The life and work of William Godwin (1756-1836)
1. William Godwin was connected with all sorts of radical writers and thinkers of the time. His first wife was Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of the proto-feminist tract A Vindication of the Rights of Woman; his daughter with Wollstonecraft, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, became Frankenstein author Mary Shelley; and therefore Godwin became the father-in-law of the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Godwin was also a friend and associate of other radical writers of the day, such as Rights of Man author Thomas Paine. Indeed, it was Paine’s Rights of Man that inspired Godwin to start thinking about the idea of government, thinking which led to his important book Political Justice (1793).
2. The Prime Minister thought that Godwin’s Political Justice would prove harmless because it cost so much to buy. William Pitt the Younger, who was First Lord of the Treasury or Prime Minister of the UK when Godwin’s Political Justice appeared in 1793, reassured people that the working classes would not be stirred to rise up against the state by reading the book or hearing about it – because the book was so expensive (the original edition cost in excess of a whopping £1). Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Morals and Happiness asks: what are governments for? Do we need them? What would society look like without government or the state? Godwin argued that politics and equality are incompatible: the very notion of a political state will always lead to inequality among the population. The book had a considerable impact on Romantic writers, from William Wordsworth to Godwin’s own son-in-law, Percy Shelley. The book also led Thomas Malthus to write his An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, as a rebuttal to Godwin’s progressive ideas. (In what seems a never-ending chain-reaction, Malthus’ book would help to inspire Charles Darwin’s thinking that led to the Origin of Species.)
3. Godwin’s novel Caleb Williams is a remarkably Kafkaesque book, over a century before Kafka was writing. Caleb Williams was published a year after Political Justice as Things as They Are; or The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794). It is a novel about the dangers of state surveillance, long before Kafka wrote The Trial or George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four.
4. Because of his radical stance, he was vilified later in life. Godwin was accused of promoting all sorts of things: his detractors claimed he was a mouthpiece for everything from atheism to sexual promiscuity. Godwin was likened to the Indian upas tree, which poisons everything that has the misfortune to come into contact with it.
5. Godwin denied that he was either an atheist or an anarchist – though his enemies branded him as such. Like his friend Thomas Paine, Godwin was often called an atheist, and it’s true that he writes in Political Justice that religion ‘arose from man’s primitive fears, which priests then exploited to enslave their minds’. But the fact is that Godwin rejected an absolutely materialistic outlook on life, believing in an ‘omnipresent and eternal volume of truth’. Although he might be described as an early anarchist, unlike later figures such as Proudhon he didn’t refer to himself as such, despite his sceptical attitude towards government.
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Image: Title page from William Godwin’s novel Caleb Williams; Wikimedia Commons.