What does Rasselas by Samuel Johnson say that happiness is?

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Rasselasis an exploration of the quest for happiness. Rasselas wants to leave the sheltered Happy Valley, where has lived all his life. He finds its amusements vacuous and hopes to find out more about happiness by traveling to places like Egypt.

Rasselas learns that happiness is an elusive state,...

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Rasselas is an exploration of the quest for happiness. Rasselas wants to leave the sheltered Happy Valley, where has lived all his life. He finds its amusements vacuous and hopes to find out more about happiness by traveling to places like Egypt.

Rasselas learns that happiness is an elusive state, almost impossible to find either in or out of the Happy Valley. When he is feeling envious of the Europeans, for example, Imlac, often regarded as the voice of Johnson in the book, tells him:

"The Europeans," answered Imlac, "are less unhappy than we, but they are not happy. Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed."

The text, however, does locate two sources of possible happiness. First, one must avoid solitude and isolation to be happy. Second, doing all things in moderation is key to the quest for happiness. Knowledge can bring happiness to humankind, but the pursuit of knowledge can lead to misery, as it can cause isolation.

All in all, the text suggests, one should not expect more than fleeting happiness in this life.

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Probably the crucial event in Rasselas occurs at the end of the tale when the travelers have seen enough of the "real" world and have apparently decided to return to the Happy Valley.

Johnson poses the eternal question of whether "happiness" is to be found in a state of perfection, a world without suffering, or if it can be found by mankind in the ordinary, imperfect, and problem-filled world we know as reality. Arguably, his answer is that it can be found in neither state. But why? And does this depend on how happiness is defined? To answer these questions, we probably need to bring Johnson's religious beliefs into play.

Johnson was a devout member of the Anglican Church. He rejected the growing deism and agnosticism of his time, but also the "Leibnitian" (as he referred to it) view that this is the "best of all possible worlds" created by a benevolent God. In his "Life of Pope," Johnson disagreed with the optimistic Leibniz-influenced philosophy expressed by Alexander Pope in the Essay on Man. Interestingly, Voltaire's Candide, written at about the same time as Rasselas, similarly ridiculed the "best of all possible worlds" thesis. Johnson's religious beliefs rejected the idea that "happiness" was possible in this life—if by this we mean a state of perfection in which people feel no dissatisfaction or incompleteness. Hence, Rasselas and his companions find that the outside, "real" world does not give them such a feeling and that returning to the Happy Valley is as good an option as any.

But the Happy Valley was unsatisfactory as well, or they would never have wished to leave it. Would this mean, then, that Johnson's whole message is that happiness simply depends on one's perceptions, on being satisfied with what one has and not wishing for more? Or does it mean that it is up to the individual to create happiness and not simply "find" it, as Rasselas and the others have thought to do?

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Rasselas's quest for happiness beyond the boundaries of his Happy Valley eventually proves elusive. The Prince and his companions return to their homeland without having found the true happiness that set them off on their pilgrimage. The novella, originally titled "The Prince of Abissinia" and written just after the death of Johnson's mother to raise the money necessary for her funeral, has been considered the most comprehensive expression of the author's pessimistic view of life. According to Johnson, life is something to be endured rather than enjoyed and happiness is illusory. Returning home, Rasselas and his companions are sadder but wiser because they have understood that no human being can experience ideal happiness. Through Rasselas's quest, Johnson also targets the human tendency to live in hope of a better future rather than concentrating on living in the present.

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