Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia
Samuel Johnson

Part 3 out of 3

"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

"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

"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 he 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 overruled by that which is
unknown, no being, not omniscient, can arrive at certainty."

"Yet let us not," said the astronomer, "too arrogantly limit the
Creator's power."

"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 anything 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, such is the power that thinks, a power impassive and

"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
imperishable, it receives from a superior 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 awhile 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
should 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 ancient 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

"To me," said the Princess, "the choice of life is become less
important; I hope hereafter to think only on the choice of

They then hastened out of the caverns, and under the protection of
their guard returned to Cairo.


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

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
proposed 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

Of those wishes that they had formed they well knew that none could
be obtained. They deliberated awhile what was to be done, and
resolved, when the inundation should cease, to return to Abyssinia.


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