Godwin, William

views updated May 17 2018


GODWIN, WILLIAM (1756–1836), British writer and philosopher.

A major philosopher, powerful novelist, and innovative historian, William Godwin was born to a Calvinist family in Cambridgeshire. His thorough education was completed by five years at Hoxton College with intensive studies in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, mathematics, natural sciences, divinity, philosophy, rhetoric, French, German, and Italian. A passionate reading of the French philosophes led him to reject the ministry for the intellectually exciting London of the 1780s.

He became a professional writer, publishing sermons, biographies, novels—whatever his teeming brain furnished. By the late 1780s he attained distinction as writer on current events. In the revolutionary 1790s, Godwin exploded into prominence with his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), a work of political and social philosophy advocating an egalitarian society of responsible individuals. Incited by Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Godwin assessed Burke's political structures for their success at serving basic human nature and exposed monarchy, aristocracy, and the church as institutions for perpetuating property inequalities and limiting free enquiry. Political Justice advocates and exemplifies the courage to challenge the establishment.

Godwin followed Political Justice with his most influential novel, Things As They Are; or the Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794). Caleb Williams is at once a detective, psychological, political, and Gothic novel. This diversity is unified by a coherent philosophy that dramatizes the nature and power of ideology and the workings of domestic tyranny.

Other works of the 1790s express vigorous resistance to Britain's decline into intolerance and repression in response to the French Revolution. When the attorney general indicted the executive officers of two reform societies, Godwin's "Cursory Strictures on the Charge Delivered by Lord Chief Justice Eyre to the Grand Jury" (October 1794) demonstrated the indictment's distortion of existing statutes on treason. Its arguments, adopted by the defense, saved those officers' lives. In 1795 the government of William Pitt (called Pitt the Younger, 1759–1806) introduced two bills to curb protest and dissent. Godwin responded with Considerations on Lord Grenville's and Mr Pitt's Bills Concerning Treasonable and Seditious Practices, and Unlawful Assemblies, arguing that both bills exceed precedents: Grenville's bill, an "atrocious" extension of the definition of treason; Pitt's, functioning to license and silence meetings, Godwin called "despotic" and "disgraceful." The bills passed and restricted traditional liberties of speech, assembly, and the press.

In this atmosphere of fear and reprisal, Godwin continued principled writing. In 1797 his The Enquirer raised hackles with a censure of Christianity for promoting bigotry. In 1798 he published a tender memorial to his wife who died in childbirth, Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft. His next work, the Gothic novel, St. Leon (1799), examines the alienating effects of limitless wealth and eternal youth.

Godwin's next work is a bitter reflection of the times and his role in them. In Thoughts occasioned by the perusal of Dr. Parr's Spital Sermon … being a reply to Dr. Parr, Mr. Mackintosh, the Author of an Essay on Population, and others (1800), Godwin responds to two erstwhile friends, James Mackintosh (1765–1832) and Samuel Parr (1747–1825), who turned on Godwin for not repudiating his radicalism. He also answers An Essay on the Principle of Population by Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834), which rejects Godwin's social vision of justice and benevolence as a beautiful fiction but contrary to the "fixed … laws of human nature" and offers a mathematical demonstration that population growth must inevitably outstrip food supply and produce chaos. Eventually "rapine and murder must reign at large…." Godwin replied that the earth's productive capacities are far from fully employed and rational people will practice restraint and limit their offspring to what the land can support. Malthus's fearful and divisive vision harmonized with the fraught atmosphere of 1800.

With his second wife, Mary Jane Clairmont, Godwin published The Juvenile Library, books for children, small books for little hands, written with clarity and simplicity. For adult readers, his Life of Chaucer (2 vols., 1803) offers a full account of the manners, habits, and influences of Chaucer's age. Fleetwood (1805) is perhaps the first fictional scrutiny of domestic unhappiness. The Lives of Edward and John Philips (1815) examines the period following the death of Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658) as a calamity from which the nation never recovered its "independence, strong thinking, and generosity." Mandeville (1817), a breathtakingly original study of paranoia, is told by a Protestant bigot and captures the manic side of contemporary evangelicalism. Letter of Advice to a Young American (1818) advocates the development of the imagination through reading. Reviewers, by necessity friendly to a coercive government, generally sought reasons to attack his writings.

Meanwhile, Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population grew in influence through multiple editions. Measures to assist the poor were opposed for encouraging population growth. Appalled, Godwin published Of Population (1820), a withering attack on the logic, data, and assumptions behind Malthus's arguments. With the weight of the establishment behind them, Malthus's arguments continued to be heard while Godwin's sunk into obscurity.

Godwin's four-volume History of the Commonwealth of England (1824–1828) fulfilled a long-held ambition to write a comprehensive history of the period of the English Civil War and the Commonwealth. His account of civil war, rule by Parliament, execution of Charles I (r. 1625–1649), and reign of Cromwell conveys a perspective sympathetic to the proud, pious, and principled Commonwealthmen who accomplished a successful revolution.

Godwin, at seventy-four, published Cloudesley (1830), a complex study of character and feeling. In 1831 came Thoughts on Man, essays on free will, necessity, and human perfectibility, arguing for education that rejects mimicry and embraces an intellectual independence. Deloraine (1833), Godwin's last novel, a story of passion, murder, and flight, celebrates love between a father and daughter that honors Godwin's feelings for his own daughter, the widowed Mary Shelley (1797–1851). His last work, Lives of the Necromancers (1834), draws from a lifetime of learning to list occult events.

Godwin's lifelong campaign alerted individuals to conditionings that impair their development as free and perceptive citizens. He represents a rare example of a creative writer whose thinking has the rigor of a philosopher and a philosophical writer with a creative imagination and a feeling for language. His life is an extended story of resilience and tenacity in a society unfairly prejudiced against him, a society often terrified by his ideas. He died in 1836.

See alsoShelley, Mary; Wollstonecraft, Mary.


Primary Sources

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

——. Political and Philosophical Writings of William Godwin. 7 vols. Edited by Mark Philp. London, 1993.

Secondary Sources

Marshall, Peter H. William Godwin. New Haven, Conn., 1984. Contains rich accounts of Godwin's philosophical writings.

St. Clair, William. The Godwins and the Shelleys. London, 1989. Best biography of Godwin.

Kenneth W. Graham

Godwin, William

views updated May 14 2018



William Godwin was an English Dissenting preacher, a utopian philosopher, a novelist, a man of letters, the founder of philosophical anarchism. He married Mary Wollstonecraft, famous as the author of Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), who died after the birth of their daughter, Mary. Later, Mary married Percy Bysshe Shelley. As the father-in-law of so famous a poet, Godwin was an influential member of a literary circle that included also William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Lord George Gordon Byron. Among Godwin's works of fiction, Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794) is an extraordinary combination of a mystery story and an epic of conflict between social classes.

The work for which Godwin is best remembered is An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Political Justice (1793), which denounced all political and social regimes as obstacles to human development. The good life is based entirely on reason, Godwin argued, which is a quality only of discrete individuals; government, law, wealth, marriage, and all other man-made institutions should be abolished. "Everything that is usually understood by the term cooperation is, in some degree, an evil." Since every principle incorporated in a person's mind affects his conduct, "the perfection of man [is] impossible [only because] the idea of absolute perfection is scarcely within the grasp of human understanding." Godwin held that a cultivated person is less eager to gratify his senses, and when sustenance is no longer available, humans will "probably cease to propagate. The whole will be a people of men and not of children." Concurrently, "the term of human life may be prolonged by the immediate operation of the intellect beyond any limits which we are able to assign."

Godwin's prolonged interaction with T. R. Malthus began with the first edition of Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), which judged Godwin's portrait of the future as no more than "a beautiful phantom of the imagination." Within days Godwin wrote Malthus, and they met to discuss their differences. Godwin agreed to drop the word "perfectibility," and Malthus conceded that, unlike other species, humans can apply their reason and avoid the dire effects of a limited food supply; the second and subsequent editions of Malthus's book in effect acknowledged that Godwin's criticism was well based. Following this amicable exchange, Godwin wrote a small book, Parr's Spital Sermon (1801), in which he expressed his "unfeigned approbation and respect" for Malthus, who had made "as unquestionable an addition to the theory of political economy as any writer for a century past."

This favorable judgment was reversed in a subsequent work, Of Population (1820). It is a prolix book and difficult to summarize, with four principal points: Malthus had changed his position from the first edition of the Essay (indeed, partly at Godwin's instigation); the world is not full (repeated a dozen times); the two ratios, arithmetic and geometric, misrepresent the potential increase of mankind and its subsistence; the population data cited in the Essay did not support its argument. He upbraided Malthus for failing to mention the Bible, not even Adam and Eve as the progenitors of all humanity. China and India, he asserted, "carry back their chronology through millions of years." The enumerated populations of England and Wales in 1801 and 1811 showed a growth of 1.3 million; Godwin announced a possibility that "there was not one human creature more." In an anonymous review of the book in Edinburgh Review (June 1821), probably written by Malthus himself, Of Population was characterized as "the poorest and most old-womanish performance that had fallen from the pen of any writer" over the past several decades, the product of an "enfeebled judgment." The principal modern edition of Political Justice, published by the University of Toronto Press, omits the section on population, ostensibly because its substance is available in Of Population.

See also: Malthus, Thomas Robert; Population Thought, History of.


selected works by william godwin.

Godwin, William. 1793 (1946). 1946. Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness. Dublin (Toronto: University of Toronto Press).

——. 1797. The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature. London: G. G. and J. Robinson.

——. 1801 (1968). Thoughts Occasioned by the Perusal of Dr. Parr's Spital Sermon (1801). In Uncollected Writings … by William Godwin (in facsimile), ed. Jack W. Marken and Burton Pollin. Gainesville, FL: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints.

——. 1820. Of Population: An Enquiry Concerning the Power of Increase in the Numbers of Mankind, Being an Answer to Mr. Malthus's Essay on That Subject. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown.

——. 1831. Thoughts on Man, His Nature, Productions and Discoveries, Interspersed with Some Particulars Respecting the Author. London: Effingham Wilson.

selected works about william godwin.

Albrecht, William P. 1955. "Godwin and Malthus." Proceedings of the Modern Language Association 70: 552–555.

Everett, Alexander H. 1826. New Ideas on Population: With Remarks on the Theories of Malthus and Godwin, 2nd edition. Boston: Cummings, Hilliard.

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

Petersen, William. 1971. "The Malthus-Godwin Debate, Then and Now." Demography 8: 13–26.

Stephen, Leslie. 1963. "Godwin, William." Dictionary of National Biography: 64–68.

William Petersen

William Godwin

views updated May 14 2018

William Godwin

The English political theorist and writer William Godwin (1756-1836) was a libertarian anarchist and utopian proponent of a natural, rational, secular society.

William Godwin, son of an Independent minister, was born on March 3, 1756, at Wisbeck, Cambridgeshire. Trained for the ministry at Hoxton Academy, a Dissenting college, he became a Sandemanian minister in East Anglia and the Home Counties from 1778 to 1783. The Sandemanians, a radical, fundamentalist sect expelled by the Presbyterians and accepted by the Independents, continued to influence Godwin's secular thought even after he became an atheist. In particular, he retained Sandemanian doctrines of communal property, of opposition to the authority of church and state, and of the progressive reform of individual character and conduct.

Godwin's earliest work, published anonymously, was a prospectus for a private school, An Account of the Seminary That Will Be Opened… in Surrey (1784). This revealed his characteristic belief in an egalitarian society which would form human nature through a continuous educational process, benevolently encouraging individual reason, justice, and moral law. Godwin developed these principles in his most important work, An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793). In part a refutation of Edmund Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution (1790), the Enquiry rejected property and power as just foundations for political society. Living in a time of rapid industrial development, Godwin longed for a simple communal economy in which individuals would progress indefinitely toward increasing rationality and equity.

Of Godwin's 35 other works the most important are The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), a social novel;The Enquirer (1797); History of the Commonwealth of England (1824); and Thoughts on Man (1831). He died in London on April 7, 1836.

Godwin's personal life seldom approached his philosophical ideals of individual nobility and generosity. In 1797 he married the radical feminist Mary Wollstonecroft, who died 6 months later. Left with an infant daughter, he married Mary Jane Clairmont in 1801. His life was rarely conventional, but he was outraged when his daughter, Mary, went to live with the married Percy Bysshe Shelley, long Godwin's financial supporter and committed disciple.

The influence of Godwin's writings on his younger contemporaries was considerable. Such disparate figures as the utopian socialist Robert Owen, the radical Francis Place, the socialist economist William Thompson, and even Karl Marx were impressed by Godwin's political and economic thought.

Further Reading

The two most acceptable studies of Godwin in the context of his time are George Woodcock, William Godwin (1946), and David Fleisher, William Godwin: A Study in Liberalism (1951). Other works include H. N. Brailsford, Shelley, Godwin, and Their Circle (1913; 2d ed. 1954); Ford K. Brown, The Life of William Godwin (1926); and A. E. Rodway, ed., Godwin and the Age of Transition (1952). Godwin is placed in the tradition of anarchist thought in George Woodcock, Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements (1962), a fine study of thought and society.

Additional Sources

Brown, Ford Keeler, The life of William Godwin, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1975; Philadelphia: R. West, 1977.

Grylls, R. Glynn (Rosalie Glynn), William Godwin & his world, Folcroft, Pa. Folcroft Library Editions, 1974.

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

Robinson, Victor, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1978.

Woodcock, George, William Godwin: a biographical study, Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1975. □

Godwin, William

views updated Jun 27 2018

Godwin, William (1756–1836). English writer and novelist. In 1793 Godwin published his anarchist masterpiece Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, which caught the public imagination and made his reputation. He argued against the use of coercion of any kind, whether political, ecclesiastical, or military, not because it violated natural rights, but because it was corrupting and counter-productive. Godwin was an extreme determinist, rejecting the idea of free will: indeed he asserted that the ‘assassin can no more help the murder he commits than the knife in his hand’. He claimed that the ills of society were due to the bad influences exerted on people, largely by governments, and that the path to improvement lay in the power of reason, not coercion. In the ideal society there would be no government and no punishment: individuals would live in harmony because of their mutual grasp of reason. In 1797 Godwin married Mary Wollstonecraft, who died two years later giving birth to their daughter Mary, who married Shelley.

Tim S. Gray