Chapbook edition of Crusoe
Sean Cox

English 362: Eighteenth-Century Novel
Dr. Morillo

Robinson Crusoe: An Evolution of Political Religion






Many people have pointed out that Robinson Crusoe's experiences on the island seem to be a reflection of the growth of civilization and society. Considering the prominent role that religion plays in the novel, it would be worthwhile to examine the progression of religious and political thought in Crusoe's "society." Through the experiences of one man, we can observe the progression of religion from the private realm to the public realm, the conflicts inherent in such a progression, and the resolution to these conflicts. This evolution of religious and political thought affirms two ideas: 1) in the personal realm, it affirms religious individualism--the idea that one can and should find his God independently from any human authority or intermediary (i.e. priests); and 2) in the public realm, the novel affirms that religious toleration, especially on the part of those in power, is the appropriate way to resolve those conflicts that are inherent in the transition of religion from the private to the public. Crusoe discovers (primarily through trial and error and constant introspection) both of these ideas and eventually succeeds in implementing both of them. He "finds God" without the guidance of anyone, and he ultimately becomes a tolerant ruler of the island with respect to religion. Surprisingly, Crusoe never lives up to his personal definition of a "good Christian." But perhaps this is just a touch or realism by Defoe, since Crusoe is otherwise so successful at recognizing religious individualism and instituting religious toleration on the island, both of which are very important to Defoe.

The first step in the religious progression of Crusoe is his personal discovery of God. Through his example, he shows that no human intermediary is needed in order to find God; finding God should and must be an independent act. He tells us that he was moved to repent without the help of any teacher or instructor, with only the Bible to help him (160). Curiously enough, it was his very rebellion against his father and the "Middle Station" that put him in a position to find God on his own, something that may not have happened if he had obeyed and merely accepted the "hand-me-down" religion and lifestyle of his father. But it was his relationship with Friday that would later confirm his suspicion of priesthood. In his attempt to Christianize Friday, Crusoe realizes that it is impossible for him to teach Friday certain aspects of faith: "...yet nothing but divine Revelation can form the Knowledge of Jesus Christ...nothing but a Revelation from Heaven, can form [knowledge of Christ] in the Soul..." (158). Crusoe learns that he, like a priest, cannot substitute for divine revelation. This is a recurring theme for Crusoe, and he explicitly attacks the institution of priesthood in the Catholic church (and presumably the Anglican church as well). He attacks the institution of priesthood on the grounds that it serves to "preserve the Veneration of the People to the Clergy" (157). But the power-hungry characteristic of the priesthood is not his only concern; rather, Crusoe thinks that the institution is at best futile and at worst an impediment to the discovery of God, because discovering God is wholly the task of the individual. Through his own solitary conversion on the island, and through his attempt to Christianize Friday, Crusoe becomes convinced that the individual only needs himself, the Bible, and divine revelation to discover God's truth.

Once Crusoe discovers God, the next step is his attempt to force his newly-discovered God on Friday. This introduction of another human being to the system, and his discourse with Crusoe on religious matters, is where the public realm of religion emerges. But because of his experience with Friday's inherently good nature, and his resulting uncertainty about the absoluteness of Christian morality, Crusoe quickly progresses to the point of being religiously tolerant. While Crusoe is happy that Friday becomes a Christian, Friday's own innate goodness has quite a different effect on Crusoe; it makes Crusoe question his own God. In fact, Crusoe turns out to be much more liberal with regard to religion than one might suspect from such a strong-willed, "preachy" man. In several passages, he questions why God would hold savages accountable for their sins (such as cannibalism) when God had not revealed Himself to them through revelation, or even the Bible. Here is one such passage:

 

...why it has pleas'd God to hide the like saving Knowledge from so many Millions of Souls, who if I might judge by this poor Savage, would make a much better use of it than we did. (151)

Crusoe recognizes that Friday--"this poor savage" and a cannibal--is a good man with or without Christianity. That is why "they would make better use of [the knowledge of Christ] than we did." This is a humbling thought for Crusoe, and his inability to reach a satisfactory answer to his question quoted above is the most likely reason for his eventual religious tolerance. He cannot bring himself to hold the cannibals accountable for their savagery because of that nagging question of why God left them in the dark. He even seems to lay the blame for savagery and cannibalism at God's feet. Though Crusoe does go on a cannibal-killing spree, this can surely be blamed on his emotional outrage at the sight of a European about to be eaten, rather than religious intolerance or arrogance. In other words, Crusoe does not hold the cannibals morally accountable for their actions, but kills them anyway simply because their actions are repulsive to him. And, other than prohibiting cannibalism on "his" island, Crusoe makes no religious demands of the other men. In fact, after converting Friday, Crusoe makes no attempt to convert Friday's father to Christianity, even though he has complete power over him. Crusoe even seems to brag about his newly-found religious toleration: "My Man Friday was a Protestant, his Father was a Pagan and a Cannibal, and the Spaniard was a Papist: However, I allow'd Liberty of Conscience throughout my Dominions..." (174). Crusoe emphasizes that, although he had complete control over these people, he did not force Christianity on them. As the absolute ruler of the island, Crusoe has reached the final stage in the evolution of political religion, by finding a resolution between the personal and the public religion; essentially, there is no public religion on his island.

Although Crusoe rapidly progresses with regard to finding God and establishing a rule of religious toleration, he is surprisingly stagnant with regard to his own personal Christian growth. It seems that after finding God, Crusoe stops short of fulfilling his own requirements of a good Christian. He recognizes two major requirements of "good Christians": 1) to submit oneself entirely to God's will, and 2) to be always thankful to God. Crusoe expressly states both of these: "...'twas my unquestion'd Duty to resign my self absolutely and entirely to his Will..." (114), and there are many references to being thankful to God (95,102,121,135,182, among others). He reproaches himself many times for not being thankful, but he is even less successful at submitting his will to God's will. While he does give thanks periodically (such as his gratitude for the island's abundant food on page 95), he merely plays lip service to God's will or even ignores it entirely. On page 185, he says that he will rely on God's will to direct the shot of his gun. This is silly; he is merely stamping God's approval on his own predetermined decision to shoot the gun. At other times, he resolves the conflict between his own will and God's will by ignoring God's will. When Crusoe first considers trying to capture a savage to be his slave, he is reluctant to do so because it would require killing many savages in the process, an act which he believes is against the will of God (125). But his own will comes out on top: "...the eager prevailing Desire of Deliverance at length master'd all the rest [meaning his conscience]; and I resolved, if possible, to get one of those Savages into my Hands, cost what it would" (144-145). This passage illustrates Crusoe's typical mental process: he frets over the conflict between his own desire and God's will, but ultimately his own desire wins out. This failure to submit his will to God's will is Crusoe's weakest aspect with regard to his own definition of a good Christian. Perhaps it is because Crusoe's strong individualism and independent nature cut both ways; they help him find God, but at the same time create a problem when submitting his will to God is required.

Defoe's personal Protestantism was an obvious influence on Crusoe's denouncement of the priesthood. But it might be tempting to claim that Defoe is so concerned with religious toleration because of his own outsider status as a non-Anglican Protestant. But that could not explain his persistent questioning of the absolute morality of Christianity, primarily with regard to cannibals and others whom God had apparently chosen to be left in the dark (this question pops up multiple times--142, 151, 168). For in these "questioning" scenes, Crusoe does not exempt Protestantism from critique; he is questioning Christianity in general, and whether or not its hold on truth is real or illusory. It seems to me that Defoe was concerned with religious toleration for more than selfish reasons; he saw religious toleration as a moral responsibility of all Christians, including Catholics and Protestants, and as the only resolution to the conflict between the personal and public realms of religion. So Robinson Crusoe turns out to be just as concerned about toleration in general as it is about the virtues of Protestantism. At least in Robinson Crusoe, Defoe turned out to be fairly open-minded.

 

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