- The Political History of the Devil
When instructing Friday in Christianity, Robinson Crusoe explains that “the Devil was God’s Enemy . . . and used all his Malice and Skill to defeat the good Designs of Providence”, to which Friday responds, “If God much strong . . .Vas the Devil, why God no kill the Devil so make him no more do wicked?” (Crowley 1972, 218). Friday’s innocent logic penetrates to the core of a central paradox of Christian theology—i.e., the co-existence of an omnipotent God with a less powerful but meddlesome devil—and shows Daniel Defoe wrestling with pressing theological concerns. At the time, Deists and freethinkers had set out to explode popular attitudes regarding the devil, and Defoe worried that the kind of rationality exemplified in Friday’s question threatened orthodox Christianity. For Defoe, belief in the devil, like belief in God, was largely a matter of faith; nonetheless, Defoe repeatedly tried to prove the devil’s existence by creating characters in his novels who wrestle with evil inclinations. Seemingly unable to resolve in prose fiction the theological quandaries surrounding the existence of the devil, Defoe turned to the treatise in The Political History of the Devil, published just two years after Roxana, to further explore the kinds of issues raised by Friday and embodied in Roxana’s descent into a life of sin. In detailing the devil’s involvement in human affairs from biblical through modern times, Defoe counteracts those who discounted the doctrine of hell on rational grounds while, at the same time, he discredits superstitious ideas surrounding the devil.
Modern editions of The Political History are scarce and scholarly editions nonexistent, making AMS Press’s recent scholarly edition a welcome contribution to the Stoke Newington Works of Daniel Defoe. Edited by Irving N. Rothman and R. Michael Bowerman, this is the third volume in the Stoke Newington project, which includes scholarly editions of An Essay Upon Projects and The Consolidator. The volume is thoroughly annotated and indexed, and includes bibliographic descriptions of first and later editions, in addition to a list of variants between the first and second editions. The editors include among the appendices a list of Defoe’s nearly one-hundred references to Paradise Lost, a list of Defoe’s many biblical references, the preface to an undated edition, and commentary on the devil from Defoe’s Review.
The volume also includes a lengthy headnote by Bowerman that is a substantial piece of scholarship in its own right. Bowerman provides a comprehensive [End Page 175] overview of the critical reception of The Political History and discussion of Defoe’s critique of Milton’s Paradise Lost. While Defoe admired Milton as a poet, he criticized him as an historian and theologian. Bowerman is particularly astute in unfolding the complexities of Defoe’s rhetorical situation and slippery use of irony: “Examples of Defoe’s humorous rhetoric are frequent [. . .] and suggest the pivotal problem presented by the work: a clear determination of Defoe’s attitude toward his subject and his rhetorical intention throughout the book” (xlvii). When, for example, Defoe claims that modern individuals are capable of committing acts of evil that would surprise the devil himself, Defoe is clearly satirizing eighteenth-century English society; but if individuals can out sin the devil, to what extent can the devil be blamed for human frailty? Such conundrums resonate throughout The Political History.
As even those who are reasonably familiar with Defoe and the early 1700s will struggle to make sense of Defoe’s many biblical, literary, and historical allusions, most readers will also appreciate the comprehensive explanatory notes. The edition, however, may overwhelm some readers and not all the supporting materials they provide are especially helpful. The headnote is at times exhausting as well as exhaustive in its scope, and the explanatory notes are not always as thoroughly contextualized as one might hope. Defoe’s first reference to the Inquisition elicits definitions from a 1708 dictionary and the OED, with no commentary on...