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Caveat Emptor

The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Dare to be a Daniel

Dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone,
Dare to have a purpose firm, and dare to make it known.

While reading Richard West's The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Daniel Defoe these lines from a Sunday school hymn bubbled up from the murky depths of my memory. Throughout most of his eventful but poorly documented life Defoe's political instinct seems to have been contrarian and so fiercely independent that he was repeatedly in serious trouble with the powers that be. Though there is something to the claims of his political enemies that in later life he was a paid party hack, West makes a convincing case that Defoe was essentially one of life's natural outsiders and bit the hands that fed him as much as the hands of their opponents. 'Tis hard', he says at the beginning of one of his pamphlets, 'for a man to say, all the world is mistaken but himself, but if it be so, who can help it?'
The intolerance of cant that characterized his political nonconformity had its origin in Defoe's religious nonconformity. He was a presbyterian and nonconformists in late Stuart England were commonly regarded as likely to be as politically subversive as catholics. His mercantile social origins and lack of a university education made him the occasional butt of smart literary society humour and it is clear that this hurt him but also stiffened his resolve to tell the truth as he saw it and damn the consequences.
All this made me think about my own nonconformist upbringing. It's a long time since I could be said to hold any religious beliefs but being brought up in a presbyterian/congregational household does, I think, have a lasting influence on one's view of the society you live in, your place in it and how you think about it. I remember as a child not feeling part of the mainstream. Attending school carol concerts in the anglican parish church made me feel uncomfortable. The iconograpy and ritual even of low church anglicanism was completely alien to me and the idea of kneeling for prayer just one step from idolatry. Our type of nonconformity emphasised the primacy of the individual's unmediated, partly cerebral, relationship with their God. The guidebook was the Bible, but each had to make their own sense as best they could of the coded instructions contained therein. Overt displays of religious emotion, such as we believed the Baptists and Methodists indulged in were held to be vulgar and a distraction from the spiritual sobriety that was required if each was to find their own way.
Maybe my contrarianism, which I'm sure must occasionally drive my colleagues to distraction, is nothing more than an inherent personality defect, but I prefer to believe that it has something to do with the form of the nonconformist conscience which persists even after all the religious content has been excised.