In his sixtieth year, and after having pursued chequered careers in trade, spying, pamphleteering &c., Daniel Defoe now presents us with this long fable. Withal it takes the form of a popular adventure story, it is chiefly concerned with Religion, Commerce, and Law.
As to the first, Religion, here is a tale of sin and retribution, Crusoe’s eight-and-twenty-year sojourn on an island being not an accident, but a punishment. In following the sea, he has defied the wishes of his father and bucked the natural order that would have had him a merchant or clerk in the middling station of society. In short, he did not know his place. His first voyages are beset by storms, to the degree in which his captain marks him as a Jonah; and on a subsequent voyage he is enslaved by Moors. He was given fair warning then, and he persisted in his error; yet the judgement is too harsh. If his vicissitudes were warnings from God, he did not know it; indeed he knew nothing of God, and did not discover Him until his second year on the island.
Here, having suffered the terror of an earthquake, and then a hurricane, Crusoe falls to an ague that lasts for many days, and during which he has a nightmare of a giant flaming angel that would kill him for his failure to repent. At this low ebb, Crusoe finds God, and acknowledges his own guilt, which consists in having gone out into the world to find adventure and fortune, while not caring for anyone’s blessing about it.
My judgement on this, per contra, is that Crusoe is guilty of nothing but youthful dash; and that this ought to be admired as a virtue, and not condemned as a sin; and I further query what kind of timid tepid piety is being peddled here, that approves only bloodless stay-at-homes, and whether any person of character and enterprise ought to credit it, and how long England would remain England if they did. And there I let the matter of Religion rest.
And so, to the second, which is Commerce, or more particularly, the nature of Value. Crusoe, being removed from the spheres of exchange, finds that the Value of things is altered. Money is worth nothing: when he finds a great sum of it aboard a wreck, he would trade it all for a few pairs of shoes and stockings, these things being of great use. Value, now, bears no relation to exchange, but only to use. Similarly, he is unable to exchange his labour, which is of such small worth that he spends it very freely, devising himself a great many contraptions and comforts, all of which require a prodigious time; time being in no way scarce.
Commerce can be done now only with God, who pointedly reveals scripture to Crusoe: “Call on me in the day of trouble, and I will deliver, and thou shalt glorify me.” The bargain is duly struck. Being acquainted with Mr Defoe, I have it from his own mouth that he believes Commerce to be an expression of the divine order of human affairs; this despite the Gospels’ enjoining us to renounce all our wealth. My judgement is that Mr Defoe, and not the Gospels, is in the right on this point, and I doubt of any respectable Christian who would dispute me. And there I let the matter of Commerce rest.
And so, to the third, which is Law. The fount of the Law is natural Law, which has two pillars, as set forth by Hugo Grotius, and later Thomas Hobbes, viz.: 1. all have the right to gather the necessaries of life about them; 2. none has the right to injure another but in self-defence. Crusoe, though ill-educated, and in the state of nature, recognizes this Law. When he witnesses a party of cannibals at feast, he first designs to destroy them by ambush; but reflection informs him that he has no competence to judge these savages, and that since they are not about his business, he ought not be about theirs.
Later, when his island becomes populated by Christians, social compacts are formed, and Crusoe is recognised by all as governour of his island, now an English colony; and powers are transferred to him that he might judge men, and hang them. Thus we see the world he has inhabited pass from the state of nature to one of civilisation. And there I let the matter of Law rest.
Robinson Crusoe costs five shillings and is published by Mr William Taylor at the Ship in Pater-Noster Row, London. A faithful pirate edition may be had from Mr George Grierson of Dublin. Avoid the Amsterdam Coffee-House piracy: it is an Abridgement.