Lecture on Robinson Crusoe

[The following is the text of a lecture delivered, in part, in LBST 302 in March 1996 by Ian Johnston at Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC (now Vancouver Island University). This text is in the public domain and may be used, in whole or in part, by anyone, provided the source is acknowledged, released October 2000]

For comments or questions, please contact Ian Johnston

A. Introduction

Today we are considering yet another story about an adventurer who ends up on an island for many years and then returns back home. We have already considered two other such stories, The Odyssey and The Tempest, and we are going on next week to read another, Gulliver's Travels. These four stories have another point in common: they are all unusually popular, both to adults and (often in a modified form) to children as well. There is something very appealing to the popular imagination about such narratives, and we don't have to be Liberal Studies students to recognize that.

Today, I'd like to suggest what these stories have in common and, in the process, to offer some reasons why this narrative form is so appealing. And then I'd like to apply some of those observations to Defoe's novel. My major purpose here, which will become apparent in a few moments, is to explore the vision of life (or at least some aspects of it) which this novel holds out to us and which is significantly different from the others, no matter how apparently similar the narrative form might be.

B. The Attractions of the Isolato Adventurer

Very simply put, these four stories have a similar general narrative structure which goes something like this: (a) a member of a sophisticated European society is accidentally cast adrift into the wilderness, where everything is unfamiliar and there are no apparent aids of normal society and no familiar social group around him; (b) the hero must adjust to this strange environment, find some means of coping with the physical and the psychological dislocation; (c) the hero must find a way off the island, and (d) the hero must reintegrate himself into the European society from which he unwillingly was alienated.

The casting adrift can happen in any number of ways. Typically it is the result of a shipwreck, a mutiny, or a misadventure of some kind. Adapting to the new environment may or may not involve adjusting to the people who live there. It almost always will require the hero to cope with a very different vision of nature, and he will be forced to confront the fact that in this place things run very differently from what he is used to and that the conventional resources he relies on to cope with life are not available. This, in turn, may produce all sorts of reflections or changes in the normal routine of the hero (because he will be forced to confront situations and ideas he would never run into in normal society).

Once he returns back to the society from which he originated, the hero faces the problem of reintegrating into a society he once took more or less for granted, but which he now, as a result of his experience, has to see from a new perspective. Such reintegration may reveal a number of things. For example, the original vision of society which he brought to the island may be confirmed in some way (e.g., perhaps Odysseus), so that in his adventures he has discovered the value of customary civilization in a new way. Alternatively he may have significantly changed in some way and is now prepared to enter society with a more mature attitude towards what is really important in life (e.g., Prospero). A third possibility might be that he has great difficulty now accepting the society he left because he has for better or worse fundamentally altered his understanding of what really matters and is now, to a greater or lesser extent, a stranger in his own land (e.g., the person returning from the cave in Plato's famous allegory or Gulliver, who has developed a strong critical sense to things which before the travel experience he endorsed unreflectingly). In some cases he may be so transformed in the wilderness that he does not want to return (e.g., Gulliver) and remains permanently estranged from the society he left or else has to be dragged protesting back to civilization.

One major source of interest in such stories, naturally, is the way in which the hero copes with the very different physical world in which he finds himself. He brings to the island certain attitudes, certain perceptions, certain skills—things we are familiar with—all of which have enabled him to cope more or less successfully in the civilized world. These, together with his character, are now exposed and tested as never before, for he has no habitual group to keep him in constant touch with the communal resources and values which have hitherto been an important, if unacknowledged, aid, and he is, in all elements of daily living, thrown onto his own resources as an individual having to live without the customary social support.

This situation arouses interest on a number of levels. The first one is, quite simply, the pleasure we take in the mechanical details of coping in a strange place without the customary assistance we are used to. In a wilderness or in a magic island or in a land of pygmies or giants, how does one cope with the everyday realities of life: food, shelter, going to the toilet, keeping warm, interacting with other forms of life on the island, whether they are wild animals like snakes and goats or wild people like Polyphemus and Caliban or tempting, delightful creatures like Calypso and Ariel. When the hero has to deal with familiar problems in a transformed environment, obvious issues arise in ways that can be amusing, terrifying, puzzling, shocking, and so on (e.g., Gulliver's problems about how to relieve himself in a world where he is so much larger than everyone else). We take a natural delight in exploring the everyday problems of different worlds, especially seen, as these stories present them, in direct juxtaposition with our own.

But there's a deeper interest, too. For such a story, if the characterization and the depiction of detail are at all well done, inevitably brings to the surface conflicts of value. The hero has to make unusual choices which would not be presented to him in such a stark fashion, if at all, back home. For he is free in a way that none of us is in traditional society (there is no conventional crowd around to judge his conduct), and he faces unusual challenges. He has to decide how to deal with the situation, how to spend his time, how to organize an unexpected set of possibilities. In other words, the isolato has to discover who he is. He may be quite certain of that when he arrives, but his conception of what matters in life—his moral system—is going to come under pressure as never before. And the process of making these decisions will often (perhaps inevitably) educate him about what really matters and what does not.

Thus, adventures with isolatos are, or can easily become, an exploration of moral values forced into the awareness of the hero by an unusual circumstance. And this development brings with it inevitably a criticism or a confirmation of the social values (or some of them) of the society of which he is a representative, whose values he brings with him to the island, and to which he returns. Prospero's rejection of the island and of the magic he so loves, like Odysseus' rejection of Calypso for his own Penelope, is not just a manifestation of the hero's moral nature; it is also a confirmation of certain values in the society to which they are returning. Gulliver's rejection of European society upon his return at the end of the fourth voyage is, in large part, a very severe criticism of the moral laxity of Europe.

C. Robinson Crusoe: Some General Observations

If we look at Robinson Crusoe in this so far rather general light, we can begin to shape an interpretation. I'm going to return to some of these points in more detail later, but let me just sketch out the shape of how one might interpret this book in the light of what I have just observed about stories like this one.

Up to his arrival on the island, Robinson Crusoe is a fairly typical adventurous young lad, who has not much time for the sober advice of his father that he should enter the middle class and settle down to the safe and secure calling of making money. He runs off to sea and has a few adventures and gets shipwrecked. Nothing in his life up to this point suggests that he is in any way extraordinary, physically, intellectually, socially, or in any other way. That, of course, is an important difference between this narrative and the ones we have read so far, in which the hero is, from the start a superior and mature person (a moral and social aristocrat). Robinson Crusoe is, in a very real sense, like Gulliver, an everyman, a typical middle-class representative of European society, rather than a singularly gifted individual, a social and mental aristocrat. In fact, one of the most important aspects of this book is that it is celebrating a new hero—the middle-class worker.

He arrives on an island that is uninhabited (that is another major difference between his story and the others I have mentioned, and it's very significant, as I shall mention later). It is not a particularly cruel wilderness; he does not have to fight to survive. In fact, in many ways the place seems something of a paradise, in which Robinson Crusoe is more or less free to do whatever he wants without interruption from a very hostile climate or any other people. The island, indeed, offers him a great deal of immediate help (goats, fish, raisins, convenient shelter, and so on).

Given that, the single most important fact of the story is that in this situation Robinson Crusoe chooses to channel all of his efforts into a single activity, manual labour. Most of the book is about work, the day-by-day routine and mundane tasks that Robinson Crusoe carries out, everything from making clothes, to sowing seeds or drying raisins, to building a house and a country bower and a boat, and so on. If we look at what this book actually spends most of its time dealing with (especially in comparison with the Odyssey and the Tempest) we can say that whatever values it is celebrating, they are centrally concerned with these work activities.

In discussing this point (as I shall later) it is important to notice all the possible things that are left out. There are many, many things about the island and about Robinson Crusoe's life there that we learn nothing about. If we assume, as we must, that the details in the book are the things that Robinson Crusoe and Defoe thought were essential for us to understand and that the details that are left out are peripheral, then we begin to get a sense of the particular vision of life this book calls our attention to.

Robinson Crusoe does come into contact with others eventually, with some cannibals, Friday, and some Europeans. By this time he has been on the island for many years and has matured from the callow youth who arrived. The way in which he deals with them reveals his mature judgment about what is important and what is not. So, for example, the way in which he instantly relegates Friday to the role of the servant and keeps him in that role, even after he leaves the island, is an endorsement of a particular attitude to a human relationship as valuable and sanctioned.

When Robinson Crusoe returns from the island back to civilization, it's as if he has never been away. He has no trouble adjusting. And he has gained an important new concern with money—something that his father urged him to take seriously as a young man, advice which Robinson Crusoe ignored. Now, many years later, he is most immediately concerned, not to think about his adventures or to reflect on what living in the wilderness might reveal about the limitations of European society or the nature of human beings, or about the mysteries of life or nature, but rather to bring his accounts up to date, reckoning his accumulated capital, disbursing his money judiciously to those who have served him honestly as stewards of his investments, and at times congratulating himself for his success as a confirmation of a certain religious view of life.

If we look at just these general points, without yet going into particular details, I think it becomes clear that the story of this isolato is, in a very obvious sense, a morality story about a wayward but typical youth of no particular talent whose life turned out all right in the end because he discovered the importance of the values which really matter. And what are those values? In a nutshell, they are those associated with the Protestant Work Ethic, those virtues which I spoke of earlier in the lecture on Hobbes and which arise out of the Puritan's sense of the religious life as a total commitment to a calling, unremitting service in what generally appears as a very restricted but often challenging commitment. By way of exploring that further, I'd like to turn now to examine how this book endorses that work ethic. Then, if there's time, I'd like to consider how that work ethic is seen throughout in a religious context.

D. The Work Ethic

I have made the claim above that the central concern of Robinson Crusoe's experiences on the island is work. The great majority of the text is taken up with describing his unceasing efforts at mundane tasks. Robinson Crusoe is clearly eager to persuade his readers that he was never idle. Many of his undertakings may have been futile (like his first big boat, which he could not move to the water), but they kept him busy. We might wonder to what extent he needs to do all the things he describes for us, like, for example, making bread or living off the produce he creates through his own agriculture. Is there no natural sustenance on the island which might be obtained with less labour? What about fishing? Wouldn't that be easier? He tries it and has success, but he doesn't stay with it. Why not? Surely, given the topical nature of the island, he doesn't have to labour so much?

Questions like this miss the point. The book is a tribute to work, and the overwhelming message I get from it goes something like this: God has put us on this world to work. That, in effect, means directing our energies to transform the world around us, to shape it to our will, to our calling, on a day-by-day basis. The important thing about all of Robinson Crusoe's agricultural efforts is not that he must have that particular food, but that he has willed himself into becoming a farmer. Having done that, having accepted that as his calling, no challenge can be too great to achieve it. And his success at making bread and all the other minor victories are a tribute to his resolution, to his surviving the test of the island. Agriculture is the perfect calling, of course, because it's so time consuming and thus a daily proof of one's perseverance. Fishing or hunting, by contrast, demand far less time in mundane activities. Of course, he didn't rely much on fishing, as he might have, because it's too easy, too sedentary, too meditative an occupation.

That's why some things matter, while others don't. The really important things in Robinson Crusoe are those that help him in his calling, especially the most valuable things he removes from the boat, the tools and the guns. Of course, he takes out some Bibles and clothes and liquor and materials. But these are far less important than the machines necessary for him to impose his will on nature. He makes no experiments with different forms of living or even with very different forms of food. He is not interested, because his task, as he sees it, is to impose his will on the island. And the book is a tribute to the unremitting effort one man makes to achieve that end.

In this endeavour, it's really important to keep the accounts—especially to keep track of time, the expenditure of your resources, and the return on your investment. Only if you do that can you be sure that your work is being productive, is producing a surplus, the sure sign that you are on the right track. So Robinson Crusoe keeps a journal, keeps notches in the tree to know the date (time is money), and is always producing a reckoning of everything (even of the people killed in various encounters). Readers sometimes wonder why Robinson Crusoe tells us what he did and then tells us again in the journal. Well, one possibility is that the technique indicates to us that he is learning the importance of keeping a written reckoning—the very fact that he has started a journal is an indication of his growing virtue. A record of life is basically a book of accounts, a financial ledger, and the value of one's life thus depends upon a significant return on one's investment. To turn a profit (e.g., to produce a larger harvest this year than last) is a sign that one is living properly.

When he enters into arrangements with people, he likes to set up a contract, in which all conditions, especially the financial obligations, are clearly stipulated (e.g., when he makes his agreement with the captain to recover the ship, the important clause is not that, if successful, the captain will take him back to England, but that he will take them "passage free." What could be a higher sign of his success than his ability to obtain such a financial perquisite?).

We don't find in this book that Robinson Crusoe in all those years spends much time reading the Bible (he says he does, but from the attention paid to it, it's clearly far less important than work). From time to time we are told he thinks about things, but his thoughts are generally repetitive reformulations of a very simple belief in Divine Providence. His thoughts on higher things, in fact, are far less interesting than his immediately practical plans about how to build something or carry out an immediate task. There's not a touch of the philosopher or the mystic about him; he is a thoroughly practical imagination.

Robinson Crusoe is a keen observer, but only of those things which he needs to know about in order to carry out a practical project. He can observe the flow of the sea and make important practical conclusions about navigation in a small boat. Furthermore, he has a good empirical sense. He knows how to conduct an experiment in sowing a crop (saving some of the seed for a second attempt); he has the ability to learn from his failures (like building the boat too far from the water). Above all he has enormous self-discipline. No matter how boring and time-consuming the task, he will carry it out. But he lacks totally the capacity for wonder, a simple contemplative joy at the beauty and variety of the world, that quality which is a marked feature of Odysseus's imagination and of Miranda's, or for that matter any intense desire to enquire into things more abstract than the immediate job at hand. And, unlike Gulliver, he has no developing critical awareness of social questions, so that his enforced isolation does not promote reflections on European customs or values.

For example, we never learn about the effects on him of a tropical sunrise or sunset over the sea or about the mystery of the sea or the magic wonder of the island or of the ambiguous complexities of feelings as he gazes at the stars. He is rarely, if ever, troubled by an unexpected thought. His ruminations on the cannibals begin to touch on some potentially very interesting issues to do with cultural relativism and a critical attitude to received opinion and even to Christian doctrine, but these do not lead him anywhere. He decides that it is best to leave them alone, degraded specimens of humanity as they are, for God to deal with. Cannibals, like everything else, exists as a challenge to overcome—not with wit and inventiveness, but with caution, prudence, toil, and gunpowder. If they are not an immediate problem, because they fall outside one's project, then it is best to ignore them completely. In that sense, he has no innate curiosity to find out new things or to speculate about questions irrelevant to what he has decided to work at.

The reward of this view of life is that one acquires the right to the ultimate goal of middle-class Protestant striving, the right to call oneself the owner of a piece of property. What confers ownership is not heredity or one's aristocratic share of the goods of this life; the only thing that truly confers the right to call yourself an owner is work. That's why Robinson Crusoe can call himself after a number of years the Governor of the island. At first this seems as if it might be a self-deprecating jest. But it is nothing of the sort. He is the lord of the island, not because he is the first person there, but because he has earned the title through the work he has done, through transforming a hitherto idle and therefore useless piece of land into a productive and profitable business venture, a small farm

We learn very little in the novel about how Robinson Crusoe feels about himself, deep inside where it really counts. Interestingly enough, the most revealing glimpses into his thought processes come when he reflects on his accomplishments.

I descended a little on the side of that delicious vale, surveying it with a secret kind of pleasure (though mixed with my other afflicting thoughts), to think that this was all my own, that I was king and lord of all this country indefeasibly and had a right of possession; and if I could convey it, I might have it in inheritance, as completely as any lord of a manor in England. (101)

The language of this quotation is interesting. He admits he takes pleasure in his accomplishment, but there's a sense of guilt in the admission (he has to remind us that he also has afflictions). And he frames his feelings of satisfaction entirely in legal terms ("indefeasibly," "right of possession," "convey"). What stimulates his satisfaction is not the accomplishment or the beauty or the sense of his own proven skill, but the sense of legal ownership. He has gone from a castaway to the equivalent of an aristocrat.

Later on he has a similar reflection:

My island was now peopled, and I thought myself very rich in subjects; and it was a merry reflection, which I frequently made, how like a king I looked. First of all, the whole country was my own mere property, so that I had an undoubted right of dominion. Secondly, my people were perfectly subjected. I was absolute lord and lawgiver; they all owed their lives to me, and were ready to lay down their lives, if there had been occasion for it, for me. It was remarkable, too, we had but three subjects, and they were of three different religions. My man Friday was a Protestant, his father was a pagan and a cannibal, and the Spaniard was a Papist. However, I allowed liberty of conscience throughout my dominion. (236)

There is clearly an echo of Hobbes here. The religious differences or the common Christian bonding represented in this tiny community is irrelevant. What matters is the structure of obligation established by agreement and by the law concerning property. Robinson Crusoe is not the sovereign through any inherent merit in himself, but because he has staked his ownership to the land through work and because the others have covenanted to obey him.

Here Defoe is echoing what was fast becoming a central claim in the attitude of the Protestant pioneers in the New World, a concept articulated by John Locke, among others (an attitude which was fundamental to the development of Canada and which is still at work in shaping some of our attitudes to the native people:

He that in Obedience to this command of God, subdued, tilled and sowed any part of [the Earth] thereby annexed to him something that was his Property, which another has no title to, nor could without injury take from him. . . . God gave the World to Men in Common; but since He gave to them for their benefit . . . it cannot be supposed He meant it should always remain Common and uncultivated. He gave it to the use of the Industrious and Rationed (and Labor was to be his Title to it) not to the Fancy and Covetousness of the Quarrelsome and Contentious. . . . There cannot be a clearer demonstration of any thing, that several Nations of the Americas are of this, who are rich in Lands, and poor in all the comforts of life; whom Nature having furnished as liberally as any other People, either the materials of Plenty . . . yet for want of improving it by labor, have not one hundredth part of the Conveniences we enjoy; and a King there feeds, lodges, and is clad worse than a day Laborer in England. (Locke, Two Treatises of Government)

His lordship over the land and ultimately over other human beings who arrive there does not come from any comparative excellence of station over them. Nor does he ever seek to claim the territory, as a Frenchman or Spaniard might, in the name of his country or his monarch or his church. Robinson Crusoe is such an individual that he has no consciousness of representing England or striving to maintain or extend an English way of life. Life is much too personal a responsibility and challenge to think of oneself as part of a collective. So he becomes in his own eyes the lord of the place and the others are his subordinates because he has worked and they have not. That is the single most important value demonstrated by Robinson Crusoe and for him the greatest single confirmation of his successful life.

This attitude manifests itself even in the diversions and amusements he tells us about, since the most important of those appear to be his ability to tame nature (the dog and the parrot) to his will (178). After all, what could be a more apt symbol of a relationship with nature which sees it as something to be subdued to one's will than a parrot which gives back only the words and the voice of the individual. The truth of nature thus becomes a series of self-reflecting Polly syllables and the only voice he hears for years is the self-regarding "Polly loves her cracker."

Robinson Crusoe, although good humoured enough, totally lacks any sense of humour which might lead him to see any incongruity in his situation or any ambiguity in his understanding of things. There is in this book no sense of irony, that life might, in fact, be complicated and require some intellectual or emotional exploration. There is very little, if any, joy in life, certainly nothing to match the satisfaction which comes from looking at one's account book and being able to prove that one has reaped a reward on one's investment and work. When we learn right at the end that Robinson Crusoe has married, the way he states the matter, the important point is that the marriage was to his advantage and produced a profit (that's much more important than the woman's identity or their common happiness together).

Robinson Crusoe develops no critical sense at all, in spite of being in a situation where one would think such an attitude would be hard to avoid. He comes close at times, for example, in his descriptions of the money he has recovered from the Spanish shipwreck. On the island it is useless and over time it corrodes. That phenomenon might, in a more reflective mind (like Gulliver's), lead one to speculate on the European obsession with money, whose value derives from the social conventions we have associated with it, conventions which are exposed as artificial and hollow by the island experience. But Robinson Crusoe shows little evidence of developing any such awareness. In fact, once he returns to Europe the experience on the island seems to confirm in his mind the importance of money as a sign of spiritual success in realizing the good life.

This sense that Robinson Crusoe's attitude to the island life as his calling may explain why there is so little emphasis in this book that Robinson Crusoe thinks his life is somehow wasted on the island and why so little attention paid to thoughts of escape or a longing for escape. God has placed him on the island to prove himself, to show that he can meet the world with the right stuff, the persevering will and the diligent application of his toil, aided by technology, in a foreign situation, without the need for anyone else. To complain about it, to long for something different, is a sign that one lacks faith.

Here, it's important to note that the island is uninhabited. For the real business of life represented in this book is essentially a radically individualistic ethic. Whereas Odysseus is always motivated by social concerns—his desire for hospitality, fame, status, and home (things which one can only achieve by risking encounters with other people)—and whereas Prospero is motivated by social bonding, especially with his daughter—Robinson Crusoe's major concern is always with himself, with his own responsibilities to prove himself in isolation from his fellow human beings. He doesn't, in fact, meet any fellow human beings until he has proved himself, and then he simply fits them into his vision of himself as a fully realized isolated individual. They matter because they can assist him with his economic projects, not because he needs their society or they have special demands which he can help them fulfill. This is a vision of life about as far removed from Aristotle's notion that human beings are by nature social and political animals as one can get.

Robinson Crusoe's relationships with people are based on no traditional social bonds or moral obligations. They are based on business relationships—on who owes what to whom. If you have rescued someone, then that puts them in your debt, and you are, in effect, their governor. The most valuable people in the world are those who most honestly discharge their financial obligations to you. Those to whom you have no such obligations, like your servant, for example, you can more or less deal with as you wish, even selling them into slavery, provided you make a profit, or you can simply ignore them as irrelevant to your life (like Friday's father). We get a very touching picture of how much Friday loves his father, but the value of that relationship has no effect on Robinson Crusoe's actions, and the father just disappears from the book, while Friday remains an important servant. Gone from this book are those things central to the world of the Tempest, the idea that social bonding, with its complex system of obligations, responsibilities, and obedience, is the essential feature of communal living and of life itself.

Crusoe's admiration for Friday does not educate him into any sense that his vision of life might be too narrow. He genuinely admires Friday for the way in which Friday can work and can willingly accept a subordinate position in their joint work together. He's simply not interested in what Friday might have to teach him about aboriginal customs, about things outside Robinson Crusoe's value system, about Friday's full character. In that sense, Robinson Crusoe has no intellectual or emotional concern for others at all. Friday is interesting only to the extent that he is useful, and he is useful only to the extent that he can fit in with Robinson Crusoe's projects and become, in effect, one more tool he can use in his calling. Since Friday does that so well, Robinson Crusoe thinks he's a fine specimen, "My man Friday."

Robinson Crusoe is very proud of what he does when he revisits the island. But what he does is simply put it on a more viable capitalist footing, furthering the imposition on the island of his own European Protestant values. If the work is organized properly in that fashion, then one doesn't have to worry about the quality of the community one has created or about what might happen to nature or to any of those non-agricultural types, like cannibals, who use the island for other purposes. The fact that the people on the island are producing a surplus, are making a profit, is sufficient reason to congratulate oneself that one is doing the right thing. The sense that one gets out of this is that there are no concessions made at all to the fact that this island is not Europe. That doesn't matter. European life is simply imposed on the place without a qualm.

In fact, the transformation of the island from the "Island of Despair" (the name Robinson Crusoe first gives it) into a thriving European colony, an extension of the European life, and the great satisfaction Robinson Crusoe takes from that transformation indicate that this is a success story, above all a tribute to the enormous value of individual effort in carrying out years and years of dreary work, of perseverance, of faith, and a of a total commitment to a very narrow endeavour.

When he revisits the island he brings valuable presents: tools and weapons. And he leaves behind a carpenter and a smith. Even though he has no intention of living there, he is still determined to maintain that the island is his property

E. The Religious Dimension

This view of life is given a religious dimension in the text. Robinson Crusoe's discovery of the work ethic goes hand in hand with a spiritual awakening. I don't think anyone would argue that Robinson Crusoe is a very profound religious thinker, although religion is part of his education and transformation. He claims he reads the Bible, and he is prepared to quote it from time to time. But he doesn't puzzle over it or even get involved in the narrative or character attractions of the stories. The Bible for him appears to be something like a Dale Carnegie handbook of maxims to keep the work on schedule and to stifle any possible complaints or longings for a different situation. Still, the religious dimension is central to what this book is about.

Robinson Crusoe's interpretation of his life links the financial success directly and repeatedly with his growth in religious awareness. This is not an intellectual conversion but, simply put, an awareness that he has, in some ways, received God's grace and is under His care. The growing profitability of his efforts is proof of such a spiritual reward. This awareness fills him with a sense of guilt for his former life and a great desire to be relieved of that guilt. The desire to be relieved from that feeling of guilt, in fact, is much stronger than Robinson Crusoe's desire to be delivered from the island.

Now I looked back upon my past life with such horror, and my sins appeared so dreadful, that my soul sought nothing of God but deliverance from the load of guilt that bore down all my comfort. As for my solitary life; it was nothing; I did not so much as pray to be delivered from it or think of it; it was all of no considerations in comparison to this; and I added this part here to hint to whoever shall read it, that whenever they come to a true sense of things, they will find deliverance from sin a much greater blessing than deliverance from affliction. (98)

Like a true Puritan, here Robinson Crusoe acknowledges that for him the real drama of life, the stuff that really matters, is internal. Internal guilt is so much more central to life than external affliction. Thus, complaining about affliction misses the point. The task is to earn the grace of God which will ease the guilt. In such a spiritual drama, one's geographical location is a minor point. So whereas for Odysseus and Prospero, the absence of their home civilization is something they really care about and want to take care of, Robinson Crusoe's absence from home is, in a very real way, irrelevant to what life is all about. If the central metaphor of life is the spiritual relationship between oneself and God, in comparison with which all social bonds are basically irrelevant, then we are all on islands. So what does it really matter if I find myself on a real island. The priorities are life remain the same.

That's why the central image of this book for me is Robinson Crusoe's home on the island, that amazing fortress built on an island where there is nothing to threaten him. He puts more effort into the complex defence works to keep himself and his goods, especially his tools, safe. In the same way, he lives his life to protect that inner fortress of his soul. Working constantly keeps unruly thoughts and despair from invading his inner home. Anything that might threaten that inner fortress, like too much meditation on anything, even on the nature of God, or reading or wonder or whatever, is to be kept away as an interference and a threat. Any questioning of the arrangements is a potential slackening of the faith which leads to sin:

From hence I sometimes was led too far to invade the sovereignty of Providence and, as it were, arraign the justice of so arbitrary a disposition of things that should hide that light from some and reveal to others, and yet expect like duty from both. But I shut it up and checked my thoughts with this conclusion, first, that we did not know as God was necessarily, and by the nature of His being, infinitely holy and just, so it could not be but that if these creatures were all sentenced to absence from Himself, it was on account of sinning against that alight which, as the Scripture says, was a law to themselves, and by such rules as their consciences would acknowledge to be just, though the foundation was not discovered to us. And secondly, that still, as we are all the clay in the hands of the Potter, no vessel could say to Him, "Why hast Thou formed me thus?" (207)

Thus, ignorance about many things is a condition of life, even at times an advantage, since it conceals from us many things we might otherwise fear and which might distract us from the task at hand (see p. 192). The occasional visit from the cannibals may present a remote physical threat, but the presence of the Devil, who brings fear and despair, is much more serious, especially since it renders Robinson Crusoe less capable of working properly as he should.

Thus, in a sense, Robinson Crusoe is deep in his spirit an isolato, a man living his life as a solitary spiritual pilgrimage, even after he returns from Europe. The only real effort he makes with anyone is his attempt to teach Friday the rudiments of Christianity. But the motivation behind this is clearly not because Crusoe feels an urge to spread the gospel (he thinks the cannibals should be ignored or removed); rather he wants the religious training to be part of Friday's real education, the course of instruction which will make him useful and diligent in Robinson Crusoe's personal projects and which, above all, will cure him of cannibalism.

This, incidentally, indicates a profound and historically important difference between the Puritan and the Catholic attitudes to the New World inhabitants. To the Catholics the important goal was that the inhabitants of the New World should be converted, incorporated into the Christian community. There was no lack of abominable treatment by many colonists, but there was always an official policy, often strenuously pursued, that the first goal must be an extension of Christian world through conversion, education, and intermarriage.

The Puritan emphasis was quite different. The inhabitants of the New World were there to be ignored, like Friday's father, used as servants, like Friday, or killed, like the cannibals. The important part of the Puritan encounter with the New World was what Robinson Crusoe shows us, the spiritual testing of the solitary Protestant spirit, a life-long ordeal in which he achieved success (or the closest thing to a manifestation of success) by stamping his will on the new land, staking out territory as his property through backbreaking toil, without any concessions to anyone or anything, least of all to the land or to its original inhabitants. That was the Puritan's calling; that was the reason God has placed us on this earth: to put to our personal uses the material and people available, to ignore what does not fit in with such projects, and to remove quickly and ruthlessly anything that stands in our way.

The famous drawing of Robinson Crusoe makes this point clearly.  Crusoe is walking alone on the beach, staring with apprehension at a footprint in the sand (the fact that there seems to be only one footprint adds somewhat to the mystery).  He's dressed in a rather strange garb, and the picture emphasizes his possession of tools and a gun.  There is no attention paid to anything but Crusoe (no luxurious vegetation, no other human figures, nothing to distract our attention from the only thing that matters, the isolated figure of Crusoe himself.

This famous drawing makes an interesting comparison with many Catholic visual depictions of the New World, in which what is stressed is the interaction of the arriving Europeans and the local inhabitants, in a setting rich with vegetation and often with animals.  I'm thinking here, for example, of the picture of Amerigo Vespucci awakening the spirit of the New World, bringing to his encounter all sorts of symbols of the civilization his is coming from and encountering a different world of people, plants, and animals.  The image may suggest (to many it clearly does suggest) a strongly paternalistic attitude, but at least it emphasizes the importance of the human contact.

One might pursue this different attitude in many directions, and that's beyond my purpose here.  However, it's no accident that the Protestant attitude does not (for obvious reasons) encourage one to "go native" or to enter into intimate alliances with them.  In the Catholic tradition, by contrast, intermarriage with the indigenous population was encouraged, as was a primary concern for their conversion to Christianity.


I think the enormous popularity of Robinson Crusoe in the two hundred years after it was written goes hand in hand with the growing expansion of Puritanism and capitalism in all areas of English and North American life. It has the form of a narrative which is as old as the Odyssey, and Defoe is skilful enough to hold our attention with all sorts of particular details. But the real popularity comes from the vision it delivers, a value system which speaks eloquently to the countless people who lived a life not altogether unlike Robinson Crusoe's, lonely years in hostile territory with little to go on but the strength of their bodies, the tools they brought with them, and the intense spiritual conviction that in carrying out the conquest of nature in the New World they were realizing God's purposes for them, their calling.  Even if that encounter was not always framed in an explicitly religious context, the sense that the frontier experience in the forest or on the prairie was essentially a spiritual test of one's individual will remained (and still remains) strong.

I don't want to leave a negative impression from my remarks on this text. That is easy to do, because so much of the ethic of Robinson Crusoe depends on self-denial, of, in effect, blocking out so much of what life affords in order to channel all one's energies into a comparatively narrow canal (or to use a metaphor of Tawney's, the ethic is like the painting technique that, in order to focus all our attention on single spot of light, blacks everything else out). Such a procedure is not likely to leave one sensitive to differences between the people and lands the traveler encounters and the world he has come from.  And it certainly can promote a frequently aggressive imperialism, on a small or large scale, in the name of one's spiritual fulfillment.

However, we need to recognize that there can be a certain heroism in this, not a heroism of the classical tradition, based on a well-developed and wide-ranging conception of excellence, but a heroism of the restricted spirit, protected in its inner fortress and prepared to take on whatever "afflictions" the world presents in order to bring one's calling to a profitable conclusion, a heroic assertion of the will in the service of a narrow calling, the sort of spiritual discipline that will provide the continuing commitment to tame a difficult wilderness.

That this ethic is important in the history of North America is, I take it, self-evident. And almost all people here have some first-hand experience of it either in the way they were educated or in conversations with parents and grandparents. For better or worse, this work ethic still helps to mould our political and social thinking (e.g., our sense that people who don't make it are somehow spiritually inferior or that going on welfare is morally demeaning or even that the highest goal of life is to own and cultivate one's own rural property with outmoded technology). That view, so powerful for so long, may be weakening its grip (maybe), but we don't have to be particularly perceptive to recognize its effects.

And no matter what we think of this novel or the various aspects of the vision of life I see in it, there are several people in this room who, consciously or not, live by Robinson Crusoe's creed (secularized perhaps but still operative): they are willing to devote their lives to often very mundane toil in order to secure for themselves a powerful fortress against all potential invaders. The value of their lives is what goes on in that fortress, and their motivation for work comes from a dedication to the proposition that only if I can show a handsome profit over time, a surplus of goods in my fortress or my bank, will my life be a success.