William Godwin

William Godwin

Infobox Writer
name =William Godwin

caption =
birthdate = birth date|1756|3|3|df=y
birthplace = Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, England
deathdate = death date and age|1836|4|7|1756|3|3|df=y
deathplace = London, England
occupation = Journalist, Political philosopher, novelist
genre =
movement =
influences =
influenced =
website =

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 one of the first modern proponents of philosophical anarchism. [sep entry|godwin|William Godwin|Mark Philip|2006-05-20] 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", which attacks aristocratic privilege, but also is virtually the first mystery novel. Based on the success of both, Godwin featured prominently in the radical circles of London in the 1790s. In the ensuing 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; their child, Mary Godwin (later Mary Shelley) would go on to author "Frankenstein" and marry the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Godwin wrote prolifically in the genres of novels, history and demography throughout his lifetime. With his second wife, Mary Jane Clairmont, he wrote children's primers on Biblical and classical history, which he published along with such works as Charles and Mary Lamb's "Tales from Shakespeare". He also has had considerable influence on British literature and literary culture.

Early life and education

Godwin was born in Wisbech in Cambridgeshire to John and Anne Godwin. Godwin's family on both sides were middle-class. It was probably only as a joke that Godwin, a stern political reformer and philosophical radical, attempted to trace his pedigree to a time before the Norman Conquest to the great earl, Godwine. Godwin's parents adhered to a strict form of Calvinism. His father, a Nonconformist minister 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. He was at first more Calvinistic than his teachers, becoming a Sandemanian, or follower of John Glas, whom he describes as a celebrated north-country apostle who, after Calvin had "damned ninety-nine in a hundred of mankind, has contrived a scheme for damning ninety-nine in a hundred of the followers of Calvin."

He then acted as a minister at Ware, Stowmarket and Beaconsfield. At Stowmarket the teachings of the French philosophers were brought before him by a friend, Joseph Fawcet, 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 shrank theoretically from no conclusions from the premises which he laid down. He adopted the principles of the Encyclopaedists, and his own aim was the complete overthrow of all existing institutions, political, social and religious. 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

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, he 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.

"Enquiry Concerning Political Justice" and "Caleb Williams"

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 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 both 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 Englishman 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 the "Political Justice" with his publication of an equally popular novel, "Things as They Are or The Adventures of Caleb Williams", which 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: [cite book | author=Marshall, Peter | title=Demanding the Impossible | publisher=Harper Collins | year=1992|pages=196] 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 English justice system at the time and a prescient picture of domestic espionage. Yet Godwin's strenuous Calvinism still obtains, if in secular form. At the conclusion of the novel, when Caleb Williams finally confronts Falkland, the encounter fatally wounds the Lord, who immediately admits the justness of Williams' cause. Far from feeling release or happiness, Williams only sees the destruction of someone who remains for him a noble, if fallen person. Implicitly, "Caleb Williams" ratifies Godwin's assertion that society must be reformed in order for individual behaviour to be reformed, an emphasis that allies him more with Marxism and anarchism than liberalism. His literary method, as he described it in the introduction to the novel, also was influential: Godwin began with the conclusion of Caleb being chased through England and Ireland and developed the plot backwards. Dickens and Poe both commented on Godwin's ingenuity in doing this.

Political writing

In response to a treason trial of some of his fellow English Jacobins, among them Thomas Holcroft, Godwin wrote "Cursory Strictures on the Charge Delivered by Lord Chief Justice Eyre to the Grand Jury, October 2, 1794" where he forcefully argued that 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 dead wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, including accounts of her two suicide attempts and her affair with 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 like Shelley, Kropotkin, and others, "Political Justice" takes its place with Milton's "Areopagitica", and Rousseau's "" as an anarchist and libertarian text.

Interpretation of political justice

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, of government and of 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 combined with a strong empiricism to support Godwin's belief that the evil actions of men were 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 being down to their discouraging upbringings.

Godwin did not believe that all coercion and violence was immoral per se, as Bakunin and Tolstoy did, but rather recognized the need for government in the short term and hoped that the time would come when it would be unnecessary. Thus, he was a gradualist anarchist rather than a revolutionary anarchist; Godwin supported the ideology behind the French Revolution but certainly not its means. Neither was he as extreme an egalitarian as most anarchists are, but he simply thought that discrimination on grounds other than ability was immoral. His utilitarian case for saving the Archbishop of Canterbury before his mother from a burning house is seen as abhorrent even by many egalitarians.

Attack by (and upon) Malthus

As part of the British conservative reaction that was precipitated by Napoleon's campaign in the Alps in 1798, Thomas Robert Malthus wrote his "An Essay on the Principle of Population" in which Godwin's views on the "perfectibility of society" plays a predominant role as a target. (Malthus had previously been a member of the same radical circles as Godwin, and pitched his attack on British radicalism as that of a disillusioned disciple.) Unlike Godwin, Malthus, using what has come to be considered rather specious statistics, predicted impending doom because of a geometrically rising world-wide population and arithmetically increasing food supply. While Godwin’s "Political Justice" acknowledged that an increase in the standard of living via his proposals could cause population pressures, he saw an obvious solution to avoiding such a crisis: “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”.Medema , Steven G., and Warren J. Samuels. 2003. The History of Economic Thought: A Reader. New York: Routledge.] Indeed it was this “principle of population” that provoked Malthus’s "Essay on the Principle of Population" in 1798.

Godwin did not officially respond to Malthus for over twenty years. In 1820, Godwin published "Of Population: An Enquiry Concerning the Power of Increase in the Numbers of Mankind", as a rebuttal to Malthus’s attack on Political Justice. Godwin refers to Malthus’s theory as a “house of cards” that Malthus “neither proves nor attempts to prove”. Godwin’s main objection was Malthus’s sweeping ascription of the rate of population growth in America as a worldwide phenomenon. Godwin finds that such a proposition must be accepted solely as a matter of faith on the part of Malthus’s reader. On the contrary, Godwin attested to the verifiable fact that much of the Old World was at a stand in population growth. Furthermore, Godwin believed that the abundance of uncultivated land and continued technological advances made fears of overpopulation even more unjustifiable.

In an era where many children did not survive to maturity, Godwin believed that for population to double every twenty-five years as Malthus asserted would require every married couple to have at least eight children. Although Godwin himself was one of thirteen children, he did not observe the majority of couples having eight children. Godwin concludes his rebuttal with the following challenge: "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.".

"Based on the entry from 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica."

Interest in earthly immortality

In his first edition of "Political Justice" Godwin included arguments favoring 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 realize that it might discredit his other views [cite journal | author=Siobhan Ni Chonailla | title=‘Why may not man one day be immortal?’: Population, perfectibility, and the immortality question in Godwin's Political Justice | journal=History of European Ideas | volume=33 | issue=1 | year=2007 | pages=25-39 |url=http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6V9C-4KHC2WY-2&_user=10&_rdoc=1&_fmt=&_orig=search&_sort=d&view=c&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=1bca737f15f7e5f78a8226406adf6975 | doi = 10.1016/j.histeuroideas.2006.06.003 ] . Godwin explored the themes of life extension and immortality in his gothic novel "St. Leon", which became popular (notorious) at the time when it was published (1799), but is now mostly forgotten. "St. Leon" may have perversely provided inspiration for his daughter's novel "Frankenstein" [cite web | title = Godwin, William (1756 - 1836) | Introduction | work = Gothic Literature | publisher = enotes.com | date = 2008 | url = http://www.enotes.com/gothic-literature/godwin-william | accessdate = 2008-08-09 ] .

ee also


Major works

* "Enquiry concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness" (1793)
* "Things as They Are or The Adventures of Caleb Williams" (1794)
* "The Enquirer" (1797)
* "Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman" (1798)
* "St. Leon" (1799)
* "Fleetwood" (1805)
* "Mandeville" (1817)
* "History of the Commonwealth" (1824-28)


Further reading

*Marshall, P.,"William Godwin", London & New Haven (1984): Yale University Press ISBN 0300 031750
*Marshall, P. (ed.) "The Anarchist Writings of William Godwin", London (1986): Freedom Press ISBN 978 0900384295
*Mukherjee, S. & Ramaswamy S. "William Godwin: His Thoughts and Works" New Delhi (2002): Deep & Deep Publications ISBN 978 8171007547

External links

* [http://utilitarian.net/godwin William Godwin]
*anarchives|Godwinarchive.html|Godwin archive
*sep entry|godwin|William Godwin|Mark Philip|2006-05-20

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