William Godwin

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Peter H. Marshall’s critical biography is a significant addition to the study of William Godwin and his times. With access to a number of new sources, Marshall has undertaken an in-depth analysis of Godwin’s philosophy and novels. The appearance of Don Locke’s A Fantasy of Reason: The Life and Thought of William Godwin (1980) and several scholarly articles here and abroad have indicated a continued interest in Godwin in the 1980’s. An original political thinker, he formulated in his major work, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793), basic concepts of philosophical anarchism that were to be echoed by most of the subsequent adherents to this view of government. Through Robert Owen, a Welsh industrialist and social reformer, Godwin’s ideas were disseminated among the working classes, and he thus became a major influence on the rise of the labor movement in England, one of the most significant developments in nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain. The textbooks and children’s books published by Godwin’s Juvenile Library and written under a variety of pseudonyms went into many editions. Caleb Williams (1794) is still of interest to students of literature, as are Godwin’s relationships with and influence on other writers, most notably Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Godwin’s life spanned a period of change comparable in scope to that witnessed by a person living from 1904-1984. In 1756, France was under the rule of Louis XV; the Revolution was thirty-three years in the future. In England, George II was still on the throne. The future United States was still a group of colonies, over which France and England were at war. The Industrial Revolution had barely begun. Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson, Joseph Addison, and Samuel Johnson were among the more influential authors. Transportation was by horse and stagecoach or by sail and river barge. Georges Louis Leclerc de Buffon, Carolus Linnaeus, Isaac Newton, and John Locke dominated science and philosophy. By 1836, when Godwin died, the French and American Revolutions were history, and William IV had only one more year to reign before being succeeded by Victoria. The Reform Bill of 1832 had passed. The Industrial Revolution was in full flood. Romanticism was fading: Shelley, Lord Byron, John Keats, William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Burns were dead; only William Wordsworth remained.

Godwin’s life, devoted primarily to writing and scholarship, was outwardly rather uneventful. Born in 1876 into a family of Dissenting clergymen, Godwin himself was trained for the ministry at Hoxton Academy near London, the leading Dissenting institution of higher learning. Dissenters had been tolerated since 1689, but unless they conformed to the Anglican Church’s Thirty-nine Articles, they could not officially register births and marriages, be buried in consecrated ground, nor enter the national universities or hold public office. Nevertheless, Godwin, upon entering Hoxton, was both a Tory and an adherent of Sandemanianism, an extreme form of Calvinism which accorded grace and salvation by neither good works nor faith but “only by the rational perception of divine truth.” When he left Hoxton five years later, Godwin still adhered to these religious and political views, but the reading of Locke and Newton and, above all, the atmosphere of freedom of inquiry and the encouragement to examine rationally all beliefs had laid the foundations of his later atheism and philosophical anarchism.

After several attempts to establish himself as the minister of a Dissenting congregation, Godwin at age twenty-eight moved to London in 1783, determined to earn his living by writing. In the decade that followed, he wrote essays, political pamphlets, novels, and history, and, his first published work, Life of Chatham (1783), which was well received but not lucrative. During that decade he gradually became known in literary circles. Through publishers and friends he also met various political personages and foreign visitors, such as John Adams, the poet Joel Barlow, with whom he had several conversations, and Thomas Paine. With fellow writer Thomas Holcroft and reformer Thomas Brand Hollis, he found a publisher for The Rights of Man (1791) after the original publisher had refused to print Paine’s work. In 1793, Godwin achieved instant fame with the publication in February of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (hereafter Political Justice). The immediate success and wide sales of Political Justice were all the more notable when one considers that it was not only a work by a relatively unknown author but also an abstruse philosophical treatise of almost nine hundred pages. It was, however, highly topical, written at such a pace that the beginning was being typeset while Godwin was still writing the latter sections. Dealing with most of the basic questions of the time, and differing with or repudiating several widely held notions, Godwin provided something to interest, or to offend, everyone.

Marshall summarizes the main points of Godwin’s arguments in twenty-four tightly reasoned pages. It is unfortunate that he has chosen to quote Godwin so fragmentarily that one does not get an adequate sense of Godwin’s clear and forceful style. With the utilitarians, Godwin believed that the goal of a just society is the promotion of virtue and happiness and that the moral individual will always prefer the action which will promote the most general good. He held to a Newtonian view of the universe, with its necessary and universal natural laws, though he included mind among the causative agents. Godwin accepted the existence of “Platonicimmutable truths,” which were “discoverable by the unaided use of the reason,” as well as Locke’s sensationalist psychology, which rejected the concept of innate ideas. Believing implicitly in the efficacy of human reason, he found mankind capable of perfectibility, yet, realistic about the limitations of “things as they are” (as he was to title the original edition of Caleb Williams), he also accepted man’s irrationality, his dreams, and the relationship of unconscious motives to action. Strongly individualistic, he believed that “every case is a rule unto itself” and that moral action can be determined only by examining the circumstances of each event. Further, he challenged the idea of inalienable rights, asserting that man has “only a duty to practice virtue and to tell the truth.” Society has no right to judge the individual; society cannot enact statutes which “trample on reason.” Therefore, speech must be free, and society has no right to punish offenders. A moral act is one which proceeds from reason, and offenders must simply be made to see the light by their more enlightened brethren.

Godwin’s concept of political organization and the state is based squarely upon his concept of the moral universe. Rejecting the idea of social contract, he sees society as originating in voluntary association arrived at by common deliberation. He finds tyranny and aristocracy inimical to the right exercise of human reason and democracy the best solution to the problem of government while making the transition to the ideal state. Nevertheless, he strongly objects to representative government and, above all, the vote. In the one case, no man can truly—or morally—speak for another. A vote of the majority simply imposes the tyranny of the majority over the minority, even if the minority consists of one person. For the same reasons, Godwin was critical of the constitution established by the French revolutionary leaders, on the grounds that the institutionalization of revolution sets up new threats to human liberty. For Godwin, the only true revolution was a “revolution in opinion.” With the Reign of Terror to begin a few months later (June, 1793), his analysis was not only perceptive but also prophetic and may suggest that his immediate and popular appeal was primarily to those who were looking for a liberal and philosophical solution to what increasingly seemed like the uncontrolled and uncontrollable outcome of the...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Library Journal. CIX, August, 1984, p. 1441.

Listener. CXII, July 12, 1984, p. 24.

The New Republic. CXCI, December 31, 1984, p. 25.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, October 21, 1984, p. 24.

The Observer. July 15, 1984, p. 21.

Spectator. CCLIII, August 25, 1984, p. 24.