Rasselas often attends a kind of a club for learned men. “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 he began. Some faults were almost general among them: every one was pleased to hear the genius or knowledge of another depreciated.” Except for more gender diversity, it’s as if Johnson had attended a lot of contemporary faculty meetings. He tells the men the story of the hermit. The opinions are mixed, some think he’s a hypocrite, others think a good citizen has no right to isolate himself from society. One of them says that he thinks the hermit in a few years is going to go back to his hermitage, and then in a few years he will be back in the world, because it’s human nature to always hope for happiness in the future and feel miserable in the present. Another answers at great length that a wise man can be happy now if he lives according to the inborn precepts of Nature, like animals which always live according to them. Rasselas asks him humbly what it means precisely to live according to Nature and the philosopher tells him it means “to co-operate with the general disposition and tendency of the present system of things” and a lot of similar hot air. Rasselas bows and stays silent, realizing that this man is “one of the sages whom he should understand less as he heard him longer”. The philosopher, in another of Johnson’s sly jokes, “rose up and departed with the air of a man that had co-operated with the present system.” After that Rasselas and his sister agree to divide the work between them: Rasselas is going to search for happiness at courts, while his sister is going to look for it in the middle class.
Rasselas and his friends approach the hermit’s cavern, which is in an idyllic and secluded spot. The princess observes he doesn’t look like a man who has found happiness. But he greets them politely and offers them food and lodging for the night. He serves them meat and wine, although he himself eats only fruit and water. (Which is not very logical – would you expect a vegetarian to keep meat at home, especially at home without a fridge, just in case an unexpected guest comes? But I guess Johnson didn’t bother about the details of running the household.) He seems like an ideal man, polite and pious, but not fanatic, and the princess thinks she judged him too harshly. Imlac tells him that his fame reached Cairo and Rasselas and his sister (fortunately he does mention her) hope to get from his advice about the choice of lie. The hermit says every form of life is good if lived well, and the only advice is to avoid evil. Rasselas thinks the surest way to avoid evil is to live like the hermit, but he denies it. In his previous life, he was a famous general who decided to give up his army life… no, not because he was tired of war, but because a younger officer was promoted over him. So he decided to retire to this cavern where he once had hidden from the enemies. At the beginning he enjoyed his new life, but soon grew bored of it. He found hobbies such as researching local plants and minerals, but grew bored of them too. Now he thinks that he removed himself from evil but also from any chance to exercise virtue, and while escaping the example of bad men, he also lost the advice of the good. So he finally made up his mind and decided to return to society. The travellers, somewhat surprised, offer to take him there. The next day he digs up his considerable treasure and goes back with them to Cairo, “on which, as he approached it, he gazed with rapture”/
Rasselas hears about a holy hermit living somewhere up the Nile and wants to go and meet him. Imlac and Rasselas’s sister decide to accompany him. On their way they pass through a country with many shepherds. Imlac tells his charges that pastoral life was often praised by poet as the ideal one, so they have a chance to check whether it is true. The shepherds in conversation turn out to be rude and malevolent people, oppressed by hard labour and envying those above them. The princess says she does not want to spend a moment longer with them, but she is still loath to think that all the poets were lying, so she imagines a Marie-Antoinette kind of pastoral project, where she would retire to a nice place with some of her BFFs (not that any have ever been mentioned). On their way, they seek shade in a wood and find that it is very well maintained, a kind of English park. They soon reach a palace, where they are greeted by the owner. He invites them and treats them very generously for a few days. Rasselas says that he must be the truly happy man, because not only he but also his servants are happy. Alas! the owner of the palace says that the Bassa (Pasha) of Egypt hates him and envies him his wealth. So far, he’s been protected by his powerful friends, but this can change any minute. He sent his riches to a distant country and he’s ready to abscond any minute, leaving his palace to the rapacious viceroy. All his guests are very sorry to hear that, the princess so much so that she has to retire to her room. The next day they are on their way.
The title of chapter 17, “The Prince Associates with Young Men of Spirits and Gaiety” is more promising than its contents. Yes, Rasselas does decide to sow his wild oats, but just a few days later he is “weary and disgusted”, and returns to virtuous life. Before he leaves, he preaches his friends a sermon about how this way of life is going to turn out very bad for them when they get older, but they only laugh at him. The next step in his education is when by chance he goes to see a certain philosopher teaching at his school. The philosopher’s teachings are basically a version of stoicism – he teaches how one should not be governed by passions, but only by reason. Rasselas loves this and after his lecture he approaches him, asking for a permission to visit him at home. The philosopher first hesitates, but when Rasselas drops a purse of gold into his hand, he agrees. Rasselas comes back home and is all elated about how he met the Best! Teacher! Ever!, although Imlac warns him that “the teachers of morality… discourse like angels, but they live like men”. After a few days Rasselas goes to see the philosopher, and when the servants don’t want to admit him, he again bribes his way in. The philosopher, as it turns out, is in mourning after the sudden loss of his daughter (maybe I’m mistaken, but I don’t think anybody would add with such ease “from whose tenderness I expected all the comforts of my age”, which makes it unpleasantly close to “I mourn her only because she was going to be my primary caregiver”). Rasselas, somewhat tactlessly, points out that according to his own teachings death happens to everyone, so there’s no point in getting emotional over the external things; only truth and reason are unchangeable and worth being attached to. What’s the good of truth and reason for me now, answers the unhappy father. Rasselas realizes it’s best to stop and goes home, “convinced of the emptiness of rhetorical sound”.
Imlac takes his young friends to Cairo because it’s a large cosmopolitan city, and thus it can give them a chance to become acquainted with all ways of living, helping Rasselas to make the choice of life (always written in italics). It’s actually only Rasselas who is mentioned here and I fear his sister, being a woman, doesn’t have much of a choice. They settle down in Cairo, and thanks to selling some of their jewels, they are able to lead a very prosperous lifestyle, naturally attracting a lot of attention and hangers-on. Imlac pretends to be a merchant and the others pretend to be a kind of tourists (or “strangers, who have no other end for travel than curiosity”). Their lack of knowledge of the local language prevents them from giving themselves away. They study the local language for two years and gradually mix about in society more and more. Rasselas one day makes the observation that a lot of people who spent too much time on Facebook make: why does everybody seem to be happy, but not me? Imlac advises him to judge by himself: if he is not happy, others are not, either, they are just pretending. Rasselas believes that still there are some ways of life more preferable than others, but Imlac tells him there are so many factors upon which our happiness depends, and so many of them beyond our control that there is really no guarantee; besides, few people actually have a chance to choose their lives, but it’s the accident of their birth which preordains their lives. Rasselas says that then he is happy he can determine it for himself.
Rasselas and his sister leave the palace of the nearest night of full moon (I’d rather pick the new moon, so that they could pass more easily in darknerss) with their jewels hidden in their clothes. The princess is accompanied by only one maidservant. When they get out, the princess says she is almost afraid of being out in the immense landscape open on all sides, and Rasselas feels the same, but doesn’t want to say it out loud in order not to appear unmanly. He and his sister find it difficult to adjust to the life outside the palace, where not every table is spread with delicacies and people do not prostrate on the ground when meeting them. But gradually Imlac manages to teach them the proper behaviour in the world where nobody knows they are a prince and a princess. They travel slowly, because they are not afraid of the pursuit (nobody can leave the valley, after all). They come to a port city and reside there a few months, getting used to living in the world before they are exposed to foreign customs. Finally Imlac, fearing they could be discovered, encourages them to board a ship to Suez, from which they proceed to Cairo.
Finally the escape! When the waters subside and Rasselas and Imlac can go on walks again, they observe some rabbits forced out from their holes by the flood and digging new ones. So Imlac advises they should dig a tunnel as well, The Great Escape-style. They find a good place after three days and start digging, Imlac invariably providing good advice, like that Rasselas shouldn’t become discouraged when they make little progress, or too happy when they find a fissure in the rock, because one shouldn’t believe in good or bad omens, but only in one’s hard work. One day Rasselas emerges from the tunnel to find his favourite sister Nekayah standing there. She tells him that she didn’t come here as a spy, but simply thought that the place where she saw her brother and Imlac go regularly, must be a nice one, and wanted to see it for herself. But now, when she knows what they are doing, she wants to join them, or if they don’t let her, she still intends to follow them. Rasselas gladly lets her join them and from that moment on Nekayah stands watch to distract anybody else who should come here. Finally they succeed and emerge on the other side of the mountains. Rasselas is so elated that he hardly wants to go back to pack his things; Imlac less so, since he knows the world.