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Shelley, Percy Bysshe (1792–1822)


Percy Bysshe Shelley is usually thought of as a romantic and lyric poet rather than as a philosophical one. He was, however, the author of a number of polemical prose pamphlets on politics and religion; and both his prose and his poetry reflect a coherent background of social and metaphysical theory.

In general, Shelley's beliefs are those of the radical English intelligentsia of the period immediately before and after the French Revolution, and in particular of William Godwin, who became his father-in-law. It has often been said that Shelley was really antipathetic to Godwin's atheism and determinism and that he gradually threw off Godwin's influence in favor of a more congenial Platonic transcendentalism. This view, however, seems to rest on a misunderstanding of both Godwin and Shelley.

Attack on Christianity

In The Necessity of Atheism, for which he was expelled from Oxford in 1811, Shelley argued, on Humean lines, that no argument for the existence of God is convincing. He developed this position in A Refutation of Deism (1814), a dialogue that purports to defend Christianity against deism, but which actually presents a strong case against both and in favor of atheism. In both these works, and in some of his essays (many of which were not published in his lifetime), Shelley was concerned with what he later called "that superstition which has disguised itself under the name of the system of Jesus." In the longer Essay on Christianity, published posthumously, he explained what he thought that system really was: an allegorical expression of the virtues of sympathy and tolerance, and of an anarchistic belief in the equality of men and in the wickedness of punishment and all other forms of coercion. Christ, Shelley claimed, had "the imagination of some sublimest and most holy poet"; he was also a reformer who, like most reformers, practiced a little mild deception by pandering to "the prejudices of his auditors." The doctrine of a personal God, in particular, is not to be taken as "philosophically true," but as "a metaphor easily understood."

The Natural and the Moral Order

Shelley explained this coupling of poetry and religion, and the view that both are essentially allegory, in A Defence of Poetry (1821). It is the function of both poetry and religion to provide men with a coherent view of the world that will help them to understand both themselves and their fellow men, and to provide it in a form that will kindle the imagination as well as the intellectthat is, through metaphor. There is a natural order in the universe, which science and philosophy reveal; there is also a moral order, which men themselves must impose. The metaphor of a personal God is meant to impress this twofold order on men's minds. Since this metaphor had, unfortunately, been perverted by a superstitious interpretation, Shelley himself preferred such symbols as the World Soul or the Spirit of Intellectual Beauty.


The details of the moral order itself are made clear in Shelley's political pamphlets. Shelley began to write these when, as a youth of nineteen, he set out to settle the Irish question by instructing the Irish in the fundamental principles of Godwinian anarchism. Godwin's main thesis was that social institutions, and particularly the coercive ones imposed by governments, fasten blinkers on men's minds which prevent them from seeing their fellows as they really are. The ultimate solution is a community small enough for each member to know the other members as individuals. Such intimate personal knowledge will bring understanding and sympathy, so that men will be prepared to cooperate for the common good, without the coercion of law. As Shelley put it, "no government will be wanted but that of your neighbor's opinion." Men will indeed value their neighbors' opinions, but they will not take their neighbors' opinions on trust. To do so would be useless, because even a true opinion is of little value unless one understands the grounds for holding it. It is only when men see things as they are, in all their intricate interconnections, that they will feel the right emotions and thus lead happy and virtuous lives.

Political Pamphleteering

In accordance with these general principles, Shelley urged the Irish not to seek emancipation by means of violence, but to agitate for freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and parliamentary representation as the first steps toward the ideal society. It was also in accordance with these principles that Shelley wrote his Letter to Lord Ellenborough (1812), in which he protested vehemently against the sentence passed on the publisher of Thomas Paine's Age of Reason. Both this pamphlet and the Address on the Death of Princess Charlotte (1817), in which he suggested that Englishmen would do better to mourn for their lost liberties than for even the most beautiful and blameless of princesses, were eloquent attacks on judicial persecution and on the suppression of free speech. In another pamphlet, On the Punishment of Death (left unpublished), he opposed capital punishment. In the long essay A Philosophical View of Reform, another of the unpublished manuscripts found among Shelley's journals, he recapitulated the common radical objections to priests, kings, and the aristocracy, and gave his support to such measures as a more democratic suffrage and a capital levy on unearned wealth.

Unity of the World

Shelley's writings on politics and religion provide meanings for many of the symbols and metaphors to be found in his poetry. His frequent references to life and the world around us as "a painted veil," an illusion through which we must penetrate to the reality behind (this reality being the "one" that remains when "the many change and pass"), is probably to be interpreted as a Godwinian allegory. Godwin had said that men see life as if through a veilthe veil of their own prejudices, which are imposed by social institutions. The constant theme of Godwin's novels was that men must transcend these prejudices in order to understand and love their fellow men. Shelley's idealization of love, which has been taken as a departure from Godwin, is actually his attempt to present this Godwinian theme in a form that will kindle the imagination. It is, moreover, quite in accord with Godwin's views to say that once the veil is removed, the world will be seen as a unityboth in the sense in which science may be said to be a unity (the truth about one field of study cohering with and illuminating the truth about another), and in the sense that a true understanding of our fellow men will give rise to virtuous behavior. This seems to be what Shelley had in mind when he spoke of "the indestructible order" that it is the business of poetry to reveal. There is no need to suppose that he thought of this order as being imposed upon the world by a moral being.

The Universal Mind

It is true that Shelley was also influenced by Plato, Benedict de Spinoza, George Berkeley, and (in spite of his derogatory remarks about Immanuel Kant in Peter Bell the Third ) by the newer type of idealism that was beginning to be made fashionable by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In On Life he suggested that there are no distinct individual minds, but one universal mind in which all minds participate. As early as 1812 he had identified this "mass of infinite intelligence" with Deity. In this, Shelley was certainly departing from the doctrine of materialists like Baron d'Holbach; but Godwin, although he was not an idealist, was hardly a materialist either. Godwin would certainly have said that when men see things as they are, they hold the same opinions and, in a sense, think the same thoughts. Each man, seeing things from his own point of view, grasps only part of the truth. He will come nearer to grasping the whole of the truth as he comes to understand and sympathize with the minds of other men. In a sense, the truth as a whole is the property not of any one mind but of the sum of all minds. Probably Shelley himself meant little more than this.

Prometheus Unbound

Shelley's beliefs find expression in his poetry in a way that is seen fairly clearly in Prometheus Unbound (1820), which can be interpreted as a Godwinian allegory. Prometheus, chained to his rock, is suffering humankind, and as the discoverer of fire, he is also knowledge and the civilizing arts. These discoveries, in themselves, are not enough to liberate man from the oppressive rule of Jupiter, which is built "on faith and fear." Prometheus is freed when, instead of cursing his oppressor, he begins to pity and so to understand him. This reflects the favorite Godwinian theme that the oppressor, no less than the oppressed, is the victim of social institutions. A better order is possible only when men come to understand this fact and substitute mutual sympathy for recrimination and punishment. It is also necessary to understand the secrets of Demogorgon, who personifies the natural forces that control the universe, and to cooperate with the Hours, who, with their chariots, personify Godwin's conviction of the inevitability of gradualism.

See also Anarchism; Atheism; Berkeley, George; Coleridge, Samuel Taylor; Deism; Godwin, William; Holbach, Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d'; Kant, Immanuel; Paine, Thomas; Plato; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Wollstonecraft, Mary.


works by shelley

The definitive edition of Shelley's writings is The Complete Works of Shelley, edited by R. Ingpen and W. E. Peck, 10 vols. (London and New York, 19261930). A useful collection is Shelley's Prose, or The Trumpet of a Prophecy, edited by D. L. Clark (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1954).

works on shelley

A detailed biography is N. I. White, Shelley, 2 vols. (New York: Knopf, 1940). Works dealing especially with his thought are C. Baker, Shelley's Major Poetry (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1948); H. N. Brailsford, Shelley, Godwin, and Their Circle (New York: Holt, 1913); P. Butter, Shelley's Idols of the Cave (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1954); A. M. D. Hughes, The Nascent Mind of Shelley (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1947); D. King-Hele, Shelley: His Thought and Work (London: Macmillan, 1960); A. Sen, Studies in Shelley (Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1936); and M. T. Wilson, Shelley's Later Poetry (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959).

D. H. Monro (1967)

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