Compare and contrast Robinson Crusoe and Oroonoko. Which character is a stronger example of an enlightened individual?
Oroonoko is a stronger example of an enlightened individual. He is the noble savage: an exemplary, idealized character with qualities of a true king. As a noble savage, he is born both intelligent and innocent. He looks on other people without hate and has a courageous if gentle and forgiving nature. His focus is often on the higher virtues in life: for example, he is able to forgive the captain who enslaves him because "it is worth my suffering to gain such a true knowledge both of you and your gods by whom you swear."
The other slaves on the plantation greet him as a king when he arrives. He has the compassion and empathy to worry about his son being born a slave and the courage to lead a slave revolt. He does kill his wife, but he does so to save her from rape and humiliation, and does so with her consent. In his almost supernatural capacity to face his own cruel death at the hands of his slave owner with dignity and grace, and to inspire others, he reminds one of a later ideal character: Uncle Tom from Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.
From a literary point of view, Robinson Crusoe may be a more authentic or realistic character because of his flaws, but he is nevertheless less enlightened than Oroonoko, lacking Oroonoko's innate qualities of nobility and deep compassion. Robinson Crusoe's best qualities are largely outward: he is resourceful, rises to adversity, and builds a new life for himself in a dire situation. He amasses money, works very hard, and is careful care with his resources. Unlike Oroonoko, who grieves for days over Imoinda's death and is weakened by it, Crusoe seems somewhat callous about his own wife's death, and generally lacks deep feelings for other people. With his mind on practical matters, it's hard to imagine him saying his suffering is "worth" it to gain "true knowledge" of someone else's gods, as Oroonoko does. While Crusoe's adventures on the island help him to grow in his religious faith, he is never enlightened enough to see Friday or the cannibals as truly human or equal to a European like himself and thus worth knowing in their own cultural context or as people worthy of being treated as equals. He expects Friday to look up to him as a superior and to adapt to his English-style norms.
Crusoe is everyman, an ordinary person, and we can love him for not trying to be more heroic than he is, and acknowledge that he does grow as he examines what has happened to him, but ordinary people, by definition, are not usually greatly enlightened. In contrast, as the kingly noble savage, born good, Oroonoko serves as an inspiration and critique of European values as he shows an interest in other cultures, rebels against slavery, shows forgiveness, mercy, and compassion, courageously leads a slave revolt, and faces a gruesome death with dignity.
First, let us consider these quotes from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy regarding the "Enlightenment" movement in history.
[Immanuel] Kant identifies enlightenment with the process of undertaking to think for oneself, to employ and rely on one’s own intellectual capacities in determining what to believe and how to act.
The faith of the Enlightenment—if one may call it that—is that the process of enlightenment, of becoming progressively self-directed in thought and action through the awakening of one’s intellectual powers, leads ultimately to a better, more fulfilled human existence.
In the top quote, we see a focus on acting independently and relying on one's own abilities. The enlightened individual must think and act for himself, regardless of social influence. The bottom quote discusses the process of becoming enlightened by again focusing on being "self-directed."
Oroonoko is the better man. In modern terms, he is certainly more mature and more enlightened in his view of humans and society. However, his personality and the story we get about him do not espouse the characteristics that were regaled in the Age of Enlightenment. He does not go through a path of enlightenment. He begins that way. He serves to show the audience that the European prejudices against "savage" societies were inaccurate. As a character, he is exaggerated. "There could be nothing in nature more beautiful, agreeable, and handsome." He is perfectly formed; he did not have to work to become this way—he simply is this way.
Crusoe, on the other hand, is a work in progress and emotionally flawed. Clever and determined, he lacks empathy. He does possess the key qualities of the Enlightenment, however. He gives up the predetermined social path his father wants him to take, gives up the security of a stable job, and strikes out on his own to make his way in the world, to learn his own truths. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a key figure in the movement, said it best himself:
There exists one book, which, to my taste, furnishes the happiest treatise of natural education. What then is this marvelous book? Is it Aristotle? Is it Pliny, is it Buffon? No—it is Robinson Crusoe.
If the philosopher responsible for the Age of Enlightenment considers Crusoe an ideal example of the movement, we have to accept his authority.