The question of religion is one that necessarily brings with it a series of issues related to the understanding of morality and of social conduct. The protagonists of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and of Robinson Crusoe are both characters which seem to have come, although upon different terms, into a privileged relationship with God. Here I want to explore how the awareness of their privileged spiritual status influences the way they perceive themselves and the way they relate to the members of their society. We will see also how Robert Wringhim and Robinson Crusoe actually respond to two opposite moral codes which stem from their different ability for self-analysis and genuine introspection.
After the shipwreck and Crusoe’s arrival on the island, the narrative can be divided into two sections which exemplify Crusoe’s spiritual change. At first the main focus lies on how Crusoe manages to subjugate the island’s wilderness and thus to create the necessary material conditions for his own sustenance: “So I went to work; and here I must needs observe, that as reason is the substance and original of the mathematicks, so by stating and squaring every thing by reason, […] every man may be in time master of every mechanick art.” (Defoe 49) This positivistic attitude towards reality is the one that most characterizes Crusoe’s personality nonetheless, his constant state of isolation brings forth a different aspect of Crusoe’s identity which denotes an unexpected emotional depth: “Now I looked back upon my past life with such horror, and my sins appeared so dreadful, that my soul sought nothing of God, but deliverance from the load of guilt that bore down all my comfort.” (Defoe 70) Crusoe starts reinterpreting his all life and his present situation as the actuation of a providential plan; and the consideration of his own sinful past and the awareness of his moral fallibility bring him to willfully entrust his fate to God’s superior intelligence: “Thus I liv’d mighty comfortably, my mind being entirely composed by resigning to the will of God, and throwing myself wholly upon the disposal of his Providence.” (Defoe 99) The rational superiority that Crusoe had showcased by taming the island’s wilderness and by shaping the material world so that it would respond to his primary needs must then be contrasted with the later acknowledgment of his powerlessness if front of God’s providential justice. This acknowledgment is particularly important because of the repercussions it has on Crusoe’s attitude towards the savages he will later encounter. The cannibals’ ignorance of God’s justice is not different from Crusoe’s previous own ignorance and therefore, although he condemns cannibalism as a gruesome violation of Christian morality, his disposition towards the cannibals cannot but be one of understanding and tolerance, and he must necessarily leave the task of judging and punishing to the only rightful, universal Judge of human affairs: “It is certain these people either do not commit this as a crime; it is not against their own consciences reproving, or their light reproaching them. They do not know it to be an offense, and then commit it in defiance of divine justice, as we do in almost all the sins we commit.” (Defoe 125) This secular attitude towards other cultures will mould Crusoe’s behavior towards all the characters he encounters, and although he never questions the absolute rightfulness of his own faith, he is nonetheless ready to acknowledge the existence of cultural diversity. Differently from what happens in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Crusoe’s assertion of authority on the island depends much more on his acts of tolerance rather than on acts of violence, and his magnanimity functions to place him in a position of moral and consequently religious superiority. The king-subject relationship which bind Crusoe and Friday is founded upon Friday’s sense of duty towards the man who saved his life but, as Egan clarifies in “Crusoe’s Monarchy and the Puritan Concept of the Self,” it also implies a cultural and moral disparity between the two that is eventually compensated only by means of Friday’s conversion to Christianity; Crusoe’s secular authority is thus made inseparable from his religious authority.
On the other hand, in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Robert’s spirituality is tarnished by the notion of predestination and antinomianism. The conviction of being an elect lends inherent justification to all his actions and triggers his metamorphosis into an unscrupulous murderer. Robert’s character is nonetheless pervaded by an eerie duality which epitomizes the inner fracture he perceives between the religious duty he must perform and the morality dictated by civil law: “I tried to ascertain, to my own satisfaction, whether or not I really had been commissioned of God to perpetrate these crimes in his behalf, for in the eyes, and by the laws of men, they were great and crying transgressions.” (Hogg 115) Although Robert is not blind in front of the potential dangers of Gil Martin’s extremist discourses, yet his need to please his own ego forces him to yield to the fascination of Gil Martin’s argumentations: “There was something so flattering in all this, that I could not resist it. Still, when he took leave of me, I felt it as a great relief; and yet, before the morrow, I wearied and was impatient to see him again.” (Hogg 93) The result of their conversations is that Robert becomes always more trapped in a world dominated by what Duncan terms, borrowing the expression from Hume, the “abstract speculative principle,” (Duncan 344) where salvation and reprobation are conceptualized into irreconcilable opposites. This oversimplification of diversity is the consequence of a fallacious reasoning which tends to filter reality through ready made intellectual schemes of good and evil. In his essay “Fanaticism and Civil Society: Hogg’s Justified Sinner,” Duncan argues that the “ideologically unified brotherhood” between Robert and Gil Martin “is a fantasy of excessive socialization that overrides the Enlightenment conception of civil society as a regulated system of individual differences,” (345) and warns against those religions that found their justification merely upon philosophical reasoning.
The fanatic rejection of diversity can be read as the primal cause of acts of violence. Robert is in fact from the very start induced to understand humanity as inherently divided in two categories and to recognize those who do not comply to his own beliefs as enemies. It is crucial to ponder on the words Robert’s reverend father uses when he dedicates Robert to the Lord. He employs a particularly aggressive language permeated with war-inspired metaphors: “ I give him into Thy hand, as a captain putteth a sword into the hand of his sovereign, wherewith to lay waste his enemies.” (Hogg 89) He desires Robert to perform like a “two-edged weapon” and a “spear” which will “destroy,” “overcome” and “pass over” God’s enemies. Paradoxically enough Robert, who has been and will be throughout the novel subjugated to the power of delusive rhetoric, laments the weakness of words in their task of converting infidels: “The more I pondered on these things, the more I saw of the folly and inconsistency of ministers, in spending their lives, striving and remonstrating with sinners, in order to induce them to do that which they had it not in their power to do.” (Hogg 90) Differently from Crusoe, Robert does not recognize the equality of every sinner in front of God and thus cannot possibly develop Crusoe’s same sympathy towards his fellow human beings. On the contrary, the certainty of his being destined to salvation takes away from Robert even the ability to repent: “I always tried to repent of these sins by the slump, for individually it was impossible; and though not always successful in my endeavours, I could not help that; the grace of repentance being withheld from me; I regarded myself as in no degree accountable for the failure.” (Hogg 83)
In Robinson Crusoe, Crusoe’s enlightened rationality makes itself apparent also in his approach to faith. Although he is not yet ready to acknowledge the validity of religions different from his own, as it is made apparent by the intellectual colonization he enacts upon Friday, he is also influenced by a newly discovered humanism which prevents him from killing someone in virtue of their customs, despite how barbaric these customs might seem. This final resolution is exactly the resolution that Robert Wringhim fails to adopt; his fanaticism consists in fact of despising and condemning the different as unworthy to exist. Novel highlights that Robert’s self-justification is grounded upon the argument that “ human legality and/or morality can be overridden by a higher morality and the infallibility it secures.” (206) But this higher morality, to which Robert Wringhim claims to respond, is to Crusoe an inscrutable conception, and by virtue of its inscrutability Crusoe is forced to hold himself the only responsible for his own actions. Whereas in Robert’s case the certainty of salvation turns Robert into a monster, it is the lack of certainty about God’s providential justice that eventually leads Crusoe to ponder about and investigate the true sense of morality and thus to create a space for tolerance and acceptance.
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- Bachelor of Arts (English- German) Alessandra Pennesi (Author), 2019, The Rescuer and the Murderer. Religious Beliefs and Social Conduct in "The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner" and "Robinson Crusoe", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/906430