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Godwins Essay On Religion

1. Life

Godwin was born on 3 March 1756 at Wisbeach [now Wisbech], Cambridgeshire, the seventh of thirteen children of John Godwin (1723–1772) a dissenting minister, and his wife Anne (c1723–1809), the daughter of Richard Hull, a ship-owner engaged in the Baltic trade. As a minister Godwin’s father was involved in a number of conflicts with his congregations and the family moved first from Wisbeach to Debenham, Suffolk and, in 1760 to Guestwick, near Norwich, Norfolk, where they lived until his father’s death. The village was small and the revenue poor; to supplement their income they took in pupils to whom John Godwin taught the classics. The family’s financial circumstances improved on the death of Edward Godwin (1695–1764), Godwin’s paternal grandfather—also a dissenting minister and friend of Philip Doddridge, in whose Academy Godwin’s father and his uncle Edward had been educated. Godwin’s upbringing was rather gloomy. He was not a robust child and his aunt “instructed me to compose myself in sleep, with a temper as if I were never again to wake in this sublunary world” (“Autobiography” in Collected Novels and Memoirs (CNM hereafter), 1992, I, 12). At five he was reading The Pilgrim’s Progress with her, together with James Janeway’s Account of the Conversion, holy and exemplary lives and joyful deaths of several young children (1671–2), and hymns, catechisms and prayers written by Dr. Isaac Watts. One of Godwin’s earliest memories was of composing a poem entitled “I wish to be a minister” (CNM I, 15), and a favourite childhood entertainment was to preach sermons in the kitchen on Sunday afternoons.

He was first educated by a Mrs. Gedge, an elderly woman, “much occupied in the concerns of religion”, with whom he read the Old and New Testaments. After her death in 1764, he and his brother went to Mr. Akers’ school in Hilderston (now Hindolverston). Godwin remained a religious enthusiast and dissenter—preaching to his fellow schoolchildren, identifying some as “children of the devil”, and refusing to answer questions on the Collect of the week, taken from the Book of Common Prayer (CNM I, 24). His success at Akers’ reinforced his commitment to intellectual activity and his aversion to physical toil, and compounded his pride, for which he was frequently admonished by his father. Despite his father’s opposition, his resolution to become a minister never wavered, and in 1767 he went to board with a Mr. Samuel Newton, the minister of an independent congregation in Norwich.

Newton was deeply influenced by the writings of Robert Sandeman (1718–1771), a hyper-Calvinist who, scorned faith and presented God as saving or damning a person solely “according to the right or wrong judgment of the understanding” (CNM I, 30). Godwin compared Newton in his Autobiography to Caligula or Nero for his spiteful and violent treatment, and he left him in the early summer of 1770, having abandoned his calling and decided to become a bookseller. Six months at Hindolverston persuaded him to resume his pupillage for a further, final year, after which he was pronounced fit for entry into the Dissenting College at Homerton and discharged. Homerton turned him down “on suspicion of Sandemanianism” (CNM I, 41). The more tolerant Hoxton Academy, principally run by Andrew Kippis and Abraham Rees admitted him. Hoxton was noted for its Arminianism and Arianism (that is, for the belief that Divine sovereignty was compatible with free will in man and for the rejection of the divinity of Christ), but Godwin’s Sandemanianism remained stubbornly untouched, although he supplemented it with “a creed upon materialism and immaterialism, liberty and necessity, in which no subsequent improvement of my understanding has been able to produce any variation” (CNM I, 42). In June 1778 he set out to practice his vocation. He had a brief appointment in Ware, followed by a period in London, apparently without income, before obtaining a post in 1780 at Stowmarket, Suffolk. He held the post for two years, during which time his religious beliefs underwent a revolution, moving towards deism after he followed the suggestion of one of his parishioners and read Holbach, Helvetius and Rousseau. Not surprisingly, he fell into dispute with his congregation and moved to London in 1782 where friends encouraged him to write for his living.

Later that year he completed his first work, The history of the Life of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham (1783), and by the following year was contributing to the English Review, “at two guineas a sheet”. At the end of 1782 he returned briefly to his original profession, being employed at Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire for seven months, during which he produced a volume of sermons, Sketches of History (1783). When this appointment broke down he returned to London and resumed his career as an author.

Godwin’s output between 1782 and 1784 included, in addition to his Life of Chatham and his sermons, three novels, two political pamphlets, a work on education, and a spoof of the critical reviews. None made him much money and it was only when his former tutor, Andrew Kippis, invited him to write the British and Foreign History section for the New Annual Register, in July 1784, that he was assured of an adequate income. He probably also made some money from the pieces he wrote in 1785 for the Political Herald, a Whig journal, edited by Dr. Gilbert Stuart. The pamphlets, and his pieces for the Political Herald, reveal him to be an extremely well informed commentator on contemporary affairs. Between 1785 and 1793 Godwin published little save his work for the New Annual Register. Nonetheless, in the summer of 1791, at the height of the debate on the French Revolution, sparked by Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), he persuaded his publisher, George Robinson, to support him while he wrote a work summarising recent developments in political philosophy. The work grew from its original conception and was eventually published in two volumes in February 1793 as An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. It is was an immediate success and remains the founding work of philosophical anarchism. Although Godwin drew on principles canvassed in the Revolution controversy, and on the work of the philosophes, Political Justice was also powerfully influenced by Godwin’s Dissenting education and his involvement in Dissenting circles around Kippis and Timothy and Thomas Brand Hollis. His success soon made him a central figure in radical political and literary circles of London; he become friends with John Thelwall, Thomas Holcroft, and John Horne Tooke (all of whom were indicted for Treason in 1794), he associated with a wide range of other established writers such as Elizabeth Inchbald, James Mackintosh, and Joseph Ritson, and he was sought out by a younger generation of enthusiasts, including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Hazlitt. In May 1794 Godwin’s most successful novel, Things as they are, or The adventures of Caleb Williams was published, adding further to his literary reputation, and in the October of that year his shrewd political pamphlet, Cursory Strictures on the Charge delivered by Lord Chief Justice Eyre to the Grand Jury, attacked the case for treason constructed by Eyre against the leaders of the London Corresponding Society and the Society for Constitutional Information, several of whom were his close associates.

A second edition of Godwin’s Political Justice, in which some of the more rationalist and utopian statements of the first edition were modified, was published at the end of 1795. Shortly thereafter he became reacquainted with Mary Wollstonecraft, whom he had first met briefly in 1791 at a dinner in honour of Paine at which neither was much impressed by the other. Wollstonecraft had subsequently lived in revolutionary France and had had a child in a fraught relationship with Captain Gilbert Imlay, an American merchant. Their second introduction was more successful. As a young man Godwin had been very much the philosopher—austere in dress, with an angular figure, an intense manner and piercing glance. While approachable he was not socially adept: he both took offence easily and gave it by his zealous commitment to the virtue of candour among friends. Only with his increasing success did he come to meet a wide range of clever women with political, literary and philosophical interests—such as Helen Maria Williams, Elizabeth Inchbald, Amelia Alderson, Maria Reveley, Mary Hays and Mary Robinson. This contact had its effect. He cut his hair short in 1791 and adopted a less ministerial style of dress; he also enjoyed an increasingly extensive social life (albeit without any indication of self-indulgence); and he even experimented in 1796 with holding a dinner party (which included Parr’s daughters, Wollstonecraft, and Inchbald). He also developed a basic competence in flirtation. In the last months of 1795 and first half of 1796, Reveley, Samuel Parr’s daughter Sarah, Alderson and Inchbald were all candidates for his attention. Following their re-acquaintance in January 1796, Wollstonecraft subsequently called on Godwin, unconventionally, in April 1796; thereafter they met and corresponded regularly, and by July they were much closer, becoming lovers in August 1796. Their letters and notes provide a touching record of a philosophical relationship gradually subverted by feelings which Godwin found hard to accommodate intellectually and Wollstonecraft found hard to trust. Wollstonecraft became pregnant in December and after much deliberation over how to reconcile their actions to their principles, they married in March 1797. Wollstonecraft’s death following childbirth in September 1797 left Godwin distraught and burdened with the care of both the baby Mary (later Mary Shelley) and Fanny Imlay (Wollstonecraft’s illegitimate child )—and with a growing burden of debt. He threw himself into work: he revised Political Justice for a third, and final time, wrote a hurried memoir of Wollstonecraft, prepared a collection of her works, and embarked on his second major novel, St Leon (1799). Wollstonecraft’s influence on Godwin’s thinking has been detected by critics in his volume of essays, The Enquirer (1798), and in the revisions made for the third edition of Political Justice, published at the end of 1797. A rather different sense of their relationship was recorded by him in his Memoirs of the Author of the Vindication of the Rights of Women (1798), and in his depiction of marriage in St. Leon (1799). The Memoirs provoked a storm of controversy by their revelations of Wollstonecraft’s unconventional sexual mores. Several of Godwin’s past acquaintances spurned him, he found himself increasingly the subject of attack by loyalist newspapers, and his philosophical opinions were parodied and ridiculed in novels, reviews and pamphlets. Godwin reacted with dignity. His Thoughts Occasioned by the Perusal of Dr. Parr’s Spital Sermon (1801), sought dispassionately to answer his critics and to confess errors which he now recognized—and which had already been acknowledged both in the revisions to the later editions of his Enquiry, and in his comments in St. Leon. But the reply did little to rescue him from the now overwhelming tide of reaction, and incautious remarks in his discussion of Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) about exposing children and abortion, were seized upon with glee by the reviewers. Godwin’s Political Justice was a product of the enthusiasm connected with the French Revolution but by the end of the decade the author and his works were being exuberantly denounced by loyalism and the forces of reaction that increasingly dominated the British political and literary scene. Hereafter, for most of the rest of his life, Godwinism became a term of opprobrium. In the new, intolerant political climate Godwin turned to literature and history. He tried his hand at drama with two plays, Antonio (1800) and Faulkener (1807), but with no success; in 1803 he wrote a two volume Life of Chaucer; and two years later he produced a further novel, Fleetwood: or The New Man of Feeling (1805). To cope with his domestic responsibilities he looked for a new wife, approaching Harriet Lee who found him too pressing, Maria Reveley too soon after the death of her husband, and Sarah Elwes, a woman separated from her husband, who was unable to marry. When a widow with two children, Mary Jane Clairmont, leaned over her balcony in 1801 and asked “Is it possible that I behold the immortal Godwin”, his fate was sealed.

In 1805, in an effort to establish his finances on a more secure footing, his friends helped establish him as the proprietor of a children’s bookshop. Over the next ten years, writing mainly under the pseudonym Edward Baldwin, Godwin produced a variety of books for children: including collections of fables, myths, and bible stories, histories of England, Rome and Greece, and various dictionaries and grammars, but he wrote little of any real political or philosophical significance for ten years.

In 1814 Godwin’s domestic life was thrown into turmoil when Percy Bysshe Shelley eloped to France with Godwin’s seventeen-year-old daughter Mary, accompanied by Mary’s sixteen year old stepsister, Clare Clairmont. The following decade was marked by repeated family and financial crises, by the suicides of Shelley’s first wife, Godwin’s stepdaughter Fanny, and of his young protégé Patrickson, and by the deaths of three of Mary Shelley’s children, followed hard by the death of Shelley himself in 1822. Yet it was also a productive period for Godwin. His Lives of Edward and John Philips, nephews of Milton (1815), his chilling tale of madness, Mandeville (1817), and his four volume History of the Commonwealth (1824–8) each represent his fascination with the republicanism of the civil war period. He also returned to the subject of education in his Letters of Advice to a Young American (1818) and in 1820 he produced a lengthy critique of Malthus’ Essay, which won him some respect in some previously hostile quarters, alongside the undisguised enmity of the Edinburgh Review. In the last five years of his life he wrote two further novels, and he returned to the philosophical and terrain of his earlier career in his Thoughts on Man (1831), his most sustained piece of philosophy since his Enquirer (1798). His final work, unpublished in his lifetime, was a series of essays on Christianity, in which he fulfilled an ambition, first noted in 1798, to

sweep away the whole fiction of an intelligent former world and a future state; to call men off from those incoherent and contradictory dreams, that so often occupy their thoughts, and vainly agitate their fears; and to lead them to apply their whole energy to practical objects and genuine realities. (Political and Philosophical Writings (PPW hereafter) IV, 417)

In 1833 Godwin finally received some recognition when he was given a sinecure post by the then Whig government. Peel’s subsequent administration agreed to extend the post until Godwin died in April 1836.

2. Reputation

Hazlitt famously described Godwin’s reputation in the 1790s in an essay in his Spirit of the Age(1825):

No work gave such a blow to the philosophical mind of the country as the celebrated Enquiry … Tom Paine was considered for a time as Tom Fool to him, Paley and old woman, Edmund Burke a flashy sophist. Truth, moral truth, it was supposed had here taken up its abode; and these were the oracles of thought.

Godwin himself confirms the view. When travelling in the Midlands in 1794 he found that

I was nowhere a stranger. The doctrines of that work, (his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice) coincided in a great degree with the sentiments then prevailing in English Society, and I was everywhere received with curiosity and kindness. (Marshall, William Godwin, 1984: 121)

Only six years later, reflecting on his reputation, he wrote,

I have fallen (if I have fallen) in one common grave with the cause and love of liberty; and in this sense I have been more honoured and illustrated in my decline, than ever I was in the highest tide of my success. (PPW II, 165)

Philosophically Godwin’s greatest supporters were his contemporaries, such as Thomas Holcroft and John Thelwall, and a younger generation of men (and some literary women) who were attracted to Godwin’s intellectual rigour and his radical critique of the social and political order. Many later abandoned him, Coleridge, Wordsworth and Southey as part of a rising tide of loyalist reaction, Shelley and Byron, for more personal and domestic reasons. However, his philosophical anarchism had a profound influence on Robert Owen, William Thompson and other utopians in the nineteenth century, and there is also evidence of influence on the Chartist movement and on popular labour movements for political reform in the 1840s (see Marshall 1984: 390). His impact in literary circles was long lasting, both through his political writings, and through his novels. Political Justice was read and translated by Benjamin Constant in France, and an abridged edition was translated into German in 1803, along with the first three of Godwin’s mature novels. Marx and Engels knew of his work and cited him as having contributed to a theory of exploitation, and as being widely read by the proletariat. Later in the nineteenth century Anton Menger and Paul Eltzbacher introduced Godwin’s work to German audiences, leading to further translation. Caleb Williams appeared in Russian in 1838, and Chernyshevski, Kroptkin and Tolstoy all read and referred to him. In the late nineteenth century the last book of Political Justice, formally titled “Of Property”, but dealing with the prospects for progress in the human race and including his attacks on marriage and co-operation, was reprinted as a socialist tract, and the whole work was reprinted again in the 1920s. A critical edition of the third edition with variants appeared in 1946, and an edition of the 1793 text with both later variants and material from the original manuscripts appeared in 1993. Biographies of Godwin have also appeared regularly since the first by C. Kegan-Paul in 1876, which drew heavily on the extensive manuscript sources. Philosophical interest has been less pronounced, although since the 1940s a slow trickle of books has emerged which have sought to do justice to Godwin’s essentially liberal political principles and to his moral philosophy. That work has recognised the importance of thinkers of the French Enlightenment, and more recently the Dissenting inheritance which his education and early career provided. As a result, the traditional view of Godwin as a strict utilitarian has been increasingly challenged. Recent work in political philosophy on the appropriate form and scope of impartiality has looked to Godwin, most commonly to define a position to resist, but not exclusively so.

3. Political Philosophy

Godwin’s major philosophical treatise is his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. The work went through three editions within 5 years, each with substantial changes. No further edition was published in Godwin’s lifetime, although a fourth edition was certainly mooted and Godwin may have undertaken work towards it. Although Godwin’s other works shed light on changes in Godwin’s position after 1798, Political Justice is the most coherent expression of his political philosophy.

The work began as an attempt to review recent developments in political and moral philosophy, but it quickly became more ambitious in scope:

In the first fervour of enthusiasm I entertained the vain imagination of “hewing a stone from rock” which by its inherent energy and weight should overbear and annihilate all opposition, and place the principles of politics on an unmoveable basis. (CNM I, 49)

The discarded first draft centres on the work of Montesquieu and Raynal, while the published work abandons the expository mode and develops its own independent line of argument. Godwin begins by defending the importance of political inquiry and refuting claims that moral and political phenomena are a function of climate, national character or luxury. He argues that character is a function of experience and that the type of government under which people live has an overwhelming impact upon their experience—bad government produces wretched men and women. Although he is initially prepared to endorse the philosophe and republican view that government can have a positive impact on the development of virtue, this view is soon set aside in favour of the argument that moral and political improvement flows from progress in our understanding of moral and political truth—a process to which there is no limit.

Book Two examines the basic principles of human society, equality, rights, justice, and private judgment. Godwin follows Paine’s view in Common Sense, that “society is in every state a blessing…government even in its best state is but a necessary evil” (PPW III, 48), by seeing society as antecedent to government with its principles setting the bounds of its legitimacy. The basic moral principle is that of justice:

If justice have any meaning, it is just that I should contribute everything in my power to the benefit of the whole. (PPW III, 49)

This principle is filled out by two further principles. The first, equality, is used to establish that we are beings of the same nature, susceptible of the same pleasures and pains, and equally endowed with the capacity for reason. This is to endorse the philosophe principle that birth and rank must not affect the way people are treated—

the thing really to be desired is the removing as much as possible arbitrary distinctions, and leaving to talents and virtue the field of exertion unimpaired (PPW III, 65).

But he also believes (as in the Fénelon case) that some have a higher moral value than others. This judgment seems rigorously consequentialist, in that we value them more if and only if they contribute more to the general good (a position in line with Godwin’s rejection in Book Seven of all desert-based accounts of punishment). Tensions are introduced into his account, however, by the emphasis he places on intention in assessing a person’s action—

It is in the disposition and view of the mind, and not in the good which may accidentally and inintentionally result, that virtue consists. (PPW III, 193)

and by his characterisation of the ideal agent as someone devoted to a life of benevolence and virtue. In both instances he appeals to an agent-centred account of virtue, more than to a consequentialist account, and in doing so acknowledges a form of moral worth that is not wholly reducible to consequentialist considerations.

The second principle to which he appeals, the doctrine of private judgment, is advanced as the logical complement to the principle of justice:

to a rational being there is but one rule of conduct, justice, and one mode of ascertaining that rule, the exercise of his understanding. (PPW, III, 72).

Here again, although Godwin appeals in part to consequentialist considerations to ground a duty to private judgment, it also plays an integral part on his conception of what it is to be a fully rational agent. When combined with the principle of equality, the principle of private judgment issues in a basic constraint on certain types of consequentialist intervention—each person acts morally only in so far as each acts wholly on the dictates of his or her private judgment. To effect real improvement we must work by appealing to the rational capacities of each of our fellow citizens.

Book Three and the first part of Book Four develop Godwin’s case against existing theories of government, in each case making his case by drawing on his opening argument that there is no intrinsic limit on the development of human understanding and enlightenment. The philosophical underpinning for this argument is given in the second half of Book Four where Godwin examines the character of truth and its relationship to virtue and goes on to discuss arguments relating to freedom of the will, the doctrine of philosophical necessity, and the character of moral motivation. He shows that men are capable of recognising truth, and that, because mind acts as a real cause, they will act on it when they perceive it clearly. Nothing beyond the perception of truth is required to motivate our compliance with moral principles. It is this which justifies the description of Godwin’s position as “rationalist”, and it is on this point—the motivating power of reason—that later editions show a degree of retraction. One possible source for the position is Richard Price’s Review of the Principal Questions of Morals (1756), but it is noteworthy that Godwin himself later identified this “error” as a function of his Sandemanianism. In Political Justice, however, Godwin builds his argument on necessarian foundations laid by David Hartley and Joseph Priestley, albeit he develops their position by insisting that mind is the medium within which sensations, desires, passions and beliefs contend—so that we should understand the conflict between passion and reason as one of contending opinions. Such contention can be assessed impartially by the mind which will assess the true value of each claim and act on the judgment.

Books Five to Eight apply the principles of justice, equality and private judgment in a critical examination of the institutions of government, issues of toleration and freedom of speech, theories of law and punishment, and, finally, the institution of property. In each case, government and its institutions are shown to constrain the development of our capacity to live wholly in accordance with the full and free exercise of private judgment. In the final book Godwin sketches his positive vision of the egalitarian society of the future, one which, having dispensed with all forms of organised co-operation, including orchestras and marriage, so as to ensure the fullest independence to each persons’ judgment, will gradually witness the development of the powers of mind to the point that they gain ascendancy over physiological process allowing life to be prolonged indefinitely.

In 1800 Godwin wrote:

The Enquiry concerning Political Justice I apprehend to be blemished principally by three errors. 1. Stoicism, or an inattention to the principle, that pleasure and pain are the only bases upon which morality can exist. 2. Sandemanianism, or an inattention to the principle that feeling, and not judgment, is the source of human actions. 3. The unqualified condemnation of the private affections. It will easily be seen how strongly these errors are connected with the Calvinist system, which had been so deeply wrought into my mind in early life, as to enable these errors long to survive the general system of religious opinions of which they formed a part…The first of these errors…has been corrected with some care in the subsequent edition of Political Justice. The second and third owe their destruction to a perusal of Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature in the following edition. (CNM, I, 54)

This account is a fair characterisation of the changes which Godwin made in the second and third editions. Sentiment and feeling are given a much more powerful role, no longer to be expunged by the power of truth; the private affections are allowed to play a part in moral reasoning; and a more consistently utilitarian language is deployed throughout the work. As a consequence, the rationalism which marked the first edition becomes muted and, while the belief in progress is maintained, the more utopian flights of the first edition are omitted.

4. Moral Philosophy

One of the most powerful attacks on Godwin was that made in Dr. Samuel Parr’s “Spital Sermon” of 1800. It was Godwin’s advocacy of universal benevolence against which Parr directed his energies, centring his attack on Godwin’s early dismissal of family feeling, gratitude and various natural sentiments. For Godwin, these are passions unconstrained by judgment, and so should not play a role in determining how we should act. He exemplifies his case in what has come to be known as the “Famous Fire Cause”, in which the reader is asked to imagine being able to save only one of two people in a fire, one of whom is the Archbishop Fénelon, a benefactor to the whole human race, the other of whom is the reader’s parent (mother in the first edition, father thereafter!). Godwin’s view is that justice demands that we act impartially for the greater good, which means saving Fénelon. He never abandoned this case, nor the view that it is our duty to act to bring about the greatest good. Just as a judge should not be influenced by familial or private concerns in his judgment, so too is the moral agent bound to judge impartially. In replying to Parr, Godwin expresses regret that he had not appealed to the still more persuasive case of Brutus executing his two sons—a striking example, and a republican commonplace about justice trumping paternal duties. As Godwin says, saving someone just because they are a relation seems bizarre without some additional judgment about their moral worth: a parent who is foolish or evil cannot have an over-riding claim on us against the moral deserts of all other members of the human race. That position, Godwin retains. Moreover, in his Reply to Parr, he insists that these extraordinary cases are unlikely to shake the domestic affections in the ordinary intercourse of life. However, from the later editions and other works, it becomes clear that he will admit, in the more normal course of events, a much more substantial role to be played by our natural affections and attachments. They provide us both with information about how best we might benefit others, and a basic moral motivation which can be relied on in normal cases and which can be generalised beyond the narrow domestic sphere (a position much indebted to Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments). These changes are significant: it leaves us a less rationalist, more philosophically robust, account of moral motivation and its relationship to the principle of utility, and it does much to moderate the utopianism of the first edition.

The impact of these changes on Godwin’s over-all position is more difficult to assess. What we see in the changes is a consistent shift away from the rationalist account of moral motivation which marked the first edition to a position which is much more sceptical about the power of reason. This scepticism inevitably moderates Godwin’s belief in perfectibility, since it becomes more difficult to argue for convergence on principles of morality and the progressive development of knowledge. It also inevitably undermines Godwin’s faith in the triumph of mind over physiological processes. That said, neither the doctrine of private judgment nor the principle of utility depend on his earlier rationalism. The former is defended by Godwin on the grounds that only free action has moral value, and that the fullest possible exercise of private judgment is required for one’s actions to be free—further evidence of Godwin’s attempt to provide an agent-centred account of virtue alongside his consequentialism. With this commitment private judgment remains defensible even if there is a low probability that its exercise will produce true beliefs, so long as no other better method of tracking truth is available (which also becomes proportionately less likely as one’s scepticism increases). The defence might require that cognitive status be attributed to moral judgments, but it might also be possible to sustain the argument for private judgment independent of the issue of ethical objectivity. The utility principle might seem to call for an ability to make sound ethical judgments in complex situations but, again, if we are sceptical about people’s ability to judge well, this does not entail (and seems to deny) that there is a better way of judging. On both counts then, Godwin’s central principles remain intact despite the changes he makes to the account of moral motivation and judgment. Moreover, Godwin’s view of man’s progressive character might be defended by placing greater weight on eliminating the baleful effects of the social and political institutions of the European aristocracies than on the epistemological dimensions of the account.

However, Godwin’s endorsement of both the principle of utility as the sole guide to moral duty and the principle of private judgment as a block on the interference of others, is not without tensions. His consistent doctrine is a combination of these two principles: that it is each individual’s duty to produce as much happiness in the world as he is able, and that each person must be guided in acting by the exercise of his private judgment, albeit informed by public discussion. If the resulting doctrine is utilitarian it is a highly distinctive form: it is act-utilitarian in that it discounts reliance on rules (although see Barry’s suggestion that his act- utilitarianism gives way to motive utilitarianism, Justice as Impartiality 224; and see Godwin’s invocation of sincerity as a partial rule constraint in the first edition, PPW III, 135–42); it is ideal, in that it acknowledges major qualitative differences in the pleasures; and it is indirect, in that we can only promote over-all utility by improving the understanding of our fellow human beings. More troubling to the view that this none the less amounts to utilitarianism is Godwin’s insistence on private judgment as a basic constraint, and his associated characterisation of the fully moral agent in terms of the fullest possible development of the individual’s intellectual powers and potential. Indeed, Godwin’s account of pleasure, in terms of the development of intellect and the exercise of its powers, means that the position looks more like perfectionism than it does a form of hedonistic utilitarianism (what is valued is the ideal as much as the pleasures which are integral to it). Furthermore, it suggests that no distinction can be drawn between the means that we adopt to promote the general good and the character of the general good itself. That is, what promotes the general good is the development of human intellect, but the general good just is the development of the human intellect. If that is true, Godwin’s account cannot be utilitarian because it cannot be consequentialist (because it cannot separate the means to the end from the end which is sought).

Such issues of interpretation remain very much in dispute in studies of Godwin (compare Clarke 1977 with Philp 1986 and Lamb 2009a), being complicated by issues concerning the weight to be given to the different editions of Political Justice and Godwin’s later writings. However, even if a utilitarian reading of Godwin is accepted, it remains the case that the doctrine is strictly a precept of individual moral judgment. Because of his broader views as to the corrupting influence of government, there can be no extension of the principle to politics. Each of us must judge as best we can how to advance the good of all, but every person is owed a respect for their private judgment which precludes us from exercising authority over them. By invoking this constraint, Godwin delivers utilitarianism from the more statist approaches of Bentham and later utilitarians. It also ensures that the doctrine retains a fundamentally egalitarian form. The constraint also supports the view that Godwin reached his philosophical position less through the philosophes, than by secularising Dissenting arguments for the sanctity of private judgment and generalising their application to every mode of human activity. This commitment also provides support for a reading of Godwin’s position which sees it as concerned with individual moral perfectibility, couched in the language of utility, rather than as strictly utilitarian.

5. A Philosophy of History

Political Justice condemns all government interference with individual judgment. Godwin claims that over time history has seen gradual progress as knowledge has developed and has spread and as men and women have liberated themselves from their political chains and their subordination to the fraud and imposture of monarchical and aristocratic government and established religion. His optimistic belief in the impotence of government against advancing opinion (which partly glosses and extends Hume’s comment that all government is founded on opinion) is balanced by some sociologically perceptive comments on the baleful influence that certain types of political power have on those who exercise it or are subject to it. These insights are also explored in The Enquirer, but it is in Godwin’s later novels, from Caleb Williams (1794) onward, that it is given its fullest rein. As Godwin indicates in his unpublished essay, “On History and Literature” (1798) (PPW V, 290–301), literature can be used to show how the cultures and institutions into which we are born come inexorable to shape our lives, leading us to act in ways which destroy our chances of happiness. The six mature novels effectively follow through the critical enterprise launched in Political Justice by their narrative histories of men who are brought to grief by the aristocratic and inegalitarian principles of their societies.


Primary Sources

Godwin’s Works

A complete bibliography of Godwin’s work published in his lifetime is given in volume 1 of The Collected Novels and Memoirs of William Godwin and in volume 1 of The Political and Philosophical works of William Godwin; further information in the collected works section. These collections are referred to as, respectively CNM and PPW.

  • History of the Life of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham printed for the Author and sold by G. Kearsley, published anonymously, London, 1783. (See PPW I)
  • An Account of the Seminary that will be opened on Monday the Fourth Day of August at Epsom in Surrey, published anonymously, London: T. Cadell, 1783. (See PPW V)
  • Sketches of History in Six Sermons, London: T. Cadell, 1784, 190. (Some copies anonymous, others with Godwin’s name) (See PPW VII).
  • The Herald of Literature, as a Review of the most considerable publications that will be made in the course of the ensuing Winter, published anonymously, London: J. Murray, 1784. (See PPW V)
  • Instructions to a Statesman. Humbly inscribed to the Right Honourable George Earl Temple, published anonymously, London: Murray, J. Debrett & J. Sewell, 1784. (See PPW I)
  • An Enquiry concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness, 2 volumes, London: G. G. & J. Robinson, 1793, 4o, xiii, 378, 379–895. A pirated first edition also published 2 volumes 8o in Dublin by Luke White, 1793, xiii, 411, 424. Copies of the octavo first edition with a Robinson flyleaf also exist. 2nd edition, 2 volumes 8o, London: Robinson, 1796, xviii, 464, v, 545; 3rd edition, 2 volumes 8o, London: Robinson, 1798, lvi, 463, ix, 554. See also Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, 3 volumes, F. E. L. Priestley (ed.), Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1946, 1969. Facsimile reprint of the third edition with variants from the first and second editions in volume 3; Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Isaac Kramnick (ed.), Harmondsworth: Penguin Press, 1976, 825 (third edition); PPW III and IV (first edition text plus variants from manuscript and from the subsequent editions); and An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Mark Philp (ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, 504, first edition text.
  • Things As They Are; or The Adventures of Caleb Williams, 3 volumes, London: B. Crosby, 1794. Critical edition of the fifth edition edited by D. McCracken, Oxford University Press, 1970. Critical edition of the first edition in CNM III.
  • Cursory Strictures on the Charge delivered by Lord Chief Justice Eyre to the Grand Jury … October 2, 1794, first published in the Morning Chronicle October 21, Published anonymously, London: D. I. Eaton, 1794, and A Reply to an Answer to Cursory Strictures, supposed to be wrote by Judge Buller. By the Author of Cursory Strictures, published anonymously, London: D. I. Eaton, 1794, 7. (See PPW II)
  • Considerations on Lord Grenville’s and Mr. Pitt’s Bills, concerning Treasonable and Seditious Practices, and Unlawful Assemblies. By a Lover of Order, published anonymously, London: J. Johnson, 1795, 86. (See PPW II).
  • The Enquirer, Reflections on Education, Manners and Literature, London:, G. G. & J. Robinson, 1797. (See PPW V).
  • Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman, second edition, corrected, London: J. Johnson, 1798. (See CNM I).
  • St. Leon, A Tale of the Sixteenth Century, 4 volumes, London: G. G. & J. Robinson, 1799. (See CNM IV)
  • Thoughts occasioned by the Perusal of Dr. Parr’s Spital Sermon, preached at Christ Church, April I5, 1800: being a Reply to the Attacks of Dr. Parr, Mr. Mackintosh, the Author of an Essay on Population, and Others, London: G. G. & J. Robinson, 1801. (See, PPW II).
  • Fleetwood. or The New Man of Feeling, 3 volumes, London: R. Phillips, 1805. (See CNM V)
  • Lives of Edward and John Philips. Nephews and Pupils of Milton. Including Various Particulars of the Literary and Political History of their times, London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme & Brown, 1815, xv, 410.
  • Mandeville, a Tale of the Seventeenth Century in England, 3 volumes, Edinburgh: A. Constable; London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme & Brown, 1817. (See CNM VI)
  • Letter of Advice to a Young American on the course of studies it might be most advantageous for him to pursue, London. First published: January 16, 2000
    Further Letters of Advice to Joseph Beavan, Analectic Magazine, Philadelphia, 1818. (See PPW V)
  • Of Population. An Enquiry concerning the Power of Increase in the Numbers of Mankind, being an Answer to Mr. Malthus’s Essay on that Subject, London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Ornie & Brown, 1820. (See selection in PPW II)
  • History of the Commonwealth of England from its commencement to its restoration, 4 volumes, London: H. Colburn, 1824–8.
  • Thoughts on Man, his Nature, Productions, and Discoveries. Interspersed with some particulars respecting the author, London: Effingham Wilson, 1831. (See PPW VI)
  • Essays, Never before published, by the late William Godwin, C. Kegan Paul (ed.), London: H.S. King, 1873. (See PPW VII, re-edited from the manuscript entitled The Genius of Christianity Unveiled).
  • “Two Pamphlets on the Regency Crisis by William Godwin”, (Enlightenment and Dissent, 20: 185–248, 2001), with an introduction by Pamela Clemit. The pamphlets are: The Law of Parliament in the Present Situation of Great Britain Considered (J. Debrett, 1788) and Reflexions on the Consequences of His Majesty’s Recovery from His Late Indisposition. In a Letter to the People of England (G.G.J. and J.Robinson, 1789). issue containing pamphlets available online (in PDF), on pp. 185–248.

Collected Works

  • [CNM] Collected Novels and Memoirs of William Godwin, 8 volumes, Mark Philp (ed.), London, Pickering and Chatto Publishers Ltd., 1992.
    • A complete scholarly edition of all Godwin’s published novels, his biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, and a range of previously unpublished autobiographical writings. Caleb Williams and Memoirs of the Author of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman are set in the first edition with variants from later editions (and, for Caleb Williams, the manuscript) given in an appendix. All other novels are set from the last edition published within the author’s lifetime.
  • [PPW] Political and Philosophical Writings of William Godwin, 7 volumes, Mark Philp (ed.), London, Pickering and Chatto Publishers Ltd., 1993.
    • A scholarly edition of Godwin’s principal writings in politics, philosophy, education and theology, including previously unpublished manuscript material. The edition is made up of two volumes of Godwin’s principal political essays, including a substantial unpublished essay; two volumes of his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, which is set in the first edition (volume III) with variants from the manuscript and the second and third editions given in volume IV (volume IV also includes a previously undiscovered first draft of the Enquiry together with manuscript material relating to the publication of and revisions to the Enquiry); the three later volumes collect Godwin’s main educational and literary writings, with previously unpublished material (Volume V), his later essays (volume VI) and his religious writings, including unpublished material and a re-edited edition of Godwin’s last, unfinished work, The Genius of Christianity Unveiled (volume VII).
  • The Letters of William Godwin,
    • Volume 1: 1778–1797, Pamela Clemit (ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011;
    • Volume 2: 1798–1805, Pamela Clemit (ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
    (The first two of a projected 6 volumes of Godwin’s letters, meticulously edited. Further volumes are due in 2017.)
  • Four Early Pamphlets (1783–1784), B. R. Pollin (ed.), Gainsville, Florida: Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, 1966.
  • Uncollected Writings (1785–1822), J. E. Marken and B. R. Pollin (eds), Gainsville, Florida, Scholars Facsimiles and Reprints, 1968.

Manuscript Collections

  • Bodleian Library, Oxford. The Abinger collection, owned by the Bodleian Library, is a very extensive holding of Godwin’s manuscript material, correspondence and diaries. Earlier deposits of the Abinger Collection were microfilmed by Duke University but there have been several deposits made subsequently. A major proportion of this material is now available online, with further holdings in Oxford and New York being digitised.
  • The Diary of William Godwin, (eds) Victoria Myers, David O’Shaughnessy, and Mark Philp (Oxford: Oxford Digital Library, 2010, available online). The diary kept by Godwin from 1788 to 1836 is a central resource of the Abinger Collection. An edition was published on the website of the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford in November 2010. The BSECS prize-winning web-resource is fully searchable, provides scans of the original and an edited transcription.
  • National Art Library, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. The Forster/Dyce Collection includes the manuscripts to Godwin’s Political Justice, Caleb Williams, Life of Chaucer and History of the Commonwealth, and a limited amount of correspondence.
  • Pforzheimer Library, New York. Contains the manuscript of Fleetwood and miscellaneous correspondence and material relating to St Leon. (It has been edited by K. N. Cameron, Shelley and his Circle, volumes I–IV, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1961–70, and D. H. Reiman, volumes V–VI, ibid., 1973.
  • Somerset Record Office, Somerset, UK. Contains correspondence and papers relating to Mary Jane Vial (Latter Mrs Clairmont, Godwin’s second wife. See the transcription at available online

Secondary Sources

Bibliographical Works

  • Clemit, Pamela and David Woolls, 2001, “Two New Pamphlets by William Godwin: A Case of Computer-Assisted Authorship Attribution”, Studies in Bibliography, 54 (2001): 265–284.
  • Graham, Kenneth W., 2001, William Godwin Reviewed: A Reception History, 1783–1834, New York: AMS Press. (A compilation of contemporary reviews of Godwin’s work.)
  • Pollin, Burton R., 1967, Godwin Criticism: A Synoptic Bibliography, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 659. (A bibliography of all critical work on Godwin to that date.)

Biographical Works

  • Brown, Ford K., 1926, The Life of William Godwin, London: Dent.
  • Hazlitt, William, 1825 “William Godwin” in The Spirit of the Age, London: Henry Colburn.
  • Locke, Don, 1980, A Fantasy of Reason: The Life and Thought of William Godwin, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  • Marshall, Peter, H., 1984, William Godwin, New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Mee, Jon, 2011, “‘The Use of Conversation’: William Godwin’s Conversable World and Romantic Sociability”, Studies in Romanticism, 50(4): 567–590.
  • O’Shaughnessy, David and Mark Philp (eds.), 2011, William Godwin Diary, Bodleian Library Record, 24(1). A special edition of the journal with papers addressing a range of issues made accessible through the digitization of the diary.
  • Paul, Charles Kegan, 1876, William Godwin: his Friends and Contemporaries, 2 volumes, London: H.S King. (A substantial biography which remains essential, containing manuscript material no longer available.)
  • Philp, Mark, 2017, “Unconventional Calling, Godwin, Women and Visiting in the 1790s”, in K. Gilmartin (ed.), Sociable Places, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Roussin, Henri, 1913, William Godwin, Paris: Plon-Nourrit.
  • St. Clair, William, 1989, The Godwins and the Shelleys: The Biography of a Family, London: Faber and Faber.
  • Woodcock, George, 1946, William Godwin. A Biographical Study, London: Porcupine Press.

Philosophical Commentaries

  • Barry, Brian, 1995, Justice as Impartiality, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Campbell, Timothy, 2009, “The Business of War: William Godwin, Enmity, and Historical Representation”, ELH, 76(2): 343–369. doi:10.1353/elh.0.0046
  • Clark, John P., 1977, The Philosophical Anarchism of William Godwin, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Clemit, Pamela, 1993, The Godwinian Novel, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Crowder, George, 1991, Classical Anarchism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Fleischer, David, 1951, William Godwin, a Study in Liberalism, London: George Allen and Unwin.
  • Lamb, Robert, 2006, “The Foundations of Godwinian Impartiality”, Utilitas, 18(2): 134–153. doi:10.1017/S0953820806001890
  • –––, 2007, “William Godwin on the Morality of Freedom”, History of Political Thought, 28(4): 661–677.
  • –––, 2009a, “Was William Godwin a Utilitarian?” Journal of the History of Ideas, 70(1): 119–141.
  • –––, 2009b, “For and Against Ownership: William Godwin’s Theory of Property”, Review of Politics, 71(2): 275–302.
  • Maniquis, Robert M. and Victoria Myers, 2011, Godwinian Moments: From Enlightenment to Romanticism, Toronto: University of Toronto/Clark Library UCLA.
  • Mendus, Susan, 2002, Impartiality in Moral and Political Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Monro, D.H., 1953, Godwin’s Moral Philosophy: An Interpretation of William Godwin, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • Morrow, John, 1991, “Republicanism and Public Virtue: William Godwin’s History of the Commonwealth of England”, The Historical Journal, 34(3): 645–664.
  • Philp, Mark, 1986, Godwin’s Political Justice, London: Duckworth.
  • Pollin, Bruton R., 1962, Education and Enlightenment in the works of William Godwin, New York: Las Americas.
  • Singer, Peter, Leslie Cannold, and Helga Kuhse, 1995, “William Godwin and the Defence of Impartialist Ethics”, Utilitas, 7(1): 67–86. doi:10.1017/S0953820800001850
  • Thevenet, Alain, 1993, William Godwin et l’euthenasie du gouvernement, Lyon: Atelier de creation libertaire.
  • –––, 2002, William Godwin des lumieres a l’anarchisme, Lyon: Atelier de creation libertaire.
  • Tysdahl, B. J., 1981, William Godwin as Novelist, London: Athlone Press.
  • Weston, Rowland, 2002, “Politics, Passion and the ‘Puritan Temper’: Godwin’s Critique of Enlightened Modernity”. Studies in Romanticism, 41(3): 445–470.

For other people named William Godwin, see William Godwin (disambiguation).

William Godwin (3 March 1756 – 7 April 1836) was an English journalist, political philosopher and novelist. He is considered one of the first exponents of utilitarianism and the first modern proponent of anarchism.[1] Godwin is most famous for two books that he published within the space of a year: An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, an attack on political institutions, and Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, an early mystery novel which attacks aristocratic privilege. Based on the success of both, Godwin featured prominently in the radical circles of London in the 1790s. He wrote prolifically in the genres of novels, history and demography throughout his lifetime.

In the conservative reaction to British radicalism, Godwin was attacked, in part because of his marriage to the pioneering feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft in 1797 and his candid biography of her after her death from childbirth. Their daughter, later known as Mary Shelley, would go on to write Frankenstein and marry the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. With his second wife, Mary Jane Clairmont, Godwin set up The Juvenile Library, allowing the family to write their own works for children (sometimes using noms de plume) and translate and publish many other books, some of enduring significance. Godwin has had considerable influence on British literature and literary culture.

Early life and education[edit]

Godwin was born in Wisbech in Cambridgeshire, to John and Anne Godwin. Godwin's family on both sides were middle-class. Godwin's parents adhered to a strict form of Calvinism. Godwin was the seventh of his parent’s thirteen children.[2] Godwin’s mother came from a wealthy family but due to her uncle's frivolities the family wealth was squandered. Fortunately for the family her father was a successful merchant involved in the Baltic Sea trade.[2] Godwin's father, a Nonconformistminister in Guestwick in Norfolk, died young, and never inspired love or much regret in his son; but in spite of wide differences of opinion, tender affection always subsisted between William Godwin and his mother, until her death at an advanced age.

William Godwin was educated for his father's profession at Hoxton Academy, where he studied under Andrew Kippis the biographer, and Dr Abraham Rees of the Cyclopaedia. At the age of 11, he became the sole pupil of Samuel Newton, a strict hyper Calvinist, who was a disciple of Robert Sandeman. Godwin later characterised Newton as, "... a celebrated north country apostle, who, after Calvin damned ninety-nine in a hundred of mankind, has contrived a scheme for damning ninety-nine in a hundred of the followers of Calvin."[3]

He then acted as a minister at Ware, Stowmarket and Beaconsfield. At Ware the teachings of the French philosophers were brought before him by a friend, Joseph Fawcett, who held strong republican opinions. Godwin came to London in 1782, still nominally as a minister, to regenerate society with his pen – a real enthusiast, who never shrank from conclusions of the premises which he laid down. He adopted the principles of the Encyclopédistes, and his own aim was the complete overthrow of all existing political, social and religious institutions. He believed, however, that calm discussion was the only thing needful to carry every change, and from the beginning to the end of his career he deprecated every approach to violence. He was a philosophic radical in the strictest sense of the term.

Early writing[edit]

His first published work was an anonymous Life of Lord Chatham (1783). He published under his own name Sketches of History (1784), consisting of six sermons on the characters of Aaron, Hazael and Jesus, in which, though writing in the character of an orthodox Calvinist (Godwin himself was an atheist),[4] his character enunciates the proposition "God Himself has no right to be a tyrant." Introduced by Andrew Kippis, he began to write in 1785 for the New Annual Register and other periodicals, producing also three novels now forgotten. His main contributions for the "Annual Register" were the Sketches of English History he wrote annually, which were yearly summaries of domestic and foreign political affairs. He joined a club called the Revolutionists, and associated much with Lord Stanhope, Horne Tooke and Holcroft.

Marriage to Mary Wollstonecraft[edit]

Godwin first met Mary Wollstonecraft at the home of their mutual publisher. Joseph Johnson was hosting a dinner for another of his authors, Thomas Paine, and Godwin remarked years later that on that evening he heard too little of Paine and too much of Wollstonecraft; he did not see her again for some years. In the interim, Wollstonecraft went to live in France to witness the Revolution for herself, and had a child, Fanny Imlay, with an American adventurer named Gilbert Imlay. In pursuit of Gilbert Imlay's business affairs, Wollstonecraft travelled to Scandinavia, and soon afterwards published a book based on the voyage. Godwin read it, and later wrote that "If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book."[5]

When Godwin and Wollstonecraft were re-introduced in 1796, their respect for each other soon grew into friendship, sexual attraction, and love.[6] Once Wollstonecraft became pregnant, they decided to marry so that their child would be legitimate. Their marriage revealed the fact that Wollstonecraft had never been married to Imlay, and as a result she and Godwin lost many friends. Godwin received further criticism because he had advocated the abolition of marriage in Political Justice.[7] After their marriage at St Pancras on 29 March 1797, they moved into two adjoining houses in Somers Town so that they could both still retain their independence; they often communicated by notes delivered by servants.[8]

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born in Somers Town on 31 August 1797, the couple's only child.[9]:5 Godwin had hoped for a son and had been planning on naming the child "William."[10] On 10 September 1797 Wollstonecraft died of complications following the birth. By all accounts, it had been a happy and stable, though brief, relationship.[11] Now Godwin, who had been a bachelor until a few months before, was distraught at the loss of the love of his life. Simultaneously, he became responsible for the care of these two young girls, the newborn Mary and toddler Fanny.

When Mary was three, Godwin left his daughters in the care of James Marshall while he travelled to Ireland. Godwin's tone in his letters demonstrates how much he cared about them. His letters show the stress he placed on giving his two daughters a sense of security. "And now what shall I say for my poor little girls? I hope they have not forgot me. I think of them every day, and should be glad, if the wind was more favourable, to blow them a kiss a-piece from Dublin to the Polygon.. but I have seen none that I love so well or think half so good as my own."[10]

Second marriage and book publishing[edit]

In 1801 Godwin married his neighbour Mary Jane Clairmont. She brought two of her own children into the household, Charles and Claire. Journalist H.N. Brailsford wrote in 1913, "She was a vulgar and worldly woman, thoroughly feminine, and rather inclined to boast of her total ignorance of philosophy."[12] While Fanny eventually learned to live with Clairmont, Mary's relationship with her stepmother was tense. Mary writes, “As to Mrs Godwin, something very analogous to disgust arises whenever I mention her”.[9]:200

In 1805 the Godwins set up a shop and publishing house called the Juvenile Library, significant in the history of children's literature. Through this, Godwin wrote children's primers on Biblical and classical history, and using the pseudonym Edward Baldwin, he wrote a variety of books for children, including a version of Jack and the Beanstalk,[13] and a biography of the Irish artist William Mulready,[14] who illustrated works for them. They kept alive family ties, publishing the first book by Margaret King (then Lady Mount Cashell), who had been a favoured pupil of Mary Wollstonecraft.[15] They published works never since out of print, such as Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare. The Juvenile Library also translated European authors. The first English edition of Swiss Family Robinson was translated (from the French, not the German) and edited by them.[16][17][18] The business was the family's mainstay for decades.


Godwin was responsible for a family of five children, none of whom had the same two parents. Although he raised them with his second wife, the ghost of Mary Wollstonecraft hovered over the family, as evidenced by the John Opie portrait to which Godwin gave pride of place in his study.

The eldest was Fanny Imlay (1794–1816), who committed suicide as a young woman. Charles Gaulis Clairmont ended up as Chair of English literature at Vienna University[19] and taught sons of the royal family; news of his sudden death in 1849 distressed Maximilian.[20] Mary Godwin (1797–1851) gained fame as Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. Half a year younger than her was Claire Clairmont, Mary Jane's only daughter, to whom she showed favouritism. The youngest, and the only child of the second marriage, was William Godwin the Younger (1803 – 1832). Godwin sent him first to Charterhouse School and then to various other establishments of a practical bent. Nonetheless, he eventually earned his living by the pen. He died at 29, leaving the manuscript of a novel, which Godwin saw into print. All of Godwin's children who lived into adulthood worked as writers or educators, carrying on his legacy and that of his wives. Only two of them had children who in turn survived: Percy Florence Shelley, and the son and daughter of Charles. Godwin did not welcome the birth of Allegra Byron, but Claire's only child died aged five.

Godwin had high hopes for Mary, giving her a higher intellectual experience than most women of her period, and describing her as "very intelligent." He wished to give his daughter a more "masculine education" and prepared her to be a writer. However, Godwin withdrew his support as Mary became a woman and pursued her relationship with Percy Shelley.[21] Mary’s first two novels, Frankenstein and Mathilda, may be seen as a reaction to her childhood. Both explore the role of the father in the child's socialisation and the control the father has on the child's future.[22] Shelley’s last two novels, Lodore and Falkner, re-evaluate the father-daughter relationship. They were written at a time when Shelley was raising her only surviving child alone and supporting her ageing father. In both novels, the daughter eludes the father's control by giving him the traditional maternal figure he asks for. This relationship gives the daughter control of the father.[22][23]

Later years and death[edit]

Godwin was awarded a sinecure position as Office Keeper and Yeoman Usher of the Receipt of the Exchequer,[24] which came with grace and favour accommodation within the Palace of Westminster.[25]

In later years, Godwin came to expect maternal support and consolation from his daughter. Two of the five children he had raised had pre-deceased him, and two more lived abroad. Mary responded to his expectations and she cared for him until he died in 1836. He was buried next to Mary Wollstonecraft in the churchyard of St Pancras, where they had married. His second wife outlived him, and eventually was buried there too. The three share a gravestone. In the 1850s, Wollstonecraft and Godwin's remains were moved to Bournemouth, to the family tomb of the Shelleys.

Works and ideas[edit]

Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Caleb Williams[edit]

In 1793, while the French Revolution was in full swing, Godwin published his great work on political science, Enquiry concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness. The first part of this book was largely a recap of Edmund Burke's A Vindication of Natural Society – an anarchist critique of the state. Godwin acknowledged the influence of Burke for this portion. The rest of the book is Godwin's positive vision of how an anarchist (or minarchist) society might work. Political Justice was extremely influential in its time: after the writings of Burke and Paine, Godwin's was the most popular written response to the French Revolution. Godwin's work was seen by many as illuminating a middle way between the fiery extremes of Burke and Paine. Prime Minister William Pitt famously said that there was no need to censor it, because at over £1 it was too costly for the average Briton to buy. However, as was the practice at the time, numerous "corresponding societies" took up Political Justice, either sharing it or having it read to the illiterate members. Eventually, it sold over 4000 copies and brought literary fame to Godwin.

Godwin augmented the influence of Political Justice with the publication of a novel that proved equally popular, Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams. This tells the story of a servant who finds out a dark secret about Falkland, his aristocratic master, and is forced to flee because of his knowledge. Caleb Williams is essentially the first thriller:[26] Godwin wryly remarked that some readers were consuming in a night what took him over a year to write. Not the least of its merits is a portrait of the justice system of England and Wales at the time and a prescient picture of domestic espionage. His literary method, as he described it in the introduction to the novel, also proved influential: Godwin began with the conclusion of Caleb being chased through Britain, and developed the plot backwards. Dickens and Poe both commented on Godwin's ingenuity in doing this.

Political writing[edit]

In response to a treason trial of some of his fellow British Jacobins, among them Thomas Holcroft, Godwin wrote Cursory Strictures on the Charge Delivered by Lord Chief JusticeEyre to the Grand Jury, 2 October 1794 in which he forcefully argued that the prosecution's concept of "constructive treason" allowed a judge to construe any behaviour as treasonous. It paved the way for a major, but mostly moral, victory for the Jacobins, as they were acquitted.

However, Godwin's own reputation was eventually besmirched after 1798 by the conservative press, in part because he chose to write a candid biography of his late wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, entitled Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, including accounts of her two suicide attempts and her affair (before her relationship with Godwin) with the American adventurer Gilbert Imlay, which resulted in the birth of Fanny Imlay.

Godwin, consistent in his theory and stubborn in his practice, practically lived in secret for 30 years because of his reputation. However, in its influence on writers such as Shelley, who read the work on multiple occasions between 1810 and 1820,[27] and Kropotkin, Political Justice takes its place with Milton's Areopagitica and Rousseau's Émile as a defining anarchist and libertarian text.

Interpretation of political justice[edit]

By the words "political justice" the author meant "the adoption of any principle of morality and truth into the practice of a community," and the work was therefore an inquiry into the principles of society, government, and morals. For many years Godwin had been "satisfied that monarchy was a species of government unavoidably corrupt," and from desiring a government of the simplest construction, he gradually came to consider that "government by its very nature counteracts the improvement of original mind," demonstrating anti-statist beliefs that would later be considered anarchist.

Believing in the perfectibility of the race, that there are no innate principles, and therefore no original propensity to evil, he considered that "our virtues and our vices may be traced to the incidents which make the history of our lives, and if these incidents could be divested of every improper tendency, vice would be extirpated from the world." All control of man by man was more or less intolerable, and the day would come when each man, doing what seems right in his own eyes, would also be doing what is in fact best for the community, because all will be guided by principles of pure reason.

Such optimism was combined with a strong empiricism to support Godwin's belief that the evil actions of men are solely reliant on the corrupting influence of social conditions, and that changing these conditions could remove the evil in man. This is similar to the ideas of his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, concerning the shortcomings of women as due to discouragement during their upbringing.

Peter Kropotkin remarked of Godwin that when "speaking of property, he stated that the rights of every one 'to every substance capable of contributing to the benefit of a human being' must be regulated by justice alone: the substance must go ‘to him who most wants it’. His conclusion was communism."[28]

Debate with Malthus[edit]

In 1798, Thomas Robert Malthus wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population in response to Godwin's views on the "perfectibility of society." Malthus wrote that populations are inclined to increase in times of plenty, and that only distress, from causes such as food shortages, disease, or war, serves to stem population growth. Populations in his view are therefore always doomed to grow until distress is felt, at least by the poorer segment of the society. Consequently, poverty was felt to be an inevitable phenomenon of society.

Let us imagine for a moment Mr. Godwin's beautiful system of equality realized in its utmost purity, and see how soon this difficulty might be expected to press under so perfect a form of society.... Let us suppose all the causes of misery and vice in this island removed. War and contention cease. Unwholesome trades and manufactories do not exist. Crowds no longer collect together in great and pestilent cities.... Every house is clean, airy, sufficiently roomy, and in a healthy situation.... And the necessary labours of agriculture are shared amicably among all. The number of persons, and the produce of the island, we suppose to be the same as at present. The spirit of benevolence, guided by impartial justice, will divide this produce among all the members of the society according to their wants....With these extraordinary encouragements to population, and every cause of depopulation, as we have supposed, removed, the numbers would necessarily increase faster than in any society that has ever yet been known....[29]

Malthus went on to argue that under such ideal conditions, the population could conceivably double every 25 years. However, the food supply could not continue doubling at this rate for even 50 years. The food supply would become inadequate for the growing population, and then:

...the mighty law of self-preservation expels all the softer and more exalted emotions of the soul.... The corn is plucked before it is ripe, or secreted in unfair proportions; and the whole black train of vices that belong to falsehood are immediately generated. Provisions no longer flow in for the support of the mother with a large family. The children are sickly from insufficient food.... No human institutions here existed, to the perverseness of which Mr. Godwin ascribes the original sin of the worst men. No opposition had been produced by them between public and private good. No monopoly had been created of those advantages which reason directs to be left in common. No man had been goaded to the breach of order by unjust laws. Benevolence had established her reign in all hearts: and yet in so short a period as within fifty years, violence, oppression, falsehood, misery, every hateful vice, and every form of distress, which degrade and sadden the present state of society, seem to have been generated by the most imperious circumstances, by laws inherent in the nature of man, and absolutely independent of it human regulations.[29]

In Political Justice Godwin had acknowledged that an increase in the standard of living as he envisioned could cause population pressures, but he saw an obvious solution to avoiding distress: “project a change in the structure of human action, if not of human nature, specifically the eclipsing of the desire for sex by the development of intellectual pleasures”.[30] In the 1798 version of his essay, Malthus specifically rejected this possible change in human nature. In the second and subsequent editions, however, he wrote that widespread moral restraint, i.e., postponement of marriage and pre-nuptial celibacy (sexual abstinence), could reduce the tendency of a population to grow until distress was felt.".[31] Godwin also saw new technology as being partly responsible for the future change in human nature into more intellectually developed beings. He reasoned that increasing technological advances would lead to a decrease in the amount of time individuals spent on production and labour, and thereby, to more time spent on developing "their intellectual and moral faculties".[30] Instead of population growing exponentially, Godwin believed that this moral improvement would outrun the growth of population. Godwin pictured a social utopia where society would reach a level of sustainability and engage in "voluntary communism".[30]

In 1820, Godwin published Of Population: An Enquiry Concerning the Power of Increase in the Numbers of Mankind as a rebuttal to Malthus' essays. Godwin's main argument was against Malthus' notion that population tends to grow exponentially. Godwin believed that for population to double every twenty-five years (as Malthus had asserted had occurred in the United States, due to the expanse of resources available there), every married couple would have to have at least eight children, given the rate of childhood deaths. Godwin himself was one of thirteen children, but he did not observe the majority of couples in his day having eight children. He therefore concluded:

In reality, if I had not taken up the pen with the express purpose of confuting all the errors of Mr Malthus’s book, and of endeavouring to introduce other principles, more cheering, more favourable to the best interests of mankind, and better prepared to resist the inroads of vice and misery, I might close my argument here, and lay down the pen with this brief remark, that, when this author shall have produced from any country, the United States of North America not excepted, a register of marriages and births, from which it shall appear that there are on an average eight births to a marriage, then, and not till then, can I have any just reason to admit his doctrine of the geometrical ratio.[30]

Interest in earthly immortality[edit]

In his first edition of Political Justice Godwin included arguments favouring the possibility of "earthly immortality" (what would now be called Physical Immortality), but later editions of the book omitted this topic. Although the belief in such a possibility is consistent with his philosophy regarding perfectibility and human progress, he probably dropped the subject because of political expedience when he realised that it might discredit his other views.[32] Godwin explored the themes of life extension and immortality in his gothic novelSt. Leon, which became popular (and notorious) at the time of its publication in 1799, but is now mostly forgotten. St. Leon may have provided inspiration for his daughter's novel Frankenstein.[33]

Major works[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^Philp, Mark (2006-05-20). "William Godwin". In Zalta, Edward N.Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 
  2. ^ abPhilp, Mark (1993). Political And Philosophical Writings Of William Godwin. London: Pickering & Chatto Limited. p. 7. ISBN 1 85196 093 7. 
  3. ^Cedric J. Robinson (1980). The Terms of Order: Political Science and the Myth of Leadership. SUNY Press. p. 171. ISBN 978-0-87395-411-2. 
  4. ^Peter H. Marshall (1984). William Godwin, philosopher, novelist, Revolutionary. Yale University Press. p. 240. ISBN 9780300105445.  
  5. ^Memoirs page 95
  6. ^St. Clair, 164–69; Tomalin, 245–70; Wardle, 268ff; Sunstein, 314–20.
  7. ^St. Clair, 172–74; Tomalin, 271–73; Sunstein, 330–35.
  8. ^Sunstein has printed several of these letters in order so that the reader can follow Wollstonecraft and Godwin's conversation (321ff.)
  9. ^ abMarshall, Julian. The Life and Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. London: R. Bentley and Son, 1889. PDF.
  10. ^ abGodwin, William The Letters of William Godwin. Ed. Pamela Clemit. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. PDF.
  11. ^St. Clair, 173; Wardle, 286–92; Sunstein, 335–40.
  12. ^Brailsford, Henry Noel. Shelley, Godwin, and Their Circle. New York: H. Holt and; Etc., 1913. PDF.
  13. ^Jones, William B. (November 2001). Classics Illustrated: A Cultural History (Hardback) (Abridged ed.). McFarland & Company. ISBN 978-0-7864-1077-4. 
  14. ^Mitchell, Sally (1988). Victorian Britain (Routledge Revivals): An Encyclopedia. p. 516. 
  15. ^"Margaret Jane King Moore: Stories of Old Daniel: or Tales of Wonder and Delight". The Literary Encyclopedia. Volume 1.2.4: Irish Writing and Culture, 400-present. Retrieved 17 October 2017. 
  16. ^hahn, Daniel. The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature. p. 234. Retrieved 16 October 2017. 
  17. ^BLAMIRES, David. 6. The Swiss Family Robinson In: Telling Tales: The Impact of Germany on English Children’s Books 1780-1918 [online]. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2009 (generated 16 October 2017). Available on the Internet: <http://books.openedition.org/obp/605>. ISBN 9781906924119.
  18. ^"Mary Jane Godwin". British Travel Writing. Retrieved 16 October 2017. 
  19. ^McAllen, M. M. (2014). Maximilian and Carlota: Europe's Last Empire in Mexico. p. 21. 
  20. ^Joffe, Sharon (2016). The Clairmont Family Letters, 1839 - 1889, Volume 2. p. 151. 
  21. ^Carlson, Julie Ann. England's First Family of Writers: Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, Mary Shelley. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2007. Print.
  22. ^ abHill-Miller, Katherine. "My Hideous Progeny": Mary Shelley, William Godwin, and the Father-daughter Relationship. Newark: U of Delaware, 1995. Print.
  23. ^Greenlee, Alison M. "The Swiss Family Robinson and… Frankenstein?". University of Tulsa. Retrieved 16 October 2017. 
  24. ^"Events". William Godwin's Diary. Bodleian Library. Retrieved 17 October 2017. 
  25. ^An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (Oxford World Classics ed.). OUP. 2013. 
  26. ^Marshall, Peter (1992). Demanding the Impossible. Harper Collins. p. 196. 
  27. ^Locke, Don (1980). A Fantasy of Reason: The Life & Thought of William Godwin. Routledge & Kegan Paul. p. 246. 
  28. ^“Anarchism” from the Encyclopædia Britannica by Peter Kropotkin
  29. ^ abAn essay on the principle of population, (1798) Chap. 10.
  30. ^ abcdMedema, Steven G., and Warren J. Samuels. 2003. The History of Economic Thought: A Reader. New York: Routledge.
  31. ^Geoffrey Gilbert, introduction to Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Oxford World's Classics reprint. xviii
  32. ^Siobhan Ni Chonailla (2007). "'Why may not man one day be immortal?': Population, perfectibility, and the immortality question in Godwin's Political Justice". History of European Ideas. 33 (1): 25–39. doi:10.1016/j.histeuroideas.2006.06.003. 
  33. ^"Godwin, William (1756–1836) – Introduction". Gothic Literature. enotes.com. 2008. Archived from the original on 28 August 2008. Retrieved 9 August 2008. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Gagliano, G. Utopia e antagonismo politico. Nella riflessione di Gerrard Winstanley e William Godwin, Roma (2013): Aracne ISBN 978-88-548-6453-5
  • Marshall, P.,William Godwin, London & New Haven (1984): Yale University Press ISBN 0-300-03175-0
  • Marshall, P. (ed.) The Anarchist Writings of William Godwin, London (1986): Freedom Press ISBN 978-0-900384-29-5
  • McElroy, Wendy (2008). "Godwin, William (1856–1836)". In Hamowy, Ronald. The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE; Cato Institute. p. 211. doi:10.4135/9781412965811.n126. ISBN 978-1-4129-6580-4. LCCN 2008009151. OCLC 750831024. 
  • Mukherjee, S. & Ramaswamy S. William Godwin: His Thoughts and Works New Delhi (2002): Deep & Deep Publications ISBN 978-81-7100-754-7
  • Newton, A. Edward (1918). "A Ridiculous Philosopher". The amenities of book-collecting. Boston: The Atlantic Monthly Press. pp. 226–248.  (A droll biographical essay.)
  • Riggenbach, Jeff (6 May 2010). "William Godwin: Communist or Individualist?". Mises Daily. 
  • Stephen, Leslie (1902). "William Godwin's Novels". Studies of a Biographer. 3. London: Duckworth & Co. pp. 119–164. 
  • St Clair, William. The Godwins and the Shelleys: The biography of a family. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1989. ISBN 0-8018-4233-6.
  • Sunstein, Emily. A Different Face: the Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1975. ISBN 0-06-014201-4.
  • Tomalin, Claire. The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. Rev. ed. 1974. New York: Penguin, 1992. ISBN 0-14-016761-7.
  • Wardle, Ralph M. Mary Wollstonecraft: A Critical Biography. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1951.

External links[edit]

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie (c. 1797)

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