By any standard Daniel Defoe (1659?-1731) is one of the most remarkable authors in English history. In versatility, energy, and practical wisdom, few can claim to be his peer in life experiences or in skill with the pen. He came to writing by a circuitous route. After fathering seven children, he threw himself into business and politics; bankruptcy was the result in 1692, but his repayment plan would eventually compensate his creditors almost in full with an amount of 17,000 pounds.
He was not a nobleman, and had to earn his bread. He entered the tile business, eventually running a factory in Tilbury; it is refreshing to see an author so firmly grounded in worldly economic reality. He read widely to sharpen his mind and increase his revenues; one of the books that came across his path was William Dampier’s New Voyage Round The World, a volume published in 1697. This was the work that contained the story of Alexander Selkirk, the Scottish sailing master who had been marooned (not shipwrecked) on the Juan Fernandez Islands (four hundred miles west of Chile) for about four years. When Selkirk returned to England he related his story to a journalist named Richard Steele, who published the account in 1713. Defoe also apparently heard Selkirk’s story directly from him.
In 1719 Defoe published the Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. It sold out four editions in only four months and has remained arguably the most popular novel in the English language ever since. Its descriptive immediacy, fidelity to detail, philosophical depth, and exciting scenes leave their impact on all readers. Never before had English readers seen a story like it. Instead of telling a tale of man against man, Robinson Crusoe deals with that far more common circumstance: man against himself. While most of us will never be shipwrecked on a deserted island, we will without doubt be faced with loneliness, isolation, and the grief of abandonment. How a man deals with these things, how he overcomes the voices of defeatism and despair, are what really concern us. And Robinson Crusoe tells us how to deal with these emotions.
The human emotion and detail of the book are incredible. We feel the rough sea pound our backs as Crusoe hangs on to a jutting rock for dear life on the beach right after the shipwreck; we share his isolation as he circumnavigates his new home and finds it deserted; we share his joy when he learns, after hard trial and error, how to bake a crude bread; we feel his trepidation and suspicion when he first sees strangers enter his weird Eden. This is almost the story of civilization itself, told entirely by one man: the slow, painful ascent from ignorance to ultimate mastery of one’s environment.
Few novels from this period are as relevant today. Who today does not struggle with self-mastery? Who today does not need to feel inspired to face life’s onerous difficulties? Consider this moving passage, where Crusoe takes mental stock of the “good and bad” of his predicament:
I now began to consider seriously my condition, and the
circumstances I was reduced to; and I drew up the state of my
affairs in writing, not so much to leave them to any that were to
come after me – for I was likely to have but few heirs – as to
deliver my thoughts from daily poring over them, and afflicting my
mind; and as my reason began now to master my despondency, I began
to comfort myself as well as I could, and to set the good against
the evil, that I might have something to distinguish my case from
worse; and I stated very impartially, like debtor and creditor, the
comforts I enjoyed against the miseries I suffered, thus:-
Evil: I am cast upon a horrible, desolate island, void of all hope
Good: But I am alive; and not drowned, as all my ship’s company
Evil: I am singled out and separated, as it were, from all the
world, to be miserable.
Good: But I am singled out, too, from all the ship’s crew, to be
spared from death; and He that miraculously saved me from death can
deliver me from this condition.
Evil: I am divided from mankind – a solitaire; one banished from
Good: But I am not starved, and perishing on a barren place,
affording no sustenance.
Evil: I have no clothes to cover me.
Good: But I am in a hot climate, where, if I had clothes, I could
hardly wear them.
Evil: I am without any defence, or means to resist any violence of
man or beast.
Good: But I am cast on an island where I see no wild beasts to hurt
me, as I saw on the coast of Africa; and what if I had been
Evil: I have no soul to speak to or relieve me.
Good: But God wonderfully sent the ship in near enough to the
shore, that I have got out as many necessary things as will either
supply my wants or enable me to supply myself, even as long as I
If Crusoe can find some measure of relief by making a list like this, we should be inspired to do likewise in our own lives. We will probably find that things are not as bad as we think they are; and if they are bad, we will learn how to master them, just as Crusoe learns how to make weapons, fashion clothing, build his house, hunt game, and keep crows away from his vegetables.
What is not generally known is that Defoe may have been helped in his creative endeavor by reading a translation of the Arabic philosophical classic Hayy Ibn Yaqthan (حي بن يقظان) by the twelfth century Andalusian philosopher Ibn Tufayl (بن طفيل). The title of this work literally means “Alive, Son of Awake” and is written as a allegory for philosophical debate. In it, a feral child growing up alone on a deserted island gradually becomes aware of the higher truth of things. The book is an interesting mix of rationalism and mysticism, and remains one of the most remarkable literary productions of the medieval period. Its influence on later centuries (in both East and West) was due to its descriptions of how a man should think, and what questions he should ask himself, in order to progress in worldly knowledge to ultimate Truth.
The author’s copy of “Hayy Ibn Yaqthan”
Hayy Ibn Yaqthan was only available in Arabic until 1671; in that year it was translated into Latin by Edward Pocock. Three years later this Latin edition was translated into English by George Keith. So it is very likely that Defoe, enterprising journalist that he was, was familiar with Ibn Tufayl’s work. One scholar who did a comparative study of the two works made this conclusion:
After pointing out the identical settings of two men each stranded on a desert island, this study proceeds to analyze the approach of each book to the relationship between man and Nature. In the process of mastering their environments, Hayy and Crusoe awaken to the providential presence behind natural forces and learn to regulate themselves within the divine scheme and to form strong relations with God…Examining the technical aspects of Robinson Crusoe and Hayy Bin Yaqzan, their narrative methods, their chronological order, their structure, style, and delineation of character, the study concludes that although the two books belong to different genres, they are still more similar than ordinarily assumed. It also finds that the question of indebtedness, which may never be resolved, is less significant than the broader similarities in cultural, political, and religious circumstances which may be at work.
None of this, of course, is intended to detract from the brilliance and originality of Robinson Crusoe. Even if Defoe may have been indirectly inspired by ideas that came before him, what he did with those ideas was entirely his own. Writers do not operate in a vacuum. We mention it here only to show that learned men of all cultures share certain things in common: intellectual curiosity, a restless search for the truth, and an ability to put in allegorical form the deepest cravings of the spirit. These overriding imperatives–springing from that Community of the Mind that knows no borders–finally transcend all languages, cultures, and faiths.