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1 Jake Meador Dr. Stock English 364 Extended Term Paper for Honors Credit Across the pages of Daniel Defoe’s masterpiece Robinson Crusoe, is cast a 150year-old shadow in the shape of the 16th century French reformer John Calvin. While it is easy to see in Defoe’s work the classical capitalist hero, one should exercise some caution in doing so. Defoe himself is notoriously hard to pigeonhole as far as his own economic beliefs are concerned. Further, to read Robinson Crusoe as a capitalist text is only to read part of the text, namely that which begins with his arrival on the island and more specifically with his more enterprising endeavors, such as his attempt to raise a herd of goats and to bake his own bread, using only what was available to him on the island. This interpretation appears weaker when contrasted with a Calvinist reading of the text. If one understands Calvinist theology, then one has an interpretive grid to make sense of the entire novel, beginning with Crusoe’s disobedience of his father and continuing until the final page of his narrative. In this paper I will argue for the superiority of this reading, explaining various aspects of Calvin’s basic theology and how Defoe’s novel reflects these beliefs. This should not be mistaken for arguing that Robinson Crusoe is an allegory. If that were Crusoe’s intent, one would expect something considerably more explicit than Robinson Crusoe. However, art is a reflection of the artist. It can’t be anything else. While it would be a considerable stretch to suggest that the novel is purely allegorical, it is not a stretch at all to suggest that a Presbyterian like Defoe would – intentionally or not – create a narrative reflective of his deeply-held religious beliefs. To begin, a brief sketch of Calvin’s theology will be necessary. Unlike his


2 contemporary to the north, Martin Luther, Calvin’s theology was more well-developed. Luther’s theology centered around Luther’s personal need for assurance of salvation. This unavoidably constrained Luther’s theology to the private sphere. Luther’s aversion to discussions of Christian ethics compounded the problem. Calvin’s was focused on developing a system of Christian thought to replace what he saw as the faulty system developed by medieval scholastics. In this paper we’ll focus on Calvin’s understanding of Christianity broadly speaking before developing the practical outworking it has in the individual and public spheres. We’ll then apply this to the narrative of Robinson Crusoe. To begin with Calvin’s conception of Christianity can roughly be summed up in three chapters. In the 1559 edition of his Institutes we can see this understanding clearly at work as Calvin develops his ideas. He spends the first six chapters establishing an epistemological base, a necessary prerequisite to further development of his ideas. But once that is developed, he turns toward, as the header of Chapter 7 makes plain, “The Creation of the World.”1 Chapter 8 further develops the idea by describing human creation. He then dedicates all of Book 2 to developing the second and third chapters of Sin and Redemption. To begin with, we’ll examine Calvin’s conception of creation and fall together before diverging to look at redemption in the separate spheres of the individual and the social. Fundamental to Calvin’s conception of creation is that there is a basic disconnect between the world as it was made and the world as it is experienced that is brought about by the rebellion of human beings. “This knowledge of ourselves is John Calvin, Calvin's Institues - A New Compend, ed. Hugh T. Kerr (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1989). p. 41. 1


3 twofold: namely, to know what we were like when we were first created and what our condition became after the fall of Adam.”2 In describing man’s role, Calvin writes: “Here he commemorates that part of dignity with which he decreed to honor man, namely, that he should have authority over all living creatures. He appointed man, it is true, lord of the world; but he expressly subjects the animals to him, because they having an inclination or instinct of their own, seem to be less under authority from without. The use of the plural number intimates that this authority was not given to Adam only, but to all his posterity as well as to him. And hence we infer what was the end for which all things were created; namely, that none of the conveniences and necessaries of life might be wanting to men.”3 Calvin understood man as a sort of caretaker of creation meant to serve beneath God. This was a role that was meant to be guided by divine principles with the chief end of bringing glory to God.4 Those principles were divinely-given moral laws. These laws were understood to be innate to creation, just as scientific laws, such as gravity or the laws of physics. “In the act of creation God brings into existence, not only all creatures, but also ‘the very order of things’ directing them.” 5 This basic understanding of the world’s origins is the foundation of Calvin’s theology and specifically his ethics. Continuing to Calvin’s understanding of sin, we must understand that Calvin saw sin as primarily a posture of unfaithfulness and ungratefulness. 6 In Calvin’s Ibid, p. 44. John Calvin, Internet Christian Library, April 27, 2007, http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/m.sion/cvgn1-04.htm (accessed April 11, 2009). 4 John Calvin, Writings on Pastoral Piety, ed. Elsie Anne McKee (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2001). p. 161. 5 Guenther H. Haas, "Calvin's Ethics," in The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, 93105 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). p. 93. 6 John Calvin, Calvin's Institues - A New Compend, ed. Hugh T. Kerr (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1989). p. 56. 2 3


4 theology, the benevolence of God is assumed. Indeed, Calvin’s theology orbits around understanding God as creator and sustainer of all that is good. Therefore, sin becomes rebelling against the benevolent standards of those above you. This understanding of sin as rebellion rests at the core of the sin and repentance we will find in Robinson Crusoe. Finally, in considering Calvin’s understanding of redemption, we must look first at how redemption is found by the individual and then to what redemption looks like when applied to the social. In understanding the nature of how Calvin’s view of redemption relates to individuals, it can be summed up concisely as the acknowledging of and repentance for sin. But, as made clear above, man’s sin consists primarily of the refusal to do this. It consists of an attitude of pride that refuses to acknowledge one’s own sin, making redemption impossible. Calvin captures it well when he writes: “Experience teaches that the seed of religion has been divinely planted in all men. But barely one man in a hundred can be found who nourishes in his own heart what he has conceived; and not even one in whom it matures, much less bears fruit in its season. Now some lose themselves in their own superstition, while others of their own evil intention revolt from God, yet all fall away from true knowledge of him. As a result, no real piety remains in the world.” 7 Succinctly put, Calvin’s understanding of sin is that humanity willingly rejects God, perverting the knowledge God gives to them and refusing to acknowledge their dependence upon God. Redemption for individuals consists in looking at their own sinfulness, mourning it, and looking only to Christ, whose death and resurrection guarantees acceptance. However, Calvin’s conception of redemption and restoration John Calvin, John Calvin: Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (Garden City: Scholars Press, 1975). p. 329. 7


5 does not end here. From this point, Calvin developed a thorough system of Christian ethics that would come to inform the fiction of Defoe, and especially Robinson Crusoe. Scholar R.H. Tawney describes the public nature of Calvinism saying, “It was a creed which sought, not merely to purify the individual, but to reconstruct Church and State, and to renew society by penetrating every department of life, public as well as private, with the influence of religion.”8 One principle reason for this public edge to Calvinism goes back to Calvin’s understanding of creation and sin. Calvin understood that God’s creative work involved not only the creation of physical order, but moral order as well. Restoration to God meant the restoration of that moral order in all areas of life. Specifically, this relates to Calvin’s conception of divine law, which created a framework for people to interact with the world in all aspects after conversion. For Calvin Christianity was not primarily about salvation of souls, but the glory of God. Consequently, “The goal of the Christian life, for Calvin, is the restoration of the image of God which sin has distorted and defaced.”9 The image of God is restored through acts of obedience made possible by the work of Christ. It is divine law that enables human beings to know how to obey God. The text this hinges upon is Genesis 1:26, which states that humanity is to have dominion over creation. Calvin’s understanding of this text was that once individuals were united to Christ, they mediated his rule in the created world by having dominion over it. This naturally leads to extensive interest on the part of Calvinists – like Defoe – in diverse areas ranging from political theory to economics. For all these reasons, Calvin’s understanding of redemption did not end at R.H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1954). p. 91. 9 Guenther H. Haas, "Calvin's Ethics," in The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, 93105 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). p. 95. 8


6 the individual. Rather, it extended into every area of life. With this brief introductory sketch of Calvin’s theology in mind, we can then turn to the strongly Calvinistic overtones of Defoe’s most enduring work, Robinson Crusoe. First, note the strongly Calvinistic tone of the novel’s basic structure. In the beginning the protagonist is assured of a happy, safe existence if only he will obey the will of his father. When he disobeys, there are dire consequences, eventually leading to his isolation on a remote island, devoid of any signs of “civilized” life as Defoe would have understood it. The hero then undergoes a religions conversion which, we’ll see later, contains strongly Calvinistic elements. After this conversion, he sets to work in cultivating his island, becoming master of his domain as he develops a garden, a goat herd, and begins building furniture and making a home – or simply put, having dominion over the island. Through the rest of the novel, he continues to exercise this dominion, protecting his home from invaders and preaching a very Calvinistic Christianity to the “savage” he comes into contact with. Already this reading is making better sense of the novel on the whole then the purely capitalistic reading. While this reading maintains a sort of capitalism in the form of Calvin’s understanding of having dominion over creation, it places it within a religious context which helps to explain Crusoe’s driving motivations. Additionally, the Calvinist reading accounts for the entire novel, rather than only Crusoe’s time on the island, as in the capitalist reading. While this argument from the overarching narrative of the entire novel may not be conclusive, it does lay a helpful foundation for the development of further arguments for this Calvinist reading of the text.


7 When we consider the specifics of the text, the argument is only strengthened. In the opening paragraphs, Crusoe describes his family background and his wizened “ancient” father. “My father had given me a competent share of learning… but I would be satisfied with nothing but going to sea; and my inclination to this led me so strongly against the will, nay the commands, of my father… that there seemed to be something fatal in that propensity of nature tending directly to the life of misery which was to befall me.”10 In the opening of the novel Defoe describes a character whose future could be secure, but because of a rebellious, ungrateful spirit is led into a “life of misery.” It is interesting that, for all the possible sins Defoe could cite that would lead Robinson Crusoe into his life of solitude, he singles out what Calvin defined as the root of human sinfulness. Indeed, as the story progresses, Crusoe’s debauchery continues as he describes a life characterized by “seafaring wickedness.” Yet even in describing Crusoe’s progressive drift into such wickedness, Defoe speaks of it in terms a Calvinist of his time would find familiar. One of the cornerstones of Calvin’s thought was his belief that knowledge of the divine is sinfully suppressed by human beings. And only a short way into the narrative, Crusoe is describing the process of how he hardened his conscience to the teachings of his father. Indeed, as if he wished to underline the point, Defoe concludes his description of Crusoe’s hardening conscience by saying, “But I was to have another trial for it still; and Providence, as in such cases it generally does, resolve to leave me entirely without excuse.” 11 The language used by Defoe – especially the phrase “entirely without excuse” smacks heavily of Calvin’s discussion of natural Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (Mahwah, NJ: Watermill Classics, 1980). p. 4. (emphasis mine) 11 ibid, p. 13. 10


8 revelation – which would include the consciences of men – in his Institutes. “But upon his individual works he has engraved unmistakable marks of his glory, so clear and so prominent that even unlettered and stupid folk cannot plead the excuse of ignorance.”12 Indeed, one of the strongest arguments for Calvin’s influence on Defoe is the similarity in their language, a theme that continues to develop as the novel progresses. With his initial step away from the good intentions of his father and into highhanded lawlessness on the seas, Crusoe has already demonstrated aptly the Calvinist doctrine of the fall of man. The eventual consequence of Crusoe’s rebellious behavior becomes his isolation on an island, but only after being tossed about in the ocean for a time, completely out of control, unable to choose his direction or steady himself in anyway. It is safe to say that such a chain of events would be horrifying to any civilized European who saw themselves and their way of life as innately superior to all others. To be stranded on a desert island removed from all vestiges of European life, surrounded by – as we’ll soon learn – “savage” cannibals would be a horrifying fate to any European. So it is perhaps unsurprising that it is at this point that Crusoe undergoes his conversion experience, in which we see the individual side of the redemption coin described by Calvin. It is shortly after his arrival on the island that Crusoe begins a reevaluation of his lifestyle, becoming aware of his rejection of his father’s counsel and his embrace of all manners of behavior that would horrify his family should they ever learn of it. Crusoe sums up his plight, saying: “I had, Alas! no divine knowledge. What I had received by the good John Calvin, John Calvin: Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (Garden City: Scholars Press, 1975). p. 333-4. 12


9 instruction of my father was then worn out by an uninterrupted series of seafaring wickedness… I do not remember that I had in all that time one thought that so much as tended either to looking upwards towards God or inwards towards a reflection upon my own ways. But a certain stupidity of soul, without desire of good, or conscience of evil, had entirely overwhelmed me.” 13 The similarity of Crusoe’s confessional language to much of Calvin’s language in the Institues is, once again, striking. Again, Defoe goes so far as to borrow language directly from Calvin who accuses those who reject God of “carnal stupidity.” 14 Indeed, Crusoe’s confession quoted above contains much of the classical Calvinist conversion experience. It begins with the acknowledgment of no salvific knowledge. It progresses to regret for rebelliousness and an understanding of the negative consequences of the sinful behavior. It then turns in a thoroughly-Calvinistic direction, describing the utter depravity of Crusoe who never had even one thought pleasing to God in his entire time at sea. Over the next several pages Crusoe continues to develop his sinfulness, including the confession that – consistent with Calvin’s notion of natural revelation and its limitations described above – “I was merely thoughtless of God, acted like a mere brute from the principles of nature, and by the dictates of common sense only, and indeed hardly that.”15 It culminates in Crusoe’s conversion when he acknowledges the truth of his father’s words and acknowledges that without divine help he will die and “what will become of me!”16 The conversion experience described by Crusoe comports well with the Calvinistic understanding of individual redemption. The similarities will Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (Mahwah, NJ: Watermill Classics, 1980). p. 128. John Calvin, John Calvin: Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (Garden City: Scholars Press, 1975). p. 330. 15 Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (Mahwah, NJ: Watermill Classics, 1980). p. 129. 16 Ibid, p. 133. 13 14


10 continue as we look at the public consequences of his conversion. Following this experience, Crusoe measures his situation and concludes that it is dire. He then asks God to aid him in surviving life alone on the remote island, before he gets up and begins his work in making the island livable for him. This is the point where a capitalist reading of the text works well, in so much as it relates to a commoner picking himself up by his own bootstraps. However, this section is explained just as well by the Calvinist notion of having dominion over the earth. Moreover, when one considers the state of the island, it is interesting that Crusoe is not so much setting up a business as he is bringing civilization to the island. True, in doing so he advances his own interests and makes survival possible, but the nature of his work on the island is essentially a Europeanizing of it – making European furniture, raising his own herd of goats so he can enjoy European food, making an oven to bake bread, all of these things represent – from Defoe’s point of view – the civilizing of the island. Even on the matter of clothing, Crusoe chooses the most “civilized” course available to him – wearing clothing he fashions from the material available to him rather than simply going naked. On all these levels, we see Crusoe developing the island in a direction consistent with Calvin’s understanding of the command given in Gen. 1:26. A common argument presented at this point for a more economically-driven reading of the novel is that God is a crutch to Crusoe and once he establishes himself on the island, he no longer needs God – as evidenced by the general lack of references to God in the latter half of the novel. However, this reading is problematic for two reasons. First, because it is only after his conversion that Crusoe begins to cultivate the island. Assuming a Calvinist framework this makes perfect sense because it is only


11 after conversion that human beings are able to fulfill the task given to them by God which can be summed up in a variety of ways – restoring the divine image, living out the divine law, or having dominion over the creation. These are all different ways of communicating the same idea. Regardless of which phrase is used, the core idea is this: The absence of explicit reference to God in the second half of the novel is not indicative of Crusoe’s dishonest dependence upon religious ideas. Rather it is indicative of the implicit nature of Crusoe’s conversion, which shapes his attitude toward his whole life. Put another way – God is not as active a character in the second half of the novel because Crusoe is no longer in conflict with him. The second problem with the religionas-crutch reading of the text is the case of Friday. When Crusoe first becomes aware of the natives his initial response is fear and anger, leading him to the careful plotting of how he might kill them. “Night and day I could think of nothing but how I might destroy some of these monsters in their cruel bloody entertainment.”17 In time, however, Crusoe develops sympathy for them, which leads to his rescue of Friday when the natives bring Friday to the island to kill and eat him. After saving Friday, Crusoe begins to educate him in the ways of “civilized” westerners, and eventually tells him of the Christian God. Again, his portrayal of this god is strongly Calvinistic. “I told him that the great Maker of all things lived up there, pointing up towards Heaven – that He goveners the world by the same Power and Providence by which He made it – that He was omnipotent, could do everything for us, give everything to us, take everything from us. And thus by degrees I opened his eyes.” 18 17 18

Ibid, p. 245. Ibid, p. 318.


12 Just as he sought to cultivate the physical environment surrounding him in a way that agreed with his religions confession, so he did the same in his relating to Friday. In both cases, Crusoe’s actions responding to his conversion shortly after his arrival reflect the values of John Calvin. Throughout his novel, Daniel Defoe structures a hero and a plot reflective of these values first articulated in the early 16 th century in Switzerland. Whether it is in the beginning when Crusoe’s fall mirrors that described in the theology of Calvin or in the middle where Crusoe’s conversion experience reflects the theology of Calvin or even at the end when Crusoe’s response to conversion reflects Calvinist thought, the novel is undeniably the product of a Calvinist pen. The shadow of John Calvin is long indeed, stretching over 150 years and the roughly 400 pages of Defoe’s master work. While Defoe never explicitly states his dependence upon Calvin, anyone familiar with the ideas of Calvin will see them reflected throughout the novel – even when God seems to disappear in the second half. As stated above, the absence is not a product of true absence, but only absence of conflict. But God’s presence is implicit throughout as Crusoe – acting much like a capitalist, which leads to much confusion – begins to act on Calvin’s understanding of the Christian’s responsibilities after conversion. For all these reasons one can easily argue that though he died 160 years before the publication of Robinson Crusoe, one of the chief figures in one of the first modern novels is the Genevan reformer John Calvin.

Works Cited •

Calvin, John. Calvin's Institues - A New Compend. Edited by Hugh T. Kerr. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1989.


13 • • • • • • •

—. Internet Christian Library. April 27, 2007. http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/m.sion/cvgn1-04.htm (accessed April 11, 2009). —. John Calvin: Selections from His Writings. Edited by John Dillenberger. Garden City: Scholars Press, 1975. —. Writings on Pastoral Piety. Edited by Elsie Anne McKee. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2001. Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. Mahwah, NJ: Watermill Classics, 1980. Haas, Guenther H. "Calvin's Ethics." In The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, by Donald K. McKim, 93-105. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Olson, Jeannine E. "Calvin and social-ethical issues." In The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, by Donald K. McKim, 153-172. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Tawney, R.H. Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1954.


Robinson Crusoe, a Calvinist Novel