William Godwin

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William Godwin
William Godwin by Henry William Pickersgill.jpg
Born (1756-03-03)3 March 1756
Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, England, Great Britain
Died 7 April 1836(1836-04-07) (aged 80)
London, England, UK
Occupation Journalist, political philosopher, novelist
Spouse Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Jane Clairmont
Children Mary Shelley, William Godwin the Younger

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, which attacks aristocratic privilege, but also is 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 daughter, Mary Godwin (later Mary Shelley) would go on to write 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. Using the pseudonym Edward Baldwin, he wrote a variety of books for children, including a version of Jack and the Beanstalk.[2] He also 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. It was probably only in jest 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, Godwin.[citation needed] 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. At the age of 11, he became the sole pupil of Samuel Newton, who was a disciple of Robert Sandeman. Godwin later characterized 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 Stowmarket 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 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 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. Although 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.

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:[5] 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]

Half-length profile portrait of a man. His dark clothing blends into the background and his white face is in stark contrast.
James Northcote, William Godwin, oil on canvas, 1802, the National Portrait Gallery

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 Justice Eyre to the Grand Jury, October 2, 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 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."[6]

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....[7]

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.[7]

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”.[8] 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.".[9] 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 labor, and thereby, to more time spent on developing "their intellectual and moral faculties".[8] 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"[8]

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.[8]

Relationship with Mary Shelley[edit]

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born in Somers Town, London August 31, 1797 as Godwin's only child with Mary Wollstonecraft.[10] :5 Godwin had hoped for a son and had been planning on naming the child “William.” [11] On September 10, 1797 Wollstonecraft died, leaving Godwin to raise two young girls, Mary and Fanny Imlay, a daughter of Wollestonecraft and Gilbert Imlay.

When Mary was three, Godwin left his daughters in the care of James Marshall while he traveled to Ireland. Godwin’s tone in his letters demonstrates how much he cared about his daughters. 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 favorable, 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.” [11]

In 1801 Godwin married his neighbor Ms. Mary Jane Clairmont. When Godwin married Mrs. Clairmont, she brought two of her own children into the house, Charles Clairmont and Claire Clairmont. Contemporary British journalist H.N. Brailsford wrote “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”.[10]:200

Godwin shared high hopes for his daughter Mary as his oldest natural child and the only offspring of the late Mary Wollstonecraft. Godwin gave his daughter a higher intellectual experience than most women of her period. He described her as being “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.[13]

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 socialization and the control the father has on the child’s future.[14]

In later years, Godwin came to expect maternal support and consolation from Mary. She responded to his expectations and she cared for him until he died. Shelley’s last two novels, Lodore and Falkner reevaluate the father-daughter relationship. They were written at a time when Shelley was raising a son alone and supporting her aging father. In both novels, the daughter eludes the father’s control by giving the father the traditional maternal figure he asks for. This relationship gives the daughter control of the father.[14]

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 realized that it might discredit his other views.[15] Godwin explored the themes of life extension and immortality in his gothic novel St. 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.[16]

Major works[edit]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ William Godwin entry by Mark Philp in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2006-05-20
  2. ^ Jones, William B. (November 2001). Classics Illustrated: A Cultural History (Hardback) (Abridged ed.). McFarland & Company. ISBN 978-0-7864-1077-4. 
  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. "Coleridge also introduced Charles Lamb to Godwin. Lamb had shown some sympathy for the New Philosophy but the arguments of Coleridge and his own religiosity and common sense quickly turned him against it. He was particularly repelled by Godwin's atheism." 
  5. ^ Marshall, Peter (1992). Demanding the Impossible. Harper Collins. p. 196. 
  6. ^ “Anarchism” from the Encyclopaedia Britannica by Peter Kropotkin
  7. ^ a b An essay on the principle of population, (1798) Chap. 10.
  8. ^ a b c d Medema , Steven G., and Warren J. Samuels. 2003. The History of Economic Thought: A Reader. New York: Routledge.
  9. ^ Geoffrey Gilbert, introduction to Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Oxford World's Classics reprint. xviii
  10. ^ a b Marshall, Julian. The Life and Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. London: R. Bentley and Son, 1889. PDF.
  11. ^ a b Godwin, William The Letters of William Godwin. Ed. Pamela Clemit. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. PDF.
  12. ^ Brailsford, Henry Noel. Shelley, Godwin, and Their Circle. New York: H. Holt and; Etc., 1913. PDF.
  13. ^ Carlson, Julie Ann. England's First Family of Writers: Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, Mary Shelley. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2007. Print.
  14. ^ a b Hill-Miller, Katherine. "My Hideous Progeny": Mary Shelley, William Godwin, and the Father-daughter Relationship. Newark: U of Delaware, 1995. Print.
  15. ^ 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. 
  16. ^ "Godwin, William (1756–1836) – Introduction". Gothic Literature. enotes.com. 2008. Retrieved 2008-08-09. [dead link]

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]