Marcus Incognito: The Strange Case of Defoe’s Dumb Philosopher – by Judith Stove

One of the more curious forms through which Stoic principles were imparted to the British reading public of the eighteenth century, was a short work by Daniel Defoe, The Dumb Philosopher. Defoe is best known as the author of the first modern novel, Robinson Crusoe (April 1719), and The Dumb Philosopher appeared some six months later (Moore 107).

Defoe (1660-1731) was at times a journalist, a political activist – for which he served time in prison – a businessman, and an intelligence agent. He wrote dozens of pamphlets, travel guides, political tracts, historical works, and books of moral guidance, written under a range of pseudonyms, in addition to his famous novels, Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders (1722), and Roxana (1724). Defoe’s very versatility has made it difficult for critics to assess his overall literary achievement.

Writing in the mid-twentieth century, however, the British scholar Ian Watt, in his groundbreaking The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (1957 and numerous later editions), thought he had found the key. Watt sought to demonstrate that Defoe’s family background and education in the English Puritan tradition were critical for understanding his writing. Hard work and productivity are highly valued qualities in Defoe; his character Robinson Crusoe exhibits practical ingenuity in overcoming the challenges of life alone on an island. Watt wrote:

Defoe clearly belongs to the tradition of Ascetic Protestantism…in Dickory Cronke’s aphorism, for example: ‘When you find yourself sleepy in a morning, rouse yourself, and consider that you are born to business, and that in doing good in your generation, you answer your character and act like a man. (Watt 73)

Readers of Stoicism Today will probably recognize this “aphorism” as not arising from any English or Christian source, but as a paraphrase of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations VIII.12 (which also recalls the more famous passage at V.1). George Long’s 1862 archaizing translation (still commonly used on the internet) of VIII.12 begins:

When thou risest from sleep with reluctance, remember that it is according to thy constitution and according to human nature to perform social acts…

Watt, seemingly unaware of Defoe’s source, footnotes The Dumb Philosopher. We now need to turn to this enigmatic text.

A Project Gutenberg version of Dickory Cronke: The Dumb Philosopher, or, Great Britain’s Wonder, by Daniel Defoe, is readily available. It purports to be (I) a factual account of a certain Dickory Cronke,

a Tinner’s son, in the county of Cornwall, [who] was born Dumb, and continued so for Fifty-eight years; and how, some days before he died, he came to his Speech; with Memoirs of his Life, and the Manner of his Death. II. A Declaration of his Faith and Principles in Religion; with a Collection of Select Meditations, composed in his Retirement. III. His Prophetical Observations upon the Affairs of Europe, more particularly of Great Britain, from 1720 to 1729. (loc. 9-14)

The author’s preface vouches for the authenticity of his work by claiming that his sources are extant “in the custody of a person of unquestionable reputation.” He adds, cryptically, that what the reader

has now before him was collected from a large bundle of papers, most of which were writ in shorthand, and very ill-digested. However, this may be relied upon, that though the language is something altered, and now and then a word thrown in to help the expression, yet strict care has been taken to speak the author’s mind…Here is a dumb philosopher introduced to a wicked and degenerate generation, as a proper emblem of virtue and morality; and if the world could be persuaded to look upon him with candour and impartiality, and then to copy after him, the editor has gained his end… (loc. 27)

The supposedly biographical account, then, says that Dickory Cronke was born in 1660 (also the year of Defoe’s birth). His inability to speak was identified after he turned three. As he grew older, his health did not permit him to work in the Cornwall tin mines, but he lived first with his mother and later as a private servant with several employers. He saved enough money to live independently for some years, eventually discovering that his whole family, in the interim, had died, except for a widowed sister.

This doleful news…must be extremely shocking, and add a new sting to his former affliction; and here it was that he began to exercise the philosopher, and to demonstrate himself both a wise and a good man. All these things, thinks he, are the will of Providence, and must not be disputed… (loc. 85)

Cronke went to live with his surviving sister, until his death, which we are told took place in 1718. Defoe writes that he made walking a constant habit; ate sparingly; never complained; and “was a person of great wisdom and sagacity. He understood nature beyond the ordinary capacity, and, if he had had a competency of learning suitable to his genius, neither this nor the former ages would have produced a better philosopher or a greater man” (loc. 118).

Strangely, just before his death, Cronke regained the power of speech. He advised his sister:

Do but look seriously and impartially upon the astonishing notion of time and eternity, what an immense deal has run out already, and how infinite it is still in the future… (loc. 151)

Part II of the work consists of Cronke’s written reflections. The first batch sets out conventional beliefs about the Scriptures, the Trinity, and eternal salvation through Christ’s resurrection, including endorsement of the Anglican system as “one of the most excellent branches of the Church Universal” (loc. 251). Then, however, things take a very Stoic turn.

Cronke appends “a few [in fact, forty numbered] meditations and observations relating to the Conduct of Human Life in general.” These turn out, very largely, to be selections from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, probably in the 1701 translation by Jeremy Collier, in places lightly altered. The table below gives eleven representative examples, chosen from at least twenty-five probable Marcus excerpts among the forty meditations attributed to Cronke (these include the one taken from VIII.12 which, as we saw above, misled Watt). I have emphasized the closest verbal similarities with bold type; but even where the wording of Defoe varies from that of Collier, it will be clear that the sentiment is identical.


Cronke Meditations Defoe Text (1719) Marcus Meditations Collier Text (1701)
1 1 Remember how often you have neglected the great duties of religion and virtue, and slighted the opportunities that Providence has put into your hands. II.4 Remember how often you have postpon’d the minding your Interest, and slip’d those Opportunities the Gods have given you.
2 2 Let an unaffected gravity, freedom, justice and sincerity shine through all your actions, and let no fancies and chimeras give the least check to those excellent qualities. This is an easy task, if you will but suppose everything you do to be your last, and if you can keep your passions and appetites from crossing your reason. Stand clear of rashness, and have nothing of insincerity or self-love to infect you. II.5 Let unaffected Gravity, Humanity, Freedom, and Justice shine through it [your action]. And be sure you entertain no Fancys, which may give check to these Qualities. This Task is very practicable if you will but suppose every thing you are upon your Last; if your Appetites and Passions don’t cross upon your Reason; If you stand clear of Rashness, and don’t complain of your Destiny, and have nothing of Insincerity, and Self-Love to infect you.
3 5 Among your principal observations upon human life, let it be always one to take notice what a great deal both of time and ease that man gains who is not troubled with the spirit of curiosity, who lets his neighbours’ affairs alone, and confines his inspections to himself, and only takes care of honesty and a good conscience. IV.18 What a great deal of Time and Ease that Man gains who is not troubled with the Spirit of Curiosity: Who lets his Neighbours Thoughts and Behaviour alone, confines his Inspections to himself; And takes care of the Points of Honesty and Conscience.
4 6 If you would live at your ease, and as much as possible be free from the incumbrances of life, manage but a few things at once, and let those, too, be such as are absolutely necessary. By this rule you will draw the bulk of your business into a narrow compass, and have the double pleasure of making your actions good, and few into the bargain. IV.24 If you would live at your ease, says Democritus, Manage but a few Things. I think it had been better, if He had said, do nothing but what is necessary; and what becomes one made for Society; Nothing but what Reason prescribes, and in the Order too she prescribes it. For by this Rule a Man may both secure the Quality, and draw in the Bulk of his Business; And have the double Pleasure of making his Actions Good, and Few, into the Bargain.
5 10 When you happen to be ruffled and put out of humour by any cross accident, retire immediately into your reason, and do not suffer your passion to overrule you a moment; for the sooner you recover yourself now, the better you will be able to guard yourself for the future. VI.11 When you happen to be ruffled a little, and thrown off your Temper by any cross Accident, retire immediately into your Reason; And don’t move out of Rule any longer than needs must: For the sooner you recover a False Step, the more you will be Master of your Practice.
6 16 When you have a mind to entertain yourself in your retirements, let it be with the good qualifications of your friends and acquaintance. Think with pleasure and satisfaction upon the honour and bravery of one, the modesty of another, the generosity of a third, and so on; there being nothing more pleasant and diverting than the lively images and the advantages of those we love and converse with. VI.48 When you have a mind to divert your Fancy, consider the good Qualities of your Acquaintance. As the enterprising Vigour of this Man, the Modesty of another, the Liberality of a Third, and so on. For there’s nothing so Entertaining as a Lively Image of the Virtues, and Advantages of those we Converse with.
7 17 As nothing can deprive you of the privileges of your nature, or compel you to act counter to your reason, so nothing can happen to you but what comes from Providence, and consists with the interest of the Universe. VI.58 As no body can rob you of the privileges of your Nature, or force you to live Counter to your Reason, so nothing can happen to you but what comes from Providence, and consists with the Interest of the Universe.
8 21 When you hear a discourse, let your understanding, as far as possible, keep pace with it, and lead you forward to those things which fall most within the compass of your own observations. VII.31 [NB: appears as VII.30 in Long and Hays versions] When you hear a Discourse, make your Understanding keep pace with it, and reach as far as you can into those Things which fall under your Observation.
9 26 It is a very ancient observation, and a very true one, that people generally despise where they flatter, and cringe to those they design to betray; so that truth and ceremony are, and always will be, two distinct things. XI.14 People generally Despise, where they Flatter; And cringe to those they would gladly overtop, so that Truth, and Ceremony, are two Things.
10 29 Gentleness and good humour are invincible, provided they are without hypocrisy and design; they disarm the most barbarous and savage tempers, and make even malice ashamed of itself. XI.18 [Ninthly] that Gentleness and Good Humour are invincible, provided they are of the right Stamp, without any thing of Hypocrisy, or Grimace. This is the way to Disarm the most Barbarous, and Savage: A constancy in Obliging Behaviour will make the most Outragious [sic] Person ashamed of his Malice.
11 30 In all the actions of life let it be your first and principal care to guard against anger on the one hand, and flattery on the other, for they are both unserviceable qualities, and do a great deal of mischief in the government of human life. XI.18 And here you must take care to Guard against Flattery, as well as Anger; For these are both unserviceable Qualities, and do a great deal of Mischief in the World.


Remarkably, it would appear that no scholar to date has been moved to determine the source of Defoe/Cronke’s meditations. Writing in 1940, John Robert Moore called them “colorless,” finding the only significant part of the entire work to be Part III, Cronke’s prophecies for the ensuing years (which lie outside the scope of this paper). “Everything,” wrote Moore, “that precedes the concluding prophecies is innocuous enough” (107), that is to say, to him uninteresting. Moore reported that some earlier writers had believed Cronke to have been a real person, but concluded that the apparent “true story” of Cronke’s life was offered simply to lend verisimilitude to the prophecies, which Moore regarded as politically motivated. “The religious meditations are merely a part of the realistic groundwork” (117).

For his part, Watt regarded Defoe’s attitude as displaying

a confusion of religious and material values to which the Puritan gospel of the dignity of labour was peculiarly liable: once the highest spiritual values had been attached to the performance of the daily task, the next step was for the autonomous individual to regard his achievements as a quasi-divine mastering of the environment. It is likely that this secularization of the Calvinist conception of stewardship was of considerable importance for the rise of the novel (pp. 73-4).

But the “dumb philosopher” was Marcus Aurelius, the “person of unquestionable reputation,” who, disguised as Dickory Cronke, regained the power of speaking to a “wicked and degenerate generation” through Defoe’s text. As Defoe in this period was preaching the moral framework set out by the Stoic emperor, perhaps the individual’s “performance of the daily task,” tending towards “quasi-divine” standing, involved not a “confusion,” but a coherent purpose. Further, if as critics after Watt have agreed, the English realist novel of Defoe and his successors represented, in certain aspects, an incorporation of British empiricist philosophy (Schwarz 63), then Stoicism’s insistence on the self-preserving agent working productively within his or her community may also have contributed, as it were, upstream, through the works of Locke and Shaftesbury (Hill and Nidumolu).

It is worth noting that in his sequel to the novel, Serious Reflections During the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1720), responding to critics on themes raised in the novel, Defoe insisted that true solitude – that is to say, meditation – was as practicable among crowds as anywhere else:

…among the Hurries of Conversation, and Gallantry of a Court, or the Noise and Business of a Camp.. (17).

Knowing, as we now do, that Marcus’s Meditations had recently been in Defoe’s mind, it is likely that here we see a reference to the Emperor’s own court and camp. In the appended essay A Vision of the Angelick World, Defoe’s narrator takes an imaginary journey into space (26), perhaps recalling Marcus’s injunction to “Look round at the courses of the stars, as if you were going along with them” (VII.47). This was an instance of the Stoic practice known as the “view from above,” aimed at reframing our view of life and events; one recent scholar observes: “Crusoe’s spectacular view of the planets allows him to ignore the pettiness of ordinary human life in the name of a seemingly timeless, disembodied state of being” (Novak 41).

It remains to offer a suggestion about the English version of Marcus from which Defoe so freely plagiarized. There are two main possibilities: the translation by Thomas Gataker, which first appeared in 1652; and that by Jeremy Collier, a non-juror (i.e. refusing allegiance to King William III and Queen Mary) Anglican bishop, in 1701 and subsequent editions. Introducing his fresh and colloquial English version of Meditations, Collier included a translation of the comprehensive biographical essay by André Dacier (which had appeared in French in 1697), as well as appending a portion of Gataker’s own comparison of Stoic and Epicurean philosophies. Collier’s version was reprinted many times; on the other hand, so was Gataker’s.

On the basis of the strong verbal echoes shown in the table, I estimate that Defoe used a Collier text rather than a Gataker, noting of course that Collier is likely to have preserved some phrasing of Gataker’s.  A clue confirming Collier as the origin appears in the preface to The Dumb Philosopher, in which, as we noted, Defoe describes his source as “writ in shorthand.” This may well recall Collier’s insightful preface, in which the translator describes Marcus’s way of writing Greek:

One word more of the Emperour’s Stile, and I have done: Now his way of expressing himself is extraordinarily Brief: His Words are sometimes over-burthen’d with Thought, and have almost more Sense than they can carry. Indeed, ‘twas part of his Character to write in this Concise manner; for neither the Emperour, nor the Stoick would allow of any length of Expression. Besides, he wrote chiefly for himself, which makes him still more sparing in his Language; He sometimes draws in little, writes his Meaning, as it were, in Short-Hand, and does not beat out his Notions to their full Proportion…

Shorthand writing was an innovation developed during the seventeenth century, and its metaphorical appeal fits Collier’s up-to-the-minute style. Indeed, the OED advises that Collier himself, in an article from 1695, had been the first to use the image in this figurative sense.[1]

In the circumstances, it is ironic – but not, given his multiple identities and allegiances, surprising – that Defoe maintains a reputation as a “modernist,” impatient with the ancient writers in part because of their (supposed) tendency to plagiarize. Watt quoted Defoe as writing in 1725:

A Merry Fellow of my Acquaintance assures me, that our cousin Homer himself was guilty of the same Plagiarism…the Poet never did much himself, only published and sold his Ballads still, in his own Name, as if they had been his own; and by that, got great Subscriptions, and a high Price for them (quoted in Watt 241).

Citing scornful remarks by Defoe concerning Virgil, Watt concluded: “This note of hardly concealed impatience at the irrational and immoral idolatry of the ancients is a suitable one on which to leave Defoe” (242). As we have seen, however, Defoe paid the sincerest tribute to the morality of the great Roman Stoics, in passing it off – successfully, for over three hundred years, until now – as his own.

Judith Stove is a writer and researcher based in Sydney, Australia, author of two books on Jane Austen’s life and times. Her current research interests include classical virtue ethics and their later receptions, and women writers of the long eighteenth century. Judith spoke on ‘Women and Stoicism’ as part of Stoicon-X Australia 2020. Further information and a selection of Judith’s articles can be accessed here, and she may be emailed here.

Works Cited

Collier, Jeremy. The Emperor Marcus Antoninus, His Conversation With Himself. Together with the Preliminary Discourse of the Learned GATAKER, &c. Printed for Richard Sare, London, 1701.

Defoe, Daniel. Dickory Cronke: the Dumb Philosopher, or, Great Britain’s Wonder. [1719]. Project Gutenberg EBook #2051 (2000), transcribed from the 1889 George Bell & Sons edition.

[Defoe, Daniel] Serious Reflections During the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe: with his Vision of the Angelick World. W. Taylor, London, 1720.

Hill, Lisa and Prasanna Nidumolu. “The Influence of Classical Stoicism on John Locke’s Theory of Self-Ownership.” History of the Human Sciences, vol. 34 (3-4), 2021, 3-24.

Moore, John Robert. “Defoe’s Political Propaganda in ‘The Dumb Philosopher.’” Huntingdon Library Quarterly, vol. 4, no. 1 (October, 1940), 107-117.

Novak, Maximillian. “Imaginary Voyages in Serious Reflections and A Vision of the Angelick World.” Digital Defoe: Studies in Defoe & His Contemporaries 5, no. 1 (Fall, 2013), 34-44.

Schwarz, Daniel R. “The Importance of Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel.” The Journal of Narrative Technique, vol. 13, no. 2 (Spring, 1983), 59, 61-73.

Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. Chatto & Windus, London, fourth impression 1963.


[1] “Tis the Short-hand of the Mind, and crowds a great deal into a little room:’ Miscellanies upon Moral Subjects, the Second Part. First edition 1695.  “shorthand, n. and adj.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2022, Accessed 18 November 2022.

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