“Robinson Crusoe” contains profound messages for us today. It is an enactment of the modern, secular individual making his way alone in the world and overcoming challenges through the power of his own unaided reason. At the same time, in pointing to a religious interpretation of existence that is never quite fully experienced, it highlights in a profound way what our secular modern age has lost.
Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was first published in 1719 and became an instant bestseller. Four editions of the novel were published between April and August of 1719 and 80,000 copies were sold. In terms of its form, Defoe’s text is the first, true example of that genre which underscores the primacy of the subjective experience of the individual: the novel. In terms of its content, it is also preeminent in that it enacts the myth of the modern individual: the sovereign individual who is master of himself, nature, and others. Given its profound effects on modern, Western consciousness, Ian Watt is correct in referring to it, along with Faust, Don Juan, and Don Quixote, as one of the “great myths” of our civilization.
It could be said that part of the novel’s original appeal in the early Eighteenth Century was that it spoke to both a traditional, religiously-oriented audience as well as the burgeoning consciousness of the Enlightenment in Europe. According to Crusoe’s narration of his own tale, the tale of a sole survivor of a shipwreck marooned on an island for twenty-eight years, his journey is one of spiritual discovery. Crusoe finds that his suffering had resulted from the “ORIGINAL SIN” of not heeding the advice of his father or the clear signs of Divine Providence. Crusoe’s actions and deepest passions, however, undermine this religious interpretation of his story and point forward to several key dimensions of secular modernity. In this way, the novel combines a searching need for a religious explanation of our existence with the undermining of that search by a secular rationality. This combination makes the novel still relevant and powerful for us today.
“[T]hen the Wonder began to cease”: Crusoe and Modern Natural Philosophy
Robinson Crusoe begins with a Preface provided by the fictional editor of Crusoe’s story. According to the editor, the story is told “with a religious Application of Events to the Uses to which wise Men always apply them (viz.) to the Instruction of others by this Example, and to justify and honour the Wisdom of Providence in all the Variety of our Circumstances, let them happen how they will.” Crusoe’s story, then, is one that should provide timeless spiritual instruction for the reader; however, this religious teaching risks being overshadowed within the novel by the title character’s own singular focus on secular and material ends. This disappointment of the reader’s expectations is mirrored in Crusoe’s own oscillations during his progressive conversion. That is, his conversion is marked by the same gesturing toward a deferral to Divine Grace, while simultaneously falling back on an ultimately secular and naturalistic interpretation of his existence.
In his third month on the island, Crusoe discovers that stalks of barley and rice have started miraculously to grow. At first, this discovery stirs religious thoughts in Crusoe, who “had hitherto acted upon no religious Foundation at all.” He sees the growth of these plants, which would ultimately become critical for his survival and salvation, as a miraculous intervention akin to the virgin birth of Jesus: “But after I saw Barley grow there, in a Climate which I know was not proper for Corn, and especially that I knew not how it came there, it startl’d me strangely, and I began to suggest, that God had miraculously caus’d this Grain to grow without any Help of Seed sown, and that it was directed purely for my Sustenance, on that wild miserable Place” (my emphasis). Crusoe’s first interpretation of this event, then, is to see these “pure Productions of Providence for [his] Support” as a sign of the workings of the Divine and his first reaction is to greet it in a spirit of gratitude. Soon, however, Crusoe ascertains that there is a natural explanation for this sudden growth. “[A]t last it occur’d to my Thoughts, that I had shook a Bag of Chickens Meat out in that Place, and then the Wonder began to cease; and I must confess, my religious Thankfulness to God’s Providence began to abate too upon the Discovering that all this was nothing but what was common” (my emphasis).
“[T]hen the Wonder began to cease.” With this phrase Defoe provides us with an epigram on modernity. The entire scene enacts the decisive dilemma of modernity: by taking natural causes as our sole cue for the understanding of the cosmos, we are left devoid of hope, gratitude, and wonder. Later, Crusoe tells us that he did come to a full conversion to seeing a Providential meaning in his existence and his solitary suffering; however, the first step towards that conversion occasioned by the surprising appearance of barley and rice on the island was forestalled, it seems, by an overly naturalistic interpretation of phenomena. In taking this point of departure, Crusoe is participating in the modern philosophical revolution, which begins by radically breaking from the teleological assumptions of its classical predecessors.
Within the classical tradition, natural philosophy entailed the search for the final cause of beings, the intention or telos proper to the entity in question. The truth of any thing as such can only be seen in the determination of its purpose. The eye, for instance, only deserves the dignity of that name inasmuch as it can see. Sight is the purpose or proper functioning of the eye. In other words, sight is the “end” or “final cause” for which the activities of the eye take place. For this reason, classical philosophy concerned itself with attaining wisdom with respect to the end or “good” of each thing. Aristotle makes this clear in his definition of philosophy as the quest for wisdom, wherein wisdom is a way of thinking which attempts to articulate the final cause: the “why” of each thing, the “good” of each thing. The supreme wisdom, the highest philosophy, “is the one which knows that for the sake of which each thing must be done, and this is the good in each case, and, in general, the highest good in the whole of nature.”
The crisis of modernity begins with the modern philosophical revolution—whose point of departure was a certain narrowing of the classical philosophical horizon. Modern thought has its foundation in three breaks from the classical definition of philosophy: the refusal to account for the goal of society, or how things “ought” to be, as first articulated in the political philosophy of Machiavelli; the refusal to account for the “final cause” of beings, as first asserted in the natural philosophy of Bacon; and the positioning of the human subject as the pivotal locus of truth, as first developed in the metaphysics of Descartes. Bacon can be called the father of modern natural philosophy in that he separates the physical inquiry into material and efficient causes from metaphysical inquiry into formal and final causes. In the estimation of Bacon, the search for formal causes can be retained with the proper rigour. However, the search for final causes has been a perennial source of investigative confusion: “the handling of final causes, mixed with the rest in physical inquiries, hath intercepted the severe and diligent inquiry of all real and physical causes, and given men the occasion to stay upon these satisfactory and specious causes, to the great arrest and prejudice of further discovery.” Robinson Crusoe enacts this decisive movement of modern natural philosophy. Crusoe’s discovery of the miracle of stalks of barley and rice on the island at first led him to see a Providential purpose or telos within the occurrence. However, Crusoe’s reflections on these phenomena ultimately determine that they can be explained by solely physical causes—the material cause (leftover seeds in a sack) and the efficient cause (Crusoe’s shaking of the sack).
“Right of Possession”: Crusoe and Modern Political Philosophy
The elimination of final causes in modern natural philosophy is mirrored in modern political thinking. This is one of the reasons Bacon expresses an admiration for the thinking of Machiavelli: “We are much beholden to Machiavel and others that write what men do, and not what they ought to do.” Rather than from human ends and purposes, modern political thinking takes its point of departure from the supposed beginnings of humanity in a state of nature. Similarly, rather than our highest potential in a Divinely guided reason, modern political philosophy takes its point of departure in humanity’s basest passions. It is precisely these base passions that provide the ground and ruling principle for Robinson Crusoe’s thoughts and actions.
Despite the forestalled conversion initiated by the appearance stalks of barley and rice on the island, Crusoe tells us that he ultimately did have a decisive moment of conversion. After being delivered from a serious illness, Crusoe begins a regimen of reading the New Testament, “when it happen’d providentially the very Day that reading the Scripture, I came to these Words, He is exalted a Prince and a Saviour, to give Repentance, and to give Remission [Acts 5:31]: I threw down the Book, and with my Heart as well as my Hands lifted up to Heaven, in a Kind of Extasy of Joy, I cry’d out aloud, Jesus, thou Son of David, Jesus, thou exalted Prince and Saviour, give me Repentance!” Nevertheless, Crusoe’s disposition of joy and hope in the deliverance that can be offered by dutifully offering himself to the will of God is always tenuously held. Fear displaces a religiously-grounded hope, for instance, when Crusoe encounters a solitary naked foot print in the sand. His response is not to pray for patience and for the wisdom to do God’s will; rather, Crusoe realizes that the dangers to his own self-preservation require enhanced efforts to master his environment.
Thus my Fear banish’d all my religious Hope; all that former Confidence in God which was founded upon such wonderful Experience as I had had of his Goodness, now vanished, as if he that had fed me by Miracle hitherto, could not preserve by his Power the Provision which he had made for me by his Goodness: I reproach’d my self with my Easiness, that would not sow any more Corn one Year than would just serve me till the next Season as if no Accident could intervene to prevent my enjoying the Crop that was upon the Ground; and this I thought so just a Reproof, that I resolv’d for the future to have two or three Years Corn beforehand, so that whatever might come, I might not perish for want of Bread.
For Thomas Hobbes, the grounding of our political arrangements and rights rests upon our basest passions—in particular, fear: “The Passions that encline men to Peace, are Feare of Death; Desire of such things as are necessary . . . and a Hope by their Industry to obtain them.” For Hobbes, as for Crusoe after seeing the footprint in the sand, fear leads to the rational calculation of how to secure the means to our survival. John Locke agrees with Hobbes on the essentials of this point of departure, but adds that security and self-preservation also require private property. For Locke, it is by means of one’s labour that the materials provided by nature, originally common to all, are appropriated and become one’s own: “Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.”
This logic of modern political philosophy is at work in the actions and motivations of Robinson Crusoe. Fear drives Crusoe to secure the means of his self-preservation; securing these means to self-preservation becomes his sole end; he secures these means through diligent toil on the island; by means of this toil he believes he has achieved a certain “Right of Possession” over the island and its contents: “I descended a little on the Side of that delicious Vale, surveying it with a secret Kind of Pleasure . . . 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 Mannor in England.”
This concern with securing the means of his self-preservation also expresses itself in Crusoe’s strange fixation with money, despite how useless it is to him on the island. When Crusoe is busy salvaging useful equipment from the ship that has stranded him on the island, for instance, he discovers “about Thirty six Pounds value in Money.” Although not of any use in his predicament, and despite the trouble it will be for him to bring it to shore, Crusoe decides to take it: “I smil’d to my self at the Sight of this Money. O Drug! Said I aloud, what art thou good for? Thou art not worth to me, no not the taking off of the Ground; one of those Knives is worth all this Heap. . . . However, upon Second Thoughts, I took it away.” Crusoe’s fixation with money also manifests itself in the fact that his deepest passions are reserved for the securing of wealth. When Crusoe is finally able to return to Europe, he immediately inquires into his claim to a plantation in Brazil. He discovers that this claim has made him a very wealthy man. Upon this discovery, Crusoe underscores how inexpressible his joy was at that moment: “It is impossible to express here the Flutterings of my very Heart, when I look’d over these Letters, and especially when I found all my Wealth about me.” Crusoe’s reaction to this discovery is so extreme as to make him ill: “In a Word, I turned pale, and grew sick; and had not the old Man run and fetch’d me a Cordial, I believe the sudden Surprize of Joy had overset Nature, and I had dy’d upon the Spot.”
We can contrast this experience of homecoming (or, nostos) with the homecoming of Homer’s Odysseus. When we first encounter Odysseus, Calypso has kept him prisoner on Ogygia for seven years and he is pining for home: “Off he sat on a headland, weeping there as always, wrenching his heart with sobs and groans and anguish, gazing out over the barren sea through blinding tears.” Rather than accept the immortal life offered by Calypso, a life which is not proper for humans, Odysseus chooses to return to his home. He sees his meaning and purpose in his duties and roles as husband, father, and ruler. It is this longing for his homecoming and the incredible obstacles he must overcome in order to reach his home that make the ultimate scenes of reunion and recognition so poignant and powerful. The scenes depicting the recognition of Odysseus by his now fully-grown son Telemachus (Book XVI), by his faithful dog Argus (Book XVII), and finally by his loyal wife Penelope (Book XXIII) are rightly famous and possess an enduring power to affect the human psyche like few other works of Western literature. In contrast, Crusoe’s ultimate homecoming is less emotionally charged as he does not return to a community or to a family; rather, his emotional reunion is with his accumulated wealth. In modern political thinking, as enacted in Robinson Crusoe, our duties and responsibilities to one another as a political community and as a family are replaced by our selfish passions and our desire to secure the means to our self-preservation.
How can one survive for twenty-eight years in a solitary wilderness without the type of hope and faith in the Divine that Crusoe claims to find early in his sojourn? This is the question posed to humanity in the modern age. Are not all of our lives figuratively lived in the solitary wilderness of a desert island—unless we find an ultimate design and purpose to our journey, unless we are able to react with a deep sense of gratitude to the thousands of small miracles and blessings that make this life not only possible but also beautiful and desirable? However, is the possibility of finding this meaning and wonder in our existence undermined by the rationality of modernity in its various forms? Could we say of the dawning of the modern age, as Robinson Crusoe says of his own naturalistic interpretation of phenomena on the island, “then the Wonder began to cease”?
Robinson Crusoe contains profound messages for us today. It is an enactment of the modern, secular individual making his way alone in the world and overcoming challenges through the power of his own unaided reason. At the same time, in pointing to a religious interpretation of existence that is never quite fully experienced, it highlights in a profound way what our secular modern age has lost.
 “Robinson Crusoe as Myth,” Essays in Criticism: A Quarterly Journal of Literary Criticism (April 1951): 95.
 Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994), ed. Michael Shinagel, 141.
 Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, 3.
 Defoe, 58.
 Metaphysics 981b; 982b.
 Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning (London: Cassell and Co., 1893), ed. Henry Morley, II.vii.2-5, 7.
 The Advancement of Learning II.xxi.9.
 Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, 71.
 Defoe, 113.
 Leviathan (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997), eds. Richard E. Flathman and David Johnston, chap xiii.
 On this point, Leo Strauss is instructive: “Locke took over the fundamental scheme of Hobbes and changed it only in one point. He realized that what man primarily needs for his self-preservation is less a gun than food, or more generally, property.” What is Political Philosophy (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1959), 49.
 Second Treatise of Government (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1980), ed. C.B. Macpherson, V.27.
 Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, 73.
 Defoe 43.
 Defoe 205.
 The Odyssey (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), trans. Robert Fagles, V.93-95.
The featured image is “Robinson Crusoe” (c. 1880) by illustrators Offterdinger & Zweigle and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.