The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia
by Samuel Johnson
Description of a palace in a valley
who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with
eagerness the phantoms of hope; who expect that age will perform the
promises of youth, and that the deficiencies of the present day will be
supplied by the morrow; attend to the history of Rasselas prince of
Rasselas was the fourth son of the mighty emperour, in whose
dominions the Father of waters begins his course; whose bounty pours
down the streams of plenty, and scatters over half the world the
harvests of Egypt.
According to the custom which has descended from age to age among
the monarchs of the torrid zone, Rasselas was confined in a private
palace, with the other sons and daughters of Abissinian royalty, till
the order of succession should call him to the throne.
The place, which the wisdom or policy of antiquity had destined for
the residence of the Abissinian princes, was a spacious valley in the
kingdom of Amhara, surrounded on every side by mountains, of which the
summits overhang the middle part. The only passage, by which it could
be entered, was a cavern that passed under a rock, of which it has long
been disputed whether it was the work of nature or of human industry.
The outlet of the cavern was concealed by a thick wood, and the mouth
which opened into the valley was closed with gates of iron, forged by
the artificers of ancient days, so massy that no man could, without the
help of engines, open or shut them.
From the mountains on every side, rivulets descended that filled
all the valley with verdure and fertility, and formed a lake in the
middle inhabited by fish of every species, and frequented by every fowl
whom nature has taught to dip the wing in water. This lake discharged
its superfluities by a stream which entered a dark cleft of the
mountain on the northern side, and fell with dreadful noise from
precipice to precipice till it was heard no more.
The sides of the mountains were covered with trees, the banks of
the brooks were diversified with flowers; every blast shook spices from
the rocks, and every month dropped fruits upon the ground. All animals
that bite the grass, or brouse the shrub, whether wild or tame,
wandered in this extensive circuit, secured from beasts of prey by the
mountains which confined them. On one part were flocks and herds
feeding in the pastures, on another all the beasts of chase frisking in
the lawns; the sprightly kid was bounding on the rocks, the subtle
monkey frolicking in the trees, and the solemn elephant reposing in the
shade. All the diversities of the world were brought together, the
blessings of nature were collected, and its evils extracted and
The valley, wide and fruitful, supplied its inhabitants with the
necessaries of life, and all delights and superfluities were added at
the annual visit which the emperour paid his children, when the iron
gate was opened to the sound of musick; and during eight days every one
that resided in the alley was required to propose whatever might
contribute to make seclusion pleasant, to fill up the vacancies of
attention, and lessen the tediousness of time. Every desire was
immediately granted. All the artificers of pleasure were called to
gladden the festivity; the musicians exerted the power of harmony, and
the dancers shewed their activity before the princes, in hope that they
should pass their lives in this blissful captivity to which these only
were admitted whose performance was thought able to add novelty to
luxury. Such was the appearance of security and delight which this
retirement afforded, that they to whom it was new always desired that
it might be perpetual; and as those, on whom the iron gate had once
closed, were never suffered to return, the effect of longer experience
could not be known. Thus every year produced new schemes of delight,
and new competitors for imprisonment. The palace stood on an eminence
raised about thirty paces above the surface of the lake. It was divided
into many squares or courts, built with greater or less magnificence
according to the rank of those for whom they were designed. The roofs
were turned into arches of massy stone joined with a cement that grew
harder by time, and the building stood from century to century,
deriding the solstitial rains and equinoctial hurricanes, without need
This house, which was so large as to be fully known to none but
some ancient officers who successively inherited the secrets of the
place, was built as if suspicion herself had dictated the plan. To
every room there was an open and secret passage, every square had a
communication with the rest, either from the upper stories by private
galleries, or by subterranean passages from the lower apartments. Many
of the columns had unsuspected cavities, in which a long race of
monarchs had reposited their treasures. They then closed up the opening
with marble, which was never to be removed but in the utmost exigencies
of the kingdom; and recorded their accumulations in a book which was
itself concealed in a tower not entered but by the emperour, attended
by the prince who stood next in succession.
The discontent of Rasselas in the happy valley
Here the sons and daughters of Abissinia lived only to know the soft
vicissitudes of pleasure and repose, attended by all that were skilful
to delight, and gratified with whatever the senses can enjoy. They
wandered in gardens of fragrance, and slept in the fortresses of
security. Every art was practised to make them pleased with their own
condition. The sages who instructed them, told them of nothing but the
miseries of publick life, and described all beyond the mountains as
regions of calamity, where discord was always raging, and where man
preyed upon man.
To heighten their opinion of their own felicity, they were daily
entertained with songs, the subject of which was the happy valley.
Their appetites were excited by frequent enumerations of different
enjoyments, and revelry and merriment was the business of every hour
from the dawn of morning to the close of even.
These methods were generally successful; few of the Princes had
ever wished to enlarge their bounds, but passed their lives in full
conviction that they had all within their reach that art or nature
could bestow, and pitied those whom fate had excluded from this seat of
tranquility, as the sport of chance, and the slaves of misery.
Thus they rose in the morning, and lay down at night, pleased with
each other and with themselves, all but Rasselas, who, in the
twenty-sixth year of his age, began to withdraw himself from their
pastimes and assemblies, and to delight in solitary walks and silent
meditation. He often sat before tables covered with luxury, and forgot
to taste the dainties that were placed before him: he rose abruptly in
the midst of the song, and hastily retired beyond the sound of musick.
His attendants observed the change and endeavoured to renew his love of
pleasure: he neglected their officiousness, repulsed their invitations,
and spent day after day on the banks of rivulets sheltered with trees,
where he sometimes listened to the birds in the branches, sometimes
observed the fish playing in the stream, and anon cast his eyes upon
the pastures and mountains filled with animals, of which some were
biting the herbage, and some sleeping among the bushes.
This singularity of his humour made him much observed. One of the
Sages, in whose conversation he had formerly delighted, followed him
secretly, in hope of discovering the cause of his disquiet. Rasselas,
who knew not that any one was near him, having for some time fixed his
eyes upon the goats that were brousing among the rocks, began to
compare their condition with his own.
"What," said he, "makes the difference between man and all the rest
of the animal creation? Every beast that strays beside me has the same
corporal necessities with myself; he is hungry and crops the grass, he
is thirsty and drinks the stream, his thirst and hunger are appeased,
he is satisfied and sleeps; he rises again and is hungry, he is again
fed and is at rest. I am hungry and thirsty like him, but when thirst
and hunger cease I am not at rest; I am, like him, pained with want,
but am not, like him, satisfied with fulness. The intermediate hours
are tedious and gloomy; I long again to be hungry that I may again
quicken my attention. The birds peck the berries or the corn, and fly
away to the groves where they sit in seeming happiness on the branches,
and waste their lives in tuning one unvaried series of sounds. I
likewise can call the lutanist and the singer, but the sounds that
pleased me yesterday weary me to day, and will grow yet more wearisome
to morrow. I can discover within me no power of perception which is not
glutted with its proper pleasure, yet I do not feel myself delighted.
Man has surely some latent sense for which this place affords no
gratification, or he has some desires distinct from sense which must be
satisfied before he can be happy."
After this he lifted up his head, and seeing the moon rising,
walked towards the palace. As he passed through the fields, and saw the
animals around him, "Ye, said he, are happy, and need not envy me that
walk thus among you, burthened with myself; nor do I, ye gentle beings,
envy your felicity; for it is not the felicity of man. I have many
distresses from which ye are free; I fear pain when I do not feel it; I
sometimes shrink at evils recollected, and sometimes start at evils
anticipated: surely the equity of providence has ballanced peculiar
sufferings with peculiar enjoyments."
With observations like these the prince amused himself as he
returned, uttering them with a plaintive voice, yet with a look that
discovered him to feel some complacence in his own perspicacity, and to
receive some solace of the miseries of life, from consciousness of the
delicacy with which he felt, and the eloquence with which he bewailed
them. He mingled cheerfully in the diversions of the evening, and all
rejoiced to find that his heart was lightened.
The wants of him that wants nothing
the next day his old instructor, imagining that he had now made himself
acquainted with his disease of mind, was in hope of curing it by
counsel, and officiously sought an opportunity of conference, which the
prince, having long considered him as one whose intellects were
exhausted, was not very willing to afford: "Why, said he, does this man
thus intrude upon me; shall I be never suffered to forget those
lectures which pleased only while they were new, and to become new
again must be forgotten?" He then walked into the wood, and composed
himself to his usual meditations; when, before his thoughts had taken
any settled form, he perceived his persuer at his side, and was at
first prompted by his impatience to go hastily away; but, being
unwilling to offend a man whom he had once reverenced and still loved,
he invited him to sit down with him on the bank.
The old man, thus encouraged, began to lament the change which had
been lately observed in the prince, and to enquire why he so often
retired from the pleasures of the palace, to loneliness and silence. "I
fly from pleasure, said the prince, because pleasure has ceased to
please; I am lonely because I am miserable, and am unwilling to cloud
with my presence the happiness of others." "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 that the emperour of Abissinia 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 mountain,
or 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 persue. 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 shewed me what
I never had observed before. I have already enjoyed too much; give me
something to desire."
The old man was surprized 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."
The prince continues to grieve and muse
At this time the sound of musick proclaimed the hour of repast, and
the conversation was concluded. The old man went away sufficiently
discontented to find that his reasonings had produced the only
conclusion which they were intended to prevent. But in the decline of
life shame and grief are of short duration; whether it be that we bear
easily what we have born long, or that, finding ourselves in age less
regarded, we less regard others; or, that we look with slight regard
upon afflictions, to which we know that the hand of death is about to
put an end.
The prince, whose views were extended to a wider space, could not
speedily quiet his emotions. He had been before terrified at the length
of life which nature promised him, because he considered that in a long
time much must be endured; he now rejoiced in his youth, because in
many years much might be done.
This first beam of hope, that had been ever darted into his mind,
rekindled youth in his cheeks, and doubled the lustre of his eyes. He
was fired with the desire of doing something, though he knew not yet
with distinctness, either end or means.
He was now no longer gloomy and unsocial; but, considering himself
as master of a secret stock of happiness, which he could enjoy only by
concealing it, he affected to be busy in all schemes of diversion, and
endeavoured to make others pleased with the state of which he himself
was weary. But pleasures never can be so multiplied or continued, as
not to leave much of life unemployed; there were many hours, both of
the night and day, which he could spend without suspicion in solitary
thought. The load of life was much lightened: he went eagerly into the
assemblies, because he supposed the frequency of his presence necessary
to the success of his purposes; he retired gladly to privacy, because
he had now a subject of thought.
His chief amusement was to picture to himself that world which he
had never seen; to place himself in various conditions; to be entangled
in imaginary difficulties, and to be engaged in wild adventures: but
his benevolence always terminated his projects in the relief of
distress, the detection of fraud, the defeat of oppression, and the
diffusion of happiness.
Thus passed twenty months of the life of Rasselas. He busied
himself so intensely in visionary bustle, that he forgot his real
solitude; and, amidst hourly preparations for the various incidents of
human affairs, neglected to consider by what means he should mingle
One day, as he was sitting on a bank, he feigned to himself an
orphan virgin robbed of her little portion by a treacherous lover, and
crying after him for restitution and redress, So strongly was the image
impressed upon his mind, that he started up in the maid's defence, and
run forward to seize the plunderer with all the eagerness of real
persuit. Fear naturally quickens the flight of guilt. Rasselas could
not catch the fugitive with his utmost efforts; but, resolving to
weary, by perseverance, him whom he could not surpass in speed, he
pressed on till the foot of the mountain stopped his course. Here he
recollected himself, and smiled at his own useless impetuosity. Then
raising his eyes to the mountain, "This, said he, is the fatal obstacle
that hinders at once the enjoyment of pleasure, and the exercise of
virtue. How long is it that my hopes and wishes have flown beyond this
boundary of my life, which yet I never have attempted to surmount!"
Struck with this reflection, he sat down to muse, and remembered,
that since he first resolved to escape from his confinement, the sun
had passed twice over him in his annual course. He now felt a degree of
regret with which he had never been before acquainted. He considered
how much might have been done in the time which had passed, and left
nothing real behind it. He compared twenty months with the life of man.
"In life, said he, is not to be counted the ignorance of infancy, or
imbecility of age. We are long before we are able to think, and we soon
cease from the power of acting. The true period of human existence may
be reasonably estimated as forty years, of which I have mused away the
four and twentieth part. What I have lost was certain, for I have
certainly possessed it; but of twenty months to come who can assure me?"
The consciousness of his own folly pierced him deeply, and he was
long before he could be reconciled to himself "The rest of my time,
said he, has been lost by the crime or folly of my ancestors, and the
absurd institutions of my country; I remember it with disgust, yet
without remorse: but the months that have passed since new light darted
into my soul, since I formed a scheme of reasonable felicity, have been
squandered by my own fault. I have lost that which can never be
restored: I have seen the sun rise and set for twenty months, an idle
gazer on the light of heaven: In this time the birds have left the nest
of their mother, and committed themselves to the woods and to the
skies: the kid has forsaken the teat, and learned by degrees to climb
the rocks in quest of independant sustenance. I only have made no
advances, but am still helpless and ignorant. The moon by more than
twenty changes, admonished me of the flux of life; the stream that
rolled before my feet upbraided my inactivity. I sat feasting on
intellectual luxury, regardless alike of the examples of the earth, and
the instructions of the planets. Twenty months are past, who shall
These sorrowful meditations fastened upon his mind; he past four
months in resolving to lose no more time in idle resolves, and was
awakened to more vigorous exertion by hearing a maid, who had broken a
porcelain cup, remark, that what cannot be repaired is not to be
This was obvious; and Rasselas reproached himself that he had not
discovered it, having not known, or not considered, how many useful
hints are obtained by chance, and how often the mind, hurried by her
own ardour to distant views, neglects the truths that lie open before
her. He, for a few hours, regretted his regret, and from that time bent
his whole mind upon the means of escaping from the valley of happiness.
The prince meditates his escape
found that it would be very difficult to effect that which it was very
easy to suppose effected. When he looked round about him, he saw
himself confined by the bars of nature which had never yet been broken,
and by the gate, through which none that once had passed it were ever
able to return. He was now impatient as an eagle in a grate. He passed
week after week in clambering the mountains, to see if there was any
aperture which the bushes might conceal, but found all the summits
inaccessible by their prominence. The iron gate he despaired to open;
for it was not only secured with all the power of art, but was always
watched by successive sentinels, and was by its position exposed to the
perpetual observation of all the inhabitants.
He then examined the cavern through which the waters of the lake
were discharged; and, looking down at a time when the sun shone
strongly upon its mouth, he discovered it to be full of broken rocks,
which, though they permitted the stream to flow through many narrow
passages, would stop any body of solid bulk. He returned discouraged
and dejected; but, having now known the blessing of hope, resolved
never to despair.
In these fruitless searches he spent ten months. The time, however,
passed chearfully away: in the morning he rose with new hope, in the
evening applauded his own diligence, and in the night slept sound after
his fatigue. He met a thousand amusements which beguiled his labour,
and diversified his thoughts. He discerned the various instincts of
animals, and properties of plants, and found the place replete with
wonders, of which he purposed to solace himself with the contemplation,
if he should never be able to accomplish his flight; rejoicing that his
endeavours, though yet unsucessful, had supplied him with a source of
But his original curiosity was not yet abated; he resolved to
obtain some knowledge of the ways of men. His wish still continued, but
his hope grew less. He ceased to survey any longer the walls of his
prison, and spared to search by new toils for interstices which he knew
could not be found, yet determined to keep his design always in view,
and lay hold on any expedient that time should offer.
A dissertation on the art of flying
Among the artists that had been allured into the happy valley, to
labour for the accommodation and pleasure of its inhabitants, was a man
eminent for his knowledge of the mechanick powers, who had contrived
many engines both of use and recreation. By a wheel, which the stream
turned, he forced the water into a tower, whence it was distributed to
all the apartments of the palace. He erected a pavillion in the garden,
around which he kept the air always cool by artificial showers. One of
the groves, appropriated to the ladies, was ventilated by fans, to
which the rivulet that run through it gave a constant motion; and
instruments of soft musick were placed at proper distances, of which
some played by the impulse of the wind, and some by the power of the
stream. This artist was sometimes visited by Rasselas, who was pleased
with every kind of knowledge, imagining that the time would come when
all his acquisitions should be of use to him in the open world. He came
one day to amuse himself in his usual manner, and found the master busy
in building a sailing chariot: he saw that the design was practicable
upon a level surface, and with expressions of great esteem solicited
its completion. The workman was pleased to find himself so much
regarded by the prince, and resolved to gain yet higher honours. "Sir,
said he, you have seen but a small part of what the mechanick sciences
can perform. I have been long of opinion, that, instead of the tardy
conveyance of ships and chariots, man might use the swifter migration
of wings; that the fields of air are open to knowledge, and that only
ignorance and idleness need crawl upon the ground."
This hint rekindled the prince's desire of passing the mountains;
having seen what the mechanist had already performed, he was willing to
fancy that he could do more; yet resolved to enquire further before he
suffered hope to afflict him by disappointment. "I am afraid, said he
to the artist, that your imagination prevails over your skill, and that
you now tell me rather what you wish than what you know. Every animal
has his element assigned him; the birds have the air, and man and
beasts the earth." "So, replied the mechanist, fishes have the water,
in which yet beasts can swim by nature, and men by art. He that can
swim needs not despair to fly: to swim is to fly in a grosser fluid,
and to fly is to swim in a subtler. We are only to proportion our power
of resistance to the different density of the matter through which we
are to pass. You will be necessarily upborn by the air, if you can
renew any impulse upon it, faster than the air can recede from the
"But the exercise of swimming, said the prince, is very laborious;
the strongest limbs are soon wearied; I am afraid the act of flying
will be yet more violent, and wings will be of no great use, unless we
can fly further than we can swim."
"The labour of rising from the ground, said the artist, will be
great, as we see it in the heavier domestick fowls; but, as we mount
higher, the earth's attraction, and the body's gravity, will be
gradually diminished, till we shall arrive at a region where the man
will float in the air without any tendency to fall: no care will then
be necessary, but to move forwards, which the gentlest impulse will
effect. You, Sir, whose curiosity is so extensive, will easily conceive
with what pleasure a philosopher, furnished with wings, and hovering in
the sky, would see the earth, and all it's inhabitants, rolling beneath
him, and presenting to him successively, by it's diurnal motion, all
the countries within the same parallel. How must it amuse the pendent
spectator to see the moving scene of land and ocean, cities and
desarts! To survey with equal security the marts of trade, and the
fields of battle; mountains infested by barbarians, and fruitful
regions gladdened by plenty, and lulled by peace! How easily shall we
then trace the Nile through all his passage; pass over to distant
regions, and examine the face of nature from one extremity of the earth
to the other!"
"All this, said the prince, is much to be desired, but I am afraid
that no man will be able to breathe in these regions of speculation and
tranquility. I have been told, that respiration is difficult upon lofty
mountains, yet from these precipices, though so high as to produce
great tenuity of the air, it is very easy to fall: therefore I suspect,
that from any height, where life can be supported, there may be danger
of too quick descent."
"Nothing, replied the artist, will ever be attempted, if all
possible objections must be first overcome. If you will favour my
project I will try the first flight at my own hazard. I have considered
the structure of all volant animals, and find the folding continuity of
the bat's wings most easily accommodated to the human form. Upon this
model I shall begin my task to morrow, and in a year expect to tower
into the air beyond the malice or persuit of man. But I will work only
on this condition, that the art shall not be divulged, and that you
shall not require me to make wings for any but ourselves."
"Why, said Rasselas, should you envy others so great an advantage?
All skill ought to be exerted for universal good every man has owed
much to others, and ought to repay the kindness that he has received."
"If men were all virtuous, returned the artist, I should with great
alacrity teach them all to fly. But what would be the security of the
good, if the bad could at pleasure invade them from the sky? Against an
army sailing through the cloud neither walls, nor mountains, nor seas,
could afford any security. A flight of northern savages might hover in
the wind, and light at once with irresistible violence upon the capital
of a fruitful region that was rolling under them. Even this valley, the
retreat of princes, the abode of happiness, might be violated by the
sudden descent of some of the naked nations that swarm on the coast of
the southern sea."
The prince promised secrecy, and waited for the performance, not
wholly hopeless of success. He visited the work from time to time,
observed its progress, and remarked many ingenious contrivances to
facilitate motion, and unite levity with strength. The artist was every
day more certain that he should leave vultures and eagles behind him,
and the contagion of his confidence seized upon the prince.
In a year the wings were finished, and, on a morning appointed, the
maker appeared furnished for flight on a little promontory: he waved
his pinions a while to gather air, then leaped from his stand, and in
an instant dropped into the lake. His wings, which were of no use in
the air, sustained him in the water, and the prince drew him to land,
half dead with terrour and vexation.
The prince finds a man of learning
prince was not much afflicted by this disaster, having suffered himself
to hope for a happier event, only because he had no other means of
escape in view. He still persisted in his design to leave the happy
valley by the first opportunity.
His imagination was now at a stand; he had no prospect of entering
into the world; and, notwithstanding all his endeavours to support
himself, discontent by degrees preyed upon him, and he began again to
lose his thoughts in sadness, when the rainy season, which in these
countries is periodical, made it inconvenient to wander in the woods.
The rain continued longer and with more violence than had been ever
known: the clouds broke on the surrounding mountains, and the torrents
streamed into the plain on every side, till the cavern was too narrow
to discharge the water. The lake overflowed its banks, and all the
level of the valley was covered with the inundation. The eminence, on
which the palace was built, and some other spots of rising ground, were
all that the eye could now discover. The herds and flocks left the
pastures, and both the wild beasts and the tame retreated to the
This inundation confined all the princes to domestick amusements,
and the attention of Rasselas was particularly seized by a poem, which
Imlac rehearsed upon the various conditions of humanity. He commanded
the poet to attend him in his apartment, and recite his verses a second
time; then entering into familiar talk, he thought himself happy in
having found a man who knew the world so well, and could so skilfully
paint the scenes of life. He asked a thousand questions about things,
to which, though common to all other mortals, his confinement from
childhood had kept him a stranger. The poet pitied his ignorance, and
loved his curiosity, and entertained him from day to day with novelty
and instruction, so that the prince regretted the necessity of sleep,
and longed till the morning should renew his pleasure.
As they were sitting together, the prince commanded Imlac to relate
his history, and to tell by what accident he was forced, or by what
motive induced, to close his life in the happy valley. As he was going
to begin his narrative, Rasselas was called to a concert, and obliged
to restrain his curiosity till the evening.
The history of Imlac
The close of the
day is, in the regions of the torrid zone, the only season of diversion
and entertainment, and it was therefore midnight before the musick
ceased, and the princesses retired. Rasselas then called for his
companion and required him to begin the story of his life.
"Sir, said Imlac, my history will not be long: the life that is
devoted to knowledge passes silently away, and is very little
diversified by events. To talk in publick, to think in solitude, to
read and to hear, to inquire, and answer inquiries, is the business of
a scholar. He wanders about the world without pomp or terrour, and is
neither known nor valued but by men like himself.
"I was born in the kingdom of Goiama, at no great distance from the
fountain of the Nile. My father was a wealthy merchant, who traded
between the inland countries of Africk and the ports of the red sea. He
was honest, frugal and diligent, but of mean sentiments, and narrow
comprehension: he desired only to be rich, and to conceal his riches,
lest he should be spoiled by the governours of the province."
"Surely, said the prince, my father must be negligent of his
charge, if any man in his dominions dares take that which belongs to
another. Does he not know that kings are accountable for injustice
permitted as well as done? If I were emperour, not the meanest of my
subjects should be oppressed with impunity. My blood boils when I am
told that a merchant durst not enjoy his honest gains for fear of
losing them by the rapacity of power. Name the governour who robbed the
people, that I may declare his crimes to the emperour."
"Sir, said Imlac, your ardour is the natural effect of virtue
animated by youth: the time will come when you will acquit your father,
and perhaps hear with less impatience of the governour. Oppression is,
in the Abissinian dominions, neither frequent nor tolerated; but no
form of government has been yet discovered, by which cruelty can be
wholly prevented. Subordination supposes power on one part and
subjection on the other; and if power be in the hands of men, it will
sometimes be abused. The vigilance of the supreme magistrate may do
much, but much will still remain undone. He can never know all the
crimes that are committed, and can seldom punish all that he knows."
"This, said the prince, I do not understand, but I had rather hear
thee than dispute. Continue thy narration."
"My father, proceeded Imlac, originally intended that I should have
no other education, than such as might qualify me for commerce; and
discovering in me great strength of memory, and quickness of
apprehension, often declared his hope that I should be some time the
richest man in Abissinia."
"Why, said the prince, did thy father desire the increase of his
wealth, when it was already greater than he durst discover or enjoy? I
am unwilling to doubt thy veracity, yet inconsistencies cannot both be
"Inconsistencies, answered Imlac, cannot both be right, but,
imputed to man, they may both be true. Yet diversity is not
inconsistency. My father might expect a time of greater security.
However, some desire is necessary to keep life in motion, and he, whose
real wants are supplied, must admit those of fancy."
"This, said the prince, I can in some measure conceive. I repent
that I interrupted thee."
"With this hope, proceeded Imlac, he sent me to school; but when I
had once found the delight of knowledge, and felt the pleasure of
intelligence and the pride of invention, I began silently to despise
riches, and determined to disappoint the purpose of my father, whose
grossness of conception raised my pity. I was twenty years old before
his tenderness would expose me to the fatigue of travel, in which time
I had been instructed, by successive masters, in all the literature of
my native country. As every hour taught me something new, I lived in a
continual course of gratifications; but, as I advanced towards manhood,
I lost much of the reverence with which I had been used to look on my
instructors; because, when the lesson was ended, I did not find them
wiser or better than common men.
"At length my father resolved to initiate me in commerce, and,
opening one of his subterranean treasuries, counted out ten thousand
pieces of gold. This, young man, said he, is the stock with which you
must negociate. I began with less than the fifth part, and you see how
diligence and parsimony have increased it. This is your own to waste or
to improve. If you squander it by negligence or caprice, you must wait
for my death before you will be rich: if, in four years, you double
your stock, we will thenceforward let subordination cease, and live
together as friends and partners; for he shall always be equal with me,
who is equally skilled in the art of growing rich.
"We laid our money upon camels, concealed in bales of cheap goods,
and travelled to the shore of the red sea. When I cast my eye on the
expanse of waters my heart bounded like that of a prisoner escaped. I
felt an unextinguishable curiosity kindle in my mind, and resolved to
snatch this opportunity of seeing the manners of other nations, and of
learning sciences unknown in Abissinia.
"I remembered that my father had obliged me to the improvement of
my stock, not by a promise which I ought not to violate, but by a
penalty which I was at liberty to incur; and therefore determined to
gratify my predominant desire, and by drinking at the fountains of
knowledge, to quench the thirst of curiosity.
"As I was supposed to trade without connexion with my father, it
was easy for me to become acquainted with the master of a ship, and
procure a passage to some other country. I had no motives of choice to
regulate my voyage; it was sufficient for me that, wherever I wandered,
I should see a country which I had not seen before. I therefore entered
a ship bound for Surat, having left a letter for my father declaring my
The history of Imlac continued
first entered upon the world of waters, and lost sight of land, I
looked round about me with pleasing terrour, and thinking my soul
enlarged by the boundless prospect, imagined that I could gaze round
for ever without satiety; but, in a short time, I grew weary of looking
on barren uniformity, where I could only see again what I had already
seen. I then descended into the ship, and doubted for a while whether
all my future pleasures would not end like this in disgust and
disappointment. Yet, surely, said I, the ocean and the land are very
different; the only variety of water is rest and motion, but the earth
has mountains and vallies, desarts and cities: it is inhabited by men
of different customs and contrary opinions; and I may hope to find
variety in life, though I should miss it in nature.
"With this thought I quieted my mind; and amused myself during the
voyage, sometimes by learning from the sailors the art of navigation,
which I have never practised, and sometimes by forming schemes for my
conduct in different situations, in not one of which I have been ever
"I was almost weary of my naval amusements when we landed safely at
Surat. I secured my money, and purchasing some commodities for show,
joined myself to a caravan that was passing into the inland country. My
companions, for some reason or other, conjecturing that I was rich,
and, by my inquiries and admiration, finding that I was ignorant,
considered me as a novice whom they had a right to cheat, and who was
to learn at the usual expence the art of fraud. They exposed me to the
theft of servants, and the exaction of officers, and saw me plundered
upon false pretences, without any advantage to themselves, but that of
rejoicing in the superiority of their own knowledge."
"Stop a moment, said the prince. Is there such depravity in man, as
that he should injure another win by warning, as betraying you."
"Pride, said Imlac, is seldom delicate, it will please itself with
very mean advantages; and envy feels not its own happiness, but when it
may be compared with the misery of others. They were my enemies because
they grieved to think me rich, and my oppressors because they delighted
to find me weak."
"Proceed, said the prince: I doubt not of the facts which you
relate, but imagine that you impute them to mistaken motives."
"In this company, said Imlac, I arrived at Agra, the capital of
Indostan, the city in which the great Mogul commonly resides. I applied
myself to the language of the country, and in a few months was able to
converse with the learned men; some of whom I found morose and
reserved, and others easy and communicative; some were unwilling to
teach another what they had with difficulty learned themselves; and
some shewed that the end of their studies was to gain the dignity of
"To the tutor of the young princes I recommended myself so much,
that I was presented to the emperour as a man of uncommon knowledge.
The emperour asked me many questions concerning my country and my
travels; and though I cannot now recollect any thing that he uttered
above the power of a common man, he dismissed me astonished at his
wisdom, and enamoured of his goodness.
"My credit was now so high, that the merchants, with whom I had
travelled, applied to me for recommendations to the ladies of the
court. I was surprised at their confidence of solicitation, and gently
reproached them with their practices on the road. They heard me with
cold indifference, and shewed no tokens of shame or sorrow.
"They then urged their request with the offer of a bribe; but what
I would not do for kindness I would not do for money; and refused them,
not because they had injured me, but because I would not enable them to
injure others; for I knew they would have made use of my credit to
cheat those who should buy their wares.
"Having resided at Agra till there was no more to be learned, I
travelled into Persia, where I saw many remains of ancient
magnificence, and observed many new accommodations of life. The
Persians are a nation eminently social, and their assemblies afforded
me daily opportunities of remarking characters and manners, and of
tracing human nature through all its variations.
"From Persia I passed into Arabia, where I saw a nation at once
pastoral and warlike; who live without any settled habitation; whose
only wealth is their flocks and herds; and who have yet carried on,
through all ages, an hereditary war with all mankind, though they
neither covet nor envy their possessions.
Imlac's history continued. A dissertation upon poetry
"Wherever I went, I found that poetry was considered as
the highest learning, and regarded with a veneration somewhat
approaching to that which man would pay to the Angelick Nature. And it
yet fills me with wonder, that, in almost all countries, the most
ancient poets are considered as the best: whether it be that every
other kind of knowledge is an acquisition gradually attained, and
poetry is a gift conferred at once; or that the first poetry of every
nation surprised them as a novelty, and retained the credit by consent
which it received by accident at first: or whether, as the province of
poetry is to describe Nature and passion, which are always the same,
the first writers took possession of the most striking objects for
description, and the most probable occurrences for fiction, and left
nothing to those that followed them, but transcription of the same
events, and new combinations of the same images. Whatever be the
reason, it is commonly observed that the early writers are in
possession of nature, and their followers of art: that the first excel
in strength and invention, and the latter in elegance and refinement.
"I was desirous to add my name to this illustrious fraterity. I
read all the poets of Persia and Arabia, and was able to repeat by
memory the volumes that are suspended in the mosque of Mecca. But I
soon found that no man was ever great by imitation. My desire of
excellence impelled me to transfer my attention to nature and to life.
Nature was to be my subject, and men to be my auditors: I could never
describe what I had not seen: I could not hope to move those with
delight or terrour, whose interests and opinions I did not understand.
"Being now resolved to be a poet, I saw every thing with a new
purpose; my sphere of attention was suddenly magnified: no kind of
knowledge was to be overlooked. I ranged mountains and deserts for
images and resemblances, and pictured upon my mind every tree of the
forest and flower of the valley. I observed with equal care the crags
of the rock and the pinnacles of the palace. Sometimes I wandered along
the mazes of the rivulet, and sometimes watched the changes of the
summer clouds. To a poet nothing can be useless. Whatever is beautiful,
and whatever is dreadful, must be familiar to his imagination: he must
be conversant with all that is awfully vast or elegantly little. The
plants of the garden, the animals of the wood, the minerals of the
earth, and meteors of the sky, must all concur to store his mind with
inexhaustible variety: for every idea is useful for the inforcement or
decoration of moral or religious truth; and he, who knows most, will
have most power of diversifying his scenes, and of gratifying his
reader with remote allusions and unexpected instruction.
"All the appearances of nature I was therefore careful to study,
and every country which I have surveyed has contributed something to my
"In so wide a survey, said the prince, you must surely have left
much unobserved. I have lived, till now, within the circuit of these
mountains, and yet cannot walk abroad without the sight of something
which I had never beheld before, or never heeded."
"The business of a poet, said Imlac, is to examine, not the
individual, but the species; to remark general properties and large
appearances: he does not number the streaks of the tulip, or describe
the different shades in the verdure of the forest. He is to exhibit in
his portraits of nature such prominent and striking features, as recal
the original to every mind; and must neglect the minuter
discriminations, which one may have remarked, and another have
neglected, for those characteristicks which are alike obvious to
vigilance and carelessness.
"But 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
spriteliness of infancy to the despondence of 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 generations; as a being superiour to
time and place.
"His labour is not yet at an end: he must know many languages and
many sciences; and, that his stile may be worthy of his thoughts, must,
by incessant practice, familiarize to himself every delicacy of speech
and grace of harmony."
Imlac's narrative continued. A hint on pilgrimage
Imlac now felt the enthusiastic fit, and was proceeding to aggrandize
his own profession, when the prince cried out, "Enough! Thou hast
convinced me, that no human being can ever be a poet. Proceed with thy
"To be a poet, said Imlac, is indeed very difficult." "So
difficult, returned the prince, that I will at present hear no more of
his labours. Tell me whither you went when you had seen Persia."
"From Persia, said the poet, I travelled through Syria, and for
three years resided in Palestine, where I conversed with great numbers
of the northern and western nations of Europe; the nations which are
now in possession of all power and knowledge; whose armies are
irresistible, and whose fleets command the remotest parts of the globe.
When I compared these men with the natives of our own kingdom, and
those that surround us, they appeared almost another order of beings.
In their countries it is difficult to wish for any thing that may not
be obtained: a thousand arts, of which we never heard, are continually
labouring for their convenience and pleasure; and whatever their own
climate has denied them is supplied by their commerce."
"By what means, said the prince, are the Europeans thus powerful?
or why, since they can so easily visit Asia and Africa for trade or
conquest, cannot the Asiaticks and Africans invade their coasts, plant
colonies in their ports, and give laws to their natural princes? The
same wind that carries them back would bring us thither."
"They are more powerful, Sir, than we, answered Imlac, because they
are wiser; knowledge will always predominate over ignorance, as man
governs the other animals. But why their knowledge is more than ours, I
know not what reason can be given, but the unsearchable will of the
"When, said the prince with a sigh, shall I be able to visit
Palestine, and mingle with this mighty confluence of nations? Till that
happy moment shall arrive, let me fill up the time with such
representations as thou canst give me. I am not ignorant of the motive
that assembles such numbers in that place, and cannot but consider it
as the center of wisdom and piety, to which the best and wisest men of
every land must be continually resorting."
"There are some nations, said Imlac, that send few visitants to
Palestine; for many numerous and learned sects in Europe, concur to
censure pilgrimage as superstitious, or deride it as ridiculous."
"You know, said the prince, how little my life has made me
acquainted with diversity of opinions: it will be too long to hear the
arguments on both sides; you, that have considered them, tell me the
"Pilgrimage, said Imlac, like many other acts of piety, may be
reasonable or superstitious, according to the principles upon which it
is performed. Long journies in search of truth are not commanded.
Truth, such as is necessary to the regulation of life, is always found
where it is honestly sought. Change of place is no natural cause of the
increase of piety, for it inevitably produces dissipation of mind. Yet,
since men go every day to view the fields where great actions have been
performed, and return with stronger impressions of the event, curiosity
of the same kind may naturally dispose us to view that country whence
our religion had its beginning; and I believe no man surveys those
awful scenes without some confirmation of holy resolutions. That the
Supreme Being may be more easily propitiated in one place than in
another, is the dream of idle superstition; but that some places may
operate upon our own minds in an uncommon manner, is an opinion which
hourly experience will justify. He who supposes that his vices may be
more successfully combated in Palestine, will, perhaps, find himself
mistaken, yet he may go thither without folly: he who thinks they will
be more freely pardoned, dishonours at once his reason and religion."
"These, said the prince, are European distinctions. I will consider
them another time. What have you found to be the effect of knowledge?
Are those nations happier than we?"
"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 our minds take a
"In enumerating the particular comforts of life we shall find many
advantages on the side of the Europeans. They cure wounds and diseases
with which we languish and perish. We suffer inclemencies of weather
which they can obviate. They have engines for the despatch of many
laborious works, which we must perform by manual industry. There is
such communication between distant places, that one friend can hardly
be said to be absent from another. Their policy removes all publick
inconveniencies: they have roads cut through their mountains, and
bridges laid upon their rivers. And, if we descend to the privacies of
life, their habitations are more commodious, and their possessions are
"They are surely happy, said the prince, who have all these
conveniencies, of which I envy none so much as the facility with which
separated friends interchange their thoughts.
"The Europeans, answered Imlac, are less unhappy than we, but they
are not happy. Human life is every where a state in which much is to be
endured, and little to be enjoyed."
The story of Imlac continued
"I AM not
yet willing, said the prince, to suppose that happiness is so
parsimoniously distributed to mortals; nor can believe but that, if I
had the choice of life, I should be able to fill every day with
pleasure. I would injure no man, and should provoke no resentment: I
would relieve every distress, and should enjoy the benedictions of
gratitude. I would choose my friends among the wise, and my wife among
the virtuous; and therefore should be in no danger from treachery, or
unkindness. My children should, by my care, be learned and pious, and
would repay to my age what their childhood had received. What would
dare to molest him who might call on every side to thousands enriched
by his bounty, or assisted by his power? And why should not life glide
quietly away in the soft reciprocation of protection and reverence? All
this may be done without the help of European refinements, which appear
by their effects to be rather specious than useful. Let us leave them
and persue our journey."
"From Palestine, said Imlac, I passed through many regions of Asia;
in the more civilized kingdoms as a trader, and among the Barbarians of
the mountains as a pilgrim. At last I began to long for my native
country, that I might repose after my travels, and fatigues, in the
places where I had spent my earliest years, and gladden my old
companions with the recital of my adventures. Often did I figure to
myself those, with whom I had sported away the gay hours of dawning
life, sitting round me in its evening, wondering at my tales, and
listening to my counsels.
"When this thought had taken possession of my mind, I considered
every moment as wasted which did not bring me nearer to Abissinia. I
hastened into Egypt, and, notwithstanding my impatience, was detained
ten months in the contemplation of its ancient magnificence, and in
enquiries 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, and 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
"From Cairo I travelled to Suez, and embarked on the Red sea,
passing along the coast till I arrived at the port from which I had
departed twenty years before. Here I joined myself to a caravan and
re-entered my native country.
"I now expected the caresses of my kinsmen, and the congratulations
of my friends, and was not without hope that my father, whatever value
he had set upon riches, would own with gladness and pride a son who was
able to add to the felicity and honour of the nation. But I was soon
convinced that my thoughts were vain. My father had been dead fourteen
years, having divided his wealth among my brothers, who were removed to
some other provinces. Of my companions the greater part was in the
grave, of the rest some could with difficulty remember me, and some
considered me as one corrupted by foreign manners.
"A man used to vicissitudes is not easily dejected. I forgot, after
a time, my disappointment, and endeavoured to recommend myself to the
nobles of the kingdom: they admitted me to their tables, heard my
story, and dismissed me. I opened a school, and was prohibited to
teach. I then resolved to sit down in the quiet of domestick life, and
addressed a lady that was fond of my conversation, but rejected my
suit, because my father was a merchant.
"Wearied at last with solicitation and repulses, I resolved to hide
myself for ever from the world, and depend no longer on the opinion or
caprice of others. I waited for the time when the gate of the happy
valley should open, that I might bid farewell to hope and fear: the day
came; my performance was distinguished with favour, and I resigned
myself with joy to perpetual confinement."
"Hast thou here found happiness at last? said Rasselas. Tell me
without reserve; art thou content with thy condition? or, dost thou
wish to be again wandering and inquiring? All the inhabitants of this
valley celebrate their lot, and, at the annual visit of the emperour,
invite others to partake of their felicity."
"Great prince, said Imlac, I shall speak the truth: I know not one
of all your attendants who does not lament the hour when he entered
this retreat. I am less unhappy than the rest, because I have a mind
replete with images, which I can vary and combine at pleasure. I can
amuse my solitude by the renovation of the knowledge which begins to
fade from my memory, and by recollection of the accidents of my past
life. Yet all this ends in the sorrowful consideration, that my
acquirements are now useless, and that none of my pleasures can be
again enjoyed. The rest, whose minds have no impression but of the
present moment, are either corroded by malignant passions, or sit
stupid in the gloom of perpetual vacancy."
"What passions can infest those, said the prince, who have no
rivals? We are in a place where impotence precludes malice, and where
all envy is repressed by community of enjoyments."
"There may be community, said Imlac, of material possessions, but
there can never be community of love or of esteem. It must happen that
one will please more than another; he that knows himself despised will
always be envious; and still more envious and malevolent, if he is
condemned to live in the presence of those who despise him. The
invitations, by which they allure others to a state which they feel to
be wretched, proceed from the natural malignity of hopeless misery.
They are weary of themselves, and of each other, and expect to find
relief in new companions. They envy the liberty which their folly has
forfeited, and would gladly see all mankind imprisoned like themselves.
"From this crime, however, I am wholly free. No man can say that he
is wretched by my persuasion. I look with pity on the crowds who are
annually soliciting admission to captivity, and wish that it were
lawful for me to warn them of their danger."
"My dear Imlac, said the prince, I will open to thee my whole
heart. I have long meditated an escape from the happy valley. I have
examined the mountains on every side, but find myself insuperably
barred: teach me the way to break my prison; thou shalt be the
companion of my flight, the guide of my rambles, the partner of my
fortune, and my sole director in the choice of life."
"Sir, answered the poet, your escape will be difficult, and,
perhaps, you may soon repent your curiosity. The world, which you
figure to yourself smooth and quiet as the lake in the valley, you will
find a sea foaming with tempests, and boiling with whirlpools: you will
be sometimes overwhelmed by the waves of violence, and sometimes dashed
against the rocks of treachery. Amidst wrongs and frauds, competitions
and anxieties, you will wish a thousand times for these seats of quiet,
and willingly quit hope to be free from fear."
"Do not seek to deter me from my purpose, said the prince: I am
impatient to see what thou hast seen; and, since thou art thyself weary
of the valley, it is evident, that thy former state was better than
this. Whatever be the consequence of my experiment, I am resolved to
judge with my own eyes of the various conditions of men, and then to
make deliberately my choice of life."
"I am afraid, said Imlac, you are hindered by stronger restraints
than my persuasions; yet, if your determination is fixed, I do not
counsel you to despair. Few things are impossible to diligence and
Rasselas discovers the means of escape
The prince now dismissed his favourite to rest, but the narrative of
wonders and novelties filled his mind with perturbation. He revolved
all that he had heard, and prepared innumerable questions for the
Much of his uneasiness was now removed. He had a friend to whom he
could impart his thoughts, and whose experience could assist him in his
designs. His heart was no longer condemned to swell with silent
vexation. He thought that even. the happy valley might be endured with
such a companion, and that, if they could range the world together, he
should have nothing further to desire.
In a few days the water was discharged, and the ground dried. The
prince and Imlac then walked out together to converse without the
notice of the rest. The prince, whose thoughts were always on the wing,
as he passed by the gate, said, with a countenance of sorrow, "Why art
thou so strong, and why is man so weak?"
"Man is not weak, answered his companion; knowledge is more than
equivalent to force. The master of mechanicks laughs at strength. I can
burst the gate, but cannot do it secretly. Some other expedient must be
As they were walking on the side of the mountain, they observed
that the conies, which the rain had driven from their burrows, had
taken shelter among the bushes, and formed holes behind them, tending
upwards in an oblique line. "It has been the opinion of antiquity, said
Imlac, that human reason borrowed many arts from the instinct of
animals; let us, therefore, not think ourselves degraded by learning
from the coney. We may escape by piercing the mountain in the same
direction. We will begin where the summit hangs over the middle part,
and labour upward till we shall issue out beyond the prominence."
The eyes of the prince, when he heard this proposal, sparkled with
joy. The execution was easy, and the success certain.
No time was now lost. They hastened early in the morning to chuse a
place proper for their mine. They clambered with great fatigue among
crags and brambles, and returned without having discovered any part
that favoured their design. The second and the third day were spent in
the same manner, and with the same frustration. But, on the fourth,
they found a small cavern, concealed by a thicket, where they resolved
to make their experiment.
Imlac procured instruments proper to hew stone and remove earth and
they fell to their work on the next day with more eagerness than
vigour. They were presently exhausted by their efforts, and sat down to
pant upon the grass. The prince, for the moment, appeared to be
discouraged. "Sir, said his companion, practice will enable us to
continue our labour for a longer time; mark, however, how far we have
advanced, and you will find that our toil will some time have an end.
Great works are performed, not by strength but perseverance: yonder
palace was raised by single stones, yet you see its height and
spaciousness. He that shall walk with vigour three hours a day will
pass in seven years a space equal to the circumference of the globe."
They returned to their work day after day, and, in a short time, found
a fissure in the rock, which enabled them to pass far with very little
obstruction. This Rasselas considered as a good omen. "Do not disturb
your mind, said Imlac, with other hopes or fears than reason may
suggest: if you are pleased with prognosticks of good, you will be
terrified likewise with tokens of evil, and your whole life will be a
prey to superstition. Whatever facilitates our work is more than an
omen, it is a cause of success. This is one of those pleasing surprises
which often happen to active resolution. Many things difficult to
design prove easy to performance."
Rasselas and Imlac receive an unexpected visit
They had now wrought their way to the middle, and solaced their toil
with the approach of liberty, when the prince, coming down to refresh
himself with air, found his sister Nekayah standing before the mouth of
the cavity. He started and stood confused, afraid to tell his design,
and yet hopeless to conceal it. A few moments determined him to repose
on her fidelity, and secure her secrecy by a declaration without
"Do not imagine, said the princess, that I came hither as a spy: I
had long observed from my window, that you and Imlac directed your walk
every day towards the same point, but I did not suppose you had any
better reason for the preference than a cooler shade, or more fragrant
bank; nor followed you with any other design than to partake of your
conversation. Since then not suspicion but fondness has detected you,
let me not lose the advantage of my discovery. I am equally weary of
confinement with yourself, and not less desirous of knowing what is
done or suffered in the world. Permit me to fly with you from this
tasteless tranquility, which will yet grow more loathsome when you have
left me. You may deny me to accompany you, but cannot hinder me from
The prince, who loved Nekayah above his other sisters, had lost an
opportunity of shewing his confidence by a voluntary communication. It
was therefore agreed that she should leave the valley with them; and
that, in the mean time, she should watch, lest any other straggler
should, by chance or curiosity, follow them to the mountain.
At length their labour was at an end; they saw light beyond the
prominence, and, issuing to the top of the mountain, beheld the Nile,
yet a narrow current, wandering beneath them.
The prince looked round with rapture, anticipated all the pleasures
of travel, and in thought was already transported beyond his father's
dominions. Imlac, though very joyful at his escape, had less
expectation of pleasure in the world, which he had before tried, and of
which he had been weary. Rasselas was so much delighted with a wider
horizon, that he could not soon be persuaded to return into the valley.
He informed his sister that the way was open, and that nothing now
remained but to prepare for their departure.
The prince and princess leave the valley, and see many
The prince and princess had jewels sufficient
to make them rich whenever they came into a place of commerce, which,
by Imlac's direction, they hid in their cloaths, and, on the night of
the next full moon, all left the valley. The princess was followed only
by a single favourite, who did not know whither she was going.
They clambered through the cavity, and began to go down towards
every part, and, seeing nothing to bound their prospect, considered
themselves as in danger of being lost in a dreary vacuity. They stopped
and trembled. "I am almost afraid, said the princess, to begin a
journey of which I cannot perceive an end, and to venture into this
immense plain where I may be approached on every side by men whom I
never saw." The prince felt nearly the same emotions, though he thought
it more manly to conceal them.
Imlac smiled at their terrours, and encouraged them to proceed; but
the princess continued irresolute till she had been imperceptibly drawn
forward too far to return.
In the morning they found some shepherds in the field, who set milk
and fruits before them. The princess wondered that she did not see a
palace ready for her reception, and a table spread with delicacies;
but, being faint and hungry, she drank the milk and eat the fruits, and
thought them of a higher flavour than the products of the valley.
They travelled forward by easy journeys, being all unaccustomed to
toil or difficulty, and knowing, that though they might be missed, they
could not be persued. In a few days they came into a more populous
region, where Imlac was diverted with the admiration which his
companions expressed at the diversity of manners, stations and
Their dress was such as might not bring upon them the suspicion of
having any thing to conceal, yet the prince, wherever he came, expected
to be obeyed, and the princess was frighted, because those that came
into her presence did not prostrate themselves before her. Imlac was
forced to observe them with great vigilance, lest they should betray
their rank by their unusual behaviour, and detained them several weeks
in the first village to accustom them to the sight of common mortals.
By degrees the royal wanderers were taught to understand that they
had for a time laid aside their dignity, and were to expect only such
regard as liberality and courtesy could procure. And Imlac, having, by
many admonitions, prepared them to endure the tumults of a port, and
the ruggedness of the commercial race, brought them down to the
seacoast. The prince and his sister, to whom every thing was new, were
gratified equally at all places, and therefore remained for some months
at the port without any inclination to pass further. Imlac was content
with their stay, because he did not think it safe to expose them,
unpractised in the world, to the hazards of a foreign country.
At last he began to fear lest they should be discovered, and
proposed to fix a day for their departure. They had no pretensions to
judge for themselves, and referred the whole scheme to his direction.
He therefore took passage in a ship to Suez; and, when the time came,
with great difficulty prevailed on the princess to enter the vessel.
They had a quick and prosperous voyage, and from Suez travelled by land
They enter Cairo, and find every man happy
As they approached the city, which filled the strangers with
astonishment, "This, said Imlac to the prince, is the place where
travellers and merchants assemble from all the corners of the earth.
You will here find men of every character, and every occupation.
Commerce is here honourable: I will act as a merchant, and you shall
live as strangers, who have no other end of travel than curiosity; it
will soon be observed that we are rich; our reputation will procure us
access to all whom we shall desire to know; you will see all the
conditions of humanity, and enable yourself at leisure to make your
choice of life." They now entered the town, stunned by the noise, and
offended by the crowds. Instruction had not yet so prevailed over habit
but that they wondered to see themselves pass undistinguished along the
street, and met by the lowest of the people without reverence or
notice. The princess could not at first bear the thought of being
levelled with the vulgar, and, for some days, continued in her chamber,
where she was served by her favourite Pekuah as in the palace of the
Imlac, who understood traffick, sold part of the jewels the next
day, and hired a house, which he adorned with such magnificence, that
he was immediately considered as a merchant of great wealth. His
politeness attracted many acquaintance, and his generosity made him
courted by many dependants. His table was crowded by men of every
nation, who all admired his knowledge, and solicited his favour. His
companions, not being able to mix in the conversation, could make no
discovery of their ignorance or surprise, and were gradually initiated
in the world as they gained knowledge of the language.
The prince had, by frequent lectures, been taught the use and
nature of money; but the ladies could not, for a long time, comprehend
what the merchants did with small pieces of gold and silver, or why
things of so little use should be received as equivalent to the
necessaries of life. They studied the language two years, while Imlac
was preparing to set before them the various ranks and conditions of
mankind. He grew acquainted with all who had any thing uncommon in
their fortune or conduct. He frequented the voluptuous and the frugal,
the idle and the busy, the merchants and the men of learning. The
prince, being now able to converse with fluency, and having learned the
caution necessary to be observed in his intercourse with strangers,
began to accompany Imlac to places of resort, and to enter into all
assemblies, that he might make his choice of life. For some time he
thought choice needless, because all appeared to him equally happy.
Wherever he went he met gayety and kindness, and heard the song of joy,
or the laugh of carelessness He began to believe that the world
overflowed with universal plenty, and that nothing was withheld either
from want or merit; that every hand showered liberality, and every
heart melted with benevolence: "and who then, says he, will be suffered
to be wretched?"
Imlac permitted the pleasing delusion, and was unwilling to crush
the hope of inexperience; till one day, having sat a while silent, "I
know not, said the prince, what can be the reason that I am more
unhappy than any of our friends. I see them perpetually and unalterably
chearful, but feel my own mind restless and uneasy. I am unsatisfied
with those pleasures which I seem most to court; I live in the crowds
of jollity, not so much to enjoy company as to shun myself, and am only
loud and merry to conceal my sadness."
"Every man, said Imlac, may, by examining his own mind, guess what
passes in the minds of others: when you feel that your own gaiety is
counterfeit, it may justly lead you to suspect that of your companions
not to be sincere. Envy is commonly reciprocal. We are long before we
are convinced that happiness is never to be found, and each believes it
possessed by others, to keep alive the hope of obtaining it for
himself. In the assembly, where you passed the last night, there
appeared such spriteliness of air, and volatility of fancy as might
have suited beings of an higher order, formed to inhabit serener
regions inaccessible to care or sorrow: yet believe me, prince, there
was not one who did not dread the moment when solitude should deliver
him to the tyranny of reflection."
"This, said the prince, may be true of others, since it is true of
me; yet, whatever be the general infelicity of man, one condition is
more happy than another, and wisdom surely directs us to take the least
evil in the choice of life."
"The causes of good and evil, answered Imlac, are so various and
uncertain, so often entangled with each other, so diversified by
various relations, and so much subject to accidents which cannot be
foreseen, that he who would fix his condition upon incontestable
reasons of preference, must live and die inquiring and deliberating."
"But surely, said Rasselas, the wise men, to whom we listen with
reverence and wonder, chose that mode of life for themselves which they
thought most likely to make them happy."
"Very few, said the poet, live by choice. Every man is placed in
his present condition by causes which acted without his foresight, and
with which he did not always willingly co-operate; and therefore you
will rarely meet one who does not think the lot of his neighbour better
than his own." "I am pleased to think, said the prince, that my birth
has given me at least one advantage over others, by enabling me to
determine for myself. I have here the world before me; I will review it
at leisure: surely happiness is somewhere to be found."
The prince associates with young men of spirit and
Rasselas rose next day, and resolved to begin
his experiments upon life. "Youth, cried he, is the time of gladness: I
will join myself to the young men, whose only business is to gratify
their desires, and whose time is all spent in a succession of
To such societies he was readily admitted, but a few days brought
him back weary and disgusted. Their mirth was without images, their
laughter without motive; their pleasures were gross and sensual, in
which the mind had no part; their conduct was at once wild and mean;
they laughed at order and at law, but the frown of power dejected, and
the eye of wisdom abashed them.
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 chearful only
by chance. "Happiness, said he, must be something solid and permanent,
without fear and without uncertainty.
But his young companions had gained so much of his regard by their
frankness and courtesy, that he could not leave them without warning
and remonstrance. "My friends, said he, I have seriously considered our
manners and our prospects, and find that we have mistaken our own
interest. The first years of man must make provision for the last. He
that never thinks never can be wise. Perpetual levity must end in
ignorance; and intemperance, though it may fire the spirits for an
hour, will make life short or miserable. Let us consider that youth is
of no long duration, and that in maturer age, when the enchantments of
fancy shall cease, and phantoms of delight dance no more about us, we
shall have no comforts but the esteem of wise men, and the means of
doing good. Let us, therefore, stop, while to stop is in our power: let
us live as men who are sometime to grow old, and to whom it will be the
most dreadful of all evils not to count their past years but by
follies, and to be reminded of their former luxuriance of health only
by the maladies which riot has produced." They stared a while in
silence one upon another, and, at last, drove him away by a general
chorus of continued laughter.
The consciousness that his sentiments were just, and his intentions
kind, was scarcely sufficient to support him against the horrour of
derision. But he recovered his tranquility, and persued his search.
The prince finds a wise and happy man
As he was one day walking in the street, he saw a spacious building
which all were, by the open doors, invited to enter: he followed the
stream of people, and found it a hall or school of declamation, in
which professors read lectures to their auditory. He fixed his eye upon
a sage raised above the rest, who discoursed with great energy on the
government of the passions. His look was venerable, his action
graceful, his pronunciation clear, and his diction elegant. He shewed,
with great strength of sentiment, and variety of illustration, that
human nature is degraded and debased, when the lower faculties
predominate over the higher; that when fancy, the parent of passion,
usurps the dominion of the mind, nothing ensues but the natural effect
of unlawful government, perturbation and confusion; that she betrays
the fortresses of the intellect to rebels, and excites her children to
sedition against reason their lawful sovereign. He compared reason to
the sun, of which the light is constant, uniform, and lasting; and
fancy to a meteor, of bright but transitory lustre, irregular in its
motion, and delusive in its direction. He then communicated the various
precepts given from time to time for the conquest of passion, and
displayed the happiness of those who had obtained the important
victory, after which man is no longer the slave of fear, nor the fool
of hope; is no more emaciated by envy, inflamed by anger, emasculated
by tenderness, or depressed by grief; but walks on calmly through the
tumults or the privacies of life, as the sun persues alike his course
through the calm or the stormy sky.
He enumerated many examples of heroes immovable by pain or
pleasure, who looked with indifference on those modes or accidents to
which the vulgar give the names of good and evil. He exhorted his
hearers to lay aside their prejudices, and arm themselves against the
shafts of malice or misfortune, by invulnerable patience; concluding,
that this state only was happiness, and that this happiness was in
every one's power. Rasselas listened to him with the veneration due to
the instructions of a superior being, and, waiting for him at the door,
humbly implored the liberty of visiting so great a master of true
wisdom. The lecturer hesitated a moment, when Rasselas put a purse of
gold into his hand, which he received with a mixture of joy and wonder.
"I have found, said the prince, at his return to Imlac, a man who
can teach all that is necessary to be known, who, from the unshaken
throne of rational fortitude, looks down on the scenes of life changing
beneath him. He speaks, and attention watches his lips. He reasons, and
conviction closes his periods. This man shall be my future guide: I
will learn his doctrines, and imitate his life."
"Be not too hasty, said Imlac, to trust, or to admire, the teachers
of morality: they discourse like angels, but they live like men.
Rasselas, who could not conceive how any man could reason so
forcibly without feeling the cogency of his own arguments, paid his
visit in a few days, and was denied admission. He had now learned the
power of money, and made his way by a piece of gold to the inner
apartment, where he found the philosopher in a room half darkened, with
his eyes misty, and his face pale. "Sir, said he, you are come at a
time when all human friendship is useless; what I suffer cannot be
remedied, what I have lost cannot be supplied. My daughter my only
daughter, from whose tenderness I expected all the comforts of my age,
died last night of a fever. My views, my purposes, my hopes are at an
end: I am now a lonely being disunited from society."
"Sir, said the prince, mortality is an event by which a wise man
can never be surprised: we know that death is always near, and it
should therefore always be expected." "Young man, answered the
philosopher, you speak like one that has never felt the pangs of
separation." "Have you then forgot the precepts, said Rasselas, which
you so powerfully enforced? Has wisdom no strength to arm the heart
against calamity? Consider, that external things are naturally
variable, but truth and reason are always the same." "What comfort,
said the mourner, can truth and reason afford me? of what effect are
they now, but to tell me, that my daughter will not be restored?"
The prince, whose humanity would not suffer him to insult misery
with reproof, went away convinced of the emptiness of rhetorical sound,
and the inefficacy of polished periods and studied sentences.
A Glimpse of pastoral life
still eager upon the same enquiry; and, having heard of a hermit, that
lived near the lowest cataract of the Nile, and filled the whole
country with the fame of his sanctity, resolved to visit his retreat,
and enquire whether that felicity, which publick life could not afford,
was to be found in solitude; and whether a man, whose age and virtue
made him venerable, could teach any peculiar art of shunning evils, or
Imlac and the princess agreed to accompany him, and, after the
necessary preparations, they began their journey. Their way lay through
fields, where shepherds tended their flocks, and the lambs were playing
upon the pasture. "This, said the poet, is the life which has been
often celebrated for its innocence and quiet: let us pass the heat of
the day among the shepherds tents, and know whether all our searches
are not to terminate in pastoral simplicity."
The proposal pleased them, and they induced the sheperds, by small
presents and familiar questions, to tell their opinion of their own
state: they were so rude and ignorant, so little able to compare the
good with the evil of the occupation, and so indistinct in their
narratives and descriptions, that very little could be learned from
them. But it was evident that their hearts were cankered with
discontent; that they considered themselves as condemned to labour for
the luxury of the rich, and looked up with stupid malevolence toward
those that were placed above them.
The princess pronounced with vehemence, that she would never suffer
these envious savages to be her companions, and that she should not
soon be desirous of seeing any more specimens of rustick happiness; but
could not believe that all the accounts of primeval pleasures were
fabulous, and was yet in doubt whether life had any thing that could be
justly preferred to the placid gratifications of fields and woods. She
hoped that the time would come, when with a few virtuous and elegant
companions, she should gather flowers planted by her own hand, fondle
the lambs of her own ewe, and listen, without care, among brooks and
breezes, to one of her maidens reading in the shade.
The dangers of prosperity.
On the next
day they continued their journey, till the heat compelled them to look
round for shelter. At a small distance they saw a thick wood, which
they no sooner entered than they perceived that they were approaching
the habitations of men. The shrubs were diligently cut away to open
walks where the shades were darkest; the boughs of opposite trees were
artificially interwoven; seats of flowery turf were raised in vacant
spaces, and a rivulet, that wantoned along the side of a winding path,
had its banks sometimes opened into small basons, and its stream
sometimes obstructed by little mounds of stone heaped together to
increase its murmurs. They passed slowly through the wood, delighted
with such unexpected accommodations, and entertained each other with
conjecturing what, or who, he could be, that, in those rude and
unfrequented regions, had leisure and art for such harmless luxury.
As they advanced, they heard the sound of musick, and saw youths
and virgins dancing in the grove; and, going still further, beheld a
stately palace built upon a hill surrounded with woods. The laws of
eastern hospitality allowed them to enter, and the master welcomed them
like a man liberal and wealthy.
He was skilful enough in appearances soon to discern that they were
no common guests, and spread his table with magnificence. The eloquence
of Imlac caught his attention, and the lofty courtesy of the princess
excited his respect. When they offered to depart he entreated their
stay, and was the next day still more unwilling to dismiss them than
before. They were easily persuaded to stop, and civility grew up in
time to freedom and confidence. The prince now saw all the domesticks
cheerful, and all the face of nature smiling round the place, and could
not forbear to hope that he should find here what he was seeking; but
when he was congratulating the master upon his possessions, he answered
with a sigh, "My condition has indeed the appearance of happiness, but
appearances are delusive. My prosperity puts my life in danger; the
Bassa of Egypt is my enemy, incensed only by my wealth and popularity.
I have been hitherto protected against him by the princes of the
country; but, as the favour of the great is uncertain, I know not how
soon my defenders may be persuaded to share the plunder with the Bassa.
I have sent my treasures into a distant country, and, upon the first
alarm, am prepared to follow them. Then will my enemies riot in my
mansion, and enjoy the gardens which I have planted." They all joined
in lamenting his danger, and deprecating his exile; and the princess
was so much disturbed with the tumult of grief and indignation, that
she retired to her apartment. They continued with their kind inviter a
few days longer, and then went forward to find the hermit.
The happiness of solitude. The hermit's history
They came on the third day, by the direction of the peasants, to the
Hermit's cell: it was a cavern in the side of the mountain,
over-shadowed with palm-trees; at such a distance from the cataract,
that nothing more was heard than a gentle uniform murmur, such as
composed the mind to pensive meditation, especially when it was
assisted by the wind whistling among the branches. The first rude essay
of nature had been so much improved by human labour, that the cave
contained several apartments, appropriated to different uses, and often
afforded lodging to travellers, whom darkness or tempests happened to
The Hermit sat on a bench at the door, to enjoy the coolness of the
evening. On one side lay a book with pens and papers, on the other
mechanical instruments of various kinds. As they approached him
unregarded, the princess observed that he had not the countenance of a
man that had found, or could teach, the way to happiness.
They saluted him with great respect, which he repaid like a man not
unaccustomed to the forms of courts, "My children, said he, if you have
lost your way, you shall be willingly supplied with such conveniences
for the night as this cavern will afford. I have all that nature
requires, and you will not expect delicacies in a Hermit's cell."
They thanked him, and entering, were pleased with the neatness and
regularity of the place. The Hermit set flesh and wine before them,
though he fed only upon fruits and water. His discourse was chearful
without levity, and pious without enthusiasm. He soon gained the esteem
of his guests, and the princess repented of her hasty censure. At last
Imlac began thus: "I do not now wonder that your reputation is so far
extended; we have heard at Cairo of your wisdom, and came hither to
implore your direction for this young man and maiden in the choice of
"To him that lives well, answered the hermit, every form of life is
good; nor can I give any other rule for choice, than to remove from all
"He will remove most certainly from evil, said the prince, who
shall devote himself to that solitude which you have recommended by
"I have indeed lived fifteen years in solitude, said the hermit,
but have no desire that my example should gain any imitators. In my
youth I professed arms, and was raised by degrees to the highest
military rank. I have traversed wide countries at the head of my
troops, and seen many battles and sieges. At last, being disgusted by
the preferent of a younger officer, and feeling that my vigour was
beginning to decay, I resolved to close my life in peace, having found
the world full of snares, discord, and misery. I had once escaped from
the persuit of the enemy by the shelter of this cavern, and therefore
chose it for my final residence. I employed artificers to form it into
chambers, and stored it with all that I was likely to want.
"For some time after my retreat, I rejoiced like a tempestbeaten
sailor at his entrance into the harbour, being delighted with the
sudden change of the noise and hurry of war, to stillness and repose.
When the pleasure of novelty went away, I employed my hours in
examining the plants which grow in the valley, and the minerals which I
collected from the rocks. But that enquiry is now grown tasteless and
irksome. I have been for some time unsettled and distracted: my mind is
disturbed with a thousand perplexities of doubt, and vanities of
imagination, which hourly prevail upon me, because I have no
opportunities of relaxation or diversion. I am sometimes ashamed to
think that I could not secure myself from vice, but by retiring from
the exercise of virtue, and begin to suspect that I was rather impelled
by resentment, than led by devotion, into solitude. My fancy riots in
scenes of folly, and I lament that I have lost so much, and have gained
so little. In solitude, if I escape the example of bad men, I want
likewise the counsel and conversation of the good. I have been long
comparing the evils with the advantages of society, and resolve to
return into the world tomorrow. The life of a solitary man will be
certainly miserable, but not certainly devout."
They heard his resolution with surprise, but, after a short pause,
offered to conduct him to Cairo. He dug up a considerable treasure
which he had hid among the rocks, and accompanied them to the city, on
which, as he approached it, he gazed with rapture.
The happiness of a life led according to nature
RASSELAS went often to an assembly of learned men, who met at stated
times to unbend their minds, and compare their opinions. Their manners
were somewhat coarse, but their conversation was instructive, and their
disputations acute, though sometimes too violent, and often continued
till neither controvertist remembered upon what question they began.
Some faults were almost general among them: every one was desirous to
dictate to the rest, and every one was pleased to hear the genius or
knowledge of another depreciated.
In this assembly Rasselas was relating his interview with the
hermit, and the wonder with which he heard him censure a course of life
which he had so deliberately chosen, and so laudably followed. The
sentiments of the hearers were various. Some were of opinion, that the
folly of his choice had been justly punished by condemnation to
perpetual perseverance. One of the youngest among them, with great
vehemence, pronounced him an hypocrite. Some talked of the right of
society to the labour of individuals, and considered retirement as a
desertion of duty. Others readily allowed, that there was a time when
the claims of the publick were satisfied, and when a man might properly
sequester himself, to review his life, and purify his heart.
One, who appeared more affected with the narrative than the rest,
thought it likely, that the hermit would, in a few years, go back to
his retreat, and, perhaps, if shame did not restrain, or death
intercept him, return once more from his retreat into the world: "For
the hope of happiness, said he, is so strongly impressed, that the
longest experience is not able to efface it. Of the present state,
whatever it be, we feel, and are forced to confess, the misery, yet,
when the same state is again at a distance, imagination paints it as
desirable. But the time will surely come, when desire will be no longer
our torment, and no man shall be wretched but by his own fault."
"This, said a philosopher, who had heard him with tokens of great
impatience, is the present condition of a wise man. The time is already
come, when none are wretched but by their own fault. Nothing is more
idle, than to inquire after happiness, which nature has kindly placed
within our reach. The way to be happy is to live according to nature,
in obedience to that universal and unalterable law with which every
heart is originally impressed; which is not written on it by precept,
but engraven by destiny, not instilled by education but infused at our
nativity. He that lives according to nature will suffer nothing from
the delusions of hope, or importunities of desire: he will receive and
reject with equability of temper; and act or suffer as the reason of
things shall alternately prescribe. Other men may amuse themselves with
subtle definitions, or intricate raciocination. Let them learn to be
wise by easier means: let them observe the hind of the forest, and the
linnet of the grove: let them consider the life of animals, whose
motions are regulated by instinct; they obey their guide and are happy.
Let us therefore, at length, cease to dispute, and learn to live; throw
away the incumbrance of precepts, which they who utter them with so
much pride and pomp do not understand, and carry with us this simple
and intelligible maxim, That deviation from nature is deviation from
When he had spoken, he looked round him with a placid air, and
enjoyed the consciousness of his own beneficence.
"Sir, said the prince, with great modesty, as I, like all the rest
of mankind, am desirous of felicity, my closest attention has been
fixed upon your discourse: I doubt not the truth of a position which a
man so learned has so confidently advanced. Let me only know what it is
to live according to nature."
"When I find young men so humble and so docile, said the
philosopher, I can deny them no information which my studies have
enabled me to afford. To live according to nature, is to act always
with due regard to the fitness arising from the relations and qualities
of causes and effects; to concur with the great and unchangeable scheme
of universal felicity; to co-operate with the general disposition and
tendency of the present system of things."
The prince soon found that this was one of the sages whom he should
understand less as he heard him longer. He therefore bowed and was
silent, and the philosopher, supposing him satisfied, and the rest
vanquished, rose up and departed with the air of a man that had
co-operated with the present system.
The prince and his sister divide between them the work
Rasselas returned home full of
reflexions, doubtful how to direct his future steps. Of the way to
happiness he found the learned and simple equally ignorant; but, as he
was yet young, he flattered himself that he had time remaining for more
experiments, and further enquiries. He communicated to Imlac his
observations and his doubts, but was answered by him with new doubts,
and remarks that gave him no comfort. He therefore discoursed more
frequently and freely with his sister, who had yet the same hope with
himself, and always assisted him to give some reason why, though he had
been hitherto frustrated, he might succeed at last.
"We have hitherto, said she, known but little of the world: we have
never yet been either great or mean. In our own country, though we had
royalty, we had no power, and in this we have not yet seen the private
recesses of domestick peace. Imlac favours not our search, lest we
should in time find him mistaken. We will divide the task between us:
you shall try what is to be found in the splendour of courts, and I
will range the shades of humbler life. Perhaps command and authority
may be the supreme blessings, as they afford most opportunities of
doing good: or, perhaps, what this world can give may be found in the
modest habitations of middle fortune; too low for great designs, and
too high for penury and distress."
The prince examines the happiness of high stations
Rasselas applauded the design, and appeared next day with a splendid
retinue at the court of the Bassa. He was soon distinguished for his
magnificence, and admitted, as a prince whose curiosity had brought him
from distant countries, to an intimacy with the great officers, and
frequent conversation with the Bassa himself.
He was at first inclined to believe, that the man must be pleased
with his own condition, whom all approached with reverence, and heard
with obedience, and who had the power to extend his edicts to a whole
kingdom. "There can be no pleasure, said he, equal to that of feeling
at once the joy of thousands all made happy by wise administration.
Yet, since, by the law of subordination, this sublime delight can be in
one nation but the lot of one, it is surely reasonable to think that
there is some satisfaction more popular and accessible, and that
millions can hardly be subjected to the will of a single man, only to
fill his particular breast with incommunicable content."
These thoughts were often in his mind, and he found no solution of
the difficulty. But as presents and civilities gained him more
familiarity, he found that almost every man who stood high in
employment hated all the rest, and was hated by them, and that their
lives were a continual succession of plots and detections, stratagems
and escapes, faction and treachery, Many of those, who surrounded the
Bassa, were sent only to watch and report his conduct; every tongue was
muttering censure and every eye was searching for a fault.
At last the letters of revocation arrived, the Bassa was carried in
chains to Constantinople, and his name was mentioned no more.
"What are we now to think of the prerogatives of power, said
Rasselas to his sister; is it without any efficacy to good? or, is the
subordinate degree only dangerous, and the supreme safe and glorious?
Is the Sultan the only happy man in his dominions? or, is the Sultan
himself subject to the torments of suspicion, and the dread of enemies?"
In a short time the second Bassa was deposed. The Sultan, that had
advanced him, was murdered by the Janisaries, and his successor had
other views and different favourites.
The princess persues her enquiry with more diligence
The princess, in the mean time,
insinuated herself into many families; for there are few doors, through
which liberality, joined with good humour, cannot find its way. The
daughters of many houses were airy and chearful, but Nekayah had been
too long accustomed to the conversation of Imlac and her brother to be
much pleased with childish levity and prattle which had no meaning. She
found their thoughts narrow, their wishes low, and their merriment
often artificial. Their pleasures, poor as they were, could not be
preserved pure, but were embittered by petty competitions and worthless
emulation. They were always jealous of the beauty of each other; of a
quality to which solicitude can add nothing, and from which detraction
can take nothing away. Many were in love with triflers like themselves,
and many fancied that they were in love when in truth they were only
idle. Their affection was seldom fixed on sense or virtue, and
therefore seldom ended but in vexation. Their grief, however, like
their joy, was transient; every thing floated in their mind unconnected
with the past or future, so that one desire easily gave way to another,
as a second stone cast into the water effaces and confounds the circles
of the first.
With these girls she played as with inoffensive animals, and found
them proud of her countenance, and weary of her company.
But her purpose was to examine more deeply, and her affability
easily persuaded the hearts that were swelling with sorrow to discharge
their secrets in her ear: and those whom hope flattered, or prosperity
delighted, often courted her to partake their pleasures.
The princess and her brother commonly met in the evening in a
private summer-house on the bank of the Nile, and related to each other
the occurrences of the day. As they were sitting together, the princess
cast her eyes upon the river that flowed before her. "Answer, said she,
great father of waters, thou that rollest thy floods through eighty
nations, to the invocations of the daughter of thy native king. Tell me
if thou waterest, through all thy course, a single habitation from
which thou dost not hear the murmurs of complaint?"
"You are then, said Rasselas, not more successful in private houses
than I have been in courts." "I have, since the last partition of our
provinces, said the princess, enabled myself to enter familiarly into
many families, where there was the fairest show of prosperity and
peace, and know not one house that is not haunted by some fury that
destroys its quiet.
"I did not seek ease among the poor, because I concluded that there
it could not be found. But I saw many poor whom I had supposed to live
in affluence. Poverty has, in large cities, very different appearances:
it is often concealed in splendour, and often in extravagance. It is
the care of a very great part of mankind to conceal their indigence
from the rest: they support themselves by temporary expedients, and
every day is lost in contriving for the morrow.
"This, however, was an evil, which, though frequent, I saw with
less pain, because I could relieve it. Yet some have refused my
bounties; more offended with my quickness to detect their wants, than
pleased with my readiness to succour them: and others, whose exigencies
compelled them to admit my kindness, have never been able to forgive
their benefactress. Many, however, have been sincerely grateful without
the ostentation of gratitude, or the hope of other favours."
The princess continues her remarks upon private life
Nekayah perceiving her brother's attention fixed, proceeded in her
"In families, where there is or is not poverty, there is commonly
discord: if a kingdom be, as Imlac tells us, a great family, a family
likewise is a little kingdom, torn with factions and exposed to
revolutions. An unpractised observer, expects the love of parents and
children to be constant and equal; but this kindness seldom continues
beyond the years of infancy: in a short time the children become rivals
to their parents. Benefits are allayed by reproaches, and gratitude
debased by envy.
"Parents and children seldom act in concert: each child endeavours
to appropriate the esteem or fondness of the parents, and the parents,
with yet less temptation, betray each other to their children; thus
some place their confidence in the father, and some in the mother, and,
by degrees, the house is filled with artifices and feuds.
"The opinions of children and parents, of the young and the old,
are naturally opposite, by the contrary effects of hope and
despondence, of expectation and experience, without crime or folly on
either side. The colours of life in youth and age appear different, as
the face of nature in spring and winter. And how can children credit
the assertions of parents, which their own eyes show them to be false?
"Few parents act in such a manner as much to enforce their maxims
by the credit of their lives. The old man trusts wholly to slow
contrivance and gradual progression: the youth expects to force his way
by genius, vigour, and precipitance. The old man pays regard to riches,
and the youth reverences virtue. The old man deifies prudence: the
youth commits himself to magnanimity and chance. The young man, who
intends no ill, believes that none is intended, and therefore acts with
openness and candour: but his father, having suffered the injuries of
fraud, is impelled to suspect, and too often allured to practice it.
Age looks with anger on the temerity of youth, and youth with contempt
on the scrupulosity of age. Thus parents and children, for the greatest
part, live on to love less and less: and, if those whom nature has thus
closely united are the torments of each other, where shall we look for
tenderness and consolation?"
"Surely, said the prince, you must have been unfortunate in your
choice of acquaintance: I am unwilling to believe, that the most tender
of all relations is thus impeded in its, effects by natural necessity."
"Domestick discord, answered she, is not inevitably and fatally
necessary; but yet is not easily avoided. We seldom see that a whole
family is virtuous: the good and 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 to 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 may often make 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 out-laws 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 enquire, the
less we can resolve. Surely he is most likely to please himself that
has no other inclination to regard."
Disquisition upon greatness
conversation had a short pause. The prince having considered his
sister's observations, told her, that she had surveyed life with
prejudice, and supposed misery where she did not find it. "Your
narrative, says he, throws yet a darker gloom upon the prospects of
futurity: the predictions of Imlac were but faint sketches of the evils
painted by Nekayah. I have been lately convinced that quiet is not the
daughter of grandeur, or of power: that her presence is not to be
bought by wealth, nor enforced by conquest. 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
"Discontent, answered Rasselas, will not always be without reason
under the most just or vigilant administration of publick 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 inferiour 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 has 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, a steady prospect of
a happier state; this may enable us to endure calamity with patience;
but remember that patience must suppose pain."
Rasselas and Nekayah continue their conversation
"Dear princess, said Rasselas, you fall into the common errours of
exaggeratory declamation, by producing, in a familiar disquisition,
examples of national calamities, and scenes of extensive misery, which
are found in books rather than in the world, and which, as they are
horrid, are ordained to be rare. Let us not imagine evils which we do
not feel, nor injure life by misrepresentations. I cannot bear that
querulous eloquence which threatens every city with a siege like that
of Jerusalem, that makes famine attend on every flight of locusts, and
suspends pestilence on the wing of every blast that issues from the
"On necessary and inevitable evils, which overwhelm kingdoms at
once, all disputation is vain: when they happen they must be endured.
But it is evident, that these bursts of universal distress are more
dreaded than felt: thousands and ten thousands flourish in youth, and
wither in age, without the knowledge of any other than domestick evils,
and share the same pleasures and vexations whether their kings are mild
or cruel, whether the armies of their country persue their enemies, or
retreat before them. While courts are disturbed with intestine
competitions, and ambassadours are negotiating in foreign countries,
the smith still plies his anvil, and the husbandman drives his plow
forward; the necessaries of life are required and obtained, and the
successive business of the seasons continues to make its wonted
"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 to 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 circle, however narrow, the happiness of others.
"Marriage is evidently the dictate of nature; men and women were
made to be companions of each other, and therefore I cannot be
persuaded but that marriage is one of the means of happiness."
"I know not, said the princess, whether marriage be more than one
of the innumerable modes of human misery. When I see and reckon the
various forms of connubial infelicity, the unexpected causes of lasting
discord, the diversities of temper, the oppositions of opinion, the
rude collisions of contrary desire where both are urged by violent
impulses, the obstinate contests of disagreeing virtues, where both are
supported by consciousness of good intention, I am sometimes disposed
to think with the severer casuists of most nations, that marriage is
rather permitted than approved, and that none, but by the instigation
of a passion too much indulged, entangle themselves with indissoluble
compacts." You seem to forget, replied Rasselas, that you have, even
now, represented celibacy as less happy than marriage. Both conditions
may be bad, but they cannot both be worst. Thus it happens when wrong
opinions are entertained, that they mutually destroy each other, and
leave the mind open to truth."
"I did not expect, answered the princess, to hear that imputed to
falshood which is the consequence only of frailty. To the mind, as to
the eye, it is difficult to compare with exactness objects vast in
their extent, and various in their parts. Where we see or conceive the
whole at once we readily note the discriminations and decide the
preference: but of two systems, of which neither can be surveyed by any
human being in its full compass of magnitude and multiplicity of
complication, where is the wonder, that judging of the whole by parts,
I am alternately affected by one and the other as either presses on my
memory or fancy? We differ from ourselves just as we differ from each
other, when we see only part of the question, as in the multifarious
relations of politicks and morality: but when we percieve the whole at
once, as in numerical computations, all agree in one judgment, and none
ever varies his opinion."
"Let us not add, said the prince, to the other evils of life, the
bitterness of controversy, nor endeavour to vie with each other in
subtilties of argument. We are employed in a search, of which both are
equally to enjoy the success, or suffer by the miscarriage. It is
therefore fit that we assist each other. You surely conclude too
hastily from the infelicity of marriage against its institution; will
not the misery of life prove equally that life cannot be the gift of
heaven? The world must be peopled my marriage, or peopled without it.
"How the world is to be peopled, returned Nekayah, is not my care,
and needs not be yours. I see no danger that the present generation
should omit to leave successors behind them: we are not now enquiring
for the world, but for ourselves."
The debate on marriage continued
good of the whole, says Rasselas, is the same with the good of all its
parts. If marriage be best for mankind it must be evidently best for
individuals, or a permanent and necessary duty must be the cause of
evil, and some must be inevitably sacrificed to the convenience of
others. In the estimate which you have made of the two states, it
appears that the incommodities of a single life are, in a great
measure, necessary and certain, but those of the conjugal state
accidental and avoidable.
"I cannot forbear to flatter myself that prudence and benevolence
will make marriage happy. The general folly of mankind is the cause of
general complaint. What can be expected but disappointment and
repentance from a choice made in the immaturity of youth, in the ardour
of desire, without judgment without foresight, without an enquiry after
conformity of opinions, similarity of manners, rectitude of judgment,
or purity of sentiment.
"Such is the common process of marriage. A youth and maiden meeting
by chance, or brought together by artifice, exchange glances,
reciprocate civilities, go home, and dream of one another. Having
little to divert attention, or diversify thought, they find themselves
uneasy when they are apart, and therefore conclude that they shall be
happy together. They marry, and discover what nothing but voluntary
blindness had before concealed; they wear out life in altercations, and
charge nature with cruelty.
"From those early marriages proceeds likewise the rivalry of
parents and children: the son is eager to enjoy the world before the
father is willing to forsake it, and there is hardly room at once for
two generations. The daughter begins to bloom before the mother can be
content to fade, and neither can forbear to wish for the absence of the
other. "Surely all these evils may be avoided by that deliberation and
delay which prudence prescribes to irrevocable choice. In the variety
and jollity of youthful pleasures life may be well enough supported
without the help of a partner. Longer time will increase experience,
and wider views will allow better opportunities of enquiry and
selection: one advantage, at least, will be certain; the parents will
be visibly older than their children."
"What reason cannot collect, said Nekayah, and what experiment has
not yet taught, can be known only from the report of others. I have
been told that late marriages are not eminently happy. This is a
question too important to be neglected, and I have often proposed it to
those, whose accuracy of remark, and comprehensiveness of knowledge,
made their suffrages worthy of regard. They have generally determined,
that it is dangerous for a man and woman to suspend their fate upon
each other, at a time when opinions are fixed, and habits are
established; when friendships have been contracted on both sides, when
life has been planned into method, and the mind has long enjoyed the
contemplation of its own prospects. It is scarcely possible that two
travelling through the world under the conduct of chance, should have
been both directed to the same path, and it will not often happen that
either will quit the track which custom has made pleasing. When the
desultory levity of youth has settled into regularity, it is soon
succeeded by pride ashamed to yield, or obstinacy delighting to
contend. And even though mutual esteem produces mutual desire to
please, time itself, as it modifies unchangeably the external mien,
determines likewise the direction of the passions, and gives an
inflexible rigidity to the manners. Long customs are not easily broken:
he that attempts to change the course of his own life, very often
labours in vain; and how shall we do that for others which we are
seldom able to do for ourselves?"
"But surely, interposed the prince, you suppose the chief motive of
choice forgotten or neglected. Whenever I shall seek a wife, it shall
be my first question, whether she be willing to be led by reason?"
"Thus it is, said Nekayah, that philosophers are deceived. There
are a thousand familiar disputes which reason never can decide;
questions that elude investigation, and make logick ridiculous; cases
where something must be done, and where little can be said. Consider
the state of mankind, and enquire how few can be supposed to act upon
any occasions, whether small or great, with all the reasons of action
present to their minds. Wretched would be the pair above all names of
wretchedness, who should be doomed to adjust by reason every morning
all the minute detail of a domestick day.
"Those who marry at an advanced age, will probably escape the
encroachments of their children; but, in diminution of this advantage,
they will be likely to leave them, ignorant and helpless, to a
guardian's mercy: or, if that should not happen, they must at least go
out of the world before they see those whom they love best either wise
"From their children, if they have less to fear, they have less
also to hope, and they lose, without equivalent the joys of early love
and the convenience of uniting with manners pliant, and minds
susceptible of new impressions, which might wear away their
dissimilitudes by long cohabitation, as soft bodies, by continual
attrition, conform their surfaces to each other.
"I believe it will be found that those who marry late are best
pleased with their children, and those who marry early with their
"The union of these two affections, said Rasselas, would produce
all that could be wished. Perhaps there is a time when marriage might
unite them, a time neither too early for the father, nor too late for
"Every hour, answered the princess, confirms my prejudice in favour
of the position so often uttered by the mouth of Imlac, "That 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
as 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."
Imlac enters, and changes the conversation
Here Imlac entered, and interrupted them. "Imlac, said Rasselas, I
have been taking from the princess the dismal history of private life,
and am almost discouraged from further search."
"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 domestick life.
"The old Egyptians have left behind them monuments of industry and
power before which all European magnificence is confessed to fade away.
The ruins of their architecture are the schools of modern builders, and
from the wonders which time has spared we may conjecture, though
uncertainly, what it has destroyed."
"My curiosity, said Rasselas, does not very strongly lead me to
survey piles of stone, or mounds of earth; my business is with man. I
came hither not to measure fragments of temples, or trace choaked
aqueducts, but to look upon the various scenes of the present world."
"The things that are now before us, said the princess, require
attention, and deserve it. What have I to do with the heroes or the
monuments of ancient times? with times which never can return, and
heroes, whose form of life was different from all that the present
condition of mankind requires or allows."
"To know any thing, returned the poet, we must know its effects; to
see men we must see their works, that we may learn what reason has
dictated, or passion has incited, and find what are the most powerful
motives of action. To judge rightly of the present we must oppose it to
the past; for all judgment is comparative, and of the future nothing
can be known. The truth is, that no mind is much employed upon the
present: recollection and anticipation fill up almost all our moments.
Our passions are joy and grief, love and hatred, hope and fear. Of joy
and grief the past is the object, and the future of hope and fear; even
love and hatred respect the past, for the cause must have been before
"The present state of things is the consequence of the former, and
it is natural to inquire what were the sources of the good that we
enjoy, or of the evil that we suffer. If we act only for ourselves, to
neglect the study of history is not prudent: if we are entrusted with
the care of others, it is not just. Ignorance, when it is voluntary, is
criminal; and he may properly be charged with evil who refused to learn
how he might prevent it.
"There is no part of history so generally useful as that which
relates the progress of the human mind, the gradual improvement of
reason, the successive advances of science, the vicissitudes of
learning and ignorance, which are the light and darkness of thinking
beings, the extinction and resuscitation of arts, and all the
revolutions of the intellectual world. If accounts of battles and
invasions are peculiarly the business of princes, the useful or elegant
arts are not to be neglected; those who have kingdoms to govern, have
understandings to cultivate.
"Example is always more efficacious than precept. A soldier is
formed in war, and a painter must copy pictures. In this, contemplative
life has the advantage: great actions are seldom seen, but the labours
of art are always at hand for those who desire to know what art has
been able to perform. When the eye or the imagination is struck with
any uncommon work the next transition of an active mind is to the means
by which it was performed. Here begins the true use of such
contemplation; we enlarge our comprehension by new ideas, and perhaps
recover some art lost to mankind, or learn what is less perfectly known
in our own country. At least we compare our own with former times, and
either rejoice at our improvements, or, what is the first motion
towards good, discover our defects."
"I am willing, said the prince, to see all that can deserve my
search." "And I, said the princess, shall rejoice to learn something of
the manners of antiquity."
"The most pompous monument of Egyptian greatness, and one of the
most bulky works of manual industry, said Imlac, are the pyramids;
fabricks raised before the time of history, and of which the earliest
narratives afford us only uncertain traditions. Of these the greatest
is still standing, very little injured by time."
"Let us visit them to morrow, said Nekayah. I have often heard of
the pyramids, and shall not rest, till I have seen them within and
without with my own eyes."
They visit the pyramids.
resolution being thus taken, they set out the next day. They laid tents
upon their camels, being resolved to stay among the pyramids till their
curiosity was fully satisfied. They travelled gently, turned aside to
every thing remarkable, stopped from time to time and conversed with
the inhabitants, and observed the various appearances of towns ruined
and inhabited, of wild and cultivated nature.
When they came to the Great Pyramid they were astonished at the
extent of the base, and the height of the top. Imlac explained to them
the principles upon which the pyramidal form was chosen for a fabrick
intended to co-extend its duration with that of the world: he showed
that its gradual diminution gave it such stability, as defeated all the
common attacks of the elements, and could scarcely be overthrown by
earthquakes themselves, the least resistible of natural violence. A
concussion that should shatter the pyramid would threaten the
dissolution of the continent.
They measured all its dimensions, and pitched their tents at its
foot. Next day they prepared to enter its interiour apartments, and
having hired the common guides climbed up to the first passage, when
the favourite of the princess, looking into the cavity, stepped back
and trembled. "Pekuah, said the princess, of what art thou afraid?" "Of
the narrow entrance, answered the lady, and of the dreadful gloom. I
dare not enter a place which must surely be inhabited by unquiet souls.
The original possessors of these dreadful vaults will start up before
us, and, perhaps, shut us in for ever." She spoke, and threw her arms
round the neck of her mistress.
"If all your fear be of apparitions, said the prince, I will
promise you safety: there is no danger from the dead; he that is once
buried will be seen no more."
"That the dead are seen no more, said Imlac, I will not undertake
to maintain against the concurrent and unvaried testimony of all ages,
and of all nations. There is no people, rude or learned, among whom
apparitions of the dead are not related and believed. This opinion,
which, perhaps, prevails as far as human nature is diffused, could
become universal only by its truth: those, that never heard of one
another, would not have agreed in a tale which nothing but experience
can make credible. That it is doubted by single cavillers can very
little weaken the general evidence, and some who deny it with their
tongues confess it by their fears.
"Yet I do not mean to add new terrours to those which have already
seized upon Pekuah. There can be no reason why spectres should haunt
the pyramid more than other places, or why they should have power or
will to hurt innocence and purity. Our entrance is no violation of
their priviledges; we can take nothing from them, how then can we
"My dear Pekuah, said the princess, I will always go before you,
and Imlac shall follow you. Remember that you are the companion of the
princess of Abissinia."
"If the princess is pleased that her servant should die, returned
the lady, let her command some death less dreadful than enclosure in
this horrid cavern. You know I dare not disobey you: I must go if you
command me; but, if I once enter, I never shall come back."
The princess saw that her fear was too strong for expostulation or
reproof, and embracing her, told her that she should stay in the tent
till their return. Pekuah was yet not satisfied, but entreated the
princess not to persue so dreadful a purpose, as that of entering the
recesses of the pyramid. "Though I cannot teach courage, said Nekayah,
I must not learn cowardise; nor leave at last undone what I came hither
only to do."
They enter the Pyramid
descended to the tents and the rest entered the pyramid: they passed
through the galleries, surveyed the vaults of marble, and examined the
chest in which the body of the founder is supposed to have been
reposited. They then sat down in one of the most spacious chambers to
rest a while before they attempted to return.
"We have now, said Imlac, gratified our minds with an exact view of
the greatest work of man, except the wall of China.
"Of the wall it is very easy to assign the motives. It secured a
wealthy and timorous nation from the incursions of Barbarians, whose
unskilfulness in arts made it easier for them to supply their wants by
rapine than by industry, and who from time to time poured in upon the
habitations of peaceful commerce, as vultures descend upon domestick
fowl. Their celerity and fierceness made the wall necessary, and their
ignorance made it efficacious.
"But for the pyramids no reason has ever been given adequate to the
cost and labour of the work. The narrowness of the chambers proves that
it could afford no retreat from enemies, and treasures might have been
reposited at far less expence with equal security. It seems to have
been erected only in compliance with that hunger of imagination which
preys incessantly upon life, and must be always appeased by some
employment. Those who have already all that they can enjoy, must
enlarge their desires. He that has built for use, till use is supplied,
must begin to build for vanity, and extend his plan to the utmost power
of human performance, that he may not be soon reduced to form another
"I consider this mighty structure as a monument of the
insufficiency of human enjoyments. A king, whose power is unlimited,
and whose treasures surmount all real and imaginary wants, is compelled
to solace, by the erection of a pyramid, the satiety of dominion and
tastelesness of pleasures, and to amuse the tediousness of declining
life, by seeing thousands labouring without end, and one stone, for no
purpose, laid upon another. Whoever thou art, that, not content with a
moderate condition, imaginest happiness in royal magnificence, and
dreamest that command or riches can feed the appetite of novelty with
perpetual gratifications, survey the pyramids, and confess thy folly!"
The princess meets with an unexpected misfortune
They rose up, and returned through the cavity at which they had
entered, and the princess prepared for her favourite a long narrative
of dark labyrinths, and costly rooms, and of the different impressions
which the varieties of the way had made upon her. But, when they came
to their train, they found every one silent and dejected: the men
discovered shame and fear in their countenances, and the women were
weeping in the tents.
What had happened they did not try to conjecture, but immediately
enquired. "You had scarcely entered into the pyramid, said one of the
attendants, when a troop of Arabs rushed upon us: we were too few to
resist them, and too slow to escape. They were about to search the
tents, set us on our camels, and drive us along before them, when the
approach of some Turkish horsemen put them to flight; but they seized
the lady Pekuah with her two maids, and carried them away: the Turks
are now persuing them by our instigation, but I fear they will not be
able to overtake them." The princess was overpowered with surprise and
grief. Rasselas, in the first heat of his resentment, ordered his
servants to follow him, and prepared to persue the robbers with his
sabre in his hand. "Sir, said Imlac, what can you hope from violence or
valour? the Arabs are mounted on horses trained to battle and retreat;
we have only beasts of burden. By leaving our present station we may
lose the princess, but cannot hope to regain Pekuah."
In a short time the Turks returned, having not been able to reach
the enemy. The princess burst out into new lamentations, and Rasselas
could scarcely forbear to reproach them with cowardice; but Imlac was
of opinion, that the escape of the Arabs was no addition to their
misfortune, for, perhaps, they would have killed their captives rather
than have resigned them.
They return to Cairo without Pekuah
There was nothing to be hoped from longer stay. They returned to Cairo
repenting of their curiosity, censuring the negligence of the
government, lamenting their own rashness which had neglected to procure
a guard, imagining many expedients by which the loss of Pekuah might
have been prevented, and resolving to do something for her recovery,
though none could find any thing proper to be done.
Nekayah retired to her chamber, where her women attempted to
comfort her, by telling her that all had their troubles, and that lady
Pekuah had enjoyed much happiness in the world for a long time, and
might reasonably expect a change of fortune. They hoped that some good
would befal her wheresoever she was, and that their mistress would find
another friend who might supply her place.
The princess made them no answer, and they continued the form of
condolence, not much grieved in their hearts that the favourite was
Next day the prince presented to the Bassa a memorial of the wrong
which he had suffered, and a petition for redress. The Bassa threatened
to punish the robbers, but did not attempt to catch them, nor, indeed,
could any account or description be given by which he might direct the
persuit. It soon appeared that nothing would be done by authority.
Governors, being accustomed to hear of more crimes than they can
punish, and more wrongs than they can redress, set themselves at ease
by indiscriminate negligence, and presently forget the request when
they lose sight of the petitioner. Imlac then endeavoured to gain some
intelligence by private agents. He found many who pretended to an exact
knowledge of all the haunts of the Arabs, and to regular correspondence
with their chiefs, and who readily undertook the recovery of Pekuah. Of
these, some were furnished with money for their journey, and came back
no more; some were liberally paid for accounts which a few days
discovered to be false. But the princess would not suffer any means,
however improbable, to be left untried. While she was doing something
she kept her hope alive. As one expedient failed, another was
suggested; when one messenger returned unsuccessful, another was
despatched to a different quarter.
Two months had now passed, and of Pekuah nothing had been heard;
the hopes which they had endeavoured to raise in each other grew more
languid, and the princess, when she saw nothing more to be tried, sunk
down inconsolable in hopeless dejection. A thousand times she
reproached herself with the easy compliance by which she permitted her
favourite to stay behind her. "Had not my fondness, said she, lessened
my authority, Pekuah had not dared to talk of her terrours. She ought
to have feared me more than spectres. A severe look would have
overpowered her; a peremptory command would have compelled obedience.
Why did foolish indulgence prevail upon me? Why did I not speak and
refuse to hear?"
"Great princess, said Imlac, do not reproach yourself for your
virtue, or consider that as blameable by which evil has accidentally
been caused. Your tenderness for the timidity of Pekuah was generous
and kind. When we act according to our duty, we commit the event to him
by whose laws our actions are governed, and who will suffer none to be
finally punished for obedience. When, in prospect of some good, whether
natural or moral, we break the rules prescribed us, we withdraw from
the direction of superiour wisdom, and take all consequences upon
ourselves. Man cannot so far know the connexion of causes and events,
as that he may venture to do wrong in order to do right. When we persue
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 overleaping 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?
"Consider, princess, what would have been your condition, if the
lady Pekuah had entreated to accompany you, and, being compelled to
stay in the tents, had been carried away; or how would you have born
the thought, if you had forced her into the pyramid, and she had died
before you in agonies of terrour."
"Had either happened, said Nekayah, I could not have endured life
till now: I should have been tortured to madness by the remembrance of
such cruelty, or must have pined away in abhorrence of myself.
"This at least, said Imlac, is the present reward of virtuous
conduct, that no unlucky consequence can oblige us to repent it."
The princess languishes for want of Pekuah
Nekayah, being thus reconciled to herself, found that no evil is
insupportable but that which is accompanied with consciousness of
wrong. She was, from that time, delivered from the violence of
tempestuous sorrow, and sunk into silent pensiveness and gloomy
tranquillity. She sat from morning to evening recollecting all that had
been done or said by her Pekuah, treasured up with care every trifle on
which Pekuah had set an accidental value, and which might recal to mind
any little incident or careless conversation. The sentiments of her,
whom she now expected to see no more, were treasured in her memory as
rules of life, and she deliberated to no other end than to conjecture
on any occasion what would have been the opinion and counsel of Pekuah.
The women, by whom she was attended, knew nothing of her real
condition, and therefore she could not talk to them but with caution
and reserve. She began to remit her curiosity, having no great care to
collect notions which she had no convenience of uttering. Rasselas
endeavoured first to comfort and afterwards to divert her; he hired
musicians, to whom she seemed to listen, but did not hear them, and
procured masters to instruct her in various arts, whose lectures, when
they visited her again, were again to be repeated. She had lost her
taste of pleasure and her ambition of excellence. And her mind, though
forced into short excursions, always recurred to the image of her
Imlac was every morning earnestly enjoined to renew his enquiries,
and was asked every night whether he had yet heard of Pekuah, till not
being able to return the princess the answer that she desired, he was
less and less willing to come into her presence. She observed his
backwardness, and commanded him to attend her. "You are not, said she,
to confound impatience with resentment, or to suppose that I charge you
with negligence, because I repine at your unsuccessfulness. I do not
much wonder at your absence; I know that the unhappy are never
pleasing, and that all naturally avoid the contagion of misery. To hear
complaints is wearisome alike to the wretched and the happy; for who
would cloud by adventitious grief the short gleams of gaiety which life
allows us? or who, that is struggling under his own evils, will add to
them the miseries of another?
"The time is at hand, when none shall be disturbed any longer by
the sighs of Nekayah: my search after happiness is now at an end. I am
resolved to retire from the world with all its flatteries and deceits,
and will hide myself in solitude, without any other care than to
compose my thoughts, and regulate my hours by a constant succession of
innocent occupations, till, with a mind purified from all earthly
desires, I shall enter into that state, to which all are hastening, and
in which I hope again to enjoy the friendship of Pekuah."
"Do not entangle your mind, said Imlac, by irrevocable
determinations, nor increase the burthen of life by a voluntary
accumulation of misery: the weariness of retirement will continue or
increase when the loss of Pekuah is forgotten. That you have been
deprived of one pleasure is no very good reason for rejection of the
"Since Pekuah was taken from me, said the princess, I have no
pleasure to reject or to retain. She that has no one to love or trust
has little to hope. She wants the radical principle of happiness. We
may, perhaps, allow that what satisfaction this world can afford, must
arise from the conjunction of wealth, knowledge and goodness: wealth is
nothing but as it is bestowed, and knowledge nothing but as it is
communicated: they must therefore be imparted to others, and to whom
could I now delight to impart them? Goodness affords the only comfort
which can be enjoyed without a partner, and goodness may be practised
"How far solitude may admit goodness, or advance it, I shall not,
replied Imlac, dispute at present. Remember the confession of the pious
hermit. You will wish to return into the world, when the image of your
companion has left your thoughts." "That time, said Nekayah, will never
come. The generous frankness, the modest obsequiousness, and the
faithful secrecy of my dear Pekuah, will always be more missed, as I
shall live longer to see vice and folly."
"The state of a mind oppressed with a sudden calamity, said Imlac,
is like that of the fabulous inhabitants of the new created earth, who,
when the first night came upon them, supposed that day never would
return. When the clouds of sorrow gather over us, we see nothing beyond
them, nor can imagine how they will be dispelled: yet a new day
succeeded to the night, and sorrow is never long without a dawn of
ease. But they who restrain themselves from receiving comfort, do as
the savages would have done, had they put out their eyes when it was
dark. Our minds, like our bodies, are in continual flux; something is
hourly lost, and something acquired. To lose much at once is
inconvenient to either, but while the vital powers remain uninjured,
nature will find the means of reparation. Distance has the same effect
on the mind as on the eye, and while we glide along the stream of time,
whatever we leave behind us is always lessening, and that which we
approach increasing in magnitude. Do not suffer life to stagnate; it
will grow muddy for want of motion: commit yourself again to the
current of the world; Pekuah will vanish by degrees; you will meet in
your way some other favourite, or learn to diffuse yourself in general
"At least, said the prince, do not despair before all remedies have
been tried: the enquiry after the unfortunate lady is still continued,
and shall be carried on with yet greater diligence, on condition that
you will promise to wait a year for the event, without any unalterable
Nekayah thought this a reasonable demand, and made the promise to
her brother, who had been advised by Imlac to require it. Imlac had,
indeed, no great hope of regaining Pekuah, but he supposed, that if he
could secure the interval of a year, the princess would be then in no
danger of a cloister.
Pekuah is still remembered. The progress of sorrow
Nekayah, seeing that nothing was omitted for the recovery of her
favourite, and having, by her promise, set her intention of retirement
at a distance, began imperceptibly to return to common cares and common
pleasures. She rejoiced without her own consent at the suspension of
her sorrows, and sometimes caught herself with indignation in the act
of turning away her mind from the remembrance of her, whom yet she
resolved never to forget.
She then appointed a certain hour of the day for meditation on the
merits and fondness of Pekuah, and for some weeks retired constantly at
the time fixed, and returned with her eyes swollen and her countenance
clouded. By degrees she grew less scrupulous, and suffered any
important and pressing avocation to delay the tribute of daily tears.
She then yielded to less occasions; sometimes forgot what she was
indeed afraid to remember, and, at last, wholly released herself from
the duty of periodical affliction.
Her real love of Pekuah was yet not diminished. A thousand
occurrences brought her back to memory, and a thousand wants, which
nothing but the confidence of friendship can supply, made her
frequently regretted. She, therefore, solicited Imlac never to desist
from enquiry, and to leave no art of intelligence untried, that, at
least, she might have the comfort of knowing that she did not suffer by
negligence or sluggishness. "Yet what, said she, is to be expected from
our persuit 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
The Princess hears news of Pekuah
seven months, one of the messengers, who had been sent away upon the
day when the promise was drawn from the princess, returned, after many
unsuccessful rambles, from the borders of Nubia, with an account that
Pekuah was in the hands of an Arab chief, who possessed a castle or
fortress on the extremity of Egypt. The Arab, whose revenue was
plunder, was willing to restore her, with her two attendants, for two
hundred ounces of gold.
The price was no subject of debate. The princess was in extasies
when she heard that her favourite was alive, and might so cheaply be
ransomed. She could not think of delaying for a moment Pekuah's
happiness or her own, but entreated her brother to send back the
messenger with the sum required. Imlac, being consulted, was not very
confident of the veracity of the relator, and was still more doubtful
of the Arab's faith, who might, if he were too liberally trusted,
detain at once the money and the captives. He thought it dangerous to
put themselves in the power of the Arab, by going into his district,
and could not expect that the Rover would so much expose himself as to
come into the lower country, where he might be seized by the forces of
the Bassa. It is difficult to negotiate where neither will trust. But
Imlac, after some deliberation, directed the messenger to propose that
Pekuah should be conducted by ten horsemen to the monastery of St.
Anthony, which is situated in the deserts of Upper-Egypt, where she
should be met by the same number, and her ransome should be paid.
That no time might be lost, as they expected that the proposal
would not be refused, they immediately began their journey to the
monastery; and, when they arrived, Imlac went forward with the former
messenger to the Arab's fortress. Rasselas was desirous to go with
them, but neither his sister nor Imlac would consent. The Arab,
according to the custom of his nation, observed the laws of hospitality
with great exactness to those who put themselves into his power, and,
in a few days, brought Pekuah with her maids, by easy journeys, to
their place appointed, where receiving the stipulated price, he
restored her with great respect to liberty and her friends, and
undertook to conduct them back towards Cairo beyond all danger of
robbery or violence.
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.
The adventures of the lady Pekuah
what time, and in what manner, I was forced away, said Pekuah, your
servants have told you. The suddenness of the event struck me with
surprise, and I was at first rather stupified than agitated with any
passion of either fear or sorrow. My confusion was encreased by the
speed and tumult of our flight while we were followed by the Turks,
who, as it seemed, soon despaired to overtake us, or were afraid of
those whom they made a shew of menacing.
"When the Arabs saw themselves out of danger they slackened their
course, and, as I was less harassed by external violence, I began to
feel more uneasiness in my mind. After some time we stopped near a
spring shaded with trees in a pleasant meadow, where we were set upon
the ground, and offered such refreshments as our masters were
partaking. I was suffered to sit with my maids apart from the rest, and
none attempted to comfort or insult us. Here I first began to feel the
full weight of my misery. The girls sat weeping in silence, and from
time to time looked on me for succour. I knew not to what condition we
were doomed, nor could conjecture where would be the place of our
captivity, or whence to draw any hope of deliverance. I was in the
hands of robbers and savages, and had no reason to suppose that their
pity was more than their justice, or that they would forbear the
gratification of any ardour of desire, or caprice of cruelty. I,
however, kissed my maids, and endeavoured to pacify them by remarking,
that we were yet treated with decency, and that, since we were now
carried beyond persuit, there was no danger of violence to our lives.
"When we were to be set again on horseback, my maids clung round
me, and refused to be parted, but I commanded them not to irritate
those who had us in their power. We travelled the remaining part of the
day through an unfrequented and pathless country, and came by moonlight
to the side of a hill, where the rest of the troop was stationed. Their
tents were pitched, and their fires kindled, and our chief was welcomed
as a man much beloved by his dependants.
"We were received into a large tent, where we found women who had
attended their husbands in the expedition. They set before us the
supper which they had provided, and I eat it rather to encourage my
maids than to comply with any appetite of my own. When the meat was
taken away they spread the carpets for repose. I was weary, and hoped
to find in sleep that remission of distress which nature seldom denies.
Ordering myself therefore to be undrest, I observed that the women
looked very earnestly upon me, not expecting, I suppose, to see me so
submissively attended. When my upper vest was taken off, they were
apparently struck with the splendour of my cloaths, and one of them
timorously laid her hand upon the embroidery. She then went out, and,
in a short time, came back with another woman, who seemed to be of
higher rank, and greater authority. She did, at her entrance, the usual
act of reverence, and, taking me by the hand, placed me in a smaller
tent, spread with finer carpets, where I spent the night quietly with
"In the morning, as I was sitting on the grass, the chief of the
troop came towards me. I rose up to receive him, and he bowed with
great respect. "Illustrious lady, said he, my fortune is better than I
had presumed to hope; I am told by my women, that I have a princess in
my camp." Sir, answered I, your women have deceived themselves and you;
I am not a princess, but an unhappy stranger who intended soon to have
left this country, in which I am now to be imprisoned for ever.
"Whoever, or whencesoever, you are, returned the Arab, your dress, and
that of your servants, show your rank to be high, and your wealth to be
great. Why should you, who can so easily procure your ransome, think
yourself in danger of perpetual captivity? The purpose of my incursions
is to encrease my riches, or more properly to gather tribute. The sons
of Ishmael are the natural and hereditary lords of this part of the
continent, which is usurped by late invaders, and low-born tyrants,
from whom we are compelled to take by the sword what is denied to
justice. The violence of war admits no distinction; the lance that is
lifted at guilt and power will sometimes fall on innocence and
"How little, said I, did I expect that yesterday it should have
fallen upon me."
"Misfortunes, answered the Arab, should always be expected. If the
eye of hostility could learn reverence or pity, excellence like yours
had been exempt from injury. But the angels of affliction spread their
toils alike for the virtuous and the wicked, for the mighty and the
mean. Do not be disconsolate; I am not one of the lawless and cruel
rovers of the desart; I know the rules of civil life: I will fix your
ransome, give a passport to your messenger, and perform my stipulation
with nice punctuality."
"You will easily believe that I was pleased with his courtesy; and
finding that his predominant passion was desire of money, I began now
to think my danger less, for I knew that no sum would be thought too
great for the release of Pekuah. I told him that he should have no
reason to charge me with ingratitude, if I was used with kindness, and
that any ransome, which could be expected for a maid of common rank,
would be paid, but that he must not persist to rate me as a princess.
He said, he would consider what he should demand, and then, smiling,
bowed and retired.
"Soon after the women came about me, each contending to be more
officious than the other, and my maids themselves were served with
reverence. We travelled onward by short journeys. On the fourth day the
chief told me, that my ransome must be two hundred ounces of gold,
which I not only promised him, but told him, that I would add fifty
more, if I and my maids were honourably treated.
"I never knew the power of gold before. From that time I was the
leader of the troop. The march of every day was longer or shorter as I
commanded, and the tents were pitched where I chose to rest. We now had
camels and other conveniencies for travel, my own women were always at
my side, and I amused myself with observing the manners of the vagrant
nations, and with viewing remains of ancient edifices with which these
deserted countries appear to have been, in some distant age, lavishly
"The chief of the band was a man far from illiterate: he was able
to travel by the stars or the compass, and had marked in his erratick
expeditions such places as are most worthy the notice of a passenger.
He observed to me, that buildings are always best preserved in places
little frequented, and difficult of access: for, when once a country
declines from its primitive splendour, the more inhabitants are left,
the quicker ruin will be made. Walls supply stones more easily than
quarries, and palaces and temples will be demolished to make stables of
granate, and cottages of porphyry.
The adventures of Pekuah continued
wandered about in this manner for some weeks, whether, as our chief
pretended, for my gratification, or, as I rather suspected, for some
convenience of his own. I endeavoured to appear contented where
sullenness and resentment would have been of no use, and that endeavour
conduced much to the calmness of my mind; but my heart was always with
Nekayah, and the troubles of the night much overbalanced the amusements
of the day. My women, who threw all their cares upon their mistress,
set their minds at ease from the time when they saw me treated with
respect, and gave themselves up to the incidental alleviations of our
fatigue without solicitude or sorrow. I was pleased with their
pleasure, and animated with their confidence. My condition had lost
much of its terrour, since I found that the Arab ranged the country
merely to get riches. Avarice is an uniform and tractable vice: other
intellectual distempers are different in different constitutions of
mind; that which sooths the pride of one will offend the pride of
another; but to the favour of the covetous there is a ready way, bring
money and nothing is denied.
"At last we came to the dwelling of our chief, a strong and
spacious house built with stone in an island of the Nile, which lies,
as I was told, under the tropick. "Lady, said the Arab, you shall rest
after your journey a few weeks in this place, where you are to consider
yourself as sovereign. My occupation is war: I have therefore chosen
this obscure residence, from which I can issue unexpected, and to which
I can retire unpursued. You may now repose in security: here are few
pleasures, but here is no danger." He then led me into the inner
apartments, and seating me on the richest couch, bowed to the ground.
His women, who considered me as a rival, looked on me with malignity;
but being soon informed that I was a great lady detained only for my
ransome, they began to vie with each other in obsequiousness and
"Being again comforted with new assurances of speedy liberty, I was
for some days diverted from impatience by the novelty of the place. The
turrets overlooked the country to a great distance, and afforded a view
of many windings of the stream. In the day I wandered from one place to
another as the course of the sun varied the splendour of the prospect,
and saw many things which I had never seen before. The crocodiles and
river-horses are common in this unpeopled region, and I often looked
upon them with terrour, though I knew that they could not hurt me. For
some time I expected to see mermaids and tritons, which, as Imlac has
told me, the European travellers have stationed in the Nile, but no
such beings ever appeared, and the Arab, when I enquired after them,
laughed at my credulity.
"At night the Arab always attended me to a tower set apart for
celestial observations, where he endeavoured to teach me the names and
courses of the stars. I had no great inclination to this study, but an
appearance of attention was necessary to please my instructor, who
valued himself for his skill, and, in a little while, I found some
employment requisite to beguile the tediousness of time, which was to
be passed always amidst the same objects. I was weary of looking in the
morning on things from which I had turned away weary in the evening: I
therefore was at last willing to observe the stars rather than do
nothing, but could not always compose my thoughts, and was very often
thinking on Nekayah when others imagined me contemplating the sky. Soon
after the Arab went upon another expedition, and then my only pleasure
was to talk with my maids about the accident by which we were carried
away, and the happiness that we should all enjoy at the end of our
"There were women in your Arab's fortress, said the princess, why
did you not make them your companions, enjoy their conversation, and
partake their diversions? In a place where they found business or
amusement, why should you alone sit corroded with idle melancholy? or
why should not you bear for a few months that condition to which they
were condemned for life?"
"The diversions of the women, answered Pekuah, were only childish
play, by which the mind accustomed to stronger operations could not be
kept busy. I could do all which they delighted in doing by powers
merely sensitive, while my intellectual faculties were flown to Cairo.
They ran from room to room as a bird hops from wire to wire in his
cage. They danced for the sake of motion, as lambs frisk in a meadow.
One sometimes pretended to be hurt that the rest might be alarmed, or
hid herself that another might seek her. Part of their time passed in
watching the progress of light bodies that floated on the river, and
part in marking the various forms into which clouds broke in the sky.
"Their business was only needlework, in which I and my maids
sometimes helped them; but you know that the mind will easily straggle
from the fingers, nor will you suspect that captivity and absence from
Nekayah could receive solace from silken flowers.
"Nor was much satisfaction to be hoped from their conversation: for
of what could they be expected to talk? They had seen nothing; for they
had lived from early youth in that narrow spot: of what they had not
seen they could have no knowledge, for they could not read. They had no
ideas but of the few things that were within their view, and had hardly
names for any thing but their cloaths and their food. As I bore a
superiour character, I was often called to terminate their quarrels,
which I decided as equitably as I could. If it could have amused me to
hear the complaints of each against the rest, I might have been often
detained by long stories, but the motives of their animosity were so
small that I could not listen without intercepting the tale."
"How, said Rasselas, can the Arab, whom you represented as a man of
more than common accomplishments, take any pleasure in his seraglio,
when it is filled only with women like these. Are they exquisitely
"They do not, said Pekuah, want that unaffecting and ignoble beauty
which may subsist without spriteliness or sublimity, without energy of
thought or dignity of virtue. But to a man like the Arab such beauty
was only a flower casually plucked and carelessly thrown away. Whatever
pleasures he might find among them, they were not those of friendship
or society. When they were playing about him he looked on them with
inattentive superiority: when they vied for his regard he sometimes
turned away disgusted. As they had no knowledge, their talk could take
nothing from the tediousness of life: as they had no choice, their
fondness, or appearance of fondness, excited in him neither pride nor
gratitude; he was not exalted in his own esteem by the smiles of a
woman who saw no other man, nor was much obliged by that regard, of
which he could never know the sincerity, and which he might often
perceive to be exerted not so much to delight him as to pain a rival.
That which he gave, and they received, as love, was only a careless
distribution of superfluous time, such love as man can bestow upon that
which he despises, such as has neither hope nor fear, neither joy nor
"You have reason lady to think yourself happy, said Imlac, that you
have been thus easily dismissed. How could a mind, hungry for
knowledge, be willing, in an intellectual famine, to lose such a
banquet as Pekuah's conversation?"
"I am inclined to believe, answered Pekuah, that he was for some
time in suspense; notwithstanding his promise, whenever I proposed to
dispatch a messenger to Cairo, he found some excuse for delay. While I
was detained in his house he made many incursions into the neighbouring
countries, and, perhaps, he would have refused to discharge me, had his
plunder been equal to his wishes. He returned always courteous, related
his adventures, delighted to hear my observations, and endeavoured to
advance my acquaintance with the stars. When I importuned him to send
away my letters, he soothed me with professions of honour and
sincerity; and, when I could be no longer decently denied, put his
troop again in motion, and left me to govern in his absence. I was much
afflicted by this studied procrastination, and was sometimes afraid
that I should be forgotten; that you would leave Cairo, and I must end
my days in an island of the Nile.
"I grew at last hopeless and dejected, and cared so little to
entertain him, that he for a while more frequently talked with my
maids. That he should fall in love with them, or with me, might have
been equally fatal, and I was not much pleased with the growing
friendship. My anxiety was not long; for, as I recovered some degree of
chearfulness, he returned to me, and I could not forbear to despise my
"He still delayed to send for my ransome, and would, perhaps, never
have determined, had not your agent found his way to him. The gold,
which he would not fetch, he could not reject when it was offered. He
hastened to prepare for our journey hither, like a man delivered from
the pain of an intestine conflict. I took leave of my companions in the
house, who dismissed me with cold indifference."
Nekayah, having heard her favourite's relation, rose and embraced
her, and Rasselas gave her an hundred ounces of gold, which she
presented to the Arab for the fifty that were promised.
The history of a man of learning
returned to Cairo, and were so well pleased at finding themselves
together, that none of them went much abroad. The prince began to love
learning, and one day declared to Imlac, that he intended to devote
himself to science, and pass the rest of his days in literary solitude.
"Before you make your final choice, answered Imlac, you ought to
examine its hazards, and converse with some of those who are grown old
in the company of themselves. I have just left the observatory of one
of the most learned astronomers in the world, who has spent forty years
in unwearied attention to the motions and appearances of the celestial
bodies, and has drawn out his soul in endless calculations. He admits a
few friends once a month to hear his deductions and enjoy his
discoveries. I was introduced as a man of knowledge worthy of his
notice. Men of various ideas and fluent conversation are commonly
welcome to those whose thoughts have been long fixed upon a single
point, and who find the images of other things stealing away. I
delighted him with my remarks, he smiled at the narrative of my
travels, and was glad to forget the constellations, and descend for a
moment into the lower world.
"On the next day of vacation I renewed my visit, and was so
fortunate as to please him again. He relaxed from that time the
severity of his rule, and permitted me to enter at my own choice. I
found him always busy, and always glad to be relieved. As each knew
much which the other was desirous of learning, we exchanged our notions
with great delight. I perceived that I had every day more of his
confidence, and always found new cause of admiration in the profundity
of his mind. His comprehension is vast, his memory capacious and
retentive, his discourse is methodical, and his expression clear.
"His integrity and benevolence are equal to his learning. His
deepest researches and most favourite studies are willingly interrupted
for any opportunity of doing good by his counsel or his riches. To his
closest retreat at his most busy moments, all are admitted that want
his assistance: "For though I exclude idleness and pleasure I will
never, says he, bar my doors against charity. To man is permitted the
contemplation of the skies, but the practice of virtue is commanded.
"Surely, said the princess, this man is happy."
"I visited him, said Imlac, with more and more frequency and was
every time more enamoured of his conversation: he was sublime without
haughtiness, courteous without formality, and communicative without
ostentation. I was at first, great princess, of your opinion, thought
him the happiest of mankind, and often congratulated him on the
blessing that he enjoyed. He seemed to hear nothing with indifference
but the praises of his condition, to which he always returned a general
answer, and diverted the conversation to some other topick.
"Amidst this willingness to be pleased, and labour to please, I had
quickly reason to imagine that some painful sentiment pressed upon his
mind. He often looked up earnestly towards the sun, and let his voice
fall in the midst of his discourse. He would sometimes, when we were
alone, gaze upon me in silence with the air of a man who longed to
speak what he was yet resolved to suppress. He would often send for me
with vehement injunctions of haste, though, when I came to him, he had
nothing extraordinary to say. And sometimes, when I was leaving him,
would call me back, pause a few moments and then dismiss me.
The astronomer discovers the cause of his uneasiness
"at last the time came when the secret burst his reserve. We were
sitting together last night in the turret of his house, watching the
emersion of a satellite of Jupiter. A sudden tempest clouded the sky,
and disappointed our observation. We sat a while silent in the dark,
and then he addressed himself to me in these words: "Imlac, I have long
considered thy friendship as the greatest blessing of my life.
Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without
integrity is dangerous and dreadful. I have found in thee all the
qualities requisite for trust, benevolence, experience, and fortitude.
I have long discharged an office which I must soon quit at the call of
nature, and shall rejoice in the hour of imbecility and pain to devolve
it upon thee."
"I thought myself honoured by this testimony, and protested that
whatever could conduce to his happiness would add likewise to mine."
"Hear, Imlac, what thou wilt not without difficulty credit. I have
possessed for five years the regulation of weather, and the
distribution of the seasons: the sun has listened to my dictates, and
passed from tropick to tropick by my direction; the clouds, at my call,
have poured their waters, and the Nile has overflowed at my command; I
have restrained the rage of the dog-star, and mitigated the fervours of
the crab. The winds alone, of all the elemental powers, have hitherto
refused my authority, and multitudes have perished by equinoctial
tempests which I found myself unable to prohibit or restrain. I have
administered this great office with exact justice, and made to the
different nations of the earth an impartial dividend of rain and
sunshine. What must have been the misery of half the globe, if I had
limited the clouds to particular regions, or confined the sun to either
side of the equator?"
The opinion of the astronomer is explained and justified
"I SUPPOSE he discovered in me, through the obscurity of
the room, some tokens of amazement and doubt, for, after a short pause,
he proceeded thus:
"Not to be easily credited will neither surprise nor offend me; for
I am, probably, the first of human beings to whom this trust has been
imparted. Nor do I know whether to deem this distinction as reward or
punishment; since I have possessed it I have been far less happy than
before, and nothing but the consciousness of good intention could have
enabled me to support the weariness of unremitted vigilance."
"How long, Sir, said I, has this great office been in your hands?"
"About ten years ago, said he, my daily observations of the changes
of the sky led me to consider, whether, if I had the power of the
seasons, I could confer greater plenty upon the inhabitants of the
earth. This contemplation fastened on my mind, and I sat days and
nights in imaginary dominion, pouring upon this country and that the
showers of fertility, and seconding every fall of rain with a due
proportion of sunshine. I had yet only the will to do good, and did not
imagine that I should ever have the power.
"One day as I was looking on the fields withering with heat, I felt
in my mind a sudden wish that I could send rain on the southern
mountains, and raise the Nile to an inundation. In the hurry of my
imagination I commanded rain to fall, and, by comparing the time of my
command, with that of the inundation, I found that the clouds had
listened to my lips."
"Might not some other cause, said I, produce this concurrence? the
Nile does not always rise on the same day."
"Do not believe, said he with impatience, that such objections
could escape me: I reasoned long against my own conviction, and
laboured against truth with the utmost obstinacy. I sometimes
suspected myself of madness, and should not have dared to impart this
secret but to a man like you, capable of distinguishing the wonderful
from the impossible, and the incredible from the false."
"Why, Sir, said I, do you call that incredible, which you know, or
think you know, to be true?"
"Because, said he, I cannot prove it by any external evidence; and
I know too well the laws of demonstration to think that my conviction
ought to influence another, who cannot, like me, be conscious of its
force. I, therefore, shall not attempt to gain credit by disputation.
It is sufficient that I feel this power, that I have long possessed,
and every day exerted it. But the life of man is short, the infirmities
of age increase upon me, and the time will soon come when the regulator
of the year must mingle with the dust. The care of appointing a
successor has long disturbed me; the night and the day have been spent
in comparisons of all the characters which have come to my knowledge,
and I have yet found none so worthy as thyself.
The astronomer leaves Imlac his directions
"Hear therefore, what I shall impart, with attention, such as the
welfare of a world requires. If the task of a king be considered as
difficult, who has the care only of a few millions, to whom he cannot
do much good or harm, what must be the anxiety of him, on whom depend
the action of the elements, and the great gifts of light and heat" —
Hear me therefore with attention.
"I have diligently considered the position of the earth and sun,
and formed innumerable schemes in which I changed their situation. I
have sometimes turned aside the axis of the earth, and sometimes varied
the ecliptick of the sun: but I have found it impossible to make a
disposition by which the world may be advantaged; what one region
gains, another loses by any imaginable alteration, even without
considering the distant parts of the solar system with which we are
unacquainted. Do not, therefore, in thy administration of the year,
indulge thy pride by innovation; do not please thyself with thinking
that thou canst make thyself renowned to all future ages, by
disordering the seasons. The memory of mischief is no desirable fame.
Much less will it become thee to let kindness or interest prevail.
Never rob other countries of rain to pour it on thine own. For us the
Nile is sufficient.
"I promised that when I possessed the power, I would use it with
inflexible integrity, and he dismissed me, pressing my hand. My heart,
said he, will be now at rest, and my benevolence will no more destroy
my quiet: I have found a man of wisdom and virtue, to whom I can
chearfully bequeath the inheritance of the sun."
The prince heard this narration with very serious regard, but the
princess smiled, and Pekuah convulsed herself with laughter. " Ladies,
said Imlac, to mock the heaviest of human afflictions is neither
charitable nor wise. Few can attain this man's knowledge, and few
practise his virtues; but all may suffer his calamity. Of the
uncertainties of our present state, the most dreadful and alarming is
the uncertain continuance of reason."
The princess was recollected, and the favourite was abashed.
Rasselas, more deeply affected, enquired of Imlac, whether he thought
such maladies of the mind frequent, and how they were contracted.
The dangerous prevalence of imagination
"Disorders of intellect, answered Imlac, happen much more often than
superficial observers will easily believe. Perhaps, if we speak with
rigorous exactness, no human mind is in its right state. There is no
man whose imagination does not sometimes predominate over his reason,
who can regulate his attention wholly by his will, and whose ideas will
come and go at his command. No man will be found in whose mind airy
notions do not sometimes tyrannise, and force him to hope or fear
beyond the limits of sober probability. All power of fancy over reason
is a degree of insanity; but while this power is such as we can
controll and repress, it is not visible to others, nor considered as
any depravation of the mental faculties: it is not pronounced madness
but when it comes ungovernable, and apparently influences speech or
"To indulge the power of fiction, and send imagination out upon the
wing, is often the sport of those who delight too much in silent
speculation. When we are alone we are not always busy; the labour of
excogitation is too violent to last long; the ardour of enquiry will
sometimes give way to idleness or satiety. He who has nothing external
that can divert him, must find pleasure in his own thoughts, and must
conceive himself what he is not; for who is pleased with what he is? He
then expatiates in boundless futurity, and culls from all imaginable
conditions that which for the present moment he should most desire,
amuses his desires with impossible enjoyments, and confers upon his
pride unattainable dominion. The mind dances from scene to scene,
unites all pleasures in all combinations, and riots in delights which
nature and fortune, with all their bounty, cannot bestow.
In time some particular train of ideas fixes the attention, all
other intellectual gratifications are rejected, the mind, in weariness
or leisure, recurs constantly to the favourite conception, and feasts
on the luscious falsehood whenever she is offended with the bitterness
of truth. By degrees the reign of fancy is confirmed; she grows first
imperious, and in time despotick. Then fictions begin to operate as
realities, false opinions fasten upon the mind, and life passes in
dreams of rapture or of anguish.
"This, Sir, is one of the dangers of solitude, which the hermit has
confessed not always to promote goodness, and the astronomer's misery
has proved to be not always propitious to wisdom."
"I will no more, said the favourite, imagine myself the queen of
Abissinia. I have often spent the hours, which the princess gave to my
own disposal, in adjusting ceremonies and regulating the court; I have
repressed the pride of the powerful, and granted the petitions of the
poor; I have built new palaces in more happy situations, planted groves
upon the tops of mountains, and have exulted in the beneficence of
royalty, till, when the princess entered, I had almost forgotten to bow
down before her."
"And I, said the princess, will not allow myself any more to play
the shepherdess in my waking dreams. I have often soothed my thoughts
with the quiet and innocence of pastoral employments, till I have in my
chamber heard the winds whistle, and the sheep bleat; sometimes freed
the lamb entangled in the thicket, and sometimes with my crook
encountered the wolf. I have a dress like that of the village maids,
which I put on to help my imagination, and a pipe on which I play
softly, and suppose myself followed by my flocks."
"I will confess, said the prince, an indulgence of fantastick
delight more dangerous than yours. I have frequently endeavoured to
image the possibility of a perfect government, by which all wrong
should be restrained, all vice reformed, and all the subjects preserved
in tranquility and innocence. This thought produced innumerable schemes
of reformation, and dictated many useful regulations and salutary
edicts. This has been the sport and sometimes the labour of my
solitude; and I start, when I think with how little anguish I once
supposed the death of my father and my brothers."
"Such, says Imlac, are the effects of visionary schemes: when we
first form them we know them to be absurd, but familiarise them by
degrees, and in time lose sight of their folly."
They discourse with an old man
evening was now far past, and they rose to return home. As they walked
along the bank of the Nile, delighted with the beams of the moon
quivering on the water, they saw at a small distance an old man, whom
the prince had often heard in the assembly of the sages. "Yonder, said
he, is one whose years have calmed his passions, but not clouded his
reason: let us close the disquisitions of the night, by enquiring what
are his sentiment's of his own state, that we may know whether youth
alone is to struggle with vexation, and whether any better hope remains
for the latter part of life." Here the sage approached and saluted
them. They invited him to join their walk, and prattled a while as
acquaintance that had unexpectedly met one another. The old man was
chearful and talkative, and the way seemed short in his company. He was
pleased to find himself not disregarded, accompanied them to their
house, and, at the prince's request, entered with them. They placed him
in the seat of honour, and set wine and conserves before him. "Sir,
said the princess, an evening walk must give to a man of learning, like
you, pleasures which ignorance and youth can hardly conceive. You know
the qualities and the causes of all that you behold, the laws by which
the river flows, the periods in which the planets perform their
revolutions. Every thing must supply you with contemplation, and renew
the consciousness of your own dignity."
"Lady, answered he, let the gay and the vigorous expect pleasure in
their excursions, it is enough that age can obtain ease. To me the
world has lost its novelty: I look round, and see what I remember to
have seen in happier days. I rest against a tree, and consider, that in
the same shade I once disputed upon the annual overflow of the Nile
with a friend who is now silent in the grave. I cast my eyes upwards,
fix them on the changing moon, and think with pain on the vicissitudes
of life. I have ceased to take much delight in physical truth; for what
have I to do with those things which I am soon to leave?"
"You may at least recreate yourself, said Imlac, with the
recollection of an honourable and useful life, and enjoy the praise
which all agree to give you."
"Praise, said the sage, with a sigh, is to an old man an empty
sound. I have neither mother to be delighted with the reputation of her
son, nor wife to partake the honours of her husband. I have outlived my
friends and my rivals. Nothing is now of much importance; for I cannot
extend my interest beyond myself. Youth is delighted with applause,
because it is considered as the earnest of some future good, and
because the prospect of life is far extended: but to me, who am now
declining to decrepitude, there is little to be feared from the
malevolence of men, and yet less to be hoped from their affection or
esteem. Something they may yet take away, but they can give me nothing.
Riches would now be useless, and high employment would be pain. My
retrospect of life recalls to my view many opportunities of good
neglected, much time squandered upon trifles, and more lost in idleness
and vacancy. I leave many great designs unattempted, and many great
attempts unfinished. My mind is burthened with no heavy crime, and
therefore I compose myself to tranquility; endeavour to abstract my
thoughts from hopes and cares, which, though reason knows them to be
vain, still try to keep their old possession of the heart; expect, with
serene humility, that hour which nature cannot long delay; and hope to
possess in a better state that happiness which here I could not find,
and that virtue which here I have not attained."
He rose and went away, leaving his audience not much elated with
the hope of long life. The prince consoled himself with remarking, that
it was not reasonable to be disappointed by this account; for age had
never been considered as the season of felicity, and, if it was
possible to be easy in decline and weakness, it was likely that the
days of vigour and alacrity might be happy: that the moon of life might
be bright, if the evening could be calm.
The princess suspected that age was querulous and malignant, and
delighted to repress the expectations of those who had newly entered
the world. She had seen the possessors of , estates look with envy on
their heirs, and known many who enjoy pleasure no longer than they can
confine it to themselves.
Pekuah conjectured, that the man was older than he appeared, and
was willing to impute his complaints to delirious dejection; or else
supposed that he had been unfortunate, and was therefore discontented:
"For nothing, said she, is more common than to call our own condition,
the condition of life."
Imlac, who had no desire to see them depressed, smiled at the
comforts which they could so readily procure to themselves, and
remembered, that at the same age, he was equally confident of unmingled
prosperity, and equally fertile of consolatory expedients. He forbore
to force upon them unwelcome knowledge, which time itself would too
soon impress. The princess and her lady retired; the madness of the
astronomer hung upon their minds, and they desired Imlac to enter upon
his office, and delay next morning the rising of the sun.
The princess and Pekuah visit the astronomer
The princess and Pekuah having talked in private of Imlac's
astronomer, thought his character at once so amiable and so strange,
that they could not be satisfied without a nearer knowledge, and Imlac
was requested to find the means of bringing them together. This was
somewhat difficult; the philosopher had never received any visits from
women, though he lived in a city that had in it many Europeans who
followed the manners of their own countries, and many from other parts
of the world that lived there with European liberty. The ladies would
not be refused, and several schemes were proposed for the
accomplishment of their design. It was proposed to introduce them as
strangers in distress, to whom the sage was always accessible; but,
after some deliberation, it appeared, that by this artifice, no
acquaintance could be formed, for their conversation would be short,
and they could not decently importune him often." This, said Rasselas,
is true; but I have yet a stronger objection against the
misrepresentation of your state. I have always considered it as treason
against the great republick of human nature, to make any man's virtues
the means of deceiving him, whether on great or little occasions. All
imposture weakens confidence and chills benevolence. When the sage
finds that you are not what you seemed, he will feel the resentment
natural to a man who, conscious of great abilities, discovers that he
has been tricked by understandings meaner than his own, and, perhaps,
the distrust, which he can never afterwards wholly lay aside, may stop
the voice of counsel, and close the hand of charity; and where will you
find the power of restoring his benefactions to mankind, or his peace
To this no reply was attempted, and Imlac began to hope that their
curiosity would subside; but, next day, Pekuah told him, she had now
found an honest pretence for a visit to the astronomer, for she would
solicite permission to continue under him the studies in which she had
been initiated by the Arab, and the princess might go with her either
as a fellow-student, or because a woman could not decently come alone.
I am afraid, said Imlac, that he will be soon weary of your company:
men advanced far in knowledge do not love to repeat the elements of
their art, and I am not certain that even of the elements, as he will
deliver them connected with inferences, and mingled with reflections,
you are a very capable auditress." "That, said Pekuah, must be my care:
I ask of you only to take me thither. My knowledge is, perhaps, more
than you imagine it, and by concurring always with his opinions I shall
make him think it greater than it is."
The astronomer, in pursuance of this resolution, was told, that a
foreign lady, travelling in search of knowledge, had heard of his
reputation, and was desirous to become his scholar. The uncommonness of
the proposal raised at once his surprize and curiosity, and when, after
a short deliberation, he consented to admit her, he could not stay
without impatience till the next day.
The ladies dressed themselves magnificently, and were attended by
Imlac to the astronomer, who was pleased to see himself approached with
respect by persons of so splendid an appearance. In the exchange of the
first civilities he was timorous and bashful; but when the talk became
regular, he recollected his powers, and justified the character which
Imlac had given. Enquiring of Pekuah what could have turned her
inclination towards astronomy, he received from her a history of her
adventure at the pyramid, and of the time passed in the Arab's island.
She told her tale with ease and elegance, and her conversation took
possession of his heart. The discourse was then turned to astronomy:
Pekuah displayed what she knew: he looked upon her as a prodigy of
genius, and intreated her not to desist from a study which she had so
They came again and again, and were every time more welcome than
before. The sage endeavoured to amuse them, that they might prolong
their visits, for he found his thoughts grow brighter in their company;
the clouds of solicitude vanished by degrees, as he forced himself to
entertain them, and he grieved when he was left at their departure to
his old employment of regulating the seasons.
The princess and her favourite had now watched his lips for several
months, and could not catch a single word from which they could judge
whether he continued, or not, in the opinion of his preternatural
commission. They often contrived to bring him to an open declaration,
but he easily eluded all their attacks, and on which side soever they
pressed him escaped from them to some other topick.
As their familiarity increased they invited him often to the house
of Imlac, where they distinguished him by extraordinary respect. He
began gradually to delight in sublunary pleasures. He came early and
departed late; laboured to recommend himself by assiduity and
compliance; excited their curiosity after new arts, that they might
still want his assistance; and when they made any excursion of pleasure
or enquiry, entreated to attend them.
By long experience of his integrity and wisdom, the prince and his
sister were convinced that he might be trusted without danger; and lest
he should draw any false hopes from the civilities which he received,
discovered to him their condition with the motives of their journey,
and required his opinion on the choice of life.
"Of the various conditions which the world spreads before you,
which you shall prefer, said the sage, I am not able to instruct you. I
can only tell that I have chosen wrong. 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 expence of all the common comforts of life: I have
missed the endearing elegance of female friendship, and the happy
commerce of domestick tenderness. If I have obtained any prerogatives
above other students, they have been accompanied with fear, disquiet,
and scrupulosity; but even of these prerogatives, whatever they were, I
have, since my thoughts have been diversified by more intercourse with
the world, begun to question the reality. When I have been for a few
days lost in pleasing dissipation, I am always tempted to think that my
enquiries have ended in errour, and that I have suffered much, and
suffered it in vain."
Imlac was delighted to find that the sage's understanding was
breaking through its mists, and resolved to detain him from the planets
till he should forget his task of ruling them, and reason should
recover its original influence.
From this time the astronomer was received into familiar
friendship, and partook of all their projects and pleasures: his
respect kept him attentive, and the activity of Rasselas did not leave
much time unengaged. Something was always to be done; the day was spent
in making observations which furnished talk for the evening, and the
evening was closed with a scheme for the morrow.
The sage confessed to Imlac, that since he had mingled in the gay
tumults of life, and divided his hours by a succession of amusements,
he found the conviction of his authority over the skies fade gradually
from his mind, and began to trust less to an opinion which he never
could prove to others, and which he now found subject to variation from
causes in which reason had no part. "If I am accidentally left alone
for a few hours, said he, my inveterate persuasion rushes upon my soul,
and my thoughts are chained down by some irresistible violence, but
they are soon disentangled by the prince's conversation, and
instantaneously released at the entrance of Pekuah. I am like a man
habitually afraid of spectres, who is set at ease by a lamp, and
wonders at the dread which harrassed him in the dark, yet, if his lamp
be extinguished, feels again the terrours which he knows that when it
is light he shall feel no more. But I am sometimes afraid lest I
indulge my quiet by criminal negligence, and voluntarily forget the
great charge with which I am intrusted. If I favour myself in a known
errour, or am determined by my own ease in a doubtful question of this
importance, how dreadful is my crime!"
"No disease of the imagination, answered Imlac, is so difficult of
cure, as that which is complicated with the dread of guilt: fancy and
conscience then act interchangeably upon us, and so often shift their
places, that the illusions of one are not distinguished from the
dictates of the other. If fancy presents images not moral or religious,
the mind drives them away when they give it pain, but when melancholick
notions take the form of duty, they lay hold on the faculties without
opposition, because we are afraid to exclude or banish them. For this
reason the superstitious are often melancholy, and the melancholy
almost always superstitious.
"But do not let the suggestions of timidity overpower your better
reason: the danger of neglect can be but as the probability of the
obligation, which when you consider it with freedom, you find very
little, and that little growing every day less. Open your heart to the
influence of the light which, from time to time, breaks in upon you:
when scruples importune you, which you in your lucid moments know to be
vain do not stand to parley but fly to business or to Pekuah, and keep
this thought always prevalent, that you are only one atom of the mass
of humanity, and have neither such virtue nor vice, as that you should
be singled out for supernatural favours or afflictions."
The prince enters and brings a new topick
"All this, said the astronomer, I have often thought, but my reason
has been so long subjugated by an uncontrolable and overwhelming idea,
that it durst not confide in its own decisions. I now see how fatally I
betrayed my quiet, by suffering chimeras to prey upon me in secret; but
melancholy shrinks from communication, and I never found a man before,
to whom I could impart my troubles, though I had been certain of
relief. I rejoice to find my own sentiments confirmed by yours, who are
not easily deceived, and can have no motive or purpose to deceive. I
hope that time and variety will dissipate the gloom that has so long
surrounded me, and the latter part of my days will be spent in peace."
"Your learning and virtue, said Imlac, may justly give you hopes."
Rasselas then entered with the princess and Pekuah, and enquired
whether they had contrived any new diversion for the next day. " Such,
said Nekayah, is the state of life, that none are happy but by the
anticipation of change: the change itself is nothing; when we have made
it, the next wish is to change again. The world is not yet exhausted;
let me see something to morrow which I never saw before."
"Variety, said Rasselas, is so necessary to content, that even the
happy valley disgusted me by the recurrence of its luxuries; yet I
could not forbear to reproach myself with impatience, when I saw the
monks of St. Anthony support without complaint, a life, not of uniform
delight, but uniform hardship."
"Those men, answered Imlac, are less wretched in their silent
convent than the Abissinian princes in their prison of pleasure.
Whatever is done by the monks is incited by an adequate and reasonable
motive. Their labour supplies them with necessaries; it therefore
cannot be omitted, and is certainly rewarded. Their devotion prepares
them for another state, and reminds them of its approach, while it fits
them for it. Their time is regularly distributed; one duty succeeds
another, so that they are not left open to the distraction of unguided
choice, nor lost in the shades of listless inactivity, There is a
certain task to be performed at an appropriated hour; and their toils
are cheerful, because they consider them as acts of piety, by which
they are always advancing towards endless felicity."
"Do you think, said Nekayah, that the monastick rule is a more holy
and less imperfect state than any other? May not he equally hope for
future happiness who converses openly with mankind, who succours the
distressed by his charity, instructs the ignorant by his learning, and
contributes by his industry to the general system of life; even though
he should omit some of the mortifications which are practised in the
cloister, and allow himself such harmless delights as his condition may
place within his reach?"
"This, said Imlac, is a question which has long divided the wise,
and perplexed the good. I am afraid to decide on either part. He that
lives well in the world is better than he that lives well in a
monastery. But, perhaps, every one is not able to stem the temptations
of publick life; and, if he cannot conquer, he may properly retreat.
Some have little power to do good, and have likewise little strength to
resist evil. Many weary of their conflicts with adversity, and are
willing to eject those passions which have long busied them in vain.
And many are dismissed by age and diseases from the more laborious
duties of society. In monasteries the weak and timorous may be happily
sheltered, the weary may repose, and the penitent may meditate. Those
retreats of prayer and contemplation have something so congenial to the
mind of man that, perhaps, there is scarcely one that does not purpose
to close his life in pious abstraction with a few associates serious as
"Such, said Pekuah, has often been my wish, and I have heard the
princess declare, that she should not willingly die in a croud."
"The liberty of using harmless pleasures, proceeded Imlac, will not
be disputed; but it is still to be examined what pleasures are
harmless. The evil of any pleasure that Nekayah can image is not in the
act itself, but in its consequences. Pleasure, in itself harmless, may
become mischievous, by endearing to us a state which we know to be
transient and probatory, and withdrawing our thoughts from that, of
which every hour brings us nearer to the beginning, and of which no
length of time will bring us to the end. Mortification is not virtuous
in itself, nor has any other use, but that it disengages us from the
allurements of sense. In the state of future perfection, to which we
all aspire, there will be pleasure without danger, and security without
The princess was silent, and Rasselas, turning to the astronomer,
asked him, whether he could not delay her retreat, by shewing her
something which she had not seen before.
"Your curiosity, said the sage, has been so general, and your
pursuit of knowledge so vigorous, that novelties are not now very
easily to be found: but what you can no longer procure from the living
may be given by the dead. Among the wonders of this country are the
catacombs, or the ancient repositories, in which the bodies of the
earliest generations were lodged, and where, by the virtue of the gums
which embalmed them, they yet remain without corruption."
"I know not, said Rasselas, what pleasure the sight of the
catacombs can afford; but, since nothing else is offered, I am resolved
to view them, and shall place this with many other things which I have
done, because I would do something."
They hired a guard of horsemen, and the next day visited the
catacombs. When they were about to descend into the sepulchral caves,
"Pekuah, said the princess, we are now again invading the habitations
of the dead; I know that you will stay behind; let me find you safe
when I return." "No, I will not be left, answered Pekuah; I will go
down between you and the prince."
They then all descended, and roved with wonder through the
labyrinth of subterraneous passages, where the bodies were laid in rows
on either side.
Imlac discourses on the nature of the soul
"What reason, said the prince, can be given, why the Egyptians should
thus expensively preserve those carcasses which some nations consume
with fire, others lay to mingle with the earth, and all agree to remove
from their sight, as soon as decent rites can be performed?"
"The original of ancient customs, said Imlac, is commonly unknown;
for the practice often continues when the cause has ceased; and
concerning superstitious ceremonies it is vain to conjecture; for what
reason did not dictate reason cannot explain. I have long believed that
the practice of embalming arose only from tenderness to the remains of
relations or friends, and to this opinion I am more inclined, because
it seems impossible that this care should have been general: had all
the dead been embalmed, their repositories must in time have been more
spacious than the dwellings of the living. I suppose only the rich or
honourable were secured from corruption, and the rest left to the
course of nature.
"But it is commonly supposed that the Egyptians believed the soul
to live as long as the body continued undissolved and therefore tried
this method of eluding death."
"Could the wise Egyptians, said Nekayah, think so grossly of the
soul? If the soul could once survive its separation, what could it
afterwards receive or suffer from the body?"
"The Egyptians would doubtless think erroneously, said the
astronomer, in the darkness of heathenism, and the first dawn of
philosophy. The nature of the soul is still disputed amidst all our
opportunities of clearer knowledge: some yet say that it may be
material, who, nevertheless, believe it to be immortal."
"Some, answered Imlac, have indeed said that the soul is material,
but I can scarcely believe that any man has thought it, who knew how to
think; for all the conclusions of reason enforce the immateriality of
mind, and all the notices of sense and investigations of science concur
to prove the unconsciousness of matter.
"It was never supposed that cogitation is inherent in matter, or
that every particle is a thinking being. Yet, if any part of matter be
devoid of thought, what part can we suppose to think? Matter can differ
from matter only in form, density, bulk, motion, and direction of
motion: to which of these, however varied or combined, can
consciousness be annexed? To be round or square, to be solid or fluid,
to be great or little, to be moved slowly or swiftly one way or
another, are modes of material existence, all equally alien from the
nature of cogitation. If matter be once without thought, it can only be
made to think by some new modification, but all the modifications which
it can admit are equally unconnected with cogitative powers."
"But the materialists, said the astronomer, urge that matter may
have qualities with which we are unacquainted."
"He who will determine, returned Imlac, against that which he
knows, because there may be something which he knows not; he that can
set hypothetical possibility against acknowledged certainty, is not to
be admitted among reasonable beings. All that we know of matter is,
that matter is inert, senseless and lifeless; and if this conviction
cannot be opposed but by referring us to something that we know not, we
have all the evidence that human intellect can admit. If that which is
known may be over-ruled by that which is unknown, no being, not
omniscient, can arrive at certainty."
"Yet let us not, said the astronomer, too arrogantly limit the
"It is no limitation of omnipotence, replied the poet, to suppose
that one thing is not consistent with another, that the same
proposition cannot be at once true and false, that the same number
cannot be even and odd, that cogitation cannot be conferred on that
which is created incapable of cogitation."
"I know not, said Nekayah, any great use of this question. Does
that immateriality, which, in my opinion, you have sufficiently proved,
necessarily include eternal duration?
"Of immateriality, said Imlac, our ideas are negative, and
therefore obscure. Immateriality seems to imply a natural power of
perpetual duration as a consequence of exemption from all causes of
decay: whatever perishes, is destroyed by the solution of its
contexture, and separation of its parts; nor can we conceive how that
which has no parts, and therefore admits no solution, can be naturally
corrupted or impaired."
"I know not, said Rasselas, how to conceive any thing without
extension: what is extended must have parts, and you allow, that
whatever has parts may be destroyed."
"Consider your own conceptions, replied Imlac, and the difficulty
will be less. You will find substance without extension. An ideal form
is no less real than material bulk: yet an ideal form has no extension.
It is no less certain, when you think on a pyramid, that your mind
possesses the idea of a pyramid, than that the pyramid itself is
standing. What space does the idea of a pyramid occupy more than the
idea of a grain of corn? or how can either idea suffer laceration? As
is the effect such is the cause; as thought is, such is the power that
thinks; a power impassive and indiscerpible."
"But the Being, said Nekayah, whom I fear to name, the Being which
made the soul, can destroy it."
"He, surely, can destroy it, answered Imlac, since, however
unperishable, it receives from a superiour nature its power of
duration. That it will not perish by any inherent cause of decay, or
principle of corruption, may be shown by philosophy; but philosophy can
tell no more. That it will not be annihilated by him that made it, we
must humbly learn from higher authority."
The whole assembly stood a while silent and collected. "Let us
return, said Rasselas, from this scene of mortality. How gloomy would
be these mansions of the dead to him who did not know that he shall
never die; that what now acts shall continue its agency, and what now
thinks shall think on for ever. Those that lie here stretched before
us, the wise and the powerful of antient times, warn us to remember the
shortness of our present state; they were, perhaps, snatched away while
they were busy, like us, in the choice of life."
"To me, said the princess, the choice of life is become less
important; I hope hereafter to think only on the choice of eternity."
They then hastened out of the caverns, and, under the protection of
their guard, returned to Cairo.
The conclusion, in which nothing is concluded
It was now the time of the inundation of the Nile: a few days after
their visit to the catacombs, the river began to rise.
They were confined to their house. The whole region being under
water gave them no invitation to any excursions, and, being well
supplied with materials for talk, they diverted themselves with
comparisons of the different forms of life which they had observed, and
with various schemes of happiness which each of them had formed.
Pekuah was never so much charmed with any place as the convent of
St. Anthony, where the Arab restored her to the princess, and wished
only to fill it with pious maidens, and to be made prioress of the
order: she was weary of expectation and disgust, and would gladly be
fixed in some unvariable state.
"The princess thought, that of all sublunary things, knowledge was
the best: She desired first to learn all sciences, and then purposed to
found a college of learned women, in which she would preside, that, by
conversing with the old, and educating the young, she might divide her
time between the acquisition and communication of wisdom, and raise up
for the next age models of prudence, and patterns of piety.
The prince desired a little kingdom, in which he might administer
justice in his own person, and see all the parts of government with his
own eyes; but he could never fix the limits of his dominion, and was
always adding to the number of his subjects.
Imlac and the astronomer were contented to be driven along the
stream of life without directing their course to any particular port.
Of these wishes that they had formed they well knew that none could
be obtained. They deliberated a while what was to be done, and
resolved, when the inundation should cease, to return to Abissinia.