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  • The Character of Credit: Defoe’s “Lady Credit,” The Fortunate Mistress, and the Resources of Inconsistency in Early Eighteenth-Century Britain
  • John F. O’Brien

What is credit? John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) introduces one usage of the word credit as a way of making a distinction between “demonstrable” and “probable” truths. Knowledge that has been gained directly by means of the senses, or by the “constant, immutable, and visible connexion” between two or more “ Ideas “ in the mind produces truth by “demonstration,” and human beings will invariably give their assent to such “certain Knowledge” freely, indeed intuitively, as if by a kind of mental reflex. 1 But Locke admits that we also assent to many things only on the basis of their “probability,” and for such knowledge we depend upon the good offices of another person who, by virtue of his greater acquaintance with the subject, is a “Man of credit” ( EU, 4.15.1), able to present “Arguments or Proofs” that can make propositions “pass or be received for true” ( EU, 4.15.3). Locke’s Essay never writes of “credit” or of the knowledge it produces without also mentioning the “Man of credit” who, because of his “wonted Veracity . . . in other cases, or his supposed Veracity in this,” is able to create the effect of truth for an audience ( EU, 4.15.1). For Locke, “credit” is an effect of character; only because individuals of “credit” have established a prior relationship to particular domains of knowledge do they have the power to induce assent in others, a credit that is made manifest through performance. It comes as something of a surprise to the reader of the Essay to discover, nearly at the end of the fourth and last book of a long philosophical treatise, that by Locke’s account such probable knowledge actually makes up the greatest share of the truths that humans may possess; and that, as he concedes, divine Providence has so arranged matters that in “the greatest part of our Concernment, he has afforded us only the twilight, as I may so say, of Probability “ ( EU, 4.14.2). 2 The Essay is best remembered, of course, for advancing a model of knowledge-acquisition wherein people acquire truths through the evidence of their own senses, meeting the [End Page 603] natural world as isolated individuals. But Locke actually admits that the great bulk of human knowledge is collectively produced, coming to any individual person only through the mediation of others. This is to say that it is political, at least in the sense that its contours are determined by the possibilities and limits of the cultural context a person inhabits.

Hence when Daniel Defoe asks the question “ What is Credit? “ in his periodical A Review of the State of the British Nation in 1711, one of several answers he offers is that credit is the nation’s “ Politick Life,” the “Soul” of Britain’s military and economic power animating a collective embodiment of the political and social order. 3 Throughout his political journalism of the 1710s, and then in his works of fiction written from 1719 to 1724, Defoe elaborates what Locke had attempted to disguise, offering complex representations of how the many forms of “credit” are produced through the collective activity of persons engaged in exchange relationships. And yet it is also clear that Defoe is not simply trying to define credit, but also to construct the grounds from which a definition could be produced. Credit is somehow “Soul” and “Body,” political and personal, collective and individual, an index called upon to review the health of the state yet one whose propriety remains contested. Claiming to figure forth the truth of public life, Defoe’s conception of credit threatens to run afoul of Locke’s well-known dictum that “where Truth and Knowledge are concerned,” figurative language, by virtue of its “inconstant” use of terms, can only “insinuate wrong Ideas, move the Passions, and thereby mislead the Judgment,” and is therefore always “perfect cheat.” But, again modifying a rigid claim in the face of empirical evidence, Locke admits that there is no avoiding figurative language because “Eloquence, like the...

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