For all his scholarship Johnson never divorced learning from life. He valued literature for its human wisdom, its honest portrayal of the human condition, and he measured the greatness of a book by its ability “to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it”—a policy he practiced in his own work.Share
This is the very purpose of Johnson’s short novel Rasselas, a book that examines the truth of human happiness in an age that fantasized about utopias with simplistic theories like “return to nature,” “the best of all possible worlds,” and the repudiation of civilization as the source of all evil. Prince Rasselas learns in the novel that no one from wealthy kings to isolated hermits is perfectly happy because everyone has complaints about some aspect of his life.
The king worries about envious rivals, and the shepherd suffers loneliness and loss of friendship. Rasselas, however, also discovers that some human choices and ways of life increase a person’s sources of happiness more than others.
Even though Rasselas acknowledges that “Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed,” he also acquires a timeless wisdom about happiness that corresponds to Johnson’s own learning and experience. (Read more.)