William Godwin.

From: Literary Sketches (1888)
Author: Henry S. Salt
Published: Swan Sonnenschein Lowrey & Co. 1888 London

William Godwin.

WILLIAM GODWIN’S life is a remarkable instance of how the longevity of a man of genius may, under certain circumstances, be a positive obstacle to his fame. Had he died at the close of the eighteenth century, instead of living to see thirty-six years of the nineteenth, it seems probable that his reputation with posterity as a thinker and a writer would have stood higher than it stands at present, or is ever likely to stand. For in the acquisition of fame, as of other things, opportunity is often an important consideration; and it cannot be denied that the actors on this stage of life may gain as much advantage from a graceful and timely exit as from an opportune entry. In this matter Godwin was unquestionably unfortunate; his great, striking, and original works were all written before 1800; while his later writings, excellent and conscientious as they were, cannot be said to have added in any way to his permanent repute, except perhaps in the case of his reply to Malthus’ Essay on Population. In more than one sense the year 1800 was the turning-point in his previously brilliant career; for it was then that his drama Antonio on which he had rashly built his hopes, met with complete failure: while from about this time may be dated the commencement of the money troubles which so greatly embittered his later life. Henceforth he was seen in the character of the needy book-maker rather than the keen literary enthusiast; outliving, as the years went by, not only his early friends and political associates, but, which was still more sad, his own stern philosophical self-respect, and the high hopes and aspirations which had inspired his Political Justice. Under these circumstances it is not surprising that the familiarity of so near a view should have bred, in the public estimation of Godwin’s genius, a certain measure of contempt, and that the philosopher who was somewhat over-rated in the outset of his career should afterwards have been unduly depreciated. The loss of his wife, the talented and noble-minded Mary Wollstonecraft, in the first year of their married life, was in every way an irreparable blow to Godwin; for the woman who died in the zenith of her intellectual and moral enthusiasm was surely less to be pitied than the man who survived his happiness by nearly forty years.

  If we keep in mind this fact, that the Godwin of the closing years of the last century, the author of Political Justice, and husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, was a very different person from the impecunious bookseller of twenty or thirty years later, whose correspondence1 with his more generous and openhanded son-in-law, Shelley, shows him in a far from favourable light, we shall be less surprised when we note the wide divergence of opinion that seems to have existed, and still to exist, respecting Godwin’s character. While some have spoken of him as a philosopher of stern, unflinching disposition, and one of the leading pioneers of modern thought—a view, which, as I hope to show, finds justification in the nobler passages of his life-others have been able to see in him nothing more than a cold-blooded, unemotional sophist, preaching a doctrine which he himself was by no means careful to practise in his actual intercourse with mankind. Nor can it be denied that there is some basis of truth in the unfavourable, as well as in the favourable judgment; though I think that the total and final impression conveyed by a study of Godwin’s character in all its phases should be a more pleasant and charitable one. Two leading features are easily discernible in his nature, both in the earlier and the later period of his life. One is the strong didactic tendency, which was fostered even in childhood by the Calvinistic atmosphere of his surroundings; the other is the predominance of the purely intellectual element, which he cultivated to a great extent at the expense of the emotional. The description given by Godwin’s biographer2 of his early piety and the severity of his religious training may make the reader smile at the odd contrast with his later convictions, but it accounts for that serious tone which prevades all Godwin’s thoughts and writings. The boy whose earliest books were the Pilgrim’s Progress and the Account of the Pious Deaths of Many Godly Children, and who was seriously reproved for his levity when he happened one Sunday to take the cat in his arms, soon developed the habit of preaching to other lads of his acquaintance, and is said to have dwelt so powerfully on the subject of “sin and damnation” that he drew tears from the eyes of his audience. As he grew older his religious belief was changed, but he always retained somewhat of the preacher’s earnestness and gravity, together with that characteristic spirit of mild, yet indomitable pertinacity, which shows itself so amusingly in the history of his relations with Tom Cooper, the high-spirited pupil who not unnaturally rebelled against the course of rigid discipline and unremitting benevolence to which Godwin subjected him. The habit of minute self-inspection is illustrated by many passages in the diary which Godwin always kept with marked care and regularity; and as he persisted in examining his own mind, so he persisted in probing every intellectual question with the cold clear logic of a calm and unimpassioned reason. To such an· extent did he carry this exaltation of the reasoning faculties over the emotional impulses, that he was sometimes led astray by it into ludicrous and extravagant assertions, as when, in his insistence on the absolute power of the will in maintaining complete self-control, he speaks disparagingly of sleep as “one of the most conspicuous infirmities of the human frame.” On the whole, however, too much has been made of this deficiency of the sentimental element in Godwin’s character: if he was “cold-blooded,” it was in the outer appearance far more than the inward reality; and though it was his wont thus to mask himself in a cloud of philosophical imperturbability, there are many indications that the emotion was latent and not absent. In a fragmentary analysis of his own character he speaks of himself as nervous, timid, and embarrassed in the presence of strangers; while the strength and warmth of his friendships, especially those with young men, for whom he seems always to have had a considerable attraction, and above all, his deep affection for Mary Wollstonecraft, show that he was by no means devoid of the usual human sympathies. Nor was he free from the corresponding sentimental faults; his egotism and vanity making him extraordinarily sensitive to criticism, unless most guardedly expressed, and apt to take offence on slight provocation from even his best friends. In brief, he was a strange mixture of philosophic strength and human weakness; though it must be remembered that these inconsistencies became far more manifest in his latter years than in the prime of his manhood. His conduct during the state-trials in 1794 proved him to be gifted with high courage and sincere conviction; and if it be right, as I believe it to be, to judge a great man by his best work rather than his worst, the period of Godwin’s life which demands most consideration from those who wish to understand him is the last decade of the eighteenth century, in which were written his great work, Political Justice, and his best novel, Caleb Williams. It is in those two books that his philosophical opinions and his literary powers may be most conveniently studied.

  Political Justice is one of those books which exercise a permanent influence on the social and political opinion of the country in which they are written, yet fail to win for themselves a permanent and individual fame. Towards the close of the last century the expectation of great and radical changes in the near future had taken powerful hold of men’s minds, and the publication of Godwin’s book, which gave expression to the vague sentiments and revolutionary aspirations then afloat, carried, as De Quincey has described it, “one single shock into the bosom of English society, fearful but momentary.” Yet fifty years later Godwin’s philosophic system was practically forgotten; not merely because a good deal of it had been weighed in the balance and found wanting, or even toned down and withdrawn by Godwin himself in subsequent writings; but because most of its best teaching had silently but effectually done its work, being absorbed into the minds of other thinkers and writers, and thus leavening the whole mass of Radical philosophy, In these days of political enfranchisement and liberty of thought, we are in danger of forgetting how deeply the modern Radical school is indebted to its forerunners of a hundred years back, and how much of the speculation of a book such as Political Justice has passed unrecognised into the current opinion of to-day, while still more is advanced, in almost the same words as those used by Godwin, by social reformers who are struggling to bring on a more drastic change.

  “It is an old observation,” says Godwin, “that the history of mankind is little else than a record of crimes.” It seems to have been supposed from this that Godwin was animated by a foolish and unscientific dislike of historical study; such, however, was not the case; for he himself draws an argument from the improvements effected in the past in favour of further improvement in the future, while he distinctly asserts, not that society has been wholly useless in defending mankind from want and inconvenience, but that “it effects this purpose in a very imperfect degree.” His indictment of the evils of the present social system is powerful and, in the main, unanswerable. Whatever may be thought of the remedies which he proposes to apply, he was not guilty of the absurdity, sometimes attributed to him, of picturing the past and present of man’s destiny as a scene of unrelieved blackness and misery, and at the same time holding out a promise of the immediate realization of a golden future. His doctrine of the perfectibility of man does not differ in essential points from the belief held by the elder Mill, that outward circumstances are more powerful than innate principles, and that, therefore, the possibility of improvement is practically unlimited. He is also careful to state that by perfectibility he does not mean perfection; the latter idea being inconceivable, while the former is merely the recognition of the fact that all improvements which can be conceived can also be realised. In short, so far from placing himself in opposition to the lessons of history and what is now known as evolution, Godwin, who was himself a student and writer of history, finds in these lessons the strongest corroboration of his theories. The knowledge that the present defective society has been evolved from a still more defective state in the past, is a poor argument for supposing that we have now arrived at the ne plus ultra of civilisation. It points rather to the certainty of still further and further reform, or in other words, to the perfectibility of mankind.

  The instrument by which this perfectibility can be best promoted is, according to Godwin, the spread of intellectual enlightenment. That vice is an error of judgment is his fundamental doctrine, from which it follows that as men become wiser, they will also become more virtuous and just, justice and virtue being regarded as synonymous terms. Godwin does not hesitate to express his opinion that the aim of justice is the general good, apart from every private or personal consideration; and that utility, by which is meant the welfare of the greatest number, is the true standard of virtue; he even ventures to carry this doctrine to its logical conclusion, and to insist on the suppression of all the domestic affections when they clash with the public interests. To love one’s neighbour as oneself is, he tells us, a comprehensive maxim, “possessing considerable merit as a popular principle,” but he complains that it “is not modelled with the strictness of philosophical accuracy,” since justice prompts us to consider neither one’s neighbour nor oneself, but simply what is conducive to the good of the community. This doctrine, however, though highly characteristic of Godwin’s logical, matter-of-fact mind, is not an essential part of his philosophy; for he strongly asserts that each individual must determine for himself in what manner he will be acting most in accordance with the demands of justice, since “there is no criterion of duty to any man but in the exercise of his private judgment.” This is one of the most important points in all Godwin’s teaching, containing, as it does, the assertion of the incompatibilitr, of tyranny and justice. “To a rational being, ‘he says, “there can be but one rule of conduct-justice; and one mode of ascertaining that rule-the exercise of his understanding.” The understanding, to be worthy of its name, must be free and unfettered, and must not yield its assent to any proposition which rests merely on a basis of law and authority; since free judgment is the very essence and foundation of all virtuous action; while, on the other hand, tyranny, which commands the assent without convincing the reason, is absolutely fatal to morality. This brings us back to the point from which we started; that the means by which a reformation can be worked out, whether in societies or individuals, must be sought primarily in the spread of enlightened opinion; and in connection with this subject it becomes necessary to consider what are the chief obstacles which stand in the way of such an enlightenment, and why men are prevented from discerning the true principles of morality and justice.

  In the first place, Godwin strongly deprecates every form of coercion, except such force as is necessarily employed in self-defence, as for instance in repelling a foreign invader or domestic tyrant with whom argument is useless. Government he considers to be only justifiable “so far as it is requisite for the suppression of force by force.” No punishment is allowable except loss of personal liberty, and this should be inflicted solely for the general benefit, as a restraint imposed on the individual offender, and not as a penalty or deterrent. All such institutions as oaths, tests, promises, religious codes, obedience, confidence, and the like, are condemned as interfering with the free exercise of private judgment and thus establishing a fictitious standard of morality. Even in education Godwin objects to all manner of compulsion, and looks forward to the time when “no creature in human form will be expected to learn anything, unless because he desires it and has some conception of its value.” The marriage-laws meet with his most emphatic disapproval, as constituting “a monopoly and the worst of monopolies,” and he strongly advocates the abolition of the marriage-bond, so that marriage, “like every other affair in which two persons are concerned, may be regulated by the unforced consent of the parties.” The sum of Godwin’s teaching on this subject of tyranny amounts to an uncompromising assertion of the rights of Individualism, any curtailment of which must tend to deprave that independence of thought by which alone men can attain to a right sense of political justice. But strongly as he condemns coercion, he reserves his severest censures of all for the institution of property, the subject of which he declares to be the key-stone of his philosophical fabric. Premising that the good things of the world are a common stock, from which each man has the right to draw what he needs, provided that he respects the equal right of his neighbor to these same “means of improvement and pleasure,” he points out at great length and with great clearness the many evils of the present system of inequality. Foremost among these evils are the spirit of subservience which is brought home to every house in the nation by the juxtaposition of poverty and wealth; the spectacle of gross injustice perpetually presented to men’s eyes by the ostentation of the rich, which engenders a universal passion for a similar acquisition of luxuries; the loss of that intellectual advancement which might be enjoyed by the great mass of mankind instead of being monopolised by a few; the immense encouragement of vice, owing to “one man’s possessing in abundance that of which another man is destitute;” and last, but not least, the tendency of large accumulations of property to promote aggressive and calamitous wars through the thirst for adding kingdom to kingdom. “Hereditary wealth,” says Godwin, “is in reality a premium paid to idleness, an immense annuity expended to retain mankind in brutality and ignorance. The poor are kept in ignorance by the want of leisure. The rich are furnished indeed with the means of cultivation and literature, but they are paid for being dissipated and indolent.” In the Enquirer, written a few years later than Political Justice, the same doctrine is reiterated. “It is a gross and ridiculous error to suppose that the rich pay for anything. There is no wealth in the world except this the labour of man. What is misnamed wealth is merely a power, vested in certain individuals by the institution of society, to compel others to labour for their benefit.” Property is thus considered by Godwin to be a fatal hindrance to a clear-sighted appreciation of justice and therefore to the improvement of the human race. A study of the history of Socialism during the past century will afford proof that while Godwin’s name has been to a great extent forgotten, his teaching has certainly not fallen into abeyance.

  It is not surprising that the promulgation of such opinions as these, together with many other accessory doctrines equally revolutionary in their tendency, should have caused Godwin to be looked upon as a dangerous innovator. But it ought not to be overlooked that the man who held these advanced views concerning government, marriage, education, property, and other social institutions, was in his own character the very contrary of a lawless or violent agitator, being especially remarkable for his calm, judicial temperament and dispassionate nature. It has been complained that Godwin “with the utmost calmness sweeps away one restraint after another.”3 But though this is quite true of Godwin as a speculator, it must be pointed out on the other hand that it is equally untrue of him as a social reformer; on the contrary, he is cautious to a singular degree in the many safeguards with which he hedges round his revolutionary schemes. He regards massacre as “the too possible attendant upon revolution,” and massacre “is the most hateful scene, allowing for its momentary duration, that any imagination can suggest.” He consequently deprecates the use of any sort of violence, or anything that can tend to produce violence, in his crusade against tyranny and law; his reformation is to be in every sense an intellectual and voluntary one, even political associations being discountenanced by him as likely to promote disorder. “The proper method,” he says, “for hastening the decline of error and producing uniformity of judgment, is not by brute force or by regulation, which is one of the classes of force, but on the contrary, by teaching every man to think for himself.” He has an unlimited confidence in the ultimate efficacy of the truth, which he believes will be able to produce a spirit of disinterestedness even in the matter of property. On this point he is as distinctly at variance with the communists of the present century as he is in agreement with them on general principles.

  As regards individual conduct, Godwin’s teaching is a kind of benevolent stoicism. The human will can and ought to be all-powerful, not only in questions of morality, but also in counteracting the infirmities of nature. Like Bacon he seems to dream of an age when mind shall be supreme over matter; in the meantime he insists that there are intellectual medicines as well as physical, and that when we suffer maladies it is often because we consent to suffer them. Side by side with this stoic hardihood he inculcates the duty of a sympathetic benevolence, since “there is no true joy, but in the spectacle and contemplation of happiness.” How this moral exhortation, together with the mass of similar precepts which are scattered throughout the pages of Political Justice, can be reconciled with the doctrine of Necessity which he deliberately adopts, he fails, like other necessarians, to make clear; in fact, herein consists the weak point of Godwin’s treatise, that in aiming at giving it a precise and scientific basis in preference to an emotional one, he defeats his own object and renders himself liable to argumentative attack on the very point where he professes to be invulnerable. He commits the error of attempting to give “mathematical reasons for moral actions”—to quote a phrase used by Shelley, who followed Godwin’s philosophy while avoiding his method of imparting it—whereas, if he had been less anxious to give his work the appearance of perfect symmetry and complete logical consistency, and if he had ventured to rely more on that intuitive sentiment of humanity, which is after all his strongest weapon, he might have created a still more powerful effect. So clear a thinker and so shrewd a critic as Mr. Leslie Stephen4 has succeeded in finding some weak places in Godwin’s philosophical system; yet he has failed, I think, to shake that part of the structure which alone is of vital importance, while his whole criticism is harsh in tone and too literal in its application. It is scarcely fair to say that Godwin” placidly ignores all inconvenient facts,” or that he “believes as firmly as any Christian in the speedy revolution of a New Jerusalem, four-square and perfect in its plan,” when Godwin, grave and dispassionate thinker that he was, expressly provided against any such misunderstanding of his views regarding the future of mankind. “After all,” he wrote, “it may not be utterly impossible that the nature of man will always remain for the most part unaltered, and that he will be found incapable of that degree of knowledge and constancy which seems essential to a liberal democracy or a pure equality. . . . A careful enquirer is always detecting his past errors; each year of his life produces a severe comment upon the opinions of the last; he suspects all his judgments and is certain of none.”5 We may rest assured that Godwin was as far from being a crazy enthusiast as he was from being a reckless incendiary, and that though he was so far foredoomed to failure in his attempt to demonstrate scientifically moral and social truths incapable of logical proof or disproof, he was not writing of what he did not understand when he pointed to the present evils of society and to the absolute necessity of discovering a remedy. Opinions must differ as to the value of the remedy he suggests; but none can deny that the social questions to which Godwin drew attention nearly a century ago have become of more and more pressing importance in the years that have since elapsed, and that his manner of discussing them is singularly clear and suggestive. In the very choice of the word Justice as the title for his book, he struck a true note and showed that he had instinctively hit upon the right track; for we have already begun to discover that this question of justice, whether between man and man, or between the state and the individual, is destined to be the great crux of modern politics.

  Caleb Williams, the novel which Godwin published a year later than his Political Justice, is interesting to us for two reasons; first for its intrinsic merits as a work of fiction, and secondly as furnishing a further illustration of the views expressed in its more important predecessor. It is a striking instance of a successful novel written by one who cannot be said to have been as a rule a successful novelist. Of the various characters introduced into the book the only two that have any real vitality are those of Caleb Williams himself and his master, Falkland; but these two personages are so vividly drawn, and the position in which they stand towards one another is so graphically and impressively described, that the book possesses for many readers a charm which they can find in none other of Godwin’s writings. In his delineation of Falkland, the chivalrous and courtly gentleman, whose life was poisoned by the secret guilt of a terrible crime committed years before under the direst provocation, Godwin was able to strike a blow at the so-called “code of honour” which looked to the chances of the duel for the settlement of personal disputes where calm reason and argument alone could be of any avail. In Caleb Williams, who partly by accident, partly by design, becomes the sharer of Falkland’s secret, we see the embodiment of that mild pertinacity and irrepressible love of enquiry which were conspicuous features in Godwin’s own character; while the persecution inflicted on the servant who ventures to pry into the affairs of his master serves to illustrate how simplicity and thirst for knowledge, when they run counter to the pleasure of the powerful, are sure to bring calamity on their possessor. It is small wonder that Godwin wrote well on such a theme as this, for it was a theme after his own heart-this struggle of one individual, whose only fault was a too observant habit and stubborn independence of mind, against all the forces of wealth and authority wielding the pains and penalties of a corrupt and venal law. The involuntary and irresistible attraction by which Caleb Williams is drawn on and on to the fatal discovery which ruins the happiness of his life is a fine feature of the story, and is probably the only indication in Godwin’s novels of any imaginative power. As regards expression and style, the narrative, though not free from a somewhat stilted and pompous phraseology, has the merit of being thoroughly lucid and direct, a quality which is observable in all Godwin’s writings, whether literary or philosophic.

  When we look at Godwin’s teaching as a whole, and ask wherein consists his chief merit as a thinker and his claim to be remembered by posterity, we shall probably come to the conclusion that out of the wide field of moral, social, and political topics over which his intellect ranged, three points stand out conspicuous as striking illustrations of his mental sagacity and the foresight with which he in some measure anticipated the Radical opinion of a later time. First, the shrewd instinct by which he laid his finger on the question of property as the one which, more than any other, is apt to influence and warp the rectitude of private judgment, and which is therefore destined to demand the closest attention of all legislators and philosophers. Secondly, his uncompromising assertion of the freedom of individual opinion and the right of every citizen to shape his life as he chooses, with due respect to the similar rights of others. Communist though he was in principle, Godwin felt strongly that co-operation may have its drawbacks as well as its advantages, and this led him to point out that the system of equality which he advocated must not become in any way a system of repression, under which it might be difficult for each individual to follow the dictates of his own taste and judgment. To enable individuality to gather new strength and vindicate its claim to continued existence, he urges the adoption of frugality and simplicity of living, declaring that the wise course is for men “to reduce their wants to the fewest possible, and as much as possible to simplify the mode of supplying them”—a doctrine still more clearly enforced half a century later in the writings of the Emersonian school. Thirdly, his unswerving belief in the power of truth, and his confident appeal to the higher rather than the lower instincts of mankind, are well worthy of attention in this age of cynical indifferentism and commercial money-making. He insists that “men are not so entirely governed by self-interest as has frequently been supposed,” in which conviction we see an anticipation of some of the best features of the Comtist philosophy. With “Justice” as the watchword of his creed, and the perfectibility of man (in the sense of unlimited intellectual progress) set before him as the object of his hopes, he became the author of a philosophical system, which, though perhaps over-elaborate in its general scope and faulty in some of its details, has certainly the merit of having powerfully influenced the opinions and stimulated the enthusiasm of many to whom the cause of Humanity is dear. It was from Godwin that Shelley drew much of that zeal for truth and freedom, without which his most important poems would never have been written; and it is to Godwin that we in great measure owe our recognition of the fact that both in state policy and individual conduct the only true morality must be looked for in the study of justice. As a prophet and fore-runner of the religion of Humanity, Godwin has a distinct claim on the memory and gratitude of the present age.

1 Vide Prof. Dowden’s “Life of Shelley,” vol. ii.
2 “Life of William Godwin,” by C. Kegan Paul, 1876.
3 Stephen’s English Thought of the Eighteenth Century, vol. ii.
4 English Thought of the Eighteenth Century, vol ii. 264-281.
5 Book viii., ch. x., second edition.

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