William Godwin, 1756-1836
The annals of the French Revolution prove that the knowledge of the few cannot counteract the ignorance of the many . . . the light of philosophy, when it is confined to a small minority, points out the possessors as the victims rather than the illuminators of the multitude.
---Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Essays on His Own Times, 1850
The father of philosophical anarchism, William Godwin, was born March 3, 1756 in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, and was the seventh of thirteen children of John Godwin and Anna Hull. Physically weak, introverted and intellectually precocious, Godwin held to strict Sandemanian Calvinism almost until the end of his formal education in 1778 at the Dissenting school, Hoxton Academy. John Godwin was a minister of the Sandeman variety and it was expected that young William would follow him into the ministry. Godwin later described Sandeman as a "celebrated north country apostle, who, after Calvin had damned ninety-nine in a hundred of mankind, had contrived a scheme for damning ninety-nine in a hundred of the followers of Calvin." Such an austere religiosity so early in life goes a long way to explain why Godwin would eventually become the prophet of philosophical anarchism.
Political events in America and England, discussions with his associates and his study of the French philosophes (in particular Rousseau, Helvetius, d'Holbach and Montesquieu), the Latin historians and English writers (Locke, Swift and Priestley) converted him to political liberalism. His religious beliefs evolved progressively from Calvinism to deism, Socinianism, agnosticism and atheism. Later in his life Godwin adopted what could only be called a "vague theism."
By 1783, Godwin had abandoned the country and the ministry for London and a literary career of service to his fellow man. His first project, an attempt to start a small school, failed for want of students. At this time he began to experience greater interest in national politics. This led to his frequent contributions to Whig and radical journals. Although he freely associated with radical societies and organizations, he avoided membership.
It was the French Revolution which profoundly influenced the course of Godwin's career. Although he never supported all aspects of the Revolution (basically because much of it was contrary to human reason), he thought it beneficial in general and served on a small committee which helped secure the publication of Paine's Rights of Man. Godwin believed that what was needed at the time was not another refutation of Burke, but rather a thorough analysis of society and government. He was given an advance by his publisher and in January 1793 appeared his most important political treatise, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Political Justice, and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (London, 2 vols.). Despite its length and cost, Political Justice became a bestseller (some 4,000 copies were sold). In Political Justice, Godwin produced a sweeping explication of the general principles that underlay society and a plan for the future based on his comprehension of the past. In 1794 appeared his novel, Things as They Are, or the Adventures of Caleb Williams (London, 3 vols.), a novel which further popularized his political and social views of the individual victimized by society. In the Preface, Godwin explained why he had written Caleb Williams:
Political Justice and Caleb Williams brought Godwin to the pinnacle of popular acclaim. He continued his onslaught against the government when, repelled by government action against the Scottish radicals and members of the corresponding societies, he produced an anonymous pamphlet on behalf of the accused. His Cursory Strictures on the Charge Delivered by Lord Chief Justice Eyre to the Grand Jury, October 2, 1794 (London, 1794), proved significant to the radical movement: Godwin had demonstrated the false logic in the prosecution's definition of treason. In the Considerations on Lord Grenville's and Mr. Pitt's Bills Concerning Treasonable and Seditious Practices and Unlawful Assemblies (London, 1796), Godwin castigated the government even more. The Considerations reiterated his objections to party and faction alike and attacked the radical appeals to public passions as contrary to reason.
Although Godwin perhaps never abandoned his basic contention that man ought to be guided by the laws of truth, benevolence, candor and justice, his experiences during the mid-1790s caused a shift of emphasis away from the cold rationalism of Political Justice, an emphasis reflected in subsequent revisions in 1796 and 1798. It also appeared in The Enquirer (1797), collection of interesting essays on educational, literary and social topics. In this work, Godwin elaborated his views in a less complex style. One of these essays -- "Of Avarice and Profusion" -- prompted Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) to write his famous Essay on the Principle of Population (London, 1798), in an effort to refute Godwinian concerns (as well as Condorcet's) for universal benevolence as well as the belief in human perfectibility.
Godwin's renewed acquaintance with Mary Wollstonecraft (they had originally met as early as 1791) perhaps altered his mood even more. The cool logician had become the "new man of feeling." Their friendship eventually resulted in marriage when the learned that Mary was pregnant. Such an arrangement appeared to violate Godwin's strictures against marriage and public opinion turned to ridicule as both Godwin and Mary were ridiculed in the popular press, Mary Wollstonecraft died in September 1797, just days after giving birth to a daughter, Mary Godwin Wollstonecraft (1797-1851). The life of young Mary was bound to that of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) from 1814 through 1822, when the poet died. In 1818, Mary Shelley published her most well-known work of fiction, Frankenstein.
Following the death of Mary Wollstonecraft, Godwin published the poignant by poorly-received Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman (London, 1798).
There is little doubt that the remainder of Godwin's career was an anticlimax to the very turbulent decade of the 1790s when he produced his most thoughtful and original contributions to the English literary, philosophical and political tradition. His second marriage, to Mary Jane Clairmont in 1801, was not entirely a happy one -- it complicated his family obligations and forced him to write for money. The books for children under several pseudonyms and printed in the shop he operated from 1805 to 1824 were modestly successful. However, his business venture failed due to his own financial mismanagement of affairs.
His circle of friends was now quite narrow, although at various times it included Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), William Wordsworth (1770-1850), Robert Southey (1774-1843), Charles Lamb (1775-1834), and Francis Place (1771-1854). Percy Shelley became his son-in-law as well as benefactor. Many of Godwin's former friends abandoned him and his ideas now that the French Revolution had gone through its Reign of Terror. Somehow, Godwin faced the isolation with stoic resolve. In the novel, St. Leon (4 vols, London, 1799), a novel which emphasized the newly-found joys of "domestic affections," Godwin had shown how those who used their wisdom for the public good would always face the hostility of a critical society.
The most notable publications of Godwin's later career were Of Population (London, 1820), a belated attempt to refute Malthusian theory by arguing that moral improvement would outrun and even reduce the growth of population; History of the Commonwealth of England, from its Commencement to the Restoration of Charles II (4 vols, London, 1824-28) and Thoughts on Man, his Nature, Productions and Discoveries (London, 1831). Thoughts on Man was a collection of political and philosophical essays in which Godwin asserted that innate traits could impel men to different vocations and stressed that education should develop those talents for which the person was best suited.
Late in life, Godwin's continuous financial straits were finally relieved when in 1833 he was given a government sinecure -- an odd occurrence given Godwin's philosophical anarchism. Despite his fame in the 1790s, when Godwin died on April 7, 1836 he was forgotten by all but a few.
Godwin was no revolutionary and he did not advocate the physical destruction of government. Violence and tumult was anathema to a man like Godwin since they were contrary to human reason. He preferred talk and discussion to action and martyrdom. This explains his general hostility toward the movement for parliamentary reform in general and the corresponding societies in particular. "The interests of the human species require a gradual, but uninterrupted change," Godwin wrote in Political Justice.
Godwin allowed the continued temporary existence of government because of the persistence of inadequate reasoning and strong vices; since reform came slowly in society, government could restrain those who harmed the well-being of others. "Common deliberation" was the only acceptable basis of government, and while rejecting communal organization, he supported the decentralization of authority. What organization was necessary would be voluntary and on the local or parish level.
Instead of force Godwin contended that progressive enlightenment would free man from his social organization and from the political, economic and social deficiencies of society. Once true values were inculcated in the individual -- through candor, benevolence and sincerity -- and sufficient goods were produced to meet the physical needs of society, the desire for opulence, ostentatious behavior and the need for coercion would disappear. The reduction of wants by the reordering of individual priorities would, Godwin hoped, remedy the unequal distribution of wealth and, with the assistance of machines, most manual labor might even be abolished. State control of education was unacceptable. Education based on freedom, rather than on deception, collective action or force by parent or teacher, would lead to moral progress and the general reform of society. The goal was not to impose knowledge, but rather to strengthen qualities of the mind that would turn the student toward wisdom and guard him against hostile forces.
Godwin anticipated the ideas of P. J. Proudhon (1809-1865), Prince Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), yet he had little direct influence on the radical, socialist and anarchist traditions of the 19th century. His rejection of political parties and authoritarian action and control in favor of education and discussion were among the reasons for his lack of influence. Dismissed as "a quite and amiable man" by Leslie Stephen, as the "man of a single book" by Cecil Driver and as a "philosophical gasbag" by D. C. Somervell, Godwin has been recognized as a thinker of the first magnitude in politics, educational theory and social thought because of his recognition of the tyranny of coercive institutions and his championing of the rights of the individual against these institutions.
The first eight chapters of volume 1 and four chapters of volume 2 of C. Kegan Paul's classic 1876 biography of Godwin, William Godwin and His Friends is available online. And anyone truly interested in Godwin the man, must read William Hazlitt's 1825 essay on Godwin from The Spirit of the Age.
In July 2002, I spent a few hours scanning my Master's thesis -- AN UNEASY AFFAIR: WILLIAM GODWIN AND ENGLISH RADICALISM, 1793-1797. The thesis focuses on the period immediately following the outbreak of the French Revolution, and considers Godwin in the historical context within which he wrote Political Justice.
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copyright © 2000 Steven Kreis