Quite forgotten today, William Godwin (1756–1836) was the most influential English philosopher of his generation. “No work in our time,” wrote Hazlitt toward 1823, “gave such a blow to the philosophical mind of this country as the celebrated Enquiry Concerning Political Justice11 “Throw away your books of chemistry,” Wordsworth told a young student, “and read Godwin on Necessity”;12 and in Godwin’s old age, when he had come to doubt himself, he saw his ideas broadcast on the wings of song by his son-in-law Shelley. He would probably have been put in jail except for the high price he charged for his book.

His parents were devout Calvinists, dedicated to the predestinarianism that in Godwin became determinism. His father was a Nonconformist minister; he himself was educated for the pulpit, and served as clergyman in divers towns. While so functioning at Stowmarket he was introduced by a young republican to the French philosophers, who soon upset his faith. He took atheism from d’Holbach, though in later years he graciously made a place for God in his congested volume. He took from Helvétius the belief in education and reason as the progenitors of utopia. He followed Rousseau in accepting the native goodness of men, but he preferred philosophical anarchism to Rousseau’s omnipotent state. He abandoned the Christian ministry, and set out to butter his bread with pen and ink. He joined Lord Stanhope and Thomas Holcroft in a club of “revolutionists,” but for the most part he gave himself to arduous study and difficult writing; and in 1793, aged thirty-seven, he issued the most radical major work of his time.

He called it Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness. Apparently a book on government, it covered nearly all the problems of philosophy, from perception to statesmanship, stopping just short of God. He scorned the fables of heaven and hell as transparent devices to promote obedience and facilitate government.13 He condemned clergymen who swore acceptance of the Thirty-nine Articles of the official faith while privately discarding them.14 He rejected free will, and the will itself if understood as a distinct faculty; it was for him merely an abstract term for conscious responses to stimuli, situations, or desires.15 Since actions are determined by heredity, individual experience, and present circumstances, we should meet the wrongdoings of others without anger or recrimination, and we should reform our penal system to rehabilitate rather than punish; however, it may be necessary to use praise, blame, and punishment as providing corrective memories in future temptations.16

What should we praise, and what condemn? The morally good, and morally bad? And what is good? Following Helvétius (1758) and Bentham (1789), Godwin defined the good as that which promotes individual or group happiness, and he defined happiness as consistent pleasure of body, mind, or feeling. This ethical philosophy is not hedonistic or sensual, for it ranks intellectual pleasures above those of the senses. It is not egoistic or selfish, for it recognizes that the individual is part of a group; that the good of the group is prerequisite to the security of its constituent individuals; and that among the highest of all pleasures are those that an individual may derive from contributing to the happiness of his fellow men. Our social instincts generate altruistic actions, and these actions can give us a pleasure keener and more lasting than any delight of sense or intellect.17 To be kind is to be happy; to be unkind is to be miserable. “Morality, the science of human happiness,” is “the principle which binds the individual to the species, and the inducements which are calculated to persuade us to model our conduct on the way most conducive to the advantage of all.”18

Justice, then, is the regulation of conduct, in the individual and the group, for the greatest happiness of the greatest number. “The immediate object of government is security for the group or the individual.” Since the individual desires as much freedom as comports with his security, “the most desirable state of mankind is that which maintains general security with the smallest encroachment upon individual independence.”19 Hence there is no need for governmental or religious sanctions for marriage; the mutual agreement of two adults to live together should suffice; and the union should be dissoluble at the desire of either party.20 (This line especially pleased Shelley.)

Godwin did not like governments. Whatever their form or theory, they were, in practice, the domination of a majority by a minority. He repudiated the conservative contention that the masses were congenitally inferior and always potentially murderous, and therefore had to be ruled by fable, terror, or force. Like Owen, he thought that most inferiorities were due to inadequate education, narrow opportunities, or environmental blight.21 He laughed at equality before the law, when every day saw a moneyed wrongdoer freed, by legal trickery or judicial favor, from the penalty of his crime.22 He was not a socialist; he accepted the institution—and the inheritance—of property,23 and opposed governmental control of production or distribution;24 but he insisted that private property should be considered a public trust,25 and warned that the concentration of wealth was inviting revolution.26

However, he had no taste for revolution. “Till the character of the human species is essentially altered,” any forcible overthrow of the existing system, any violent attempt to redistribute wealth, would cause a social disruption “more injurious to the common welfare than the inequality it attempted to remove.”27 “A revolution of opinion is the only means of attaining a better distribution of wealth,”28 and this will require a long and patient process of education through schools and literature.

Nevertheless, to require a general education through a national system of schools would be a mistake, for these would be tools of national chauvinism leading to war, and of governmental propaganda aimed to instill a blind obedience.29 Education should be left to private enterprise, should always tell the truth, and should habituate the student to reason. “Reason is not an independent principle” or faculty, “and has no tendency to incite us to action; in a practical view it is merely a comparison and balancing of different feelings. Reason… is calculated to regulate our conduct according to the comparative worth it ascribes to different excitements” or impulses. “Morality is nothing but a calculation of consequences,”30 including the consequences to the group. “It is therefore to the improvement of reason that we are to look for the improvement of our social condition.”31

The road to utopia through education is long and arduous, but man has made some progress on that road, and there is no visible limit to his further advance. The goal is a humanity sufficiently instructed and foresightful to act reasonably and freely. Anarchism is the distant ideal, but for many generations to come it will remain an ideal, and the nature of man will necessitate some form of government. We must continue to hope that, in our distant and cleansed descendants, intelligence will graduate into orderly freedom.

There must have been a rich fount of intellectual energy in Godwin, for in 1794, only a year after publishing his ponderous Enquiry, he issued what many judged to be the outstanding novel of the time, Caleb Williams, which showed “the spirit and character of the government intruding itself in every rank of society.” To this story the author added his own living romance: he married Mary Wollstonecraft (1797), adopted her free-love daughter Fanny Imlay, and lived with Mary for a year in stimulating companionship. “I honored her intellectual powers,” he said, “and the noble generosity of her propensities; mere tenderness would not have been adequate to produce the happiness which we experienced.”32 She died, as we have seen, shortly after giving birth to Mary Godwin Shelley.

In 1801 he married Mrs. Mary Jane Clairmont, whose daughter (by her first husband) was to be one of Byron’s mistresses. Godwin and his wife supported their complex brood by publishing books, among them the Tales from Shakespeare (1807) of Charles and Mary Lamb. In the reaction which drew Wordsworth and Coleridge from his friendship Godwin fell upon hard times, and he too shared in the natural conservatism of old age. Shelley, himself in straits, helped him; and in 1833, by the irony of history, the government, which he had tolerated as a necessary evil, made him a “yeoman usher of the Exchequer,” with a modest pension that fed him till he died (1836).

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