March 5, 2023


Utopian Fantasies vs. Real Happiness in Samuel Johnson's "Rasselas" (Mitchell Kalpakgian, February 27th, 2023, Imaginative Conservative)

As a result of his experience both in and out of the Happy Valley, his conversations with Epicureans, Stoics, shepherds, rulers, and philosophers, and the rich and the poor, Rasselas gains an honest, realistic idea about happiness gathered from real life, not abstract theories.

The first universal truth that strikes him is that no place is utopia--neither the Happy Valley, the palace of the Bassa of Egypt, nor the quiet pastures of the shepherds. None of these places satisfies all man's emotional, mental, or material needs. Rasselas gains a second invaluable truth: no human being is ever perfectly happy or escapes some degree of restlessness or unfulfilled desires--neither the learned astronomer nor the ignorant maids in the harem, neither political rulers nor simple shepherds, neither the hermit nor the married. A third truth Rasselas discovers is "the insufficiency of human enjoyments" to satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart--an insight he acquires from his visit to the pyramids, a monument to "that hunger of imagination which preys incessantly upon life and must be always appeased by some employment." Even the wealthiest and most powerful, who count their possessions but have nothing to do, must invent some activity, wasteful or frivolous, to divert the boredom or restlessness that oppresses them. This insufficiency of human pleasures to gratify the longings of the soul for infinite happiness awaits fulfillment in the next life that Rasselas' sister Nekayah calls "the choice of eternity."

Although human life is not utopia or paradise but "a state in which much is to be endured and little to be enjoyed," as Imlac observes, it offers greater or lesser degrees of happiness depending on the practice of the art of living. 

Eschewing Reason meant that the English-speaking world never succumbed to Utopianism. Even in its mildest form, the Founders rejected Locke's theorizing because the State of Nature was too fanciful. 

Posted by at March 5, 2023 12:00 AM