William Godwin


Though the term ‘’ was not used in a positive sense until 1840, by the French writer PIERRE-JOSEPH PROUDHON, William Godwin is regarded as the founder of . Born at Wisbech on 7 March 1756, Godwin was raised by a strict Baptist father, and became a Sandemanian Baptist minister in 1778. By 1783, however, he had abandoned his religious beliefs and calling for a career as a historian,

novelist and journalist. His chief work, the Enquiry concerning Political Justice (1st edn, 1793), was the most extensive and serious philosophical appraisal of the first principles of the French Revolution, and escaped prosecution only because of its high price. Rendered famous by its success, and that of his first major novel, Caleb Williams (1794), Godwin married the feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, but she died in childbirth in 1797; their daughter married the poet Percy Shelley. Godwin extended and amended certain doctrines of Political Justice in both the 2nd and 3rd edns of the work (1795, 1798) and in The Enquirer (1797). But his reputation was greatly undermined by the attack on him, and upon all forms of utopian social engineering, in T.R.MALTHUS’S Essay on Population (1798), and despite publishing a number of later novels and historical works, as well as a response to Malthus, Of Population (1820), he never regained prominence.

The reputation of the Enquiry concerning Political Justice rests on its treatment of eight themes: (1) philosophical necessitarianism—the foundation of Godwin’s optimism is his notion of the pliability, and improvability, of human nature, and his insistence, particularly against the notion of original sin, that individual moral character was derived from the environment, and that the voluntary actions of men were derived from their opinions; (2) theory of justice—in his famous ‘fire case’, where we are faced with a choice between rescuing an illustrious person who has been or is capable of assisting humanity as a whole, or a comparatively humble individual, Godwin urges us to choose the former; ‘my neighbour’s moral worth, and his importance to the general weal’ are ‘the only standard to determine the treatment to which he is entitled’; (3) individualist anarchism—Godwin builds on Swift, PAINE and others to argue that not merely government, but also most forms of co-operative endeavour, including marriage and common labour and meals, hinder the capacity of each individual to form their own judgements (the Nonconformist plea for the right of private judgement, with sincerity as the root virtue, being the root of this view) by compelling compromise; in the first edition of Political Justice, in particular, he urged the return to a simple society without government or exchange, law or punishment, where order was to be based on mutual moral supervision without coercion and social organization was to be parish-based; (4) critique of political institutions—Godwin scathingly assails not only monarchy and aristocracy, but equally the negative aspects of democracy, notably its propensity to interfere with private judgement through ‘partiality and cabal’, and the evil effects of vote-taking to secure decisions; (5) cosmopolitanism—Godwin places much greater value on universal benevolence than the crucial republican virtue, patriotism; (6) rejection of a complex division of labour—particularly in the 1st edn of Political Justice, Godwin (here largely following Rousseau) pleads for simplicity in work, with all being cultivators primarily, and condemns the propensity of separate professions (physicians and lawyers, but especially soldiers) to develop an interest separate from that of the public; (7) theory of property—again particular in the 1st edn., Godwin opposes all exchange and all significant inequality of property, on the principle that ‘there is nothing more pernicious to the human mind than the love of opulence’; if all superfluity were abolished, and labour shared equally, it would be reduced, Godwin thought, to a few hours a day, with time then available for intellectual speculation. War and selfishness, moreover, Godwin also saw as the offspring of unequal property. The system of distribution proposed was also linked to his theory of justice, all property being viewed by Godwin as held as a ‘trust’ that must be expended in the most just manner; (8) perfectibility—Godwin famously speculated that reason would eventually conquer the passions, especially sexual desire, that life might be greatly prolonged; besides abolishing law, government and war, human tempers would improve, to the point to which there would be no ‘disease, anguish, melancholy, nor resentment; nor would there be no reason to fear that overpopulation would undermine the system of economic organisation’ (this was the starting-point of Malthus’s critique not only of Godwin but also Enlightenment optimism generally). The changes in the three editions of Political Justice published in Godwin’s lifetime involved a reinforcement of his arguments against violence and revolutionary change, and a shift from relying upon reason as the basis of voluntary action to the feelings. In keeping with his breach with his agitator friend, John Thelwall, a popular lecturer among the London working classes, Godwin by 1797 stressed that the working classes would not be ready for universal suffrage for many years. He also moved sharply away from the embracing of simplicity, condoning even luxury, which he now associated with refinement and knowledge, in The Enquirer, so long as it was not exclusively enjoyed by the few to the burden of the many. He also conceded to Burke in particular, moreover, that benevolence was best practised not by an abstract and universal principle, but according to the ‘nearness to ourselves’ of persons and things. This gave greater stress to the value of and virtues associated with the domestic affections, as well, which no doubt owed something to both the personal and intellectual influence of Mary Wollstonecraft on Godwin.

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