William Godwin

From New World Encyclopedia

William Godwin

William Godwin (March 3, 1756 – April 7, 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 anarchism. 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 and The Adventures of Caleb Williams, which attacked aristocratic privilege, and was also one of the first mystery thrillers. Based on the success of both, Godwin featured prominently in the radical circles of London in the 1790s.

Godwin held the optimistic view that every individual, as a rational being, had the capacity to achieve an elevated understanding of moral and political truth, which would then guide him to act for the greatest good. He believed that any form of government, or even of mutual cooperation with others, impinged on the individual’s ability to freely exercise this judgment. Godwin’s ideal was a society with no government at all, where all individuals would be motivated by their understanding of truth.

Godwin had considerable influence on British literature and literary culture. Godwin is also known as the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792) and the father of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.


Early Life and Education

Godwin was born March 3, 1756 at Wisbech in Cambridgeshire, England to John and Anne Godwin. Both parents belonged to the middle class, 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. His parents 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. Godwin was a frail and intellectual child, brought up in an atmosphere of austere religiosity. One of his earliest memories was of composing a poem entitled, “I wish to be a minister.” At the age of eleven he went to study with a Mr. Samuel Newton, the minister of an independent congregation in Norwich. Mr. Newton followed John Glas and Robert Sandeman (1718-1771), extreme Calvinists who scorned faith and taught that God saved or condemned a person solely according to the rightness or wrongness of their understanding. Godwin later described Glas as a "celebrated north country apostle, who, after Calvin had damned ninety-nine in a hundred of mankind, had contrived a scheme for damning ninety-nine in a hundred of the followers of Calvin."

In 1771 Godwin entered Hoxton Academy, where he studied under Andrew Kippis, the biographer, and Dr. Abraham Rees of the Cyclopaedia. In 1778 he took a post as a minister at Ware, then at Stowmarket and Beaconsfield. At Stowmarket he was introduced to Baron d'Holbach, Helvetius and Jean-Jacques Rousseau by a friend, Joseph Fawcet, who held strong British republican opinions. His religious beliefs underwent a change towards deism, and he fell out with his congregation and came to London in 1782, where his friends encouraged him to earn his living at writing.

Early Writing

His first published work was an anonymous Life of Lord Chatham (1783). He then 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 that “God Himself has no right to be a tyrant.” Introduced by Andrew Kippis, he began to write in 1784 for the New Annual Register and other periodicals, producing also three novels. His main contributions for the Annual Register were Sketches of English History, yearly summaries of domestic and foreign political affairs. He joined a club called the "Revolutionists," and associated with Lord Stanhope, John Horne Tooke and Thomas Holcroft.

In the summer of 1791, at the height of the debate on the French Revolution, sparked by Edmund Burke 's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Godwin asked his publisher for an advance so that he could write a work summarizing recent developments in political philosophy. The work grew from its original conception and was eventually published in two volumes in February 1793 as An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice.

Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Caleb Williams

Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness was an immediate success. The book made him an important figure in the radical literary and political circles of London and brought him into association with other established writers such as Elizabeth Inchbald, James Mackintosh, and Joseph Ritson, and a younger generation of enthusiasts, including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Hazlitt. In May of 1774, his most successful novel, Things as They Are, or The Adventures of Caleb Williams was published. In October of that year, his friends Horne Tooke, Thomas Holcroft and John Thelwell were indicted for treason, and 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 behavior as treasonous. It paved the way for a major, but mostly moral, victory for the Jacobins, who were acquitted. In 1795 he published a second edition of Political Justice, in which some of the more rationalist and utopian statements of the first edition were modified.

Later Life

In 1796 Godwin developed a relationship with Mary Wollstonecraft, whom he had first encountered briefly five years earlier. The two maintained separate living quarters, but after she became pregnant, they married in March 1797. Wollstonecraft died in September 1797, shortly after giving birth to their daughter, Mary. Godwin raised their child and Wollstonecraft’s daughter Fanny. Burdened with debt, he produced a third and final revision of Political Justice; began his second major novel, St. Leon (1799); and wrote a biography of his wife, Memoirs of the Author of the Vindication of the Rights of Women (1798), which was published together with a collection of her works. His candid accounts of her two suicide attempts and her affair with Gilbert Imlay provoked a storm of controversy which was seized on by the conservative press. Godwin was increasingly attacked by loyalist newspapers, and his philosophical opinions were parodied and ridiculed in novels, reviews and pamphlets.

Thoughts Occasioned by the Perusal of Dr. Parr's Spital Sermon (1801), was an answer to Godwin’s critics and a confession of philosophical errors which he had made in his earlier works, and which he had already acknowledged in the later editions of Poltiical Justice. In reaction to the violence of the French Revolution, British political and literary circles had become increasingly loyalist and conservative. Godwin turned to literature and history, writing an unsuccessful play, Antonio (1800), a Life of Chaucer (1803) and another novel, Fleetwood: or The New Man of Feeling (1805). In 1801 he married Mary Jane Clairmont, a widow with two children. In 1805 his friends helped them to establish a children’s bookshop which they operated until 1824; writing under various pseudonyms, Godwin produced a variety of books for children, including collections of fables, myths, and Bible stories, histories of England, Rome and Greece, and various dictionaries and grammars.

In 1814 Godwin’s household was thrown into turmoil when his 17-year-old daughter Mary eloped with Percy Bysshe Shelley, accompanied by Mary's 16-year-old stepsister, Clare Clairmont. The following decade was marked by repeated family tragedies, the suicides of Shelley's first wife and Godwin's stepdaughter Fanny, the deaths of three of Mary Shelley's children, and the death of Shelley himself in 1822. Godwin continued to write, publishing his Lives of Edward and John Philips, nephews of Milton (1815), Mandeville (1817), and Letters of Advice to a Young American (1818).

In his later career, Godwin wrote Of Population (1820) criticizing Malthusian theory, History of the Commonwealth of England, from its Commencement to the Restoration of Charles II (1824-28) and Thoughts on Man, his Nature, Productions and Discoveries (1831), a collection of essays suggesting that education should be modified to develop each person’s individual talents. In 1833 Godwin finally received some recognition when he was given a sinecure post by the then-Whig government. Peel's subsequent administration agreed to extend the post until Godwin died on April 7, 1836.

Thought and Works

William Godwin is considered one of the first exponents of utilitarianism, and one of the first modern proponents of philosophical anarchism. He never hesitated to work out the final consequences of his ideas, regardless of the difficulties which they presented. His radicalism was one of ideas, not of violence. His radical reforms were to be carried out through discussion and education, and the resulting gradual changes in government and society. While Godwin thoroughly approved of the philosophic schemes of the precursors of the French Revolution, he was as far removed as Burke himself from agreeing with the violent way in which they were carried out.

His concept of the individual precluded him from being a true utilitarian; he insisted that the “private judgment” of every individual was sacred and should never be encroached upon. He also assigned more value to individuals who had the greatest potential, because of their intellectual and moral capacities, to benefit mankind.

Political Justice

Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness was, after Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, 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 four thousand copies and brought literary fame to Godwin. During the 1790s, excitement over the French Revolution was running high, and the book struck a chord with many liberal thinkers. In succeeding decades, when the violence of the Revolution had created a conservative backlash in England, Godwin’s ideas were criticized and many of his supporters abandoned him.

No work gave such a blow to the philosophical mind of the country as the celebrated Enquiry ... Tom Paine was considered for a time as Tom Fool to him, Paley and old woman, Edmund Burke a flashy sophist. Truth, moral truth, it was supposed had here taken up its abode; and these were the oracles of thought. (Hazlitt, Spirit of the Age)

Godwin rejected the idea that moral and political characteristics were a product of climate, national tendencies or standard of living. He argued that a person’s moral character was shaped by his experiences, and that the type of government under which he lived determined the type of experiences which affected him. Bad government produced wretched citizens with poor moral character. Godwin believed that moral and political improvement were based on progress in understanding moral and political truth, both in the individual and in society as a whole. The capacity for this type of moral progress in human beings was unlimited. A person who knew the truth would act upon it, because the mind initiates behavior. It was every person’s duty to produce as much happiness in the world as he could, acting upon his private moral judgment and the information he gathered from his surroundings. The ideal person was one who had fully developed his intellectual powers and his moral understanding, so that his private judgment always prompted him to act, with benevolence and virtue, for the greatest good. A society of such ideal individuals would need no government at all.

By the words "political justice" Godwin meant "the adoption of any principle of morality and truth into the practice of a community.” Political Justice condemned all government interference with individual judgment; even the best government was a form of evil. Democracy was preferable to monarchy, but dangerous because the majority threatened to impede the individual judgment of the minority. Godwin believed that all human beings were equal, because all human beings have the capacity for reason and are susceptible to the same pleasures and pains. All artificial distinctions, such as social class, gender, and political status, should be discarded, and every person should be judged on his own merits. Some persons, however, had a higher moral value because of their potential to contribute more to the general good of society. The book included the famous example of having to choose which of two people to save from a burning house, his own mother or the Archbishop Fénelon. The correct moral judgment, he said, was to save the archbishop, who had the greater potential to benefit the whole of society.

Godwin combined two principles; each individual was responsible to judge as best he could how to advance the greatest good, and each individual’s private judgment was to be respected in a way that precluded anyone else from exercising authority over them. Godwin opposed legislation over any matter of private judgment, such as religious beliefs. Godwin supported individual ownership of property, defining it as "the empire to which every man is entitled over the produce of his own industry." However, he advocated that individuals should give to each other their surplus property when others had a need for it. Godwin did not believe that all coercion and violence was innately immoral, but recognized the need for government in the short term and hoped that the time would come when it would be unnecessary.

Every man has a right to that, the exclusive possession of which being awarded to him, a greater sum of benefit or pleasure will result than could have arisen from its being otherwise appropriated. (Godwin, Political Justice)

The final section of Political Justice described Godwin’s vision for the ideal society of the future, which has done away with all forms of organized cooperation, including marriage and symphony orchestras, so that each individual is fully independent to exercise his judgment. Godwin predicted that such a society would gradually allow the powers of the mind to develop to the point where man could overcome physiological processes and prolong life indefinitely.

The first edition of Political Justice emphasized rationalism, with the mind impartially assessing the contending claims of sensation, desire, passion and reason to produce judgment, the basis for action. Familial affections and natural feelings like gratitude were not under the domain of judgment and should not play a part in determining how we should act. Godwin altered these views in the second two editions, saying that he had had not given enough importance to pleasure and pain as the basis for moral judgments. He attributed this error to Calvinist attitudes, which he said he had retained long after he had abandoned Calvinist religious opinions. He acknowledged that feeling, not judgment, was the real motivation for human actions, and that family attachments and natural affections played an important role in teaching us how to benefit others.

Godwin’s ideas influenced writers like Percy Bysshe Shelley, Peter Kropotkin, and Leo Tolstoy. He also had an influence on Robert Owen, William Thompson and other nineteenth century utopians, and on the labor movements for political reform in the 1840s. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels knew of Godwin’s writings and credited him with contributing to the theory of exploitation. Late in the nineteenth century, the last Book of Political Justice, dealing with the possibilities for the progress of the human race, was printed as a socialist tract with the title, On Property. Political Justice was reprinted in 1920, 1946 and 1993.

Caleb Williams

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, the story of a servant who finds out a dark secret about Falkland, his aristocratic master, and is forced to flee because of this knowledge. Caleb Williams was possibly the first mystery thriller; Godwin wryly remarked that some readers were consuming in a night what it took him over a year to write. The book included a portrait of the English justice system at the time and a prescient picture of domestic espionage. Caleb Williams supported Godwin's assertion that society must be reformed in order for individual behavior to be reformed. Charles Dickens and Edgar Allen Poe both commented on Godwin's ingenuity in starting his with the conclusion, Caleb being chased through England and Ireland, and developing the plot backwards.

Godwin illustrated his principles by writing five more novels in which the main characters were brought to grief by the aristocratic and inegalitarian principles of their societies.

Response to Malthus

As part of the British conservative reaction precipitated by Napoleon's campaign in the Alps in 1798, Thomas Malthus wrote his An Essay on the Principle of Population attacking Godwin's views on the "perfectibility of society." Malthus used what have come to be considered specious statistics to predict impending doom because of a geometrically rising world-wide population and arithmetically increasing food supply. Godwin’s Political Justice had acknowledged that an increase in the standard of living could cause population pressures, but he saw a solution that would avoid such a crisis; a change in the structure of human action, if not of human nature, so that the development of intellectual pleasures would eclipse the desire for sex.

Twenty years later, 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 referred to Malthus’s theory as a “house of cards” that Malthus “neither proves nor attempts to prove” and objected to Malthus’s sweeping assumption that the rate of population growth in America reflected a worldwide phenomenon. Godwin attested to the verifiable fact that population growth was at a standstill in much of the Old World. Furthermore, Godwin believed that the abundance of uncultivated land and continued technological advances did not justify fears of overpopulation. In an era where many children did not survive to maturity, Godwin pointed out that for population to double every twenty-five years as Malthus predicted, every married couple would need to have at least eight children.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

By Godwin

  • Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, 3 volumes. Edited by F. E. L. Priestley. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1946, 1969.
  • Things As They Are; or The Adventures of Caleb Williams, 3 volumes. London: B. Crosby, 1794. Critical edition of the fifth edition edited by D. McCracken. Oxford University Press, 1970. ISBN 0192553313
  • Collected Novels and Memoirs of William Godwin, 8 volumes. Edited by Mark Philp. London: Pickering and Chatto Publishers Ltd., 1992. ISBN 1851960341

Secondary sources

  • Barry, Brian. Justice as Impartiality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. ISBN 0198279132
  • Clark, John P. The Philosophical Anarchism of William Godwin. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977. ISBN 0691072175
  • Clemit, Pamela. The Godwinian Novel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. ISBN 0198112203
  • Locke, Don. A Fantasy of Reason: The Life and Thought of William Godwin. Original 1906. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980. ISBN 0710003870
  • Mendus, Susan. Impartiality in Moral and Political Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. ISBN 0198297815
  • Monro, D. H. Godwin's Moral Philosophy: An Interpretation of William Godwin. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1953.
  • Pollin, Burton R. Education and Enlightenment in the works of William Godwin. New York: Las Americas, 1962.
  • Woodcock, George. William Godwin. A Biographical Study. Original 1946. Reprint edition, 1996. Montreal, QC: Black Rose Books. ISBN 0921689489

External links

All links retrieved May 8, 2023.

General Philosophy Sources


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.