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In An Essay Upon Literature; or, An Enquiry into the Antiquity and Original of Letters (1726), Daniel Defoe tells two stories at once: first, a history of the alphabet and of writing itself, through which emerges a second tale about the infusion of geocultural awareness into early modern England. The latter story responds to what Maximillian Novak has called a "deist offensive" against England's position within the eighteenth-century world system. The subtitle, "That the two Tables written by the Finger of God in Mount Sinai, was the first Writing in the World," shows Defoe's attempt to refute historians from Herodotus to the eighteenth-century deist John Toland who attribute alphabetic priority to the Egyptians, Chaldeans, or Phoenicians.(1) But in arguing for the divine priority of Hebrew writing and Judaic culture, Defoe shifts the alphabet's history from the sacred Scripture to a profane and modern context in which its letters write the history of England as a chosen nation and people.
Through this narrative shift, the Essay both combats and domesticates the new knowledge about world cultures disseminated by merchants, explorers, and travel writers in early modern England. This knowledge challenged English cultural priority and superiority, even though those who produced it often sought to widen England's global frontiers. The results of global expansion cancel out its justifying ideals in an eighteenth-century "dialectic of Enlightenment." On one side eighteenth-century English mercantile theory attempted to turn England into an economic center. In 1727 Defoe himself proposed an economic plan to place England at "the center of the whole Commerce of Europe at least, if not the whole trading World."(2) However, the increased geocultural knowledge such commercial interactions produced threatened to diminish the Anglocentric cultural image that in part fueled world exploration and trade. Defoe's Essay attempts to recenter English culture and to align it with its commercial position, and in so doing displays the tensions of national formations that find their causes not in "natural" identity but through connections and conflicts within a developing world system.(3) Defoe uses the alphabet, then, to represent an Anglocentric view of a world system that, as Fredric Jameson writes, "is a being of such enormous complexity that it can only be mapped and modelled indirectly, by way of a simpler object that stands as its allegorical interpretant."(4) The trick with Defoe's model is that a history of writing is no "simple object."
While defending England's shores and the Judeo-Christian tradition from the ancient Afro-Asiatic pretenders to alphabetic priority, Defoe also discredits his compatriots who promote such heresy. In addition to being about letters, the Essay continues Defoe's polemic with Toland, who found in non-European cultural history evidence that established religions were the debased descendants of an original natural religion. Investigations in religious history framed the debate over the origins of the alphabet, and the conclusions in both cases were determined by combining Western fascination with exotic worlds and models of rational inquiry. Toland and Defoe operated within what Ian Netton has called the "Enlightenment Paradigm" of Middle Eastern studies, in which both rational curiosity and fascination with the exotic coexisted with genuine sympathy for foreign cultures and, paradoxically, with the fear and prejudices dominant in considerations of the East produced within the earlier "Medieval Paradigm." The epistemological ambiguity inherent in Enlightenment models of geocultural exploration - an ambiguity still present within today's Western academic considerations of "Third World Culture" - must in part account for the contradictions the Essay reveals within Defoe's thought on religion and national organization.(5) Fascinated with world exploration and travel literature, though unwilling to consider the full implications such literature had for his ideas of Christianity and its place in English national culture, Defoe, the famous dissenter, at times in his debates with Toland supported the national church and criticized tolerance of non-Christian religious views, in defense of a unifying myth of national origins.
In the first section of this essay I suggest that for many English Protestants in the early eighteenth century, not only Defoe, the deists' histories of non-Western religions and cultures were not only blasphemous but also unpatriotic, and the free-thinking participants in what Margaret C. Jacob calls the "Radical Enlightenment" were seen as national enemies.(6) The nationalistic tone of some antideist works provides a context for the displacement of essentially theological differences between Defoe and Toland into debates over state policy; their positions on immigration in particular reveal the tensions within attempts to construct a national people. In the second section I consider the representation of Defoe and Toland's disputes over national identity within their writings on the origins of literary culture, focusing finally on Defoe's Essay itself. The narrative of the alphabet's "antiquity" and origins allows Defoe to demonstrate both the authority of the sacred and timeless Biblical tradition and the present superiority of England as the historical product of that tradition. The negotiations between the sacred past and a secular present necessarily produce a contradictory historiography within Defoe's historical "enquiry." In so doing they reveal much about the workings of nationalist narratives in general and about the ways Defoe's Essay in particular figures forth a modern national consciousness that will recenter English identity, though one that had the world system as its sine qua non.
Though discussions of the nation and the world system were the epiphenomena to the more central theological polemic between deists and their antagonists, religion was always connected to eighteenth-century political or philosophical issues. Indeed, deism itself depended on the information about world religious customs provided by increased commercial and political interaction of Europeans with non-Europeans.(7) Toland's Agreement of the Customs of the East-Indians With those of the Jews, and other Ancient People (1705) is typical of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century attempts to syncretize world religions.(8) It also demonstrates how new philosophical and historical methods could challenge Christian precepts, for Toland uses secular knowledge of new discoveries to gloss the Bible rather than vice versa. He upends the customary relationship of sacred history to secular, natural history.(9)
By applying the knowledge gained of the world to Western religion, deists attempted to demonstrate the corruption of religious practice by priestcraft; some deists extended their critique to statecraft as well. For Toland, the criticism of ecclesiastical authority that accompanied his promotion of a decentered, universal religion was inseparable from the condemnation of political power centers.(10) In The Destiny of Rome (1718), Toland combines these critiques:
All Things are in a perpetual Flux, nothing permanent or in every regard the same for one Moment. But none of them is so visibly subject to such Variations, as Kingdoms, States, and (in a word) all sorts of Government. . . . All antient History is full of nothing so much, as the incessant Changes and Expirations of innumerable Kingdoms and Commonwealths, of Nations and Tribes, of Religions and Forms of Worship.(11)
Many in the eighteenth century echoed the antipapism of this pamphlet, though they would reject its sweeping tone. Toland argues here neither for sacred cyclical history nor for the common Augustan belief in steady decline since the destruction of Eden but rather for a politico-historical chaos theory that would carry with it all institutions. Such an argument undermines both Protestant and Catholic church and state.
Predictably, contemporary polemicists, even dissenting ones like Defoe or Samuel Chandler, felt the deist threat to both ecclesiastical and political hierarchy and expressed their fear in particularly nationalist terms. Chandler emphasizes deism's dangers to national well-being by raising a regular topos of eighteenth-century English pamphlets, the seventeenth-century regicide connection; deists are like the members of factions who fanned the flames of the civil war.(12) Thomas Curteis's Dissertation on the Unreasonableness, Folly, and Danger of Infidelity (1725), and the …