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Poor Afterlife Logic: Author of 'Robinson Crusoe' talks Ghosts

Daniel Defoe was an English trader, writer, journalist, and spy. He is most famous for his novel Robinson Crusoe, which is second only to the Bible in its number of translations. Defoe was a prolific and versatile writer, producing more than three hundred works—books, pamphlets, and journals—on diverse topics, including politics, crime, religion, marriage, psychology, and the supernatural (Wiki).

Defoe’s book An Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions was published in 1727 and offers a glimpse into Defoe’s thoughts on the origins of ghostly phenomena such as crisis apparitions, hauntings, angels, and evil spirits. Bainey (1962) describes Defoe’s An Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions as “the most interesting and possibly the most important” of Defoe’s nearly 300 publications (p. 335). Bainey (1962) goes on to state that this book is “essential” in understanding the supernatural beliefs of the 18th century (p.335).

Defoe appears to have had a lifelong fascination with the supernatural as he published several books on the topic including; The Political History of the Devil (1726), A System of Magick, or a History of the Black Art (1726), and Vison of the Angelic World (1720). According to Defoe;

“Of all the Arcana of the invisible world, I know no one thing about which more has been said, and less understood, than this of Apparition” (p.1)

Defoe defines apparitions or spirits as “ the invisible inhabitants of the unknown world, be they who they will, assume human shapes, or other shapes, and show themselves visibly to us, so as that we can see them, speak to them, hear them speak, and the like” (p. 16). While Defoe believed that people experience true apparitions or spirits, he did not believe that these apparitions were the souls of departed friends or relatives. “Defoe was a Puritan Christian and a providentialist, that is, someone who believes that God has a plan for each of us” … “and that at the moment of death the soul is rapt away into another realm” (Coetzee,2009; p.92-93) either heaven or hell with no way (or need) to return. In essence, Defoe believed that the deceased, who are happy, have no reason to return to Earth and those, who are unhappy, are fixed to their eternal fate and are unable to return to Earth.

Since ghosts are not deceased souls of the departed, they must be, according to Defoe, either angels or demons. Throughout An Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions, Defoe gives numerous examples of angels and demons appearing in human form (disguised as friends or relatives) to warn, deceive, or guide us. Defoe talks at length regarding the intentions of these apparitions writing extensively on the ‘etiquette’ for speaking with these spirits as well as tips to determine if one is interacting with a demon (evil spirit) or angel (good spirit). Much of Defoe’s beliefs regarding the afterlife are strongly influenced by his religious views (not uncommon at that time) and the Bible, however Defoe does have some theories and thoughts regarding ghostly phenomena which were ahead of his time and focus more on human psychology, specifically one’s conscience.

What does my conscience have to do with ghosts?

Conscience is our inner voice or sense that is responsible for telling us what is right or wrong. If it’s working appropriately it compels us to do what is morally and ethically right in a situation. Conscience is often confused with conscious as they look and sound similar. Being conscious is simply be awake and aware whereas conscience has to do with determining right vs wrong actions (from a moral perspective). Think back to those old cartoons which depict a person trying to make a decision. Typically the cartoon character has a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other giving them advice on what to do. This is basically one’s conscience. Often, we hear someone say ‘I have a clear conscience” meaning they feel free of guilt or responsibly believing they acted in the right and moral manner. Defoe believed that one’s conscience is the reason that we see ghosts or spirits.

“Conscience makes ghosts walk, and departed souls appear, when the souls themselves know nothing of it” (p.100)

Defoe is basically saying that one’s guilt, ruminations, and regrets regarding our actions towards others ‘haunt’ us, therefore one can be “tortured with the terrors of his own thoughts, haunted with the ghosts of his own imagination” (p. 104). Defoe give a lengthy case example regarding a man who committed murder and was haunted by the apparition of his victim for several years. The torment and distress from this apparition ultimately led him to confess. Defoe argues that this is not the soul of the deceased victim exacting revenge but rather the murderer’s own conscience causing the phenomena. Defoe believed that the souls of victims seek no revenge as they are at peace in their eternal state (Heaven) and have no vengeance only happiness. “Men’s guilt crowds their imagination with sudden and surprising ideas of things, bring spectres, and apparitions into their eyes, when there are really no such things; forms ghosts and phantoms in their very view, when their eyes are shut” (p110).

In summary, if one is tormented by a ghost of a friend or relative there is a strong possibly that the genesis of this ghost is in the psyche. Unresolved emotions towards the deceased can create the apparition. “This thing called conscience is a strange disturber, it works upon the imagination with an invisible force; like faith, it makes a man view things that are not, as if they were; feel things that are not to be felt, and hear things that are not to be heard; it commands the senses, nay even the tongue itself “ (p101).

Why Departed Souls don’t return to Earth

Defoe believed that the idea of departed souls returning to earth to seek revenge or to complete unfinished business was utter non-sense and borderline delusional; “I believe that there are few speculative delusions more universally received than this, that those things we call spectres, ghosts, and apparitions, are really the departed souls of those persons who they are said to represent” (Defoe, 1727; p. 95).

Defoe argues that at the moment of death all one’s earthly concerns, hatred, regrets, and injustices simply perish leaving no motivation or need to complete unfinished business. In theory one wouldn’t care if one were murdered, wronged, unable to complete a task, or if one’s family never found their inheritance or will because one’s soul is in Heaven, at peace, and has no concerns with these trivial earthly matters. He believed the notion that a ghost “cannot rest” until a task is complete is irrational and inconsistent with the purpose of Heaven and Hell. Defoe believed if an injustice was great enough than God would send angels (good spirits) to right the wrong. Defoe looked at the afterlife like a corporation with God being the CEO and making all the decisions regarding retribution and retaliation for wrongs, noting God would send angels rather than recently departed souls for this task. He argued that if every departed soul had the power to return to earth to right a wrong, give trivial messages, seek vengeance, or harass the living there would be chaos resulting in the Earth being overrun with vengeful ghosts.

Who would decide what constitutes a wrong? Why should one soul be allowed to exact revenge or send a message and another be denied? Defoe states “In a word, it would invert the order of eternal justice, for it would make this Earth be the place of rewards and punishments, and take the executive power out of the hands of the great governor of the world (God)” (p.116).

In sticking with the notion of the afterlife being a corporation Defoe asserts that there is a specific department of angels assigned with earthy affairs;“There is an angelic world, an invisible world of spirits, some of whom being placed by their merciful Maker as an advanced body at or near the outer circumference of the earth's atmosphere, have a power given them at least to take cognizance of human affairs; and to converse with this world, either by apparition, voices, noises, good or bad omens, or other sensible conveyances to the mind, by which they can give notices of good or evil, and can intimate to man many things useful to him in the conduct of his life” (p. 179).Defoe asserted that these special angels would often take the shape and voice of our departed friends and relatives to carry out their tasks as needed.

Defoe also addressed the belief that a soul could not “rest” or move on to Heaven if proper burial rites are not performed. Certain religions have asserted that the soul of the deceased remain close to earth until the proper burial rites are performed at which time, they “move on”. It has been suggested that if proper burial rites are not performed these departed souls haunt the earth. Defoe again is very critical of this belief implying that this is irrational as it entrusts the eternity of a soul into the hands of the living. Defoe finds flaws in this logic stating that one’s enemies or relatives if inclined can keep a person’s soul out of Heaven. If one leads a very gracious, generous, and overall perfect existence while not performing any ill to others … should one’s eternal soul be in the hands of those who are left to care for my body? What if I die in a boating or other accident where burial rites are not possible? What if I am murdered unjustly? Should my soul be damned to haunt the earth for this? Even though I did nothing wrong … seems unfair. Even modern-day ghost stories and hauntings revolve around the notion of a victim being killed and buried or burned in the house or backyard, therefore never being able to rest. Defoe would rule out these types of stories, not for the supernatural properties, but for the lack in ‘afterlife logic’.

Defoe does leave some wiggle room in regards to ghosts or the souls of the deceased returning to Earth, however states that this only occurs in the form of a miracles. According to Defoe; “The diminished, departed, unembodied spirits, which we call souls of men, whether happy or miserable, can by no means appear among us, all apparition of that kind are fictious and imaginary … except once by miracle, and never can again be practical, and therefore is not to be expected” (pg 125). He is speaking about the resurrection of Christ and the rising of the dead during this miracle.

Baine, R. (1962). Daniel Defoe and "The History and Reality of Apparitions". Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society,106(4), 335-347.

Coetzee, J.M. (2009). [Review of the book An Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions]. Common Knowledge 15(1), 92-93.

Defoe, Daniel, An Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions (London: Warwick-Lane, 1727).


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