Hobbes’ State of Nature in Robinson Crusoe

Daniel Defoe
Daniel Defoe

The titular protagonist of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, marooned on an island off the coast of South America, applies his rationality to the examination of his state of affairs. In determining “that there was scarce any Condition in the World so miserable, but there was something Negative or something Positive to be thankful for in it,” he answers the ‘Evil’ that “I have no Soul to speak to, or relieve me,” with the ‘Good’, “But God wonderfully sent the Ship in near enough to the Shore, that I have gotten out so many necessary things as will either supply my Wants, or enable me to supply my self even as long as I live” (102).

When Crusoe replies to solitude with an observation about being well-equipped, he is not really answering to the Con with an applicable Pro–rather, it is a dodge. Having sufficient tools so as to provide for his physical needs cannot give him a “Soul to speak to,” nor can it relieve him of the burden of solitude. Yet, despite the rational insufficiency of his answer to the perplexity posed, Crusoe seems to be entirely satisfied with the result.

I suggest that Crusoe’s satisfaction stems from his awareness, even if only dimly or subconsciously, of the threats which the Hobbesian State of Nature posits–threats which will later be manifest in the form of the cannibals (who do not answer to his nation, his God, or even his code of morality); and of the muntineers (who have treacherously cast off the authority which governed them). Hobbes’ 1651 Leviathan popularly established social contract theory, and its arguments quickly became part of the intellectual landscape of English philosophical and political thought. The currents of Leviathan can be seen in the ‘rational’ thoughts of Defoe’s protagonist.

Thomas Hobbes
Thomas Hobbes

Hobbes argues that “men have no pleasure, (but on the contrary a great deale of griefe) in keeping company, where there is no power able to over-awe them all” (102-103). And, on the “Island of Despair” there is no power apparent which is able to over-awe Crusoe, or anyone else. Consequently, the presence of another man would have brought strife and conflict, even if not at first than within the mind and disposition. As Hobbes writes:

Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man. For WARRE consisteth not in Battell onely, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known […] the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. (103)

Of course, Hobbes goes on to argue that men in this state do not engage in industry, agriculture, navigation, architecture, arts, and letters–so, in this regard, Crusoe appears to contradict Leviathan‘s State of Nature, for the castaway does set himself to industrious pursuits. Yet Crusoe’s industry takes place, at least initially, in the assumption that he is alone. For Crusoe, the fruits of industry are certain; he believes that there are no men who can take it from him. Hence, his solitude–far from being an ‘Evil’–guarantees with surety the fruits of his labours.

Though my primary focus is on this moment in the text, it is worth noting that, immediately upon encountering other men, Crusoe immediately fixates upon the power with which they can conceiveably be ‘over-awed’: God. And, with Friday, Crusoe embarks upon this very course. Converted to Christianity and its moral precepts, Friday dare not betray Crusoe, for a greater power governs both men. Encountering the mutineers, Crusoe uses his own power to enforce a lawful authority. His re-entry into the world of men is fraught with conflict–and that conflict is invariably resolved (and, indeed, can only be resolved) by reinstating Hobbesian power: man against man, until the Sovereign power insituted makes possible a time of peace.

Works Cited
Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. Edited by Evan R. Davis. Peterborough, ON, Canada: Broadview Press, 2010.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, 1950.

One comment

  1. It is interesting to consider the variety of powers capable of “over-awing” individuals. While Crusoe does try to enforce a lawful authority over the mutineers, I don’t think that this is the power that ultimately proves successful. Rather, it seems it was the same power that incited them to mutiny in the first place; I’m not sure what to call it: perhaps a fearful urge for conformity or a kind of groupthink? After killing two of the mutineers, the Captain tells three of the others that “he would spare their Lives, if they would give him any Assurance of their Abhorrence of the Treachery they had been guilty of.” Not surprisingly, these men give “him all the Protestations of their Sincerity that could be desir’d.” There is, of course, no reason to believe they are truly remorseful, just as, really, there is no reason to assume they were terribly passionate about the mutiny in the first place. They have likely all along been simply swept up by the momentum of their groupthink. (I still don’t think “groupthink” is precisely what I mean, but I can’t seem to find a better way to express it.) I might even go so far as to say that such momentum is often the power that over-awes all the other powers capable of influencing human thought and behavior.

Comments are closed.