning. The man's teachings had seemed so wise, yet the man's philosophy has failed to insulate him against unhappiness and despair. Rasselas, not wishing to bring the man greater pain, leaves him to his mourning.

Perhaps Rasselas can be blamed for seeking out frivolity, as he spent his youth in the Happy Valley, where servants catered to his every whim. But given his altered status, we can understand his desire to seek out others who occupy a similar position in society. We can also understand his excitement in seeking out a man who had discovered the key to lasting happiness, and his disappointment in realizing that the sage is not the equal of his teachings. We may come from different backgrounds, and occupy different social and economic strata, but who doesn’t wish to find others who share their interests and concerns? Which one of us doesn’t seek the best ideology, or principles, along which to order our lives? Thus Samuel Johnson reminds us that pleasure and reason can perform useful roles, but neither should rule our lives.

Dragon Dave

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