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Samuel Johnson's fame is a curious thing, for he was so great in so many different fields of literature that he somehow manages to obscure himself. Indeed, in the first instance it is hard to know whether he is more renowned for his epic Dictionary or for being the subject of the first great, and maybe still the greatest, biography, Boswell's Life of Johnson. Meanwhile, he was one of the great essayists in the English language, an author of sermons, letters, etc., a poet, and, finally, a novelist. Okay, maybe a novella-ist, because Rasselas is not what we would consider a novel in the modern sense, not just because of its brevity but because plot and character development are secondary to the author's message. Which brings us to the final field of endeavor in which Johnson's greatness is obscured: he was an important philosopher in the Anglo-American tradition of realism/skepticism. We have written pretty extensively about how this tradition insulated us from the tragic Rationalism of the Continent, with its delusion that the pure exercise of human reason could change human nature and create perfect men and a perfect society. Rasselas is an underrated text in the history of this hostility to Utopianism, which alone makes it an important novel (novella).

Johnson expressed his skepticism in perhaps better read forms, as in the poem that T. S. Eliot proclaimed, The Vanity of Human Wishes, The Tenth Satire of Juvenal, Imitated
Let observation with extensive view,
Survey mankind, from China to Peru;
Remark each anxious toil, each eager strife,
And watch the busy scenes of crowded life;
Then say how hope and fear, desire and hate,
O’erspread with snares the clouded maze of fate,
Where wav’ring man, betray’d by vent’rous pride
To tread the dreary paths without a guide,
As treach’rous phantoms in the mist delude,
Shuns fancied ills, or chases airy good.
How rarely reason guides the stubborn choice,
Rules the bold hand, or prompts the suppliant voice,
How nations sink, by darling schemes oppress’d,
When vengeance listens to the fool’s request.
And Boswell had Boswell's Life of Johnsonquoted himBoswell's Life of Johnson--much of the reputation of the biography honestly owes to the transcription of Johnson's own words:
Life is not long, and too much of it should not be spent in idle deliberation how it shall be spent: deliberation, which those who begin it by prudence, and continue it with subtilty, must, after long expence of thought, conclude by chance. To prefer one future mode of life to another, upon just reasons, requires faculties which it has not pleased our Creator to give us.
Rasselas consists of Johnson's fictional depiction of how a prince (Rasselas) and his fellow-travelers spend their time in precisely such idle deliberation, searching for the perfect choice of lifestyle instead of embracing the idea of living their own lives well. As he counsels in the first chapter:
Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope; who expect that age will perform the promises of youth, and that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow; attend to the history of Rasselas prince of Abissinia.
So the Prince leaves his Happy Valley in a quest for a place where he might be happier, but finds each alternative has its own drawbacks. For Johnson, as for the Anglosphere generally, Rasselas's endeavor is not just folly but is an embrace of the literally unhuman:
Nature sets her gifts on the right hand and on the left. Those conditions that flatter hope and attract desire are so constituted that, as we approach one, we recede from another. There are goods so opposed that we cannot sieze both, but, by too much prudence, may pass between them at too great a distance to reach either. This is often the fate of long consideration; he does nothing who endeavors to do more then is allowed to humanity. Flatter not yourself with contrarities of pleasure. Of the blessings set before you make your choice, and be content. No man can taste the fruits of Autumn while he is delighting his scent with the flowers of Spring: no man can, at the same time, fill his cup from the source and from the mouth of the Nile.
His admonition that we ought enjoy the fruits of the seasons in their course, and enjoy the gifts that Nature has set before us, is not just a summons to contentment but a pluperfect statement of our philosophy.


Grade: (A)


Samuel Johnson Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Samuel Johnson
    -Samuel Johnson's Essays
    -The Samuel Johnson Sound Bite Page
    -WIKIPEDIA: The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia
    -AUDIO BOOK: Rasselas (LibriVox)
    -ETEXT: Rasselas (Project Gutenberg)
    -STUDY GUIDE: Rasselas by Samuel Johnson: Summary, Analysis & History (
    -STUDY GUIDE: Samuel Johnson, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759) (Professor Florence S. Boos)
    -STUDY GUIDE: The History of Rasselas: Prince of Abissinia (Grade Saver)
    -RADIO PLAY: The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (BBC Radio 4)
    -STUDY GUIDE: Rasselas (
    -ENTRY: Rasselas (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
    -POODCAST: Phil Jones on Why We Read Samuel Johnson (From The History of Literature Podcast with Jacke Wilson, April 11, 2024)
-ESSAY: Samuel Johnson as Hero (Jeffrey Hart, May 2014, Modern Age)
-ESSAY: Utopian Fantasies vs. Real Happiness in Samuel Johnson’s “Rasselas” (Mitchell Kalpakgian, February 27th, 2023, Imaginative Conservative)
    -ESSAY: James Boswell and Samuel Johnson: The Original Odd Couple (Robert Zaretsky, August 5, 2013, VQR)
    -ESSAY: "A useful time-capsule of Georgian life": Samuel Johnson and his remarkable dictionary: Samuel Johnson's 1755 A Dictionary of the English Language made a huge contribution to the English language. More than 250 years on, it has become a useful time-capsule of 18th-century life. (Henry Hitchings, June 6, 2022, History Extra)
    -ESSAY: Boswell, Johnson, and the Church: Our late, beloved Fr. James V. Schall, through all his travels and adventures, took care not to have out of reach a copy of Boswell's Life of Johnson. (HADLEY ARKES, 6/07/21, CERC)
    -ESSAY: Utopian Fantasies vs. Real Happiness in Samuel Johnson’s “Rasselas” (Mitchell Kalpakgian, August 31st, 2018, Imaginative Conservative)
    -VIDEO LECTURE: The Novel & Morality: Samuel Johnson's 'Rasselas' (Professor Belinda Jack, Oct 22, 2014, Gresham College)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson: Ethiopian Thought in the Making of an English by Wendy L. Belcher (J. Roger Kurtz, Fall 2015, Research in African Literatures)
-ESSAY: Origin of the Name Rasselas (Wendy Laura Belcher, June 2009, Notes and Queries)
    -ESSAY: Rasselas and the Early Travelers to Abyssinia (John Robert Moore, MARCH 01 1954, Modern Language Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: Samuel Johnson's 'Rasselas': The Duplicity of Choice and the Sense of an Ending (José Angel García Landa, 1990, Humanities Common)
    -ESSAY: Repetitive Patterns in Samuel Johnson's Rasselas (Duane H. Smith, Summer 1996, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900)
    -ESSAY: The Choice of Life - Samuel Johnson's 'The History of Rasselas' (Meghan Waters, McConnell Center)
    -ESSAY: Samuel Johnson's Rasselas: A Perspective on Islam (RICHARD F. FLECK, Winter 1993, Critical Essay)
    -ESSAY: Rasselas: A Realist’s Narrative on the Quest for Ideal Happiness (Lauren Le, Bridgewater State U)
    -ESSAY: The Treatment of Women in the History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (Cindy Fritz, 1982, Eastern Illinois University: The Keep)
    -ESSAY: Man's Pursuit of Happiness Dr. Samuel Johnson's Philosophical View in Rasselas (Li-Hsin Ting, 1984)
    -ESSAY: The Image of the Orient in Samuel Johnson's Rasselas (1759) (Abdulhafeth Khrisat, Academia)
    -ESSAY: The Christian Philosophy of Samuel Johnson: NEITHER UTOPIAN NOR CYNICAL (Matthew Anger, September 2009, New Oxford Review)
    -ESSAY: Samuel Johnson's Rasselas (Jacob Lusk, Enlightenment & Disability)
    -ESSAY: Rasselas and the Search for Happiness (Imlac's Journal, July 6, 2013)
    -ESSAY: Samuel Johnson’s style of Writing in His Book The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (Grades Fixer)
    -ESSAY: Samuel Johnson: A Guide for the Perplexed Undergraduate (David Hein, January 12th, 2021, Imaginative Conservative)
    -ESSAY: Reading Boswell’s Johnson (THOMAS ALBERT HOWARD, 10/22/18, Anxious Bench)
    -PODCAST: Episode 139: The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell (HOSTED BY JOHN J. MILLER, July 7, 2020, National Review: Great Books Podcast)
    -WIKIPEDIA: The Vanity of Human Wishes
    -TEXT: The Vanity of Human Wishes: The Tenth Satire of Juvenal Imitated (U Toronto)
    -STUDY GUIDE: The Vanity of Human Wishes by Samuel Johnson: Summary and Analysis (Bachelor & Master)
    -ESSAY: The Vanity of Human Wishes (T. F. Wharton, The Theme of Hope)
    -ESSAY: To "The Vanity of Human Wishes" through the 1740's (John E. Sitter, Studies in Philology)
    -ESSAY: Vanity Of Human Wishes (Student Writing Center, 01 May 2018)
    -REVIEW: of Rasselas by Samuel Johnson (Charles E. Pierce Jr., WSJ)
    -REVIEW: of Rasselas (Mitchell Kalpakgian, Crisis)
    -REVIEW: of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia by Samuel Johnson (Juli Rahel, Universe in Words)
    -REVIEW: of Rasselas (Time's Flow Stemmed)
    -REVIEW: of Rasselas (Thomas, Hogglestock)
    -REVIEW: of Rasselas (Less Than a Megabyte)
    -REVIEW: of Rasselas (Hungry Like the Wolf)
    -REVIEW: of Rasselas (His Futile Preoccupations)
    -REVIEW: of The Religious Life of Samuel Johnson. by Charles E. Pierce, Jr. (William Holtz, Eighteenth-Century Studies)
    -REVIEW: of

OLDER SET OF LINKS (may require
Wayback Machine)

    -BIO: Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) (kirjasto)
    -Samuel Johnson (Wikipedia)
    -The Johnson Society of London
    -The Samuel Johnson Sound Bite Page
    -ESSAY: Words count: Samuel Johnson's Dictionary was published 250 years ago this month. Beryl Bainbridge describes how a failed teacher and celebrated 'hack' worked for nine years in a London garret to redefine the English language - and his reputation (Beryl Bainbridge, April 2, 2005. The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Dr Johnson's Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story of the Book that Defined the World by Henry Hitchings (Andrew Motion, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Dr Johnson's Women by Norma Clarke (Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson Volume XVIII: Johnson on the English Language (Victor Wishna, Humanities)
    -REVIEW: of Amorous to zealous: a review of The Life of Samuel Johnson By James Boswell, Samuel Johnson: A Biography By Peter Martin & Samuel Johnson: The Struggle By Jeffrey Meyers (Lewis Jones, Financial Times)

Book-related and General Links:
-ESSAY: The Trap of Pursuing Well-Being… And the Billion-Dollar Industry Behind It: Gelong Thubten on Escaping "the Cultural Disease of Our Times" (Gelong Thubten, August 10, 2020, Lit Hub)