In 1724 Daniel Defoe published his last novel, Roxana, and began writing works on the occult, including The Political History of the Devil (1726), A System of Magic (1726), and An Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions (1727). Maximillian E. Novak has suggested that the meager financial success of Roxana may have led Defoe to abandon fiction (Daniel Defoe 624) and then turn his attention to answering contemporary attacks on orthodox Christianity and the Bible ("Defoe" 94). The shift from novels to treatises appears rather decisive, but critics have suggested possible links between Defoe's novels and his work on the occult. In the view of Richard Titlebaum, Defoe's work on demonology casts "a fascinating light on Defoe's fiction" (6); however, he makes no mention of Roxana. In Realism, Myth, and History in Defoe's Fiction, Novak proposes that Defoe began "toying" with a notion in Roxana he would later develop fully in the Political History--namely, the means by which human beings transform themselves into devils. Even more than Defoe's previous novels, Roxana focuses on the internal state of its protagonist and traces her moral decline (105, 100). David Blewett similarly claims that "the attention paid to the interior drama of moral deterioration" distinguishes Roxana from Defoe's earlier novels, and he examines the "subtle" means by which the devil preys on Roxana's mind, a theme developed by Defoe in the Political History (130, 139). Novak and Blewett point to a central feature of the Political History--the view that hell is more an internal reality than a physical place of fire and brimstone.
These readings help us interpret one of the most notable junctures in Defoe's writing career; however, they suggest more than they substantiate. This essay argues that rhetorical and formal, as well as thematic, concerns link Roxana and the Political History. By examining Roxana in light of Defoe's writings on the occult, and vice versa, we can understand the motives and methods of each text more clearly. The Political History does not merely develop themes introduced in Roxana; the continuation of these themes from novel to treatise indicates an inability on Defoe's part to put to rest, via the medium of prose fiction, attacks by deists and freethinkers on the orthodox Christian views of the providential order and the reality of hell, both of which were foundational to Defoe's religious outlook. The differences between the two texts reveal the serious challenges their author faced in writing about the Devil in a time when a dual complication was occurring: belief in the Devil was dwindling at the very moment when, in Defoe's view, polite society and learning had all but allowed the Devil to cease using magical methods suitable to credulous eras and to rely on normal-seeming customs and institutions of society, religion, politics, and learning to do his work for him. This situation required a risky strategy. By avoiding superstition and the belief in magic that appeared in contemporary treatises on the occult, and by seeking to expose normal-seeming characteristics of society as the work of the Devil, Defoe in his own way risked eradicating the Devil.
The existence of the Devil created controversy because believers in Defoe's lifetime considered it a crux of religious thought at the same time as skeptics questioned the rationality of such beliefs. While Defoe had, as Novak points out, "moved far from the notions of a horned and cloven-footed devil" (Daniel Defoe 659), the Devil was an undeniable reality for Defoe and an indispensable element in his system of belief. Writing in the Political History, Defoe explains: "The Truth is, God and the Devil, however opposite in their nature, and remote from one another in their place of abiding, seem to stand pretty much upon a level in our faith: For as to our believing the reality of their existence, he that denies one generally denies both; and he that believes one necessarily believes both" (20). From this proposition Defoe concludes that it is "as certain that there is a Devil, as that there is a God" (22).
Attacks on the doctrine of the Devil and eternal punishment were not anything new. From the mid-seventeenth century on, D. P. Walker explains, a variety of thinkers and theologians set out to explode "the orthodox doctrine of hell" (4). Many of these individuals believed that such a doctrine cast doubt on the goodness of God and implied limitations on God's omnipotence. Others suggested that the idea of hell ascribed to God the blame for the sins He violently punished: "Whether by a decree of reprobation, or by permitting the misuse of free will, God is ultimately responsible for the sins He punishes with eternal torment" (Walker 51). In Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750, Jonathan I. Israel describes controversies over the Devil and hell as a "vast triangular contest in Europe between intellectual conservatives, moderates, and radicals" (375). Baruch Spinoza, one of the radicals, doubted the existence of Satan and considered stories of apparitions, whether demonic or angelic, as evidence of humanity's tendency to "narrate things not as they are but as they would like them to be" (qtd. in Israel 375). The Dutch preacher Balthasar Bekker unleashed controversy across Europe when he published his four-volume Betoverde Weereld (The World Bewitch'd, or, An Examination of the Common Opinions concerning Spirits [1691-93]). Bekker shocked fellow believers by categorizing magic, witchcraft, spells, enchantment, demons, and other satanic activities as pagan beliefs that were retained by early Christians and embraced for wrong reasons by the medieval Church. Although Bekker believed in both angels and the Devil, he denied "the near universal conviction that Satan, demons, or any spirits can, through spells, possession, bewitchment, or any magical device, alter the normal workings of nature's laws and influence men's lives." Scriptural references to such appearances and influences were, he asserted, mere figurative references to the evil desires that people experience (Israel 379-80).
Even though other sources for Defoe's ideas on the Devil have been advanced, we think it probable that Bekker had a major influence, whether directly or indirectly. The first volume of Bekker's work was translated into English in 1695, complete with a prefatory summary of the four volumes, and an abridged version appeared in 1700 as The World Turn'd Upside Down. In spite of John Beaumont's comment in his 1705 Treatise on Spirits that the English showed little interest in Bekker, Israel believes otherwise: "Allusions in Tindal, Mandeville, and other writers suggest a pervasive undercurrent of awareness in English culture at that time" (399). When Anthony Collins observed in A Discourse of Free-Thinking, Occasion'd by the Rise and Growth of a Sect Call'd Free-Thinkers (1713) that "the Devil is intirely banish'd [from] the United Provinces" (28), he indicates how pervasive Bekker's influence had become. As a moderate who believed the scriptural references to the Devil but doubted the Devil's use of paranormal methods, Defoe would have been uncharacteristically uninformed if he knew nothing of Bekker's ideas. He makes no explicit references to Bekker, nor does the recent Stoke Newington edition of Defoe's Political History, even in its background material and bibliography. However, given a few salient similarities in their viewpoints, it would seem safe to assume that Defoe knew of Bekker's work, either through the summary in the 1695 translation or the 1700 abridgement, and drew general inspiration from it in his Political History. (1) Titlebaum states that Defoe extracted much of his material from Joseph Glanville's Saducisimus Triumphatus: or, A Full and Plain Evidence concerning Witches and Apparitions, published originally in 1681 but reprinted as recently as 1726, and from Richard Baxter's Concerning the World of Spirits (2). However, unlike Glanville and Baxter, and like Bekker, Defoe showed considerable skepticism about the range of the Devil's power and his current reliance upon dark magic. As did Bekker, Defoe circumscribed the overt power of the Devil to influence events, although he did believe that Satan could suggest thoughts to which individuals must then respond. The major difference came in their acceptance of witchcraft, sorcery, conjuring, and such. Bekker doubted them wholesale, whereas Defoe believed that, when and where ignorance reigns, the Devil uses them freely and, in tandem with fearsome magic, promotes an image of God as a hostile and threatening power in order to influence people. The difference is not so great when we recognize that Defoe believed that the Devil adapts his strategies to the times and that when learning and civilization improve he works less openly, although still effectively, by subtly corrupting individuals, society, councils, and institutions.
Defoe thus found himself in a position similar to that of other moderates and closer to Bekker than to his English sources. Therein lurked the problem for him. Defoe occupied a position not unlike other moderate theologians, many of them followers of Bekker, who, in Israel's words, found themselves "in some difficulty [...] as to how, theoretically, to establish a meaningful, and theologically acceptable, demarcation between superstitious dread of magical power on one side, and what any true Christian must accept is the truth about Satan, demons, possession, and magic on the other" (402).
Roxana already shows a Defoe in transition, preparing, deliberately or inadvertently, to address the function of evil powers in relation to ordinary people. Until 1724 he had designed his most important novels around reformation and redemption. Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders find God and mend their lives, however arguably. In these novels older, more doctrinally or ethically seasoned narrators look back on their lives and report significant changes in their viewpoints and behavior. Their mature wisdom gives shape to their earlier restlessness and irresponsibility, interpreting these traits as aimless and regrettable stages overcome by slow accumulation of experience, as in Moll's case, or by catastrophic events and moments of epiphany, as in Crusoe's.
Roxana is the only protagonist among Defoe's major characters who remains unrepentant and the only one whose life culminates in misery. By selecting a plot of successive temptations and falls from which his protagonist makes no lasting recovery, even in a retrospective view of a long life, Defoe attends to the darker powers and outcomes in humanity's struggle between good and evil. God, an almost constant presence on Crusoe's island, and a faint but persistent inner force in Moll's England and America, is nearly absent from Roxana's world. The absence of the redemptive force begs for something to fill the void, something to explain the slow entangling of a soul in moral compromise and self-destruction. The Devil, not God, assumes the place of Prime Mover in Roxana. (2) With this alternate ruling force in mind, Defoe created in his novel a case study in modern deviltry. If Defoe's purpose in writing Robinson Crusoe involved proving God's providence in human affairs, his purpose in writing Roxana took a different turn, proving the existence and influence of the Devil in an individual's life.
In this endeavor Defoe confronted, consciously or not, the limitations of a narrative treatment and thus may have recognized that the problems he was touching on in a fictional medium begged for a complementary approach. The fictional treatment in Roxana allowed Defoe to illustrate (1) the Devil's subtle means of influencing people in a time when overt satanic apparitions were viewed with skepticism; (2) the degree to which individual desire and social norms were saturated with transgressive passions and ambitions; (3) the increasing degree of entrapment experienced by people who succumb to temptations; and (4) the desperate mental state that consumes those who persist in moral compromise. Fictional treatment also provided a more satisfactory means of treating the quandaries of election and reprobation.
Social institutions conspire with individual desires in Roxana to take hold of vulnerable, even supposedly devout Christians--one of the main points of admonition in the Political History. At the outset of her adventures, Roxana is a good Christian with a clear sense of right and wrong. Defoe emphasizes her Protestant background by informing his readers that her parents were French Huguenots. When Roxana and her five children are abandoned by her husband, she is reluctant to follow Amy's advice to save herself from poverty by sleeping with her landlord and benefactor. "A Woman ought rather to die, than to prostitute her Virtue and Honour, let the Temptation be what it will" Roxana emphatically states (63). Eventually, however, Roxana accepts Amy's argument that "Poverty is the strongest Incentive, a Temptation, against which no Virtue is powerful enough to stand out" (61). Defoe emphasizes in Roxana's experience the extent to which material circumstances influence an individual's moral state, and novels like Roxana and Moll Flanders indicate that Defoe responded sympathetically to the plight of those driven by necessity to violate moral law. Defoe saw poverty as one of the Devil's many snares. However, even Roxana comes to recognize that her impoverished condition is more a test of her principles, courage, and steadfastness than it is a compelling rationale for compromise. Roxana's choices measure the shallowness of her faith and prepare the way for more insidious threats to her soul.
To underscore this point, as well as to illustrate the principle of increasing entrapment, Defoe's focus quickly shifts to his protagonist's increased vulnerability once she has been compromised. As Roxana's resolve weakens, the Devil makes a dramatic, though figurative, entry, as if to emphasize that in polite society other people perform the function that direct contact with evil power might once have performed. The scene in which Roxana is rescued from poverty by her landlord illustrates the point. As Albert J. Rivero observes, the scene is pivotal in Roxana's spiritual demise, and she experiences a kind of "mock redemption" when the landlord steps in and restores her fortune: "The landlord, in perverse imitatio Christi, returns Roxana's furniture, restores her house and garden, and in this manner delivers her from the 'devil of poverty and distress.' But this act of physical restitution, because of Roxana's vanity and evil inclination, has disastrous results for her spiritual life, for it 'plunges' her 'into the jaws of hell ... [,] into the power of the real devil, in recompense for that deliverance'" (290). Rivero sees this scene as a "retelling" of Adam's original fall in the Garden of Eden with some curious twists. The tempter essentially masquerades as Christ, and the garden in which he strolls while Roxana prepares to take her first morally fatal step is, unlike Eden, in disarray: the landlord "walk'd about the Garden; which was, indeed, all in disorder" (63). Significantly, it is during this stroll that Amy, whom Roxana refers to as "a Viper, and Engine of the Devil," tries to persuade Roxana to repay her benefactor with sexual favors. Whether as a result of poverty, a seemingly charitable benefactor, or Amy's corrupt logic, the door to "the real Devil" is opened wide (72), and Roxana finds herself in a long-term sexual and economic relationship with her rich jeweler. Successive relationships with her German prince in Paris, her Dutch merchant in Amsterdam, and aristocratic keepers in England follow the same pattern. Roxana thus illustrates Defoe's theme in the Political History that succumbing to temptation leads to yet more depraved passions. Impotent to attack humanity by force and confined by the advancing rationality of belief, the Devil employs "soft still Methods, such as Persuasion, Allurement, feeding the Appetite, prompting, and then gratifying corrupt Desires" (242).
Another area in which narrative complements and even exceeds expository discourse relates to the nature of hell. Defoe was no innovator in believing that Satan's influence can destabilize internal states. He may have absorbed material from The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), wherein Robert Burton observes that "men's miseries, calamities, and ruines, are the Divell's banqueting Dishes" (1:190). Defoe was somewhat unusual in conceptualizing the reality of hell more as a state of mind than a place. This approach allowed him to solve the problem of how the Devil could be confined to hell and yet be free to walk the earth. Of the relation between the Devil and hell, Defoe explains:
The Devil is in Hell, and Hell is in the Devil; he is fill'd with this unquenchable Fire, he is expel'd [from] the Place of Glory, banish'd from the Regions of Light; Absence from the Life of all Beatitude is his Curse, Despair is the reigning Passion in his Mind, and all the little Constituting Parts of his Torment, such as Rage, Envy, Malice, and Jealousy are consolidated in this, to make his Misery complete, (viz.) the Duration of it all, the Eternity of his Condition; that he is without Hope, without Redemption, without Recovery. (Political History 147-48)
In depicting Roxana's bouts with depression at the end of the novel, aggravated when her long-lost daughter recognizes Roxana and seeks her out, Defoe illustrates the hell within. In some ways this focus complements his depiction of the subtle ways in which the Devil works upon human psychology. Although Roxana longs for mutual recognition, she recoils from the shame of letting her daughter know that she has spent all the years since their parting as an expensive prostitute. The Devil's state describes Roxana's at the end of the novel: she is "without Hope, without Redemption, without Recovery." Her life becomes a living hell, and she is unable to enjoy her prosperity. "I went about with a Heart loaded with Crime," she explains (311). Moreover, her persistent daughter appears as a tormentor: "She haunted me like an Evil Spirit" (358). Upon hearing of her daughter's death, in which she is a remote accomplice, Roxana states that "I was struck as with a Blast from Heaven, at the reading [of Amy's] Letter; I fell into a Fit of trembling, from Head to Foot; and I ran raving about the Room like a Mad-Woman" (372).
A final area in which the fictional treatment proved relatively successful relates to the Devil's role in the predestination of humanity. From the viewpoint of the deists and other freethinkers, the doctrine of predestination projected a God who was "deceitful as well as angry: He gives commands to men whom, by His eternal decree of reprobation, He forces to disobey, and also, by the preaching of the Gospel, offers them salvation from which He has already decided to exclude them" (Walker 49). A staunch predestinarian, Defoe never believed that all or even a majority of God's creations would be saved: "[The] Promise of Grace [was extended to] a Part of the Posterity of Adam" (Political History 82; emphasis ours). The idea of the elect did not compromise Defoe's fundamental belief in a just and loving God. He did not address in the treatise why God, having created humans to fill the place of the fallen angels, would then condemn a large proportion to hell. Defoe skirted such questions. He was confident in his own election (see Novak, Daniel Defoe 62), and to him the Scriptures confirmed that God viewed some people more favorably than others. Rather than dwell on the apparent injustice of a system in which some are arbitrarily chosen for salvation while others are damned, Defoe seems to have accepted with little trouble what he perceived as a divine truth. "Why were you singled out?" Crusoe wonders after realizing that he is the sole survivor of the shipwreck (63), to which Defoe would simply answer, with circularity, "Because God chose you." (3)
In updating the Devil, Defoe passed lightly over the predestination theme. Indeed, had he pressed the issue, he would have opened himself to challenge: why bother to write religious treatises, except as a sign of your own election? There are, nevertheless, hints of predestination doctrine in both Roxana and the Political History. Roxana recognizes early on that she seems fated to eternal torment. As Marilyn Westfall points out, Roxana "depicts herself as a reprobate" (484). "I sinn'd, knowing it to be a Sin, but having no Power to resist," Roxana explains following her first transgression (79). Westfall adds that Roxana "sees herself as stricken with a 'Disorder' for trying but failing to live outside the providential order" (484-85).
Insofar as Roxana presents answers to quandaries about election, they are ambivalent and suggestive, and perhaps for that reason the fictional presentation does have certain advantages over theological discourse. The contrary impulses of predestination--moral responsibility within an arena of strict determinism--can be encompassed in fiction without their appearing as mutually exclusive. Roxana succumbs to temptation after temptation and is never able to rise above them, even though she occasionally scolds herself over the ease with which she succumbs. The novel thus exhibits the reprobate life. However, because Roxana does at least struggle and show remorse even when she cannot overcome the lure of wealth, degree, and sex, she also deserves by her own deeds the punishments that await her. Countless reformulations of the election doctrine wound up with the same paradox: human beings are responsible because they choose their actions, and God is just in condemning them before they touch foot on the earth because they already merit damnation for their utter corruption.
Although Roxana is painfully aware of her fallen state, she never entertains any hope that she will recover spiritually. "Sometimes the Wonders of my present Circumstances wou'd work upon me," she explains after her life of whoring,
and I shou'd have some Raptures upon my Soul, upon the Subject of my coming so smoothly out of the arms of Hell, that I was not engulfed in Ruin [...,] but this was a Flight too high for me; I was not come to that Repentance that is rais'd from a Sense of Heaven's Goodness; I repented of the Crime, but it was another and lower kind of Repentance, and rather mov'd by my Fears of Vengeance, than from a Sense of being spar'd from being punish'd, and landed safe after a Storm. (306)
In representing her struggle between choice and fate, fiction excelled discursive writing because it buried the question in an experiential narrative that implied the role of both choice and predetermined fate. Indeed, fiction provided an analogy to the quandary about election: a novel's characters act and fulfill the plans of an author who knows the end from the beginning, even though characters and readers may not discern the final outcome while the story is in progress. Of course, characters are not living human beings, but the analogy is close enough to make fiction the ideal vehicle for addressing the paradoxes of election.
Whatever fiction's advantages along such lines, Defoe's efforts to extrapolate the Devil's existence in Roxana simultaneously entangled him in other quandaries. He had already encountered some of these prior to Roxana. When Crusoe tells Friday that "the Devil was God's Enemy in the Hearts of Men, and used all his Malice and Skill to defeat the good Designs of Providence," Friday asks: "If God much strong, much might as the Devil, why God no kill the Devil so make him no more do wicked?" (218). Friday's question draws attention to a paradox of Christian theology, the coexistence of an omnipotent God with a powerful but non-omnipotent, meddlesome Devil. From the vantage point of Friday, belief in the Devil is a product of myth. Unable to answer Friday's question satisfactorily, Crusoe dismisses his native companion in frustration, yet he contemplates Friday's logic and acknowledges that only divine revelation, not reason, can answer such inquiries. As Timothy C. Blackburn points out, "Defoe presents Crusoe's struggle with the 'natural' insight of Friday to show how far from the essence of Christianity natural reason can get and to show how difficult--how unreasonable--the essentials of Christianity are" (374). This encapsulates the general problem Defoe faced at every turn. Defoe takes up the issue again in the Political History: "I know it has been question'd by some [...] how Satan being so entirely vanquish'd [...] should be permitted to recover any of his wicked powers, and find room to do mischief to mankind" (25). Even in the treatise, and despite his best efforts to provide reasonable proof for the Devil's existence, Defoe ultimately concludes that belief in the Devil, like belief in God, is a matter of faith.
A second quandary revolves around the human capacity for evil, aside from the Devil's temptations. We mentioned this as an advantage of fiction earlier but gave no illustrations, and we now will do so. When Robinson Crusoe enters a cave and sees only a pair of eyes looking back at him, he fears that the eyes belong to a demon waiting for him in the darkness. A short pause assures him that "he that was afraid to see the Devil, was not fit to live twenty Years in an Island all alone; and [...] there was nothing in this Cave more frightful than my self" (177). Crusoe's confidence is related to his suspicion that human nature contains as much that is fearful and evil as the Devil himself. Defoe also addresses the issue in the Political History: "I must [...] tell you that Satan has a great deal of Wrong done him by the general embracing vulgar Errors, and that there is a Cloven-Foot oftentimes without a Devil; or, in short, that Satan is not guilty of all the simple Things, no, or of all the wicked Things we charge him with" (196).
The issue of final responsibility in Roxana is resolved ambivalently. As stated earlier, the novel offers an extended representation of how the Devil can function without using supernatural devices. The cumulative effect of the narrative points to the Devil's influence; however, in each episode Roxana knows right from wrong and can often think of other ways to respond to perceived threats to her solvency and reputation. In spite of her conscience, she wholeheartedly desires the money, pleasure, and status that repeatedly offer themselves to her. And the temptations come from other humans who are equally careful of their reputations and who enjoy high status and immense riches. The tension between human responsibility and satanic influence is not fully resolved, either in the novel or in the Political History, except insofar as Defoe alleges that people who outdo the Devil in wickedness, even if they are not being immediately led or influenced by him, are his agents. The novel perfectly illustrates what Defoe says in the treatise--that in his day people are no longer "taken by Fright and Horror." Not witches and warlocks but "Wit, Beauty and gay Things, are the Sum of [the Devil's] Craft[;] he manages by the Soft and the Smooth, the Fair and the Artful, the Kind and the Cunning, not by the Frightful and the Terrible, the Ugly and the Odious" (232). For all this, nonetheless, humanity outdoes the Devil: "[W]e are come to such a Kind of Degeneracy in Folly, that we have even dishonour'd the Devil, and put this glorious Engine the Cloven-Foot to such mean Uses, that the Devil himself seems to be asham'd of us" (191).
Interpreted from an orthodox viewpoint, Roxana documents how the Devil's power grows from a tenuous to an increasingly stronger influence as the protagonist clutches the wealth, position, and privileges that come to her. However, the novelistic depiction of the Devil's existence and his manner of influencing humans was vulnerable to the attacks that deists and freethinkers had already made. Defoe writes in his Political History: "It may, perhaps, be one of the greatest Pieces of human Wisdom in the World, for a Man to know when the Devil is in him, and when not; when he is a Tool and Agent of Hell, and when he is not; in a Word, when he is doing the Devil's work, and under his Direction, and when not" (273). If Roxana provides a case study in the workings of the Devil and the reality of hell, it duplicates the problem that Defoe intends to resolve: he depicts the Devil's influence as so pervasive and diffuse that one needs a special kind of discernment, exceeding that which is commonly available, to perceive the Devil's hand in any cases but those in which clear violations of divine injunctions occur. Stealing, lying, failing to care for one's offspring, deceitful sexual relationships that exploit others for a combination of gain and pleasure, and, finally, murder are crimes against the moral law, but they are failings that both reason and revelation proscribe. Extended attention to the subtle ways of the Devil does not materially clarify the wrongness of such actions or explain how they so powerfully entice people. For most of the story, except for occasional bouts with superficial remorse and her biting guilt at the end, Roxana is happy and successful. Her conscience comes strongly into play not when she realizes that her actions are illicit but when she is threatened by the necessity of admitting her lifelong habits to others, especially those for whom she cares and toward whom she has natural, protective instincts. It would seem that, if society is a major part of the problem of evil, it is also part of the solution, since conscience becomes more powerful when aligned with reputation. Of course, it could be argued that Defoe is merely demonstrating some of the complexities of discerning good from evil, but at some point the complexities begin to impinge on the possibility of clear discernment of the Devil's hand and limit the case for taking complete moral responsibility.
The idea that humanity can out-sin the Devil thus complicates Defoe's case in Roxana. In some ways this idea becomes another version of denying the reality of the Devil and his role in tempting and misleading people. If evil is already latent in humanity, and if it can surprise the Devil himself, then Satan becomes a symbol and objectification of an internal reality, not an independent being who exercises influence over humanity. Defoe's treatment thus turns into a kind of determinism and, as such, an invitation to live with moral abandon. If we take seriously his comments in the Political History on the pervasiveness of evil in polite society and, above all, in beautiful women of fashion, Roxana hardly needs a Devil. She has the impulses and the know-how to live a life of moral compromise, no matter whether a supernatural agent assists her or not. Paradoxically, Roxana's character thus both proves and disproves the existence of the Devil. On the one hand, we recognize that the Devil becomes Roxana's scapegoat (e.g., "The Devil made me do it") and that her evil choices manifest her own natural inclinations. On the other, Defoe seems to suggest that certain kinds of evil--the abandoning of children and their subsequent suffering, the murder of the jeweler in Paris, the avaricious scheme to deprive Roxana of the jewels she retains after the murder, and the denial and eventual murder of Roxana's daughter--spring from a supremely evil source, yet these actions simply express in a higher degree the greed and ambition that inform venal sins.
Perhaps Roxana's most convenient sin is her shifting the responsibility for her actions onto the Devil. When rationalizing her affair with the prince--an intrigue hardly necessitated by circumstance, since she is, at the time, secure financially--she explains that "the Devil play'd a new Game with me, and prevail'd with me to satisfie myself with this Amour, as a lawful thing" (104). As she achieves financial independence, she asks, retrospectively, "What was I a Whore for now?" She provides this explanation:
It occurr'd naturally upon this Enquiry, that at first I yielded to the Importunity of my Circumstances, the Misery of which, the Devil dismally aggravated, to draw me to comply; for I confess, I had strong Natural Aversions to the Crime at first, partly owing to a virtuous Education, and partly to a Sence of Religion; but the Devil, and the greater Devil of Poverty, prevail'd; and the Person who laid Siege to me, did it in such an obliging, and I may almost say, irresistible Manner, all still manag'd by the Evil Spirit; for I must be allow'd to believe, that he has a Share in all such things, if not the whole Management of them: But, I say, it was carried on by the Person, in such an irresistible Manner, that, [...] there was no withstanding it: These Circumstances, I say, the Devil manag'd, not only to bring me to comply, but he continued them as Arguments to fortifie my Mind against Reflections, and to keep me in the horrid Course I had engag'd in, as if it were honest and lawful. (243)
Roxana has it both ways. She can suffer penitence and shift the burden at the same moment. No one needs a devil more than Roxana as a way of denying accountability for her choices. But if, as Roxana says, "there was no withstanding it," she has invited the Devil into her world at least as much as he invites her into his. What emerges is a demonstration not so much of the Devil's but of humanity's cleverness. Equivocation is the name of the game, and at some point we may suspect that equivocation is as central to humanity's problems as is the struggle between good and evil choices.
These complications created a special problem for a Defoe already alarmed at diminishing belief in the Devil. However convincing as a novel, Roxana could provide no refuge from skeptical attacks. As fiction it could be dismissed as irrelevant to serious investigation. At best, it could be argued, the novel reflected the prejudices of its author and manipulated events to sustain them. As Defoe had already discovered in the attacks on Robinson Crusoe, novels that purported to show the operation of providence could actually undermine it because they implied that fiction was necessary to illustrate and convey providence convincingly. Furthermore, Defoe's novels, in attempting to demonstrate God's providence and the path of sincere reformation in imagined stories, could play into the hands of freethinkers by demonstrating that taking a role in the discourse of good and evil, temptation and resistance, transgression and reformation, can be more fascinating than the simple but challenging work of mending character and conforming one's actions to what one sees as divine will. Roxana suggests that the discourse of good and evil, whether fictional or authentic, can become a soothing substitute for moral conduct--a Derridean supplement to the absent presence of character reformation and moral clarity.
By exploiting the full arsenal of realistic character depiction and quotidian experience, by treating motive ambiguously, by begging questions about the sincerity of belief and repentance, by inviting questions about how much real difference exists between a reformed Moll and an unreformed Roxana, Defoe placed his fictional record in a vulnerable position. Far from answering basic issues about God's providence and the role of belief in personal conduct, Defoe's novels could play into the hands of those who questioned whether God intervened in individual lives, whether there was such a creature as the Devil, and whether moral discourse provided people a flattering amusement in the name of religion. In an irony that the master of fiction might have enjoyed savoring, had it not hit so close to home, Roxana's inability to school herself out of temptation provides an analogue to the inability of Defoe's last novel to lay to rest the devils of natural religion and freethinking.
If Roxana appears to give closure to vexing problems of evil without being able to resolve them, we can say the same of the Political History. Even in so saying, however, we should attend to the different aptitudes of the treatise. The Political History allows Defoe to address aspects of the deistic and freethinking attacks that Roxana could not compass. Nevertheless, Defoe's moderate approach in the treatise creates concomitant difficulties. He avoids superstition while holding to the reality of the Devil, and he tackles some knotty issues head-on while leaving others aside as impossible to answer. Ultimately, however, he leaves many key issues unresolved.
Others have noted elements of sophistry in Defoe's work on the occult. Nicholas Hudson comments on its "irresolution and contradiction" (499), and Brian Fitzgerald concludes that Defoe "both did and did not believe" in the Devil (217). The hallmark of the occult treatises is precisely Defoe's characteristic ability to appear to give decisive resolution to issues without actually doing so. Earlier we showed that Defoe found fiction a more convenient vehicle for illustrating how the Devil can influence individual actions and even whole societies. This topic is addressed at some length in the Political History, where it creates an additional problem--namely, the difficulty of determining what is not influenced by the Devil. And if it is difficult to identify what is not of the Devil, it is then equally difficult to define precisely what beliefs and actions can be traced to his influence. Bekker initiated this difficulty when he denied that evil spirits could have any influence over living persons and then observed that belief in the Devil usually serves as a cover for mere human failings: "People are pleas'd to hear the Devil set so off; they love the occasion of casting upon him all the faults they are guilty of; and of applauding themselves for victory, when they have overcome some Temptation which they imagined to have been raised by the endeavors of that powerful Enemy" (262). Defoe also complains that people blame the Devil for any conduct or opinion they oppose or do not understand. No one, however, illustrates this tendency more than Defoe. He finds the Devil firmly in charge of the nobility, fashionable or beautiful women, most churches (especially the Catholic), the mob, the moderate Anglican clergy, the trades, witty and talkative people, the vain and the proud, religious enthusiasts, deists and freethinkers, most statesmen, certain nations (France), the beau monde, and most councils, civil or religious. This creates a real paradox of judgment. Who escapes the Devil that society hardly needs anyway because it is corrupt? Only a very narrow band of believers and churches, it seems. Defoe composed the Political History to convince readers of the reality and pervasive influence of the Devil, so that "no cunninger Men" can "lay him again" and try to "dispose him out of your Sight" (279). That being his purpose, Defoe aggravated the problem. The treatise plays to readers who, already suspicious of modern politics and established religion, are certain that no good can come of polite society until it undergoes a thorough upheaval along Puritan lines. To nearly any other kind of reader, the book does not offer much help in discerning the doctrines, opinions, sects, professions, and attitudes that have survived the Devil's attempts to contaminate them.
A number of other quandaries elude Defoe in the Political History, some of which he conceded. For example, to prove the Devil's existence, Defoe devotes two pages to rough reasoning and then announces he will not "take any more pains to convince you" (23). There are also questions he cannot answer, such as "how came seeds of crime to rise in an angelic nature" (59). Defoe has no decisive answer to the question posed by Friday as to why God allows the Devil to exist. His explanation of Satan's motives for corrupting humankind draws more from John Milton than from Scripture. Defoe considers the notion that good and bad angels contend over individual persons a fabrication, and he confesses to lacking any certainty about what constitutes magic. As to the power of influencing humans, Defoe denies that the Devil can know their thoughts, yet he grants that this entity can suggest thoughts to them. The resulting image of the Devil is both potent and impotent.
Such perplexities aside, Defoe's main purpose was to refute or nullify the arguments that deists and freethinkers had made against belief in the Devil. In his Discourse of Free-Thinking, for example, Collins had attacked orthodox theology's malicious Devil and severe God, stating that "the Storys of the Devil's Power were founded on the Lyes of some and the Credulity of others" (30-31). Such superstition and fear are out of place in Collins' world because they render people incapable of believing in a "perfectly just and good God" (38). In contrast, those informed by reason and optimism receive such assurance and delight from their belief in God that they fear God much less than they would fear their prospects if "no such Being should exist" (37). By emphasizing the goodness of God and by attributing the idea of eternal torment to religious fanaticism, Collins establishes what Defoe refers to as a theology "without a Devil" (qtd. in Novak, Daniel Defoe 660). Such a theology reduces demons and hell to projections of guilt-ridden psyches that panic in the face of moral freedom. Collins counters credulity by assuring readers that "a man may possess his Soul in peace, as having an expectation of enjoying all the good things which God can bestow, and no fear of any future Misery or Evil from his hands; and the very worst of his State can only be, that he is pleasantly deceiv'd" (38). The last phrase is especially telling in implying that the contest is all for the imagination.
William Wollaston's The Religion of Nature Delineated (1722) explains virtue and vice without recourse to a Devil at all. His system of ethics postulates a Supreme Being upon whom the existence of the world depends. That being so, the constitution of nature reflects divine will. Actions, as well as propositions, express things as they are. Conscious agents, such as human beings, may act in accordance with things or not. That is the foundation of virtue and vice. Although such a system of ethics is vulnerable, it offers a grounding devoid of an evil agent. Wollaston thus poses an implicit challenge to moderates such as Defoe. To read Roxana from the perspective of deism is to observe the protagonist's enslavement not to a malicious creature but to misapprehension of the world's constitution.
Defoe responds to attacks on superstition by taking a middle path, accepting the existence of witchcraft, sorcerers, and magic in less enlightened times or in his own day among barbarous peoples. However, Defoe himself shows no superstition but rather a skeptical, even taunting, attitude toward many myths associated with Satan. For example, of the notion that every living human has an evil spirit assigned to tempt him or her and a good angel to encourage righteous conduct, Defoe concludes: "As to this Story of good and evil Angels attending every particular Person, 'tis a good Allegory indeed to represent the Struggle in the Mind of Man between good and evil Inclinations; but as to the rest, the best Thing I can say of it is, that I think 'tis a Fib" (Political History 169). On many points Defoe admits ignorance or expresses doubts over commonly accepted ideas. His tone in doing so is in line with the approach suggested by the Third Earl of Shaftesbury in his essay on the freedom of wit, wherein Shaftesbury suggests that mild, good-natured ridicule is one of the best means for exposing error. Defoe's lack of superstition does not constitute an argument in favor of the Devil, but it does show that such a belief does not necessarily lead to superstition.
Shaftesbury has more devastating arguments that Defoe has difficulty rebutting. The first offers a reframing of virtue away from adherence to commandments and toward the satisfaction of inner impulses to do good. If we are to call people virtuous, they must pursue actions for their intrinsic goodness and not for any rewards or punishments. Extraneous incentives destroy virtue because they destroy its disinterested quality and collapse them back into a form of self-interest. One who seeks virtuous actions in order to earn a reward is not much better than the person who seeks only his or her selfish interest.
In his Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit (1699) Shaftesbury also addresses the effects that belief in a God of fear, rewards, and punishments has on the possibility of virtue. As did Collins, Shaftesbury questioned the character of that God who threatened destruction to a portion of humanity when He had already condemned them in spite of any just actions they might perform. He added that belief in such a divinity must have a corrupting influence:
If there be a religion which teaches the adoration of and love of a God whose character it is to be captious and of high resentment, subject to wrath and anger, furious, revengeful, and revenging himself, when offended, on others than those who gave the offence; and if there be added to the character of this God a fraudulent disposition, encouraging deceit and treachery amongst men, favourable to a few, though for slight causes, and cruel to the rest, 'tis evident that such a religion as this being strongly enforced must of necessity raise even an approbation and respect towards the vices of this kind, and breed a suitable disposition, a capricious, partial, and revengeful, and deceitful temper. (263)
Belief in a resentful God, or in evil demons, reduces the possibility of real virtue because it inclines a person to calculate the risks of discovery, reward, and punishment. Thus, such a belief may actually encourage two kinds of deceit that Roxana evidences: deceit toward others and deceit toward herself. When one worships a Supreme Being who "in his history or character is represented otherwise than as really and truly just and good, there must ensue a loss of rectitude, a disturbance of temper and manners in the believer" (264). Religion is thus capable of doing great harm by diminishing "the affections toward public good" and introducing "a certain narrowness of spirit" (269). Defoe's attacks on numerous professions, creeds, councils, and institutions, as well as on society and women in particular, can be seen as indicting the "narrowness of spirit" that Shaftesbury mentions. At its worst, such a belief may lead one to view one's own "cruel, unjust, and barbarous acts" as "not only just and lawful, but as divine and worthy of imitation" (263-64).
Concerned as they are with the effects of belief, followers of Shaftesbury would not excuse Roxana's actions, but neither would they see the need for a Devil to account for them. Her woefully inadequate grasp of her own affections and true self-interest, which are linked ultimately to the good of others, would bear the blame. Her numerous deceptions and her settling for corporeal pleasures over the satisfactions of virtue reflect her strategy to outwit and, if not outwit, to avoid as long as possible a God and a Devil who, between them, thrust her into a hard fate and await her ruin. "An ill creature," says Shaftesbury, is "one who is wanting in right affections of force enough to carry him directly towards good, and bear him out against ill; or who is carried by other affections directly to ill and against good" (250).
In his Political History Defoe responds to deistic formulations of this kind by asserting that the kind of God Shaftesbury paints is an invention of the Devil, by means of which Satan can prey on people's fears and influence them to act selfishly. At the founding of Christianity, Defoe says, it became evident that the Devil "had no Game left him to play but this, namely, to set up wrong Notions of Worship" (112). As a move in that game Satan "first insinuates that the true God was a terrible, a dreadful, unapproachable Being; that to see him was so frightful, that it would be present Death; that to worship him immediately, was a Presumption which would provoke his Wrath; and that as he was a consuming Fire in himself, so he would burn up those in his Anger that dar'd to offer up any Sacrifice to him, but by the Interposition of some Medium which might receive their Adorations in his Name" (143). And so, without saying exactly what the personality of God was, Defoe discarded as a straw dummy the God that deists mocked. On the issue of God's personality, Defoe goes as far as he can to line up with Shaftesbury without jettisoning the doctrine of election. However, that is a large concession. His position points back to the quandary that deists posed. If God is truly good and benevolent, what is the function of an evil spirit who preys on humanity? If God is either not all-good or not all-powerful, the Devil is His complementary power. What Defoe does not provide is a convincing demonstration of the reality of the Devil.
Summarizing the nature of the Devil as construed by Defoe, Novak states:
His only major role in human history was the temptation of Eve. After that event and the subsequent taint that dwells with humanity in the world, he functioned mainly as a regulator of evil that would remain on earth forever. Occasionally he would extend that taint of evil into such a major horror as warfare, and he might dwell constantly with [an individual]; but mostly he was simply an observer. The evil in humankind was such that he often would find himself astonished by the invention of new sins. ("Defoe" 101)
If Novak is correct, Defoe's Devil is the counterpart to the deistic God, a supernatural agent who started the universe running in a certain way and then stood back to watch. Defoe's problem in both Roxana and the Political History was to allow his readers to glimpse the workings of a clever and effective Devil who does not involve himself heavily in human affairs. This concern links the two works, and the connections allow us to observe the ways in which fiction and treatise can address nagging issues surrounding the Devil. Fiction allowed Defoe to trace the effects of evil on the individual psyche, but it did not allow him to answer those who were undermining belief in demonic agency. Furthermore, Defoe's choice to respond in fiction implied that providence needed the aid of the imagination. The treatise allowed him to show that a person of reason could avoid superstition and still see the workings of Satan in every facet of life.
In his 1726 work Defoe observes that "to believe the existence of God is a debt to nature, and to believe the existence of the Devil is like a debt to reason; one is a demonstration from the reality of visible causes, and the other a deduction from the like reality of their effects" (21). Terms like "nature," "reason," "demonstration," and "visible causes" give the treatise the feel of reasoned demonstration from known facts, but most of its content demonstrates nothing so much as his task's elusiveness. The Devil's methods as depicted by Defoe change according to the age. Defoe also changes tactics in replacing the old Devil with a smooth-talking beau or clever council member. For good reason Defoe called his treatise a political history of the demonic. Acknowledging that "the Devil is too cunning for us, and manages us [in] his own Way" Defoe resolves a puzzle by telling readers that "to argue from Nature is certainly the best Way to find out the Devil's Story" (168-69). Defoe thus brings his treatise up to date. It is very much a text of the 1720s, as is Roxana. Each in its own way addresses problems of evil; each tackles problems the other cannot easily handle. However, the methods suitable to each also create distinctive problems. If, as Defoe posits, "every vice is the Devil in a man" (qtd. in Novak, "Defoe" 101), then it becomes harder and harder to distinguish between human failings and the Devil's work. In painting an evil force that is simultaneously omnipresent and hidden, awesomely powerful and tightly restricted, Defoe, as did other moderates, "found himself in some difficulty [...] as to how, theoretically, to establish a meaningful, and theologically acceptable, demarcation between superstitious dread of magical power on one side, and what any true Christian must accept is the truth about Satan, demons, possession, and magic on the other" (Israel 402).
Brigham Young University
(1) Titlebaum implies that Defoe's library contained Beaumont's Treatise on Spirits, which mentions Bekker; however, we do not find this work listed in Heidenreich's catalog of the library of Defoe. Even if it were listed, the combining of Defoe's library with that of the clergyman Phillips Farewell makes it impossible to determine for certain which books were those of Defoe.
(2) While we have not conducted a systematic count, there are only a handful of direct references to the Devil in Robinson Crusoe, compared to well over twenty in Roxana.
(3) Defoe did not mindlessly accept the doctrine of election, and he does seem to have reflected on the questionable justice of such teachings. We might remember, for example, Crusoe's musings on the "arbitrary Disposition of Things, that should hide the Light from some, and reveal it to others, and yet expect a like Duty from both," when he begins instructing Friday in the Christian religion (210).
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