SummaryPrince Rasselas searches for the best way to live. When there are too many valid options, how does one decide? Dr. Kalpakgian provides the prince’s answer.
Throughout the course of a lifetime a person makes many decisions, some in which the best choice is self-evident, others in which it is premature to decide because more information or more reflection is needed, and yet others in which the two options show no marked, vital difference—neither of them perfect or the best.
So often the choices are not the optimal ones and leave something to be desired. While everyone naturally seeks to make the best choice that achieves the goal or attains the ideal perfectly, often a person must accept the better of two alternatives and resign himself to “the art of the possible.”
This decision does not mean that someone has settled for mediocrity or lowered standards to settle for the lowest common denominator. Rather it is the best decision a person can make in the actual circumstances that surround the situation based on the knowledge and wisdom available.
Rasselas, the young prince in Dr. Johnson’s The History of Rasselas Prince of Abyssinia, seeks to make his “choice of life,” meaning a way of living in a certain place or in a certain profession or a particular society that promises him the greatest source of happiness.
After his travels to big cities like Cairo and to the pastoral countrysides of shepherds, after his conversations with the learned and the ignorant, and after his observations of both the married and the unmarried and the rich and the poor, the prince finds no clear answer to his question.
Rasselas finds it difficult to make his choice because every walk of life and every theory of happiness has its disappointments and imperfections. He finds the rich suspicious of robbers and fearful of danger to their lives and possessions, and he sees the surly discontentment and envy of the poor. He notices loneliness in the solitary hermit, and he confronts the many arguments in family life that disturb domestic harmony.
He observes the superficial pleasure and empty lives of the young men of Cairo who follow the Epicurean philosophy of hedonism (“Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”), and he notices the learned Stoic unable to practice what he preaches when he counsels indifference to pleasure and pain and disdain for the vicissitudes of fortune.
No one person he encounters lives in perfect happiness. No one philosophy offers perfect knowledge about the best “choice of life,” neither Epicureanism, Stoicism, the pastoral life, domestic bliss, or the idea of wealth as the highest good.
The prince has come to the end of his journey and gathered many ideas and impressions to determine his “choice of life,” and he realizes that the time has come for a final answer. Imlac, a sage, gives Rasselas the wisest counsel: “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 spring: no man can, at the same time, fill his cup from the source and from the mouth of the Nile.”
The art of the possible, then, makes the best possible choice according to the circumstances that surround the situation and the knowledge available. To paraphrase Cardinal Newman, a person can only make decisions according to the best lights he has and must trust that his best judgment is sound and wise for his particular situation.
No final choice ever seems perfect. A person cannot wait indefinitely or keep pondering the question forever with no solution in sight. For example, a person seeks a position in a warmer climate in the South but receives a better offer in North Dakota which he accepts.
A student has set his sights on admission to a favorite college of his choice but does not receive enough financial aid to make his education affordable—so he accepts the scholarship from the school of his second choice.
A family wishes to purchase a larger home to accommodate the growing family but must settle for a house with fewer rooms and a smaller yard to live according to their budget. The art of the possible cures the mind of utopian wishes and imaginary visions.
A person must live in the here and now and acknowledge the reality of limits. No one can be in two places at the same time or live in the present and future simultaneously. Rather than fantasize about the perfect, one must make practical decisions.
The decision based on the art of the possible is not a choice to regret or resent. It is the decision which makes the most common sense and the choice that leads to the most realistic solution. In Rasselas the prince and his sister Nekayah are debating the merits and imperfections of single life and married life.
Rasselas argues, “Marriage is the dictate of nature; men and women were made to be companions of one another, and therefore I cannot be persuaded but that marriage is one of the means of happiness.” On the contrary, Nekayah questions the idea of marriage as a chief source of happiness because she laments the constant arguments, conflicts of temperament, the opposing opinions, and the stubborn wills of family members.
She concludes that “marriage is rather permitted than approved” and considers it “one of the innumerable modes of human misery.”
However, Rasselas views marriage as the art of the possible rather than a state of absolute bliss, responding to his sister with prudent judgment: “Both conditions may be bad, but they cannot both be the worst.”
Some vital difference separates these two choices in their degrees of happiness, and to Rasselas marriage makes more sense: “You surely conclude too hastily from the infelicity of marriage against its institution . . . . The world must be peopled by marriage or peopled without it.” His comment recalls the earlier advice of the sage Imlac: “Of the blessings set before you, make your choice and be content.” Making the best decisions based on the available choices and their degrees of difference fosters peace of mind.
Rasselas, then, finally makes his choice of life based on these degrees of difference that increase a person’s chances for greater happiness—a reasonable portion of happiness, not some utopian existence.
He determines that an active life committed to some noble purpose rather than an idle existence with no pursuits, a life of learning rather than a state of ignorance, a social life rather than solitary seclusion, and a life of variety, stimulation, and change rather than a monotonous routine all afford greater opportunities for more happiness.
By his understanding of the art of the possible, the prince makes all these choices with no regrets or delusions. He can enjoy only what is humanly attainable and what conforms to the nature of reality. Neither cynically skeptical nor naively optimistic, Rasselas grasps the truth of the human condition and lives with no fantasies.
When a person lives in accordance with the truth about the mixed nature of human happiness and the human condition, he does not daydream about what the world cannot offer. Instead he accepts the limitations and disappointments that inevitably affect every person’s life.
He does not expect hundreds or thousands of options but only enough to make a reasonably wise choice and live with it. Rasselas learns to apply Imlac’s advice and “be content”