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17.11.11

This is quite brilliant! I was pleasantly surprised to find a classic so readable and interesting. It reminds me a lot of Voltaire’s Candide, also published in 1759, although this one isn’t a satire, it’s just often amusing. It mainly follows Rasselas through his investigating whether human beings are capable of attaining happiness. And what that might be.


The Prince soon concluded that he should never be happy in a course of life of which he was ashamed.  He thought it unsuitable to a reasonable being to act without a plan, and to be sad or cheerful only by chance.  “Happiness,” said he, “must be something solid and permanent, without fear and without uncertainty.”


I had decided the princess Nekayah was sleeping with her maid, Pekuah, when the later got abducted by very nice Arab bandits and Nekayah lost all will to live in her absence. Later, the reencounter is most emotive and includes them going off to be alone.

“Yet what,” said she, “is to be expected from our pursuit of happiness, when we find the state of life to be such that happiness itself is the cause of misery?  Why should we endeavour to attain that of which the possession cannot be secured?  I shall henceforward fear to yield my heart to excellence, however bright, or to fondness, however tender, lest I should lose again what I have lost in Pekuah.” PP. 122

The Princess and her favourite embraced each other with transport too violent to be expressed, and went out together to pour the tears of tenderness in secret, and exchange professions of kindness and gratitude.  After a few hours they returned into the refectory of the convent, where, in the presence of the prior and his brethren, the Prince required of Pekuah the history of her adventures. PP. 124

“You, sir,” said the sage, “are the first who has complained of misery in the Happy Valley.  I hope to convince you that your complaints have no real cause.  You are here in full possession of all the Emperor of Abyssinia can bestow; here is neither labour to be endured nor danger to be dreaded, yet here is all that labour or danger can procure or purchase.  Look round and tell me which of your wants is without supply: if you want nothing, how are you unhappy?”

“That I want nothing,” said the Prince, “or that I know not what I want, is the cause of my complaint: if I had any known want, I should have a certain wish; that wish would excite endeavour, and I should not then repine to see the sun move so slowly towards the western mountains, or to lament when the day breaks, and sleep will no longer hide me from myself.  When I see the kids and the lambs chasing one another, I fancy that I should be happy if I had something to pursue.  But, possessing all that I can want, I find one day and one hour exactly like another, except that the latter is still more tedious than the former.  Let your experience inform me how the day may now seem as short as in my childhood, while nature was yet fresh, and every moment showed me what I never had observed before.  I have already enjoyed too much: give me something to desire.”  The old man was surprised at this new species of affliction, and knew not what to reply, yet was unwilling to be silent.  “Sir,” said he, “if you had seen the miseries of the world, you would know how to value your present state.”  “Now,” said the Prince, “you have given me something to desire.  I shall long to see the miseries of the world, since the sight of them is necessary to happiness.” PP. 44

“There is so much infelicity,” said the poet, “in the world, that scarce any man has leisure from his own distresses to estimate the comparative happiness of others.  Knowledge is certainly one of the means of pleasure, as is confessed by the natural desire which every mind feels of increasing its ideas.  Ignorance is mere privation, by which nothing can be produced; it is a vacuity in which the soul sits motionless and torpid for want of attraction, and, without knowing why, we always rejoice when we learn, and grieve when we forget.  I am therefore inclined to conclude that if nothing counteracts the natural consequence of learning, we grow more happy as out minds take a wider range. PP. 66

“When this thought had taken possession of my mind, I considered every moment as wasted which did not bring me nearer to Abyssinia.  I hastened into Egypt, and, notwithstanding my impatience, was detained ten months in the contemplation of its ancient magnificence and in inquiries after the remains of its ancient learning.  I found in Cairo a mixture of all nations: some brought thither by the love of knowledge, some by the hope of gain; many by the desire of living after their own manner without observation, and of lying hid in the obscurity of multitudes; for in a city populous as Cairo it is possible to obtain at the same time the gratifications of society and the secrecy of solitude. PP. 68


“Domestic discord,” answered she, “is not inevitably and fatally necessary, but yet it is not easily avoided.  We seldom see that a whole family is virtuous; the good and the evil cannot well agree, and the evil can yet less agree with one another.  Even the virtuous fall sometimes to variance, when their virtues are of different kinds and tending to extremes.  In general, those parents have most reverence who most deserve it, for he that lives well cannot be despised.

“Many other evils infest private life.  Some are the slaves of servants whom they have trusted with their affairs.  Some are kept in continual anxiety by the caprice of rich relations, whom they cannot please and dare not offend.  Some husbands are imperious and some wives perverse, and, as it is always more easy to do evil than good, though the wisdom or virtue of one can very rarely make many happy, the folly or vice of one makes many miserable.”

“If such be the general effect of marriage,” said the Prince, “I shall for the future think it dangerous to connect my interest with that of another, lest I should be unhappy by my partner’s fault.”

“I have met,” said the Princess, “with many who live single for that reason, but I never found that their prudence ought to raise envy.  They dream away their time without friendship, without fondness, and are driven to rid themselves of the day, for which they have no use, by childish amusements or vicious delights.  They act as beings under the constant sense of some known inferiority that fills their minds with rancour and their tongues with censure.  They are peevish at home and malevolent abroad, and, as the outlaws of human nature, make it their business and their pleasure to disturb that society which debars them from its privileges.  To live without feeling or exciting sympathy, to be fortunate without adding to the felicity of others, or afflicted without tasting the balm of pity, is a state more gloomy than solitude; it is not retreat but exclusion from mankind.  Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures.”

“What then is to be done?” said Rasselas.  “The more we inquire the less we can resolve.  Surely he is most likely to please himself that has no other inclination to regard.” PP. 98-99

It is evident that as any man acts in a wider compass he must be more exposed to opposition from enmity or miscarriage from chance.  Whoever has many to please or to govern must use the ministry of many agents, some of whom will be wicked and some ignorant, by some he will be misled and by others betrayed.  If he gratifies one he will offend another; those that are not favoured will think themselves injured, and since favours can be conferred but upon few the greater number will be always discontented.”

“The discontent,” said the Princess, “which is thus unreasonable, I hope that I shall always have spirit to despise and you power to repress.”

“Discontent,” answered Rasselas, “will not always be without reason under the most just and vigilant administration of public affairs.  None, however attentive, can always discover that merit which indigence or faction may happen to obscure, and none, however powerful, can always reward it.  Yet he that sees inferior desert advanced above him will naturally impute that preference to partiality or caprice, and indeed it can scarcely be hoped that any man, however magnanimous by Nature or exalted by condition, will be able to persist for ever in fixed and inexorable justice of distribution; he will sometimes indulge his own affections and sometimes those of his favourites; he will permit some to please him who can never serve him; he will discover in those whom he loves qualities which in reality they do not possess, and to those from whom he receives pleasure he will in his turn endeavour to give it.  Thus will recommendations sometimes prevail which were purchased by money or by the more destructive bribery of flattery and servility.

“He that hath much to do will do something wrong, and of that wrong must suffer the consequences, and if it were possible that he should always act rightly, yet, when such numbers are to judge of his conduct, the bad will censure and obstruct him by malevolence and the good sometimes by mistake.

“The highest stations cannot therefore hope to be the abodes of happiness, which I would willingly believe to have fled from thrones and palaces to seats of humble privacy and placid obscurity.  For what can hinder the satisfaction or intercept the expectations of him whose abilities are adequate to his employments, who sees with his own eyes the whole circuit of his influence, who chooses by his own knowledge all whom he trusts, and whom none are tempted to deceive by hope or fear?  Surely he has nothing to do but to love and to be loved; to be virtuous and to be happy.”

“Whether perfect happiness would be procured by perfect goodness,” said Nekayah, “this world will never afford an opportunity of deciding.  But this, at least, may be maintained, that we do not always find visible happiness in proportion to visible virtue.  All natural and almost all political evils are incident alike to the bad and good; they are confounded in the misery of a famine, and not much distinguished in the fury of a faction; they sink together in a tempest and are driven together from their country by invaders.  All that virtue can afford is quietness of conscience and a steady prospect of a happier state; this may enable us to endure calamity with patience, but remember that patience must oppose pain.” PP. 100-101

‘Nature sets her gifts on the right hand and on the left.’  Those conditions which 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 seize 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 endeavours to do more than is allowed to humanity.  Flatter not yourself with contrarieties 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 the spring; no man can at the same time fill his cup from the source and from the mouth of the Nile.” PP. 107

“It seems to me,” said Imlac, “that while you are making the choice of life you neglect to live.  You wander about a single city, which, however large and diversified, can now afford few novelties, and forget that you are in a country famous among the earliest monarchies for the power and wisdom of its inhabitants - a country where the sciences first dawned that illuminate the world, and beyond which the arts cannot be traced of civil society or domestic life. PP. 108

When, in prospect of some good, whether natural or moral, we break the rules prescribed us, we withdraw from the direction of superior wisdom, and take all consequences upon ourselves.  Man cannot so far know the connection of causes and events as that he may venture to do wrong in order to do right.  When we pursue our end by lawful means, we may always console our miscarriage by the hope of future recompense.  When we consult only our own policy, and attempt to find a nearer way to good by over-leaping the settled boundaries of right and wrong, we cannot be happy even by success, because we cannot escape the consciousness of our fault; but if we miscarry, the disappointment is irremediably embittered.  How comfortless is the sorrow of him who feels at once the pangs of guilt and the vexation of calamity which guilt has brought upon him! PP. 117

2011, 2011: novel in english, book-2011, #novel, *author: male, @read in english, [quotes], [quotes] books, +historical, english literature, +social issues, +adventures, @_Africa, *read for university, +classic

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