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William Godwin

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William Godwin

William Godwin (March 3, 1756 - April 7, 1836) was an English political and miscellaneous writer, considered one of the important precursors of both utilitarian and anarchist thought. He is also famous for the women in his life: he married the early feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft in 1797 and together with her had one daughter, also named Mary, author of Frankenstein, whom he brought up on such strict principles of rational enlightenment that her only possible rebellion was to elope at 16 with the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Born at Wisbech in Cambridgeshire, Godwin's family on both sides were middle-class people, and it was probably only as a joke that he, a stern political reformer and philosophical radical, attempted to trace his pedigree to a time before the Norman Conquest to the great earl, Godwine. Both parents (John and Anne Godwin) were strict Calvinists. His father, a Nonconformist minister, 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 was under Andrew Kippis the biographer and Dr Abraham Rees of the Cyclopaedia, and 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. He came to London in 1782, still nominally 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.

His first published work was an anonymous Life of Lord Chatham (1783). Under the inappropriate title Sketches of History (1784), he published under his own name 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 Annual Register and other periodicals, producing also three novels now forgotten. The Sketches of English History written for the Annual Register from 1785 onward still deserves study. He joined a club called the "Revolutionists," and associated much with Lord Stanhope, Horne Tooke and Holcroft. His clerical character was now completely dropped.

In 1793, while the French Revolution was in full swing, Godwin published his great work on political science, The Inquiry concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness. Although this work is little known and less read now, it marks a phase in English thought. Godwin could never have been himself a worker on the active stage of life, but he was none the less a power behind the workers, and for its political effect, Political Justice takes its place with Milton's Areopagitica, with Locke's Essay on Education and with Rousseau's Emile (book).

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," confirming his beliefs as those that would later be widely recognized as 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.

This extreme optimism combined with a belief in determinism to suggest that the evil actions of men were produced by the corrupting social conditions that they inherited and that changing those 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. It should be noted that Godwin did not believe that all coercion and violence was immoral per se, as Bakunin and Tolstoy did, but rather recognised the need for government in the short term and hoped that the time would come when it would be unnecessary. 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 moral case of saving the Archbishop of Canterbury before his mother from a burning house is seen as abhorrent by many egalitarians.

In 1798 Malthus wrote his An Essay on the Principle of Population partly in response to Godwin's views.

Whilst the work was considered unacceptably radical at the time, it is surprising how many proposals from this piece of anarchism are now commonly accepted across the West. Examples include:

  • People should only be judged on their abilities.
  • War should only be allowed to protect a country's liberties or the liberties of another country.
  • Colonialism is immoral.
  • Democracy is more efficient than other forms of government, as it allows everyone to voice their opinion, rather than centralising power in a fallible monarch.
  • Government close to the people is best.
  • The community should provide for its most needy.
  • Rehabilitation should be provided for criminals.
  • One should have a sphere of private judgement over issues that do not threaten the security of other people, as opposed to the legislated Christianity of his time.
  • Censorship prevents the truth from being recognised and should only be used when there is an immediate security risk.

His critique of state education is something that has not been widely accepted, except by U.S. libertarians.

All his radical reforms were to be done by discussion, and matured change resulting from discussion. Hence, while Godwin thoroughly approved of the philosophic schemes of the precursors of the Revolution, he was as far removed as Burke himself from agreeing with the way in which they were carried out. So logical and uncompromising a thinker as Godwin could not go far in the discussion of abstract questions without exciting the most lively opposition in matters of detailed opinion. An affectionate son, and ever ready to give of his hard-earned income to more than one ne'er-do-well brother, he maintained that natural relationship had no claim on man, nor was gratitude to parents or benefactors any part of justice or virtue. In a day when the penal code was still extremely severe, he argued gravely against all punishments1, not only that of death. Property was to belong to him who most wanted it. However, he still saw a need for some respect for other people's belongings, as this was seen as part of their "right to private judgement", which he valued highly.

1 Note: Godwin did not call for the immediate end to punishment. He opposed the idea that it was a moral imperative to punish someone, which was the common view of his day, and rejected the religious laws interfering with one's personal life. He spoke of three justifications for punishment: deterrence, rehabilitation and security for the rest of society. He hoped that the day would come when there would be no need to punish on these grounds.


Original text from 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, needs style edit and update.

External links

fr:William Godwin ja:ウィリアム・ゴドウィン pl:William Godwin sv:William Godwin

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