Dan Sandman

48: Rasselas by Samuel Johnson

In Adventure, Books, Fiction on 28/11/2014 at 12:00 pm

Rasselas by Samuel JohnsonSamuel Johnson (1709 – 84) was the son of a bookseller, an unsuccessful teacher, and worked on his dictionary for nine years. Allegedly, he wrote Rasselas (1756) in one week to pay for his mother’s funeral. It is a thought-provoking book, and makes some good universal points, despite its moralizing tone.

There are four central characters in the tale: Prince Rasselas, Princess Nekayah, her attendant Pekuah, and the philosopher Imlac. Although he lives in the Utopian happy valley, the prince of Abissinia is unhappy. In search of happiness, he takes his friends travelling to learn about world. On their journey, they meet many interesting people – philosophers, scientists, hermits, and the wealthy – but do not reach any conclusions when they return home. Instead, their experiences open up philosophical discussions on a broad range of moral topics, such as art and marriage.

I was recently in The British Museum (founded in 1753), which is only a bus journey away from my house. Ever since my father and mother first took me to the museum as a boy, I have been fascinated by the Enlightenment Gallery, with its many objects of wonder; including books, plants, fossils, shells, astrolabes and maps. The eighteenth century, which Samuel Johnson lived through, was a very exciting exciting time to be a writer. Natural philosophers were busy collecting and categorizing the natural world, whilst antiquarians were digging up mysterious artifacts from far away lands. Eventually, these early adventures into the objects of the past world led to what we now call science and archaeology. In a very clear way, Johnson was part of ‘The Age of Curiosity’, spending an immense amount of time collecting and categorizing the English language to form his dictionary. Although Rasselas appears to be written for the honest purpose of making money (to paraphrase Johnson), and can be judged a less serious work than the dictionary, its focus on moral questions is very much of its age. I will finish with this quote, written down during my in depth walk around the gallery.

“During the Enlightenment, many people believed that lack of social and moral progress stemmed from ignorance about the world, its natural phenomenon and its human history.” (Case 12 – The Revolution in Science)

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