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Reflections on Robinson Crusoe
Apr 1, 1998

Part II:

Economic Individualism and Secularization

The wider context of Robinson Crusoe

Crusoe’s relationship with God is sincere, intense and actively personal. It is also general and subjective. He does not read the resources he uses as ‘signs of God’; only the general fact that they are available to him to work with is a ‘sign from God’, a helping hand from Providence. He has no objective relation with the world as given to him which might inspire him to call a halt to his efforts at economic ‘improvement’. He finds money on the shipwreck and reflects on its uselessness to him, but he keeps it anyway, in case. He keeps it because he continually hopes for the means (a labour force) to do more with his island colony. There is no reason for doing more other than that he simply can do more, and the inward hope that his striving will please God. Once economic individualism dominates the structures within which economic activity is undertaken, the urge to increase surpluses ceases to operate as a purpose and can never be satisfied. Instead, it operates like a mechanical process, a force that goes on ‘improving’ resources until either the resources are exhausted, or they are taken over by a rival force. The history of nation-states or empires founded upon the ideology of economic individualism corroborates in the outer world, as it were, what Crusoe experiences in the solitude of his island prison/garden. And that experience is also corroborated in our epoch by the ruin of this planet: no moral argument, no inward initiative from within an individual conscience, however sincere, suffices to prevent the degradation of resources by economic ‘improvement’; the only force capable of preventing it is the external, mechanical one of scarcity: the resources become too expensive to ‘improve’. Where conservation is the cheaper option, it is adopted: where it is not, the ‘improvement’ goes on relentlessly. The logic is not moral but economic.

More grave is the issue of secularization itself. Though people conceive of it as something willed and chosen by individuals or societies, it too has the unrelenting quality of a mechanical process and individuals and societies are passive in relation to it. The secularization of knowledge was already well under way by the time Crusoe was written. At the collective level, knowledge becomes divorced from understanding and wisdom, and married to the quest for power or technology in the service of economic surpluses. (See box p.36 ‘From Faust to Frankenstein’ for an impressionistic sketch of the process.) The science of medicine, once devoted to the service of health, is now reduced to an increasingly efficient technology for responding to ill-health. Perhaps most dramatic of all has been the secularization of the law. The laws (however established) used to express a people’s collective will to enforce those of their traditional (religious or moral) values which were capable of enforcement. It used to be a recognized objective of the laws that they should improve the people morally. In European societies the laws of the Church, always distinct from the laws of the monarch, were nevertheless the basis of the typically unwritten or common law of custom and practice, and enforced by the monarch. Gradually, the law has been deprived of moral purpose and is increasingly seen as a merely administrative device to regulate the commercial or contractual relations between individuals. In England, this particular transition was formally stated after the long-running debate in the 1950s about the legalization of homosexual acts: it was concluded that the state had no business to intervene in the moral choices of consenting adults; the state has no role as moral guide. One could go on multiplying instances of secularization - the family become a temporary aggregate of distinct economic units, consuming or productive; social belonging become an abstract relationship of citizen and state - and that is the point, that the process continues, dividing the individual again and again from all traditional values with meaning and authority.

But, one wants to protest, the man Crusoe is yet himself in himself, a conscience intact. Religious experience, the individual’s most interior relation, his being under the gaze and care of His Creator, that, surely that, is invulnerable to secularization? Unfortunately not.

The secularization of religious experience

Crusoe is, as we noted, actively personal and direct in his address to God. But this addressing God and reflecting upon His Word, the Scripture, is conditional upon the authority of that Scripture as His Word. The Protestant revolt against the Catholic Church hinged essentially upon limiting the Church’s authority to determine the meaning of the Scripture and, thus, its authority to intervene between the individual believer and his understanding of the Scripture. The authority of the Scripture itself remained intact or was even strengthened through the Reformation.

By the time of Crusoe, the English Protestant dream of creating a commonwealth of individual believers, tolerant of minor variations in each other’s practices of worship, a fellowship in Christ of social and moral equals, had long since turned to ashes. By the early 18th century, all that the Non-Conformists expected for or from the state was to be left alone - non-persecution, and freedom of worship: those who had despaired of toleration in England were already settled in the New World. The Scripture was powerless to influence collective affairs but it remained effective in informing and building individual conscience - as we see in the character of Crusoe. The authority of Scripture was still intact.

However, by the late 18th century, techniques of textual criticism evolved to analyse the history of classical works such as Homer’s epics began to be applied to the Bible. That, combined with the growing rift between scientific accuracies about certain natural phenomena and the claims made about them in the Bible, led to the crumbling of the authority of the Scripture and of the appeal of books embedded in that authority, such as Pilgrim’s Progress and the religious reflections in Robinson Crusoe.

The authority of the Bible is now affirmed by ‘a leap of faith’ in spite of reason, and reason always fights back. Religious experience is reduced to psychology and emotion, the quest not for understanding but for consolation. People find consolation in belonging, there is a market for it, and the need is supplied by the growth of mini-churches and cults. People find consolation also in escapist entertainment and in self- indulgence. Consequently we see even the established, traditional churches re-arranging schedules, furnishings, and their rites and services, to approximate church-going to an expedition to the supermarket or to some musical or other entertainment. The argument that this trend is the church coming back to its flock, working in the idioms of the ordinary people, is an unworthy self-delusion. The truth is that religious experience has been secularised: contemplation and prayer have been annulled or altered into a sort of ‘feeling - good’ which can be as well gratified by joining a club or cult or by buying something as by church-going. No doubt, going to church at all may yet preserve a link with traditions of prayer and contemplation, however feeble the link, and is therefore to be respected as the crumb of comfort better than the half- loaf better than none.

In conclusion

Robinson Crusoe has been popular because the situation of an enterprising, practically-minded, hard-working individual making something of himself in a foreign land serves as a sort of founding myth for the energies underlying European imperialist expansion and the structures of thought and policy related to economic individualism. The novel exceeds the myth insofar as it records the individual’s progress in self-discovery and self-mastery, his improvement in conscience and character. To some extent, the personal, moral quail- ties of the individual rescue the myth from its ugliest implications. However, the situation of the novel - a solitary individual achieving an economic surplus on an uninhabited island - is fundamentally nonsensical. The concept of surplus presupposes other individuals with whom economic transactions are possible. Crusoe knows that he may, and by Providence he will, join others to his little economic empire to make it grow into a big empire. First there is the warning footprint and then, in the end, the ship arrives and he is re-connected to the world. Once that re-connection is made, as we have explained, and we re-enter the wider context of European history, individual self-mastery is ineffective (or, more precisely, irrelevant) to direct or contain the processes of economic individualism. Little by little, all traditional concepts, values, structures and relationships are secularized and lose their authority and appeal. Nothing is sacred - not the king, nor the head of church, nor the Scripture, nor religion - not even conscience, which is only the old name for a consciousness that is uneasy, in need of soothing or distracting.

The individual represented as an economic unit has become, for the human conscience, an almost uninhabitable, unworkable island, and that island, once in contact with the economic mainland, is not a garden. The idea that it could be is the wish-fulfilling quality of the book so delightful in boyhood and to an adult mind in need of plain truth so profoundly vexing. Mercifully, Robinson Crusoe is not the only vision of a man surviving alone on an uninhabited island. By a curious coincidence, this other vision, originally in Arabic, was published in English in Defoe’s own London in 1708, the very year that Selkirk returned to England and recounted the adventures upon which Crusoe is based. Like Crusoe, this book was composed towards the end of its author’s life. The author’s name is lbn Tufayl, and his book, a brilliant philosophical allegory (not a novel) is called after its hero: Hayy bin Yaqzan. (See next issue for concluding article in this series.)


The story of Faust, though not so central as Robinson Crusoe, is nevertheless also at the core of the modern European imagination. It grew up around a historical figure who lived in Germany in the 14th/15th century and was alleged to have encyclopedic learning and supernatural powers. Some called him a charlatan; others thought he had made a contract with the devil - his soul in exchange for knowledge. Here was an early ‘Renaissance man’, the European equivalent of the great polymaths of the Islamic world known to Europeans by their Latinised names as Averroes, Avicenna, Alhazen, etc. The earlier of the two most famous treatments of the Faust story is the dramatisation (c.1589) by Shakespeare’s contemporary, Marlowe. In this version, Faust is cheated by the devil. Instead of knowledge of the mysteries of physical or human nature, Faust acquires knowledge corrupted into trivial kinds of worldly power and pleasure. He acquires, in modern idiom, not science but technology. Moreover, having lost his soul, Faust has lost the impulse to do good with his new powers - he degenerates into a common sorcerer or conjurer doing tricks to amuse kings and courtiers. He passionately desires to repent but it is too late: the playwright allows him a magnificent speech before the devils carry him off to eternal damnation. Despite the Renaissance date of Marlowe’s play, the religious horror at Faust’s contract with the devil is unmistakably medieval-Christian. Perhaps, in the medieval-Christian imagination, scholarly curiosity about nature was associated with the (then) intellectually more dynamic Islamic world. Just as in cheap romantic fictions the ‘tall, dark stranger’ is repelling as well as alluring, the superior achievements of the Muslims in crafts and commerce, in geographical and scientific explorations, etc., had to be (in order to contain the envious fascination they aroused) condemned as the product of a bargain with the devil.

Behind the legend lies the chilling assumption that the human potential for knowledge is less of a Divine favour than a Divine punishment. God, by definition Good and Benevolent, Who created man in His image, nevertheless andowed man with an overwhelming curiosity that must lead to his perdition: knowledge must be ‘stolen’ as fire was stolen for mankind by Prometheus, a crime for which the gods punish him eternally. In Marlowe’s version, Faust is unequivocally damned, partly a tragic figure, but mostly a fool: his bargain does not benefit mankind. In Goethe’s two- part poem on the same theme (1808;1832), Faust is ultimately saved, because his motives, to advance human knowledge, were noble. What has intervened between the two treatments of the same story is the secularisation of European ways of thought, the functional irrelevance of religious doctrines that once presumed to direct or limit curiosity. Among later Faust- types are the horror-film surgeons who advance the frontiers of medical science by practising their skills on corpses plundered from fresh graves in the dead of night: the religious horror at this desecration is merely a literary affectation and, in effect, comic. While the power of religion, that is, its ultimate truth, is acknowledged, in practice Europeanised people rely on the accuracies of scientific knowledge; science and religion are seen to be in competition and science wins.

Frankenstein and his monster

The most popular version of Faust, one contiunally revived and renewed, is the early 19th century horror story, Frankenstein. By that date, the reliable triumphs of experimental, mathematical physics had convinced people that all knowledge should be modelled upon physics, including biology. Thus, it came to be believed that life is not an inherently supernatural quality given directly by God to each living being, but instead a ‘natural force’ that must in principle be capable of being isolated, calculated, contained and reproduced by man. So, the brilliant young Dr. Frankenstein stitches together bits of different human corpses and exposes them to the ‘natural force’ of electrical energy: the result is the familiar monster with the bolt through his neck. Frankenstein regrets his experiment and perishes with his suffering, pitiable monster. We are supposed to be appalled by his presumption in daring to mimic the miracle of life. But there is little question where the sympathy of the fiction lies: those who counselled Frankenstein against the attempt are presented as dull moral conformists, Frankenstein as the damned, doomed hero - Faust without a devil to blame. If the story regrets what Frankenstein did, it is only because the experiment failed. If European imagination regrets Frankenstein’s arrogant daring, it is because society and its laws prevented the genius from doing enough experiments to get his work right.


It comes as no surprise, therefore, that an American scientist has recently announced that, in spite of the legal prohibition against such experiment, he will clone a human being.

There have been expressions of public horor at this announcement: we can be sure, therefore, that a science fiction novel or film will sooner or later represent this American as an intellectual hero pushing back the frontiers of human knowledge and power. And the rest of us will be cast in the role of the Indians, the savages, who (with their bows and arrows) try in vain to hold back the ‘progress’ of civilization.