Though largely forgotten now, William Godwin’s tract, ‘Enquiry Concerning Political Justice’, was very widely read and hugely influential when it appeared in 1793, raising philosophical arguments aroused by the French Revolution to whole new levels. Involved in the late 1780s-early 1790s in reforming circles, around groups both inspired by the French Revolution and working for radical reform in Britain, (such as the Revolution Society, the circles around Thomas Paine and the London Corresponding Society), Godwin took a different radical and philosophical direction. Though he expressed a solid belief in education and its power to free people, he came to doubt the use of organisations and oppose all government, or political effort of any kind. “A man surrenders too much of himself” in political organisations or associations, he asserted… In some ways he foreshadows both anarchism and extreme laissez faire capitalism… though there’s no evidence he directly influenced any later thinkers of the 19th Century libertarian movement.
Historians and Godwin: AL Morton said that Political Justice “concentrated all the typical ideas of the time into a single work permeated with utopian feeling” – though in fact he ended up widely at variance with many of his contemporaries politically.
Godwin’s background was in hardline Calvinism, and though he discarded the Calvinist doctrine, he retained the way of thinking: logical, deductive, disdaining of sentiment and experience; he also took from this upbringing his ardent belief in the perfectability of humankind. Its obvious too that the history of persecution of dissenters influenced his view on links between state and church… Mark Philp , who made a study of Political Justice, also identifies many of the central ideas of the book as emanating from Godwin’s background in the rational Dissenting movement, to the point where disagreeing with many traditional views of Godwin, he frames his ideas in that context, rather than that of the philosophical debate arising from the French Revolution. Interestingly, some of Godwin’s philosophical cul-de-sacs, like that concerts and theatrical performances would die out in a free rational society, arrive via ostensibly opposite motives at very similar conclusions to puritanism, which does seem to chime somewhat with Philp’s conclusions.
After a failed early career as a dissenting minister, Godwin became a journalist and writer; while he was immersed in the ideas and way of life of the Rationalist Dissenters, he also came under the influence of french philosophers.
Godwin was on the fringes of movements for electoral and social reform at home, as well as groups in sympathy with the ideals of the French Revolution. While his inclinations were not really towards activism, but to discussion and change through development of ideas, his close friends like Thomas Holcroft and Joseph Gerrard were targeted by government repression of the reformers. He intervened in the trials of London Corresponding Society leaders Thomas Hardy, Horne Tooke, Thelwall and others, accused of treason, in 1794, writing a powerful article in the Morning Chronicle which exposed the attempt to widen the high treason charge to mean any attempt to change society. Godwin’s article was credited by many with influencing the jury’s decision to acquit all those charged: a heavy defeat for the authorities.
But a combination of observation of the repression of the reformists, his own philosphical thinking, and disillusion at the violent turn the French Revolution took, led Godwin to not only theorise that government was an unnecessary evil, but also to extend this to assert that all political combinations were counter-productive. Temporary combinations may be necessary for a time and specific purposes, but left to exist they would foster cabal, party spirit, tumult, demagoguery. He also came to dismiss the possibility of true lasting social change coming from revolutionary upheavals…
‘Political Justice’ was begun in 1791, though not finished till January 1793. Successive editions later in the decade revealed changes in his ideas; though some historians have attributed this to the times growing less radical, or fear of government persecution, it’s also true that his ideas evolved. The book is a hymn to progress, opposition to war, despotism, monarchy, religion, penal laws, patriotism, class inequality; in its place he exhorts the “human will to embark with a conscious and social resolve on the adventure of perfection.” He argues for absolute freedom in political and speculative discussion, against any prosecutions for blasphemy or sedition; for abolition of established religion; he dismisses monarchy, aristocracy, elective dictatorship in the US style (new then). The book also condemned luxury, ostentation, wealth; the pursuit of them he saw as corrupting virtue and degrading others, and thus ourselves; those who live in luxury are parasiting on the labour of others, and claiming that property is bequeathed by their ancestors as a justification is a “mouldy patent”. It is immoral for one man to have power to dispose of produce of another’s toil, and wrong for one to live in ease unless its available to all. Godwin opposed colonialism, advocating universal free trade in its place. Economics was his achilles heel though, He did lack any analysis of economics, or its role in social change; as historian AL Morton pointed out, criticising Godwin’s economic proposals as sketchy Liberalism. Holding that on the one hand its wrong for one man to have superfluous wealth while others go hungry, but equally wrong for anyone to deprive anyone of their property or wealth, takes no account of how wealth is acquired. Godwin thought property should remain sacred, not only so as to emphasise the personal virtue of giving it away, but also because for the poor to take the property of the rich by force would infringe the self-determination of the wealthy.
In opposition to then widely held theories that people are determined by factors such as heredity, social position and environment, and are unable to change themselves, Godwin asserted that man IS a creature of ‘his’ environment, but of conditions ‘he’ can change – education, religion, government and social prejudice. In Godwin’s generation, for the first time, the idea was developing that people are made SOLELY by nurture; an exciting thought, with powerful and radical implications. Godwin recognised that social inequalities and hierarchies ‘poison our minds’ from birth; these ideas he saw as the result of political and social institutions…
Godwin elevated education to supreme importance. Education and its possibilities dominating enlightened thinking then; but in contrast to other reforming thinkers of the time, eg the French philosophers, he argued against national standards of education: state-regulated institutions would stereotype knowledge and lead to beliefs that cease to be perceptions and become prejudices… No government should be entrusted with power to create and regulate opinions.
English writers from Locke to Paine saw government as negative, but relatively uninfluential… Godwin though saw its malign influence everywhere, and thought its abolition would open up exciting chances… Government was wrong as a concept. Out of step with 18th century philosophers, or even the beginnings of 19th century liberalism in Condorcet’s plan for a national education scheme, and Paine’s ideas for pensions; Godwin dismisses all such schemes as infringement and constraint of the individuals’ will and virtue.
Godwin saw the true unit of society as being the parish, a limited area where people would all know each other and each other’s concerns, and ambition couldn’t thrive (he’d obviously never been to a Tenants Association meeting). In this environment, public opinion was to be the supreme authority, acting through juries. He utterly dismissed voting as the enemy of debate: a majority vote or consent does not turn wrong into right.
Godwin developed a dogma of perfection – a popular sport among late nineteenth century radicals. The voluntary actions of individuals come from their opinions, so it’s vital to show the rational course and teach people to act consciously and rationally; logic and truth would triumph over vice and moral weakness, inevitably! Duty (to the general benefit of all) and sincerity are the highest virtues.
Often out of step in the radical circles of the time: not only in doubting the role of government or political co-operation, he also dismissed the big idea of the era, the ‘natural rights’ of man, holding that we have no ‘right’ to do as we want; either actions are ‘reasonable’ and benefit mankind, or not. There’s no ‘right’ to actions that harm human happiness. BUT only a virtuous society can create equality of property; laws etc to enact it are futile till men are virtuous.
He attacked the sacredness of the family – not only was cohabitation an evil in itself, but marriage was a mistake, binding people with promises that contradicted general welfare. He thought most people would freely choose one person; but for a child to know who its father was unnecessary, its mother would care for kids with the help of community. Bit of a Dead beat dad’s charter there! The father’s ‘virtuous work’ is more important than the mothers’?
Godwin thought authority would gradually decay as education and reason triumphed. He was opposed to abrupt changes, seizures of power etc, revolutionary upheavals. Change must be based on informed and reasoned consensus and desire. He thought it ‘wrong’ to incite an ‘ill-informed’ mass to revolt – better to wait for virtuous ideas to spread than risk uncertain bloody uprising by ‘non-perfect’ people. There was a moral hierarchy in his world-view; those with essentially virtuous, ‘valuable’ minds are more worthy people. Rational hierarchy should prevail.
Morton says Godwin’s problem is, how do men change: man is shaped by his environment; and thus a contradiction: how do unchanged men (products of this society) change or even imagine change in society… ? Only dialectics, seeing man as part of a class, resolves this, and Godwin never got it, so his ideas were “academic and harmless”…
His individualism was taken to fantastic levels: there was no room in the early editions for personal affection (though he softened on this later); he also almost comes out against performances of music or theatre because the co-operation of musicians, like all co-operation, was an offence against one’s own sincerity. He even thought we could end sleep, sickness and death if we put our minds to it.
His opposition to state action did, (as HN Brailsford sarkily notes) “excuse him from attempting the more dangerous exploits of civic courage”: he escaped the repression that bore down on more active radicals. Although his attacks on monarchy were just as uncompromising as Tom Paine’s, tory Prime Minister William Pitt said Godwin should be left alone, as unable to influence the poor and inflame radical crowds – because “a 3 guinea book could never do much harm among those who had not 3 shillings to spare.” Though in fact ‘Political Justice’ sold for less then three guineas, this was a damning verdict: it was still a learned book for the educated, in contrast to the electric effect that Paine’s book had among the nascent working and artisan classes. In fact 4000 copies of Political Justice were sold, a fair amount, a testament to the middle class eagerness for revolutionary and philosophical ideas at that time.
When Willie met Mary
Godwin’s relationship with Mary Wollstoncraft seems to have been a meeting of equal minds, according to his both own account, and others’; neither dominated the other, they experienced “friendship melting into love”. Initially they lived, seemingly happy, respecting each others minds and intellects and regarding each other with reverence and pride. They lived together unmarried (daringly unconventional then), in accordance with their principles in house in the Polygon, Somers Town (then right on the edge of London), leading partly separate lives, as they frequented different social circles and friends, but overlapping, occasionally meeting by chance at the same social events! Only when Mary became pregnant did they reluctantly marry in March 1797. Tragically Mary then died giving birth to their daughter. Around this time Godwin did revise his idea of universal benevolence slightly, putting care for your family first… THEN others, as being the most effective way of securing general good.
Mary W hadn’t had much time for ‘universal benevolence’ – she more practically claimed that “Few have much affection for mankind, who first did not love their parents, their brothers, sisters and the domestic brutes who they first played with.” In other words, radical ideas come from love close to home, from emotional ties. To some extent Godwin’s harsh purity altered under her influence, for a while.
After Mary’s death Godwin’s life went downhill – not only was he often personally unhappy but after the flush of revolution and philosophical ferment, political reaction was triumphing, and his ideas were increasingly attacked and silenced, or became irrelevant, as working class radicalism evolved, based on co-operation and organisation, on class antagonism, and working on the whole practically rather than dithering in the abstract. Many of Godwin’s associates had been transported, jailed, persecuted, others drifted to the right. In later years he ran a publishing firm and library that went eventually bust and ended up relying on the charity of his friends and dwindling sympathisers, especially his son-in-law, the poet Shelley.
‘Political Justice’ did for a few decades from the 1790s influence a younger generation, most famous among them the romantic poets, Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth (for a while), and most of all Shelley. They were inspired by his vision of a “free community from which laws and coercion had been eliminated, and in which property was in a continual flux actuated by the stream of universal benevolence.” Though the historian HN Brailsford claimed they lacked the bottle that turned others into agitators, and even welched out of their grand plan to form an ideal Godwin-inspired commune (or ‘pantisocracy’) in the USA. Coleridge later said this plan saved them from doing anything more dangerous and radical, in the meantime they gradually aged and became respectable, disassociating themselves from their youthful enthusiasm for social change. But Godwin’s ideas also lent themselves to the aristocratic romantics, able to see themselves as well on the way to being perfect beings, above the distasteful masses; Political Justice gives plenty of ammunition to those looking to stand aloof, refuse to get involved in the complex daily reality of struggle for social change.
Shelley: Straight Outta Godwin
Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley fell under the influence of William Godwin’s ideas since he read ‘Political Justice’ at Eton, and was captivated by it, as had been Wordsworth, Southey Coleridge before him. For him though this affiliation lasted, until his untimely death. Shelley began to correspond with Godwin in 1811, met him, and gradually started to support his impoverished guru financially. HN Brailsford thought Shelley’s ideas very much derived from Godwin (as well as the French philospher Condorcet), and his poetry belonged entirely to world of politics. To him, ‘Political Justice’ was the “milk of paradise” – his work, from 1812’s Queen Mab to Hellas (1821) was often an imaginative expression of its ideas. To Shelley, thought, ideas , passion, were more real than things of earth and flesh; he lived in philosophy and guided himself by it.
In Hellas, he preaches perfectability, non-resistance, a kind of anarchist individualism, the power of reason, the superiority of persuasion over force, universal benevolence, and that moral evils come from political institutions: straight outta Godwin, basically. Under Godwin’s influence, he asserted, sometimes, that change would come through education and gradual elimination of error, not revolution. As with Coleridge and Southey, Political Justice persuaded him to do nothing political, that action is futile, ideas and spreading them everything. (In fact Godwin himself actually talked Shelley out of forming a radical association in Dublin in 1812); he preached passive non-violent resistance to oppression, in the Mask of Anarchy, and Revolt of Islam, to the point of portraying rebels as living sacrifices, humane missionaries for redemption of man.
But he differed from his mentor, in expression as much as anything: what are cold intellectual ideas in Godwin are emotional and heartfelt in Shelley’s work, and abstract ideas became calls for action. He also didn’t see of change in society as entirely a gradual process of discarding of error, he did believe a sudden emotional conversion or revelation would occur.
Relations between philosopher and his romantic pupil took a rocky turn when the poet met Godwin and Mary Wollstoncraft’s daughter, Mary and they fell in love. Shelley had already eloped with one schoolgirl, Harriet Westbrook, to whom he was still married. So despite his ideas about free individuals, marriage, etc, Godwin played the conventional father, banning them Mary and Percy from meeting, leading to THEIR elopement. Only after the unhappy Harriet’s suicide in 1816 he was reconciled. BUT he continued to take Shelley’s money throughout this estrangement. (Is that unprincipled? He could probably have justified it in terms of rational benevolence and so on.) Shelley never criticised him for this attitude, but he was on weak ground really. Another question for Godwin’s views on freedom to act, how does Shelley’s ability to take up and discard women with little thought for the effect on them fit in; but when they kill themselves its ok because now it can all be made respectable with marriage…? All leaves a bit of a sour taste.
By Godwin’s death in 1836 Political Justice‘s initial fame had already declined and he was almost forgotten.
An entry in the
2015 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online