Samuel Johnson, Our Greatest Moralist, Part D: The Problem of Pain (FREE)

Rasselas is probably Dr. Johnson’s most accessible piece of moral philosophy.  Since we shall be posting a podcast on the work, the treatment here can be quite limitedRasselas is a sort of a picaresque novel that tells the story of a young Abyssinian prince who, with his sister and mentor, leave the Happy Valley, an earthly paradise where the prince, his sisters, and their companions and attendants, enjoy every possible comfort and pleasure.  Rasselas, however, is not happy but is  possessed of what seems to be a romantic delusion that he should desire something.  He imagines that there is an orphan girl who has been attacked and complains that he cannot save her because he is walled in by mountains.  Rasselas thinks like a pure rationalist, but, lacking experience, he cannot grasp the inconsistencies of everyday life--e.g., that a rich man  might be silly enough to want more money.

The little group sets off on a journey, undergo the usual dramatic incidents of such tales, and in the end, still speculating—Rasselas wants to be prince of a manageable kingdom—they decide to go back to the Happy Valley.  In the course of their travels—and even before they leave—they meet various people who seem to have answers to the problems of life:  the scientist/engineer who thinks he can fly, the Stoic philosopher who has risen above all human anxiety, the man of wisdom who has “discovered” that he controls the weather.

One theme of the book is given early on when Imlac--the poet-philosopher--tells his life story, concluding: “There is so much infelicity in the world, that scarce any man has leisure from his own distresses to estimate the comparative happiness of others.”  He recommends a life devoted to study and learning as both safe and satisfying.  Imlac’s arguments are sometimes reminiscent of Johnson’s constant advice to Boswell to mind his own business.  And when poor Boswell became obsessed with General Paoli’s movement for Corsican independence, his mentor told him: “Mind your own affairs and leave the Corsicans to theirs.”

Rasselas’ quest is literally “the pursuit of happiness” but the Prince is disappointed time after time.  When he meets a moral philosopher who argues that pleasure and pain are illusions, Rasselas tells Inmlac: “I have found a man who...from the unshaken throne of rational fortitude looks down on the scenes of life changing beneath him....I will learn his doctrines and imitate his life,” and when the Stoic’s daughter dies of a fever, the prince tells the moralist to apply his own philosophy. The poor man replies: “What comfort can truth and reason afford me? of what effect are they now, but to tell me that my daughter will not be restored?”

Unlike Voltaire, the mocking deist, Johnson was seriously troubled by the problem of evil.  Reviewing Soame Jennyngs' obtuse recapitulation of Pope and Leibniz, Johnson insists upon the difficulty of the mystery.  To the subtle argument that such a creature as man must exist to fill his allotted space in the chain of being, Johnson replies, "To these meditations humanity is unequal."  Suffering and pain are real, Johnson insists, and he will not tolerate any attempt to trivialize them.

The review of Soame Jenningss came out in three installments during 1757, two years before Rasselas, and in it we can see Johnson grappling with this great theme--the justifying of God’s ways to man.  Replying to the conception of the universe as an orderly series of steps, he points out (rather like Zeno of Elea) there are in fact an infinite number of intermediate steps possible.  In other words, he rejects the simplistic mechanical view of nature advocated by the philosophes and hints at an organic, even environmental understanding of life, both human and nonhuman.

Johnson remains unimpressed by the moral argument that the rich are often unhappy and prey to anxiety: Real poverty is very depressing, and he waxes ironic on the sorrows of the rich: “The poor indeed are insensible of many little vexations which sometimes embitter the possessions and pollute the enjoyments of the rich.  They are not pained by casual incivility or mortified by the mutilation of a compliment; but this happiness is like that of a malefactor who ceases to feel the cords that bind him when the pincers are tearing his flesh.”

Although Johnson has generally been regarded as a pessimist, his gloomy view of life was partly the result of his own early poverty and his constant ill health.  He had seen life from the bottom up and watched his friend Richard Savage die of want and neglect.  In place of glib optimism or facile pessimism, Johnson offered the mystery of a universe that was filled with joy as well as suffering.  Instead of canting upon the theme of social injustice, Johnson advised patience and fortitude.  He was no Stoic, because the Stoic philosophy tended to minimize the reality of pain.

Rambler 32 takes up problem of how to bear calamities: ridicules Stoics including philosopher who said his gout finally convinced him that pain was real.  Pain and suffering are real and the best we can hope is to palliate them: “The great remedy which heaven has put in our hands is patience, by which though we cannot lessen the torments of the body we can in a great measure  preserve the peace of the mind...”  Patience is our duty, if we have brought suffering upon ourselves, and if we are innocent, “patience, whether more necessary or not, is much easier, since our pain is without aggravation and we have not the bitterness of remorse to add to the asperity of misfortune.”  Ultimately, we must put ourselves and our patience in the hands of our creator and make the best use of our misery, and concludes by quoting Job: “Bless the name of the Lord, whether he gives or takes away.”

Avatar photo

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

2 Responses

  1. Brent says:

    I have read with delight your series of essays on Samuel Johnson’s moral philosophy. I await with eager anticipation the posting of your Rasselas podcast. May we expect it any time soon?

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Good question, which I am forwarding to my colleague.