Monday, October 10, 2011

The Utility of Ink

God helps those who help themselves.” Benjamin Franklin appends to this maxim in the 1757 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanac. This theme seems to pervade Daniel Defoe’s novel, Robinson Crusoe. For this reason and many others, Defoe’s novel can be used as an instructive discourse as Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau proposes in Emile. Certainly, Robinson Crusoe has the ability to educate children regarding such issues as pragmatism, resourcefulness, and independence.

The importance of pragmatism is soon made evident along Crusoe’s journey. The protagonist is initially an unfocused wayward fellow: “Being the third son of the family, and not bred to any trade, my head began to be filled very early with rambling thoughts” (5). He soon learns that the mind works best when confined to the realm of practical concerns. When attempting to explain the devil’s existence to Friday, a Caribbean native and cannibal, Crusoe is soon bombarded with questions as to why God does not simply kill the devil or why an all-merciful God does not simply forgive everyone, including the devil. Confused by what he initially considers to be instinctive reasoning, Crusoe aborts the discussion before things get too complicated. He later remarks, “As to all the disputes, wranglings, strife and contention which has happened in the world about religion, whether niceties in doctrines or schemes of church government, they were all perfectly useless to us” (185). Once Crusoe veers away from controversial philosophical topics of discussion and focuses on matters of survival that directly impact his existence, his relationship with Friday returns to its original, healthy state. Knowledge about raising crops will serve Crusoe and his companions far better than speculation about the nature of heaven and hell. Rousseau explains, “The surest way of rising above prejudice and ordering one’s opinions according to the real relations of things is to put oneself in the place of a solitary man, and to judge everything as he would, having regard to its particular utility” (Rousseau). Crusoe’s increasing utilitarianism and resourcefulness as the novel progresses makes manifest his growing realization of the importance of pragmatic thought, especially in such a situation as he finds himself.

Defoe’s novel aims to celebrate every man’s ability to not only focus his mind but also perfect his skill through perseverance. While a later, revolution-minded generation of the eighteenth century would be proclaiming that all men have been endowed with such inalienable rights as life, liberty, and property, Defoe takes a much more fundamental stance: that all human beings have the ability to create. By exercising this ability, humans may attain some degree of self-sustenance. The fact that Crusoe is not remarkably intelligent or gifted is of significant importance; Defoe wants to emphasize that anyone, regardless of his station in life, may work diligently and achieve desired means as a result. Robinson Crusoe “shows, how, by labouring with one’s own hands, one may secure independence, and open for one’s self many sources of health and amusement” (Beattie). Defoe successfully persuades his audience that ordinary people from modest means can overcome adversity and perform feats of self-sufficiency that were scarce considered possible. Defoe’s novel attests to the ability of every man to discipline his mind, and as a consequence, master his trade. Rousseau expounds, “The child, when urged to equip himself for the island, will be keener to learn than the master to teach him. He will want to know everything useful, and nothing else; you will no longer have to guide him, only to restrain him” (Rousseau).

Defoe places particular importance on the virtue of persistence. Throughout the novel, repeated effort breeds success, and success breeds bigger dreams and goals. “And now indeed my stock of corn increasing, I really wanted to build my barns bigger. I wanted a place to lay it up in, for the increase of the corn now yielded me so much that I had of the barley about twenty bushels, and of the rice as much or more” (105). The process of trial-and-error is also emphasized: “After this experiment I need not say that I wanted no sort of earthenware for my use” (103). Failure is not a dead end, but an opportunity for the mind to learn how to succeed. After constructing a boat that is too large to get off land and into the sea, Crusoe reflects, “I was obliged to let it lie where it was, as a memorandum to teach me to be wiser next time” (115). A wiser Crusoe later builds a more suitable boat. For all its truths concerning the nature of hard labor, diligence, and other core values, Robinson Crusoe serves as a singular entity from which children may derive important life lessons, as Rousseau suggests.

Works Cited

Beattie, James. “On Fable and Romance.” Dissertations Moral and Critical. W. Strahan, 1783. 505- 574. Rpt. in Children’s Literature Review. Ed. Michelle Lee and Deborah J. Morad. Vol. 61. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000. Literature Resource Center. Web. 5 Sep. 2011.

Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2005. Print.

Rousseau, Jacques. “Rousseau on ‘Robinson Crusoe’.” Defoe: The Critical Heritage. Ed. Pat Rogers. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972. 52-54. Rpt. in Children’s Literature Review. Ed. Michelle Lee and Deborah J. Morad. Vol. 61. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000. Literature Resource Center. Web. 5 Sep. 2011.