Godwin, William (1756–1836)

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William Godwin, English political philosopher, novelist, and essayist, was born at Wisbech, in Cambridgeshire, where his father was a dissenting minister. He was educated at Hoxton, one of the dissenting colleges that had been founded because of the refusal of the established universities to admit nonconformists, and himself entered the ministry in 1778. By 1783, apparently as the result of reading Claude-Adrien Helvétius and Baron d'Holbach, he had lost his faith, and instead took to literature as a means of livelihood. Much that he wrote at this time was hackwork, including three novels, none of which have survived. He did, however, gain some reputation as a political journalist, contributing regularly to such Whig publications as The Political Herald and The New Annual Register.

In 1791 Godwin managed to free himself from hackwork by persuading a publisher to subsidize him while he settled down to a serious treatise on political theory. The Enquiry concerning Political Justice (London, 1793) was the kind of book the intellectual radicals of the day had been waiting for, and Godwin soon became a celebrity. In this work, he set down, with passionate sincerity and a complete absence of compromise, the radical beliefs that were emerging from the French Revolution and the intellectual ferment that had preceded it. The book went through three editions (2nd ed., 1796; 3rd ed., 1798).

For a few years Godwin was happy and successful. His novel Things as They Are; or, the Adventures of Caleb Williams (London, 1794) was widely acclaimed as a masterpiece. In the same year, his Cursory Strictures on the charge delivered by Lord Chief Justice Eyre to the Grand Jury (London, 1794), which protested against the committal on charges of treason of twelve leading radicals, may have been partly responsible for the acquittal of three of the defendants and the dropping of the charges against the others. He also published a volume of essays, The Enquirer (London, 1797).

In 1797 Godwin married Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She died in the same year, a few days after the birth of their daughter Mary, who was to become the wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley. In 1798 Godwin wrote a memoir of his wife (Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, London, 1798), and in the following year another novel, St. Leon (London, 1799).

From then on his fortunes declined. Radicalism came into disfavor, and Godwin was fiercely attacked, sometimes by his former friends. One of these preached a sermon against him, to which he replied in Thoughts Occasioned by Dr. Parr's Spital Sermon (London, 1801).

In the same year, 1801, he married a widow, Mary Jane Clairmont. His second marriage was less happy than his first. Before long he was back at hackwork, and the last years of his life were spent in poverty.

Though he continued writing until his death, many of his later books were potboilers. The most important of these works (all of which, with one exception, were published in London) are his novels Fleetwood (1805), Mandeville (Edinburgh, 1817), Cloudesley (1830), and Deloraine (1833); his Life of Chaucer (1803); An Essay on Sepulchres (1809); Of Population (1820), a reply to Thomas Robert Malthus; and Thoughts on Man (1821). He had expressed his views on religion in a book that he called The Genius of Christianity Unveiled, but it was not published until long after his death, when it appeared under the title of Essays Never before Published (London, 1873).


Godwin's political theory is uncompromisingly anarchist. He was opposed to all kinds of coercion, including punishment, partly because of his determinism. "The assassin," he said in Political Justice, "can no more help the murder he commits than the knife in his hand." Such a view might be thought to lead to an authoritarianism based on the need to condition men rigidly so that their actions will not be antisocial. Godwin did indeed believe that it is society that molds men's characters and actions. He was one of the earliest proponents of what is now called cultural determinism, but he combined this view with a quite extreme liberalism and individualism.

types of society

Before Godwin, Baron de Montesquieu (and indeed Plato) had already maintained that each type of government developed not only its own characteristic type of institution, but also its own characteristic attitudes and value judgments within the minds of its citizens. Montesquieu distinguished three main types of government, each with its own characteristic "spirit": despotism, whose spirit is fear; monarchy (the aristocratic semifeudal type of society still current in most of eighteenth-century Europe), whose spirit is honor; and the republic (which for Montesquieu suggested Sparta, oddly idealized in the eighteenth century, as much as the actual contemporary example), whose spirit is virtue, used not quite in its modern sense but rather to mean public-spiritedness.

Where Godwin differed from the modern anthropologist and, to some extent at least, from Montesquieu, was that he saw all three types of society as corrupting their citizenseven monarchy, with its ideal of honor, so much admired in Godwin's time. Honor demands that one shall do what is fitting to one's rank; this was thought a sufficient motive to keep the wheels of society turning and to ensure decent and at times even noble behavior. Falkland, in Caleb Williams, is a portrait of the Man of Honor. He is a thoroughly charming, accomplished, and benevolent man, but at the moment of crisis he is prepared to commit murder and further crime rather than see his good name disgraced. The moral is clear enough: Honor is not enough to make men behave benevolently. Only benevolence will do that.

In some ways Godwin was more sympathetic to the republican ideal than to any other. Montesquieu's Republic is a state like Sparta, in which there is equality, frugality, and complete submission of the individual to the state. Godwin was strongly in favor of equality; he shared the republican objection to ostentation and luxury; and he agreed that it was the supreme duty of the individual to merge his own welfare with that of his neighbor. Nevertheless, Godwin rejected the republican ideal quite as decisively as the monarchic onefirst, because it turns men's attention away from human beings toward a quite mythical entity called the State, and second, because it teaches men to merge their own judgment in that of the majority.

corrupting influence of governments

Behind these objections, there is a quite general criticism that would apply to any type of government. Godwin believed that social institutions corrupt because they create prejudice; they prevent men from seeing things as they are. Men in society see themselves and one another through a mist of preconceived ideasas members of this or that social class, as fellow countrymen or foreigners, but never as the unique individuals they really are. To some extent this is inevitable, in society or out of it: All generalizations, according to Godwin, distort the particulars that are subsumed under them; and yet it is impossible to think at all without generalizing. Nevertheless, to see things as they are, though difficult, is not impossible. However, it is peculiarly difficult to see ourselves and our fellow men as they are unless we can get close enough to them to sympathize with them and to realize the true complexity of their motives.

Government perverts our judgment in three main ways. First, it creates artificial barriers between men, as the result of social inequality and of the insincerity that results from the perpetual effort to keep up with the Joneses.

Second, it encourages us to do the right things for the wrong reasons. Patriotism and social prestige are both wrong reasons for treating other men benevolently. Punishment, which leads men to keep the law from fear and not because they understand the reasons for keeping it, acts in the same way. The objection to doing the right thing for the wrong reason is that, since it results in the muddling of men's minds, they will become quite incapable of adapting their actions intelligently to changed circumstances; and consequently the things they do will not for long be the right ones.

Third, government encourages us to acquiesce in the opinions of others, whether of the majority or some minority of rulers. This means that we accept conclusions without really understanding the evidence upon which they are based. Consequently we are acting from prejudice, without any real understanding. Once again, this can only make us unfit to cope with a complex and changing world. "The history of mankind," Godwin said, "is little else than a record of crimes" (Political Justice, I, ii), crimes that are caused ultimately by man's inability to see things as they are and to think clearly about them.

the ideal society

For these reasons, Godwin rejected all three of Montesquieu's forms of society. Godwin did not, however, merely want to put a fourth type of government in place of the other three. He believed not merely that all existing governments have corrupted society, but also that government as such is necessarily corrupting.

In what kind of society, then, can one hope to escape prejudice? Obviously not in a large society, because every individual is unique, and one can avoid prejudice only by an intimate and sympathetic understanding of one's fellows. Indeed, it is rare enough to know even one person well enough not to misjudge him. In this connection, it is worth noticing that Godwin had an almost morbid obsession with friendship. In all his novels the central figure complains of being without a friend, and is cut off from the rest of his fellowsusually as the result of his own prejudices. This loneliness is, for Godwin, the central tragedy of the human situation.

The ideal community, then, must not be large and must not be highly organized. The citizen must never be a cog in a machine, unable to see the significance of his everyday activities. There must be no class distinctions that prevent us from seeing individuals as individuals. And there must be no formal rules and regulations, because these are rules of thumb that demand the acquiescence of the individual in propositions he does not really understand. For the same reason, there is to be no punishment. For Godwin, the ideal society is one in which individuals cooperate without any kind of compulsion because they like and understand each other and wish each other well.

the need for gradual change

Godwin's ideal society is usually criticized as absurdly unpractical and utopian. The truth is that he was not really a political reformer in the ordinary sense. He was not very interested in blueprints for a "brave new world"; he did not believe in political organizations, and he had no program. He was primarily a moralist concerned with analyzing the causes of prejudice; once we understand these, according to him, the cure may very well be left to look after itself. We need to have some vague idea of the direction in which we wish to move, but we need have no more than that, because change can be brought about only very slowly and gradually. Godwin insisted again and again upon the folly of violent change. We can do nothing here and now but try to make a few small breaches in the wall of prejudice. If enough people can be brought to see what is wrong with society, society will right itselfbut only by slow and gradual changes that will take generations. There is no question of a political program; political organizations are themselves a cause of prejudice. We are not even to point the way to the new society by setting an example of a better way of life. It is by reasoning and discussion that we must break down existing prejudice. The immediate task is to destroy the current ideals of honor and virtue. These ideologies have been created by existing institutions. They can be destroyed without destroying these institutions, however, because though prejudice is strong, it cannot entirely blind men to the facts. When supported by existing institutions, opinion can only be changed slowlybut it can be changed, and as it changes, the institutions will gradually be transformed.

Moral Theory

Society is to be transformed, then (even if only slowly and gradually), by means of a change in men's opinionschief among them their opinions about what is desirable. But here a major difficulty presents itself. Even if men can be brought to see things as they are, how can their moral beliefs be changed thereby, since, as David Hume had pointed out, it is impossible to derive any conclusion about what ought to be the case from knowledge about what is the case? Godwin knew of Hume's views and agreed with them, at least in part. In a certain sense, Godwin believed that virtue is knowledge; but he also insisted quite emphatically that "moral reasoning is nothing but the awakening of certain feelings" (Political Justice ). It is in order to reconcile these two positions that he introduced his concept of natural goodness.

godwin's utilitarianism

Godwin was a thoroughgoing utilitarian. For him, the right action is the one that makes for the greatest happiness of the greatest number. His utilitarianism, however, is unusual in two respects. First, it is not derived from egoism: The "greatest happiness" principle is ultimate, and cannot be derived from self-interest. Second, Godwin was quite prepared to push utilitarianism to its logical conclusion and openly embrace the consequences that many critics have regarded as fatal to it. He repudiated as immoral any obligations that cannot be derived from the general obligation to promote the general happinesssuch obligations, for example, as promises and other contractual obligations, or the domestic obligation to prefer the happiness of one's friends and family to the greater happiness of others. He caused considerable scandal by the passage in Political Justice in which he said that one ought to save François Fénelon from a burning building rather than his chambermaid (supposing that the archbishop has more to contribute to the general happiness), even if the chambermaid is one's own mother.

knowledge and virtue

For Godwin, then, our belief that X is desirable is true only when X is something that will make for the general happiness. Since "moral reasoning is nothing but the awakening of certain feelings," the virtuous man is the one who does desire whatever makes for the general happiness. How will seeing things as they are awaken this desire? The following may serve as an example: If someone says that it is a bad thing that millions of people in a distant part of the world are starving, I may very well agree, but the chances are that I won't do anything about it. But now suppose that one of them comes and starves on my doorstep. Almost certainly I shall be moved to feed him. When I see a man starving before my eyes, the proposition "starvation ought to be relieved" takes on a new meaning for me. I can now see in detail precisely how and why starvation is evil; I can see exactly how the generalization applies to the particular instance. It is not a question of perfect knowledge being reinforced by emotion, since my knowledge before was imperfect. When it becomes perfect, it necessarily brings the emotion with it. Thus, if I know in this sense that X is desirable, and if I not only accept this as a rule of thumb but also fully understand the evidence on which it is based, then I cannot but desire it.

the causes of imperfection

Because he held that men are "perfectible" and "naturally good," Godwin has been accused of excessive optimism. He did not mean, however, that men are, or are likely to become, perfect. He was merely saying that imperfection has causes (usually social causes) that may be removed. To talk about original sin is to give up the search for the causes of sin. It is as if we were to say "disease is a natural phenomenon" and turn our backs on medicine. In general, no doubt, wickedness, like disease, is always with us; but any particular piece of wickedness, like any particular disease, has specific causes, and it may be possible to remove them. That the causes are far-reaching and difficult to remove, Godwin did not deny. He was even prepared to grant that there may be "something in the nature of man incompatible with absolute perfection." Men can never fully understand the principle of universal benevolence, simply because they cannot hope to know all their fellows intimately. But this is an ideal toward which we can strive and which, even if it can never be reached, can always be brought a little closer.


As a thoroughgoing utilitarian, Godwin, like Jeremy Bentham, denied that there are any natural rights. The only right, which is also a duty, is to do whatever makes for the general happiness. He would not concede the rights to life and liberty. Nevertheless, the individual has one rightthe right of private judgment. The reason for this is simply that, in the final analysis, nothing will be gained if men do not understand the reasons for acting as we wish them to act. When men see things as they are, they will quite freely and without any kind of coercion do what makes for the general happiness. Any attempt to coerce them will hinder them from seeing things as they are and will therefore do more harm than good. In this way, Godwin was able to reconcile utilitarianism with the utmost insistence on individual freedom, and especially on freedom of thought and opinion.

the basis of godwin's ethics

Godwin's basic beliefs may be summarized in three propositionsone about ethics, one about logic, and one about social psychology.

The nature of virtue

The ethical proposition is that to be virtuous is to feel the right emotions. The right emotions are those that men feel when they see all the facts clearly. When we analyze these emotions, we find that they are all consistent with the "greatest happiness" principle.

In the last analysis, statements about morals are expressions of feeling. But this does not mean that we cannot reason about morals. There are good and bad reasons for feeling frightened or angry. Fear is appropriate in a situation of danger. We do not doubt that if once we make a man see the full facts of the situation, the emotion of fear will come of its own accord. In the same way, if we want men to feel the appropriate emotions of benevolence, pity, affection, and so on, we can do it by making them realize the full facts about human beings. It is in this sense that men are naturally good.


The logical proposition is that true knowledge is of particulars and all generalizations are, if not false, at least seriously misleading. It is possible to know in a sense that a situation is dangerous without feeling the appropriate emotion. A man may ignore the danger out of bravado, but in that case we may say that he does not fully appreciate the danger. He knows, as a generalization, that the situation is dangerous, but he does not know the particulars that the generalization expresseswhich is to say that he does not really know the generalization at all.

But we cannot, of course, do without generalizations. It is impossible to know every particular in all its particularity. Here, then, is an inescapable source of error. It is particularly likely to mislead us in our judgments of human beings and of human actions, for every human being is unique. Since we cannot know everyone intimately, we have to rely on generalizations, any one of which may be seriously misleading when applied to a given individual. Such generalizations form, as it were, a distorting glass through which we look at the world. And, since virtue depends on feeling the appropriate emotions toward other human beings, emotions that depend on a clear perception of all particulars, the logical proposition is an adequate explanation of human frailty. It also explains what Godwin meant by prejudice.

Political institutions influence beliefs

The proposition about social psychology is that the generalizations men believe depend on the political institutions under which they live. In practice, the particular distorting glasses we use are, so to speak, handed out to us by the governments under which we live. Our opinions about how human beings actually behave are influenced by concepts derived from legal institutions, like "thief" or "murderer," or concepts derived from social institutions, like "lord" or "pauper." These stereotypes come between us and the actual human beings around us. Our opinions about how human beings ought to behave are distorted by such concepts as "honor" and "virtue," which stem directly from political institutions, as Montesquieu had clearly demonstrated. This is what Godwin meant by the corrupting effect of government.

godwin's solution

Two main conclusions follow from these three basic beliefs: First, that if we want to improve human beings, we must help them to see things, and particularly each other, as they are; and second, that this can be done by simplifying society, by sweeping away social categories like rank and the legal categories that depend on punishment, and by encouraging individual judgment so that men will no longer trust to rules of thumb.

See also Anarchism; Bentham, Jeremy; Helvétius, Claude-Adrien; Holbach, Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d'; Hume, David; Montesquieu, Baron de; Plato; Shelley, Percy Bysshe; Utilitarianism; Virtue and Vice; Wollstonecraft, Mary.


primary works

Enquiry concerning Political Justice. Edited by K. Codell Carter. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.

Collected Novels and Memoirs of William Godwin. 8 vols. Edited by Mark Philp, et al. London: Pickering, 1992.

Political and Philosophical Writings of William Godwin. 7 vols. Edited by Mark Philp, et al. London: Pickering, 1993.

secondary works

Bellamy, Richard. "Godwin and the Development of 'the New Man of Feeling.'" History of Political Thought 6 (1985): 411432.

Brailsford, H. N. Shelley, Godwin, and Their Circle. London: Williams and Norgate, 1913.

Brown, Ford K. Life of William Godwin. London: Dent, 1926.

Clark, John P. The Philosophical Anarchism of William Godwin. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977.

Fleisher, David. William Godwin. London: Allen and Unwin, 1951.

Grylls, R. G. William Godwin and His World. London: Odhams, 1953.

Haakonssen, Knud, ed. Enlightenment and Religion: Rational Dissent in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Kramnick, Isaac. "On Anarchism and the Real World: William Godwin and Radical England." American Political Science Review 66 (1972): 114128.

Locke, Don. A Fantasy of Reason: The Life and Thought of William Godwin. London: Routledge, 1980.

Marshall, Peter H. William Godwin. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984.

Monro, D. H. Godwin's Moral Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953.

Paul, C. Kegan. William Godwin: His Friends and Contemporaries. 2 vols. London: King, 1876.

Philp, Mark. Godwin's Political Justice. London: Duckworth, 1986.

Woodcock, George. William Godwin. London: Porcupine Press, 1946.

D. H. Monro (1967)

Bibliography updated by Philip Reed (2005)