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Samuel Johnson, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759)

Voltaire, Candide, ou l’optimisme (1759)

Samuel Johnson

“Great minds think alike” goes the cliché. But indeed, history is full of remarkable instances of great minds thinking much alike–hewing a nearly identical intellectual path in a different corner of the world, at a different time. And on occasion, unbeknownst, at the same time. In the early days of the year 1759, two figures were engaged in nearly identical pursuits. These were arguably the two greatest figures of the Age of Reason: Samuel Johnson and François-Marie Arouet, known as Voltaire.

Each was taken with reports of the horrendous earthquake that had struck Lisbon. Each was intent to lampoon the cosmological optimism of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, whose thinking marked a sort of bridge into the Age of Reason–though perhaps a bridge that did not quite reach to the far shore. Each decided–at almost the same moment–to formulate his thoughts in the form of a short literary work with picaresque qualities based on the life story of an ingénu, a human blank slate. Samuel Johnson was facing an urgent need of money–Johnson was never really a man of wealth, and his mother was in frail health. Medical costs were mounting and Johnson had no way to cover them. As he began to write, his letters reveal a quiet despair. He urgently needed to raise money. A publisher’s promise of £100 for a short publishable tale in book form brought immediate relief. But we should keep in mind that Rasselas was born of dark circumstances.

Like Candide, this work runs only a little more than a hundred pages in print and it tells a life story in a long series of relatively brief chapters. The protagonist is an Abyssinian princeling who has been consigned, with his siblings, to the “happy valley” of Amhara to be raised and educated outside of the politics and intrigues of life at the court. Rasselas, the young man’s name, is unhappy with his gilded cage; he wants to see the world. (“Sir,” says his mentor, “if you had seen the miseries of the world, you would value your present state.” To which Rasselas replies, “Now 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.”) Rasselas’s voyage is therefore an exploration of human miseries. In a sense, the work is a prose version of Johnson’s great poem of a decade earlier, The Vanity of Human Wishes. The thematic overlap between these two works is very strong.

However, unlike the Vanity, but in the same measure as Candide, Johnson turns to a criticism of Leibniz.

“Let us cease to consider what, perhaps, may never happen, and what, when it shall happen, will laugh at human speculation. We will not endeavour to modify the motions of the elements, or fix the destiny of kingdoms. It is our business to consider what beings like us may perform; each labouring for his own happiness, by promoting within his own circle, however narrow, the happiness of others.” (ch. xxvii)

This passage echoes of Candide’s Dr. Pangloss and the assurance that this is “the best of all possible worlds.” And indeed, in speaking of the “motions of the elements,” it ventures unmistakably into the scientific core of Leibniz’s universe–the theory of monads. We should resolve ourselves to accept the wondrous things that God has given, it suggests. Do not struggle; accept.

For all their superficial similarities (which certainly are little short of astonishing), there is a profound difference in spirit between Voltaire and Johnson. It might be summarized as the difference between reason and ridicule. Johnson portrays Sub-Saharan Africa and a culture which was during his day being fiercely denigrated. Africans were portrayed as primitive, as near animals, lacking civilization or learning, literature or music. This was done for a clear purpose, of course, since as Johnson wrote, England was well on the way to commercial ascendancy in Europe. That ascendancy had much to do with English law, English capital, and English economic theory. But there was also an unpleasant side of it, namely the institution of slavery which had been essential to the development of a plantation economy in the New World. Against these facts it is striking that Johnson, whose attitudes towards slavery prove a prickly embarrassment to his biographers, (See correction) invariably portrays his Ethiopians as noble, thoughtful, sophisticated humans–though some of their thoughts of course are wrong; some are used as foils. There is a degree of wit about these descriptions.


But compare Johnson’s Abyssinia with Voltaire’s Germany–for remember, Voltaire puts Candide at home in Westphalia, in Leibniz’s homeland. Voltaire subjects the poor Teutons to relentless mockery. They are boorish, lacking grace and sophistication. They present merely a presumption of intellectual acumen. The key word to describe this perspective would be ridicule, which I put in italics to indicate the French sense and usage. There is a decided and unseemly element of malice about it. It’s not enough for Voltaire to mock Leibniz, he turns his lashes against Leibniz’s people as well. Now Voltaire was a man who always stood behind the underdog, the man who faced injustice or oppression. We can’t accuse him of nationalistic stereotyping because–among other things–this is long before the arrival of Germany as a nation. (Indeed, at this time few things united the German aristocracy and intelligentsia more than their obsession with things French. Leibniz wrote in French and Latin, of course. German was an unthinkable medium! As he wrote this Voltaire was at the court of the Count-Palatine in Schwetzingen, several years after his famous sojourn with Frederick the Great which had set the fire of the German Enlightenment). But still, the sweet reason of Voltaire’s writing leaves a remarkably bitter aftertaste.

Johnson and Voltaire are agreed in their critique of Leibniz. They are agreed on the need to identify the injustices of the world and do what they can to set them right. The vita contemplativa of Leibniz, his turn from the world of men to the world of microbes, is not rejected entirely–for science is seen as essential to human betterment, to the advancement of the species. But the refusal to engage is frowned upon. After reading Rasselas few passages linger so much as the words of the astronomer:

I have passed my time in study without experience, in the attainment of sciences which can, for the most part, be but remotely useful to mankind. I have purchased knowledge at the expense of all the common comforts of life.

Against this image, the voices of antiquity, such as Diogenes Laërtius, give us the notion of the philosopher who observes keenly, and provides a vision that guides. But Johnson, the great author of the Lives of the Poets, counterposes the ideal of the poet:

The knowledge of nature is only half the task of a poet: he must be acquainted likewise with all the modes of life. His character requires that he estimate the happiness and misery of every condition, observe the power of all the passions in all their combinations, and trace the changes of the human mind as they are modified by various institutions and accidental influences of climate or custom, from the sprightliness of infancy to decrepitude. He must divest himself of the prejudices of his age or country; he must consider right and wrong in their abstracted and invariable state; he must disregard present laws and opinions, and rise to general and transcendental truths, which will always be the same. He must therefore content himself with the slow progress of his name, contemn the applause of his own time, and commit his claims to the justice of posterity. He must write as the interpreter of nature, and the legislator of mankind, and consider himself as presiding over the thoughts and manners of future generation; as a being superior to time and place. (ch. x)

It is a very high order he sets for himself. So Dr. Johnson and Voltaire are agreed on the foolishness of optimism. Their works are not bright and cheerful; both have an element of darkness about them. But then, neither are they pessimists in the end. Voltaire gives us hope in reason, a light which will guide humankind through the shoals of despotism, ignorance and superstition and on to the realization of something better. He presses the case for skeptical inquiry. Indeed, Candide’s answer to Pangloss may be the most famous retort in eighteenth century literature: “If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others like?” Johnson’s vision is very close, but characteristically more conservative in its presentation–in tone and timber, he reaches back to the Stoics, but he takes a strong measure of Enlightenment reason as well:

Whether perfect happiness would be procured by perfect goodness, 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, a steady prospect of a happier state; this may enable us to endure calamity with patience; but remember that patience must suppose pain. (ch. xxvii)

These words are remarkable for their poignancy and introspection. One senses that mortality is weighing heavily on Johnson as he pens them, anxiously awaiting the word from Litchfield of his mother’s condition.

We must each of us cultivate our own garden. That must indeed be the most enduring image that Voltaire crafted; its fascination has held for centuries (one thinks, for instance, of Jerzy Kosinski’s modern classic Being There in which Chauncey-the-Gardener’s use of the expression is literal, but the meaning of Voltaire is instantly understood. That is a fitting tribute to the power of Voltaire and his Candide).

For Johnson and Voltaire, this garden begins in the mind, but it does not end there. The duty to cultivate passes as well to the sphere of human interaction, to the recognition of common bands with family, community, nation and humankind. For Johnson, these notions spring from a profound conservatism–a commitment to preserve the attainments of his nation and culture; a heartfelt embrace of precepts of Christianity as a force for the sublimation of the uglier aspects of the human character. Voltaire is somewhat sympathetic to this attitude. For him Christianity is a good thing, but, he says, the organized church has wrought as much mischief as good in human history. Moreover, Voltaire believes that the organized church has tended to emphasize the counter-rational elements of faith to bolster its own power, but in so doing it creates grave obstacles for human advancement. This is another important difference to be found in the hidden folds of Rasselas and Candide. But viewed in the context of the societies in which they were born and lived, it is somehow easy to understand these differences, and to reconcile them.

There is an enormous amount of wisdom in these two short works. Each could be read in a single sitting. But they deserve to be read, pondered and savored. They need some time. Under a simplistic outer skin are many more layers of meaning. In the end both works are concerned with a philosophy of life. How should we use our lives? How do we allocate our lives between the vita activa and the vita contemplativa? What duties do we owe those around us? They ask, consider different answers, and ask again. They promise no ultimate answers. But they warn us against a life that falls into the mundane rut of the careerist, the money-maker, the shallow figure obsessed with the mercurial promises of beauty, pleasure, and fame. They admonish to skepticism, to a philosophical disposition, but also to engagement.

Summer is here. The time has come to cultivate our gardens; and prepare our reading lists. By all means pick up a bestseller or two, but also consider adding Rasselas to your reading list. And an added summer-time bonus: it contains the first description of air conditioning in modern literature.

Voltaire’s work was one of the great bestsellers of the age and has passed into the canon of world literature. It has become the subject of an important opera and the topic of countless literary allusions. It is the one hundred pages that describe the Age of Reason. Johnson’s work has not achieved such celebrity. But in this, I think the judgment of time has perhaps been unfair. Johnson’s is decidedly the greater, the more enduring, the fairer and wiser of these two altogether similar works. It is the voice of reason without the sharp retort of ridicule. In it a voice of humanity speaks across the ages.

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