Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, by Samuel Johnson

Chapter XVI

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 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 shall see all the conditions of humanity, and enable yourselves 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 streets, 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 time continued in her chamber, where she was served by her favourite Pekuah, as in the palace of the valley.

Imlac, who understood traffic, 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 acquaintances, and his generosity made him courted by many dependants. 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 an 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 anything 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 now being 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 really happy. Wherever he went he met gaiety 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 awhile 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 cheerful, 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 sprightliness of air and volatility of fancy as might have suited beings of a higher order, formed to inhabit serener regions, inaccessible to care or sorrow; yet, believe me, Prince, was there 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 the 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.”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38