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William Godwin

Updated on February 26, 2012


William Godwin was a English political philosopher and man of letters. Godwin was born in Wisbeach, England, on March 3, 1756, the son of a dissenting minister. He grew up in the East Anglian tradition of religious radicalism that, given the intellectual climate of the Enlightenment, turned easily into political and economic radicalism.

After trying the dissenting ministry himself for a few years (1777- 1782) in several small towns, he undertook more congenial, but even more uncertainly rewarded, literary work in London. He was soon thoroughly at home in that relatively new world of 18th century advanced thought-secularist, libertarian, optimistic, bohemian, and soon ardent in defense of the French Revolution. Godwin had a good conventional liberal education and a thorough knowledge of contemporary French and English thought. He was a facile writer, a trifle heavy for a journalist, but careful and industrious. His forgotten History of the Commonwealth (4 volumes 1824-1828) shows that he had the makings of a scholar. But as a radical journalist, hack writer, bookseller, and publisher for nearly 50 years, he lived on the edges of genteel poverty, well known but not successful, writing novels, a play, essays, and polemics.


Yet Godwin, through one book, is an important figure in Western thought. The Enquiry Concerning Political Justice was begun as a reply to Edmund Burke's attack on the French Revolution, but by the time it was published in two volumes in 1793 it had become a full and positive statement of the libertarian, individualistic strain in 18th century political philosophy. In this first edition, Political Justice is one of the most extreme assertions of rationalistic philosophical anarchism ever made.

Later, marriage and other responsibilities blunted Godwin's belief tllat all rules and institutions are cramping and unnecessary, and subsequent editions admit to some need for obedience to law and tradition. The book was a success; poor workmen clubbed together to buy it.

Godwin starts with an assumption almost universal in the Enlightenment- men are born roughly but really alike, and the great differences we see in their adult conditions and behavior are solely the result of differences in their environment. Bad environment makes bad men, good environment good men. But all men are born with a gift, commonly called reason, which if allowed free play from the start of life unerringly distinguishes between bad environment and good. Freedom for each individual to use his reason means, therefore, that no one will choose, or submit to, a bad environment. Education will procure freedom for each individual. All environment being good, all men will be good, indeed, perfect. With Godwin, 18th century idea" of the natural goodness of man come to their logical end in the concept of the perfectibility of human beings on this earth.

The French Philosophes, in full battle against priests, kings, and nobles, tended to emphasize the evils of environment as represented by church and state. Godwin's originality lies partly in his relentless application of the principle that institutions create evil to such smaller institutions as the family, school, neighborhood, and work group. His best novel, Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), which is still marginally alive, traces the horrors that society, working through these tyrannical and intimate little groups, inflicts on the innocent hero. Godwin finds even the orchestra leader's baton a compulsive thing -the free players following their instincts would achieve a richer harmony. Yet, in comparison with later philosophical anarchisms, Godwin's does not emphasize mutual love, cooperation, or gregarious natural instincts as the means by which an anarchical society will hold together.

Nor does Godwin come near any form of economic collectivism, or socialism. He believes, indeed, that the existing economic organization of society, with its extremes of wealth and poverty, is very bad. But in the new society of Political Justice, the emancipated men of reason will simply know better than to want undue wealth. Everyone will automatically have what he needs.

Universal benevolence, dictated by the head, accepted by the heart, will reign. At most, Godwin contemplates a period of transition in which compulsory education will rehabilitate those spoiled by society. In short, Political Ju stice is a rather vague but very extreme anarchist's utopia.

Personal Relations

Godwin's personal relations give him a place in the history of English letters.

William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey as youths were all fascinated by his ideas. Shelley, a precocious rebel, tried in Queen Mab (1813) to put Godwin's philosophy into poetry. For Englishmen it was Godwin who symbolized the defense of the French Revolution. In 1797, after a few months of living with Mary Wollstonecraft in defiance of that wicked institution, marriage, he rather inexplicably married her, with the usual formalities; Mary was already a well-known feminist writer and mother of an illegitimate daughter by the American adventurer Gilbert Imlay. Mrs. Godwin died in the same year, giving birth to a daughter, Mary, who survived to run away with Shelley in 1814. Godwin was furious at this too-faithful act of discipleship, but the subsequent marriage of the pair calmed him.

In a second marriage, Godwin in 1801 had acquired a stepdaughter, Claire Clairmont, who forced herself on Byron and briefly was his mistress.

As a final touch to the ironic tragicomedy of Godwin's personal life, the aged form er anarchist, now bankrupt, in 1833 was given by the government of Lord Grey a minor sinecure job in the exchequer, which saw him through the last three years of his life. He died in London on April 7, 1836.


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