Johnson: The History of Rasselas (1759)

I wish I would be a scholar of philosophy. Then I would know the history of how developed over time. Without this knowledge I have to admit that Samuel Johnson‘s “The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia” felt shallow and boring. I am sure that there are plenty of ideas that Johnson introduced or at least made significant contribution to in this book, but I couldn’t identify them. Being an ignoramus the conversations that made up a lot of the book felt repetitive of ideas I read elsewhere, probably in much later written books.

The first book that comes to mind though is Voltaire’s Candide was published the same year. But Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha is 20th century and that was also a novel, where a hero travels a long way. There he is mostly aloe o the journey that is of spiritual nature, while here the price travels with his teacher, Imlac, his sister Nekayah, and her “favourite,” Pekuah. Pekuah is an interesting choice for a name. In Hebrew “Pekuah nefesh” refers to the concept of saving life of another, which is a mitzvah, commandment. The original title of this book was “The choice of life” so I am sure that the names are not randomly selected.

I was planning to summarize the lessons the travelers learn in their search for comparative happiness of people around the world, but then gave up on it. It’s best if you read it for yourself, it’s not that long. This way there is a better chance that you can learn the same lessons by a single proxy (reading about it, instead of experiencing them) instead of a double proxy (me summarizing what I read.) I have to warn you though the end was so abrupt that I couldn’t’ believe it was suddenly over.

The story is simple enough: a prince lives in happy valley that he cannot leave, but everything is provided for him there. In conversation with a well-traveled scholar he decided to venture out and discover which people are the happiest and why. On the road he learns by elimination all the reasons: why people are not happy, what are the obstacles. That’s about it without telling any major plot development, of which aren’t many. The treasures are hidden in the discussions he is having with his companions. I wish you happy learning too and discovering what makes you (as opposed to everyone else) happy.

The book @ Amazon.com

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