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Jun 12, 2019 in Literature

Ideological Elements of Enlightenment in “Robinson Crusoe”


Enlightenment is a significant historic period, which can be characterized with numerous ideas, which enforced the development of numerous aspects of human’s life. The implications of Enlightenment can be seen in the social, economic, scientific, religious and other spheres of life. Being a profound social and philosophical movement it united a wide range of philosophic ideas, which influenced the development of the mentioned spheres of life. Moreover, on may observe the expressed ideas in numerous art works including literature. One presumes that Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” is one of the books, which has numerous references to the age of Enlightenment. Likewise, it encompassed a significant amount of main ideological elements of this period. Therefore, this paper analyzes multiple ideological elements of the Age of Enlightenment as an analytical framework characterizing the novel. The research suggests that numerous ideological elements of the referred age enriched the potential of the narrative creating a vivid experience of a person living at that time. 

The Characteristics of the Age of Enlightenment

The Age of Enlightenment is a transitional period of the society of the late 17th and 18th century from the state of strict social hierarchy and dictatorship of Church.  Thus, throughout the 18th century, the European society faced with numerous scientific discoveries almost in all spheres of knowledge at that time. The ideas about this period saved in numerous pieces of fiction and non-fiction literature. For instance, whereas Defoe created “Robinson Crusoe”, the philosophers and economists, such as Kant and Marx respectively, developed new philosophical and economic foundations for better social life. Therefore, the historic and philosophical period obtained the name “Enlightenment” because the philosophers of that time believed that education was capable of rapid social progress. Thus, the common belief of that time was that “reasoning and education could quickly dispel the darkness of the past that had kept people in a state of immaturity” (Sherman 93). That is why the criticism of that time was directed towards the Church and the governments, which had been restraining the social progress for centuries. As a result, scholars of that time provided different visions of their society proposing various models of its existence. They were motivated by knowledge and discoveries, which caused endless debates of the future of their countries without the royal governing and the Church. 

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Furthermore, one may realize the visions of that period after getting acquainted with the outstanding thinkers and philosophers’ ideas. One of the well-known philosophers of that time was Immanuel Kant. He is famous because of his works discussing the nature of mind and its relation to natural phenomena. Kant discusses the phenomenon of the social immaturity addressing its causes. The philosopher considered that laziness, cowardice and religion were one of the restraining factors, which kept the society immature (Sherman). Furthermore, he discusses the nature of the public agreements and legislations coming to the conclusion that obedience was one of the gravest social issues of his time. At the same time, another scientist, Baron d’Holbach, discussed the authority of the Church as well as religion, its customs and dogmas. In general, religion and the Church were the main objects of his criticism, which he opposed to reason, experience, and nature as their guides (Sherman). Thus, one of his important ideas regarding the society was that people have to seek means for the destruction of their delusions in order to prevent social misleading (Sherman). Furthermore, one can regard the “Encyclopedia of Arts and Sciences”, which was edited by Diderot, as a manifesto of the period of the Enlightenment. The reason for this statement is that it comprised the knowledge and explorations of that time produced by numerous scientists. Therefore, the Age of the Enlightenment was a period of pure knowledge, which had been vividly expressed by the book of Defoe.

Elements of Enlightenment in “Robinson Crusoe”

The novel of Daniel Defoe tells the story of a man, which trapped on an uninhabited island after his ship crushed in the oceanic waters. Faced with nature alone, he strives for his existence combating hunger, thrust, cold and other disadvantages of living on an unknown land without social life conditions. Basically, facing with nature and reliance on the human knowledge is one of the crucial aspects of the plot, which reveals the ideas of the Enlightenment. Moreover, the form of narration was a diary, which added realism to the story, which was partially based on real events. Therefore, the life of Crusoe on the island repeats the history of humanity and the struggle of the scholars of the period of the Enlightenment. The reason for this statement is that Crusoe was born in a family of a puritan and bourgeois. His father wanted him to become a lawyer, but adventurous nature of his son makes him an entrepreneur, sailor and slave owner. However, his ordinary life was terminated during the ship catastrophe, which left him in extremely unusual conditions. 

Furthermore, one should say that according with the concepts of the Enlightenment, Crusoe used his knowledge as a tool. It general, his way of life gradually describes the evolution of the human society. Thus, his knowledge and empirical practice turns him into a hunter, cattle farmer and cultivator. That is why the symbolism of this novel is that knowledge is the key to life and survival. For instance, if Crusoe started praying and hoping for salvation, he would have died instead of living for 28 years. Moreover, the anthropocentric concept of the Enlightenment is also one of the key frameworks of the novel. Thus, trapped on an island, he was the only creator on that land. His reflections indicated his self-realization as a person, who is the only conqueror of nature. Thus, he experienced pleasure when thinking that the island belonged to him. He felt as if a conqueror and a lord of the unknown land. Moreover, his feeling of possession increased after he met Friday, who was  his slave during some time after their first meeting. At the same time, the author depicted the cases when Crusoe was humiliated with his local defeats. In such moments, the protagonist craved for God’s support. This position was common for puritans, who symbolized the ideas of the past filled with religious dogmas and customs. Thus, the power of these customs was so strong that Crusoe was craving for the salvation and the support from God during several years of his stay on the island. However, his prayers caused no actual impact, and he continued struggling with the problems on his own. Therefore, one regards such events as those referring to the popular concept of the absence of God, which was shared by the representatives of the Enlightenment. The reason for this was that the dialectics of the Enlightenment meant substitution of the belief for knowledge (Horkheimer, Adorno) Even though the last chapters of the book address to faith and religion more often, Crusoe completely relies on his skills and knowledge. 

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Furthermore, one has to discuss the concept of the society and the social life in the novel .Thus, the beginning of the book involves the description of a lonely person reflecting about one’s life and methods for survival. At the same time, later chapters involve another protagonist, Friday, who is a local aborigine. It is evident that the relationship between Crusoe and Friday bear a character of those between the master and a slave. However, Crusoe’s observations clearly depict his admiration of the thinking and reasoning abilities of the aborigine. The continuing part of the story even makes them friends, which represents the influence of the framework of the Enlightenment regarding race relations. Thus, the depicted course of events goes along with the ideas of the French thinker Montesquieu, who strongly opposed slavery as a mortal social institution of the past (Outram). At the same time, some attempts of Crusoe in teaching Friday the dogmas of the European community lead to failure. One of them is trying to make Friday a Christian. Thus, in his attempts explaining the role of God in the life of people Crusoe faces with complete misunderstanding. “If God much stronger, much might as the wicked devil, why God no kill the devil, so make him no more do wicked?" asks Friday leaving Crusoe puzzled and speechless. By this means the author shows that the image of God was overrated and taken for granted whereas there was a possibility for omitting it in one’s life. 

Moreover, the author depicts the social life of other aborigines supporting the concept of Rousseau that human beings are naturally more human (Rousseau). In contrast to the sailors, which are corrupted by social institutions and have not so pleasant life, the aborigines are glad to live with what they have. This concept is also discussed in “On Cannibals” (De Montaigne), in which Michel Montaigne admired that cannibals lived in harmony with nature and enjoyed their way of life. At the same time, Crusoe is capable of establishing a social agreement becoming the founder of a colony. Moreover, the impact of Crusoe on aborigines can be compared with the influence of cultural legacy of Europe on the once colonized Western lands during the Enlightenment (Said). Likewise, the experience of Crusoe vividly represents the concept of the dawning of the new world, which was a common transitional statement of the Enlightenment (Foucault). Thus, the life of Robinson Crusoe on the island was a transition of his world from a puritan into progressive, rational and naturalistic one. 

Furthermore, one has to describe the general feature of the novel, which can be characterized with poetization as a feature of the Enlightenment. This feature shows a gradual transformation of a puritan into a rationalist, which survives because of knowledge and practical skills. Gradually, the author transfers the protagonist from a bourgeois into a person, which is the advanced representative of the age of Enlightenment. Thus, the basis of his thoughts becomes knowledge instead of belief. Moreover, Crusoe even becomes a scholar representing the Enlightenment when he taught Friday social norms and language. Therefore, the author depicted the impact of knowledge not on one but on two people and even the community of local aborigines. 


Summarizing the presented information, the paper concludes that the novel of Daniel Defoe has numerous ideological references to the Age of Enlightenment. Thus, it discusses such aspects as geography, mathematics, the evolution of civilization, religion and dogmas, social order, slavery and many others. Moreover, Defoe depicts gradual development of a person from the one having primitive social conditions into slave owner and the founder of a community. The narrative of the story communicates the ides of the Enlightenment through various life situations, which the protagonist meets on the island. Thus, he gradually refuses from the puritan concept of God and relies more on empirical knowledge. Moreover, knowledge becomes the motto of the novel because it allows the survival of the protagonist. Therefore, one presumes that the ideas of Kant, d’Holbach, Diderot, Rousseau, Marx as well as other prominent thinkers of that time reflected in the ideas expressed in Defoe’s novel.

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