Read CHAPTER III - WILLIAM GODWIN AND THE REVOLUTION of Shelley‚ Godwin and Their Circle , free online book, by H. N. Brailsford, on

Tom Paine is still reviled and still admired. The name of Mary Wollstonecraft is honoured by the growing army of free women. Both may be read in cheap editions. William Godwin, a more powerful intellect, and in his day a greater influence than either, is now forgotten, or remembered only because he was the father of Shelley’s wife. Yet he blazed in the last decade of the eighteenth century, as Hazlitt has told us, “as a sun in the firmament of reputation.” “No one was more talked of, more looked up to, more sought after, and wherever liberty, truth, justice was the theme, his name was not far off.... No work in our time gave such a blow to the philosophical mind of the country as the celebrated Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. Tom Paine was considered for the time as a Tom Fool to him; Paley an old woman; Edmund Burke a flashy sophist.”

William Godwin came into the world in 1756, at Wisbech, in the Fen country, with the moral atmosphere of a dissenting home for inheritance. His father and grandfather were Independent ministers, who taught the metaphysical dissent of the extreme Calvinistic tradition. The quaint ill-spelled letters of his mother reveal a strong character, a meagre education and rigid beliefs. William was unwholesomely precocious as a boy, pious, studious and greedy for distinction and praise. He was brought up on the Account of the Pious Deaths of Many Godly Children, and would move his school-fellows to tears by his early sermons on the Last Judgment. At seventeen we find him, destined for the hereditary profession, a student in the Theological College at Hoxton. His mental development was by no means headlong, but he was a laborious reader and an eager disputant, endowed with all the virtues save modesty.

He emerged from College as he had entered it, a Tory in politics and a Sandemanian in religion. The Sandemanians were super-Calvinists, and their tenets may be summarily defined. A Calvinist held that of ten souls nine will be damned. A Sandemanian hoped that of ten Calvinists one may with difficulty be saved. In the Calvinist mould Godwin’s mind was formed, and if the doctrine was soon discarded, the habit of thought characteristic of Calvinism remained with him to the end. It is a French and not a British creed, Latin in its systematic completeness, Latin in the logical courage with which it pursues its assumptions to their last conclusion, Latin in its faith in deductive reasoning and its disdain alike of experience and of sentiment. Had Godwin been bred a Methodist or a Churchman, he could not have written Political Justice. To him in these early years religion presented itself as a supernatural despotism based on terror and coercion. Its central doctrine was eternal punishment, and when in mature life, Godwin became a free-thinker, his revolt was not so much the readjustment of a speculative thinker who has reconsidered untenable dogmas, as the rebellion of a humane and liberal mind against a system of terrorism. To some agnostics God is an unnecessary hypothesis. To Godwin He was rather a tyrant to be deposed. It was a view which Shelley with less provocation adopted with even greater heat.

Godwin’s firm dogmatic creed began to crumble away during his early experiences as a dissenting minister in country towns. He published a forgotten volume of sermons, and his development both in politics and theology was evidently slow. At twenty-seven, as a young pastor at Beaconsfield, we find him a Whig and a Unitarian, who looked up to Dr. Priestley as his master. He had now begun to study the French philosophers, whom Hoxton had doubtless refuted, but did not read. He was not a successful pastor, and it was as much his relative failure in the pulpit as his slowly broadening beliefs which caused him to take to letters for a livelihood. His long literary career begins in 1783 with some years of prentice work in Grub Street. He wrote a successful pamphlet in defence of the Coalition, which brought him to the notice of the Whig chiefs, worked with enthusiasm at a Life of Chatham which has the merit of a rather heavy eloquence, contributed for seven years to the Annual Register and wrote three novels which evidently enjoyed an ephemeral success. He lived the usual nomadic life of the young man of letters, and differed from most of his kind chiefly by his industry, his abstinence, and his methodical habits of study, which he never relaxed even when he was writing busily for bread.

We find him rising early, and reading some portion of a Greek or Latin classic before breakfast. He acquired by this practice a literary knowledge of the classics and used it in his later essays with an ease and intimacy which many a scholar would envy. He wrote for three or four hours in the morning, composing slowly and frequently recasting his drafts. The afternoon and evening were devoted to eager converse and hot debate with friends, and to the reading of modern books in English, French and Italian, with not infrequent visits to the theatre. A brief diary carefully kept with a system of signs and abbreviations in a queer mixed jargon of English, French and Latin records his anxious use of his time, and shows to the end of his eighty years few wasted days. If industry was his most conspicuous virtue, he gave proof at the outset of his life of an independence rare among poor men who have their career to make. Sheridan, who acted as the literary agent of the Whigs, wished to engage him as a professional pamphleteer and offered him a regular salary. He refused to tie himself to a party, though his views at this time were those of an orthodox and enthusiastic admirer of Fox.

Godwin was to become the apostle of Universal Benevolence. It was a virtue for which in later life he gave many an opportunity to his richer friends, but if he stimulated it in others he never refused to practise it himself. While he was still a struggling and underpaid journeyman author, wandering from one cheap lodging to another, he burdened himself with the care and maintenance of a distant relative, an orphaned second-cousin, named Thomas Cooper. Cooper came to him at the age of twelve and remained with him till he became an actor at seventeen. Godwin had read Rousseau’s Emile, not seldom with dissent, and all through his life was deeply interested in the problems of education. They furnished him with the themes of some of the best essays in his Enquirer and his Thoughts on Man, and young Cooper was evidently the subject on whom he experimented. He was a difficult, proud, high-spirited lad, and the process of tuition was clearly not as smooth as it was conscientious. Godwin’s leading thought was that the utmost reverence is due to boys. He cared little how much he imparted of scholastic knowledge. He aimed at arousing the intellectual curiosity of his charge and fostering independence and self-respect. Sincerity and plain-speaking were to govern the relation of tutor and pupil. Corporal punishment was of course a prohibited barbarity, but it must be admitted that in Godwin’s case a violent tongue and an impatient temper more than supplied its place. The diary shows how pathetically the tutor exhorted himself to avoid sternness, “which can only embitter the temper,” and not to impute dulness, stupidity or intentional error. Some letters show how he failed. Cooper complains that Godwin had called him “a foolish wretch,” “a viper” and a “tiger.” Godwin replies by complimenting him on his “sensibility,” and his “independence,” asks for his “confidence” in return, and assures him that he does not expect “gratitude” (a virtue banned in the Godwinian ethics). This essay in education can have been only relatively successful, for Cooper seems to have felt a quite commonplace gratitude to Godwin, and for many a year afterwards sent him vivacious letters, which testify to the real friendship which united them.

Imperious and hot-tempered though he was, Godwin made friends and kept them. Thomas Holcroft came into Godwin’s life in 1786. Thanks to Hazlitt’s spirited memoir, based as it was on ample autobiographical notes, no personality of this group stands before us so clearly limned, and there is none more attractive. Mrs. Shelley describes him as a “man of stern and irascible character,” but he was also lovable and affectionate. There was in his mind and will some powerful initial force of resolve and mental independence. He thought for himself, and yet he could assimilate the ideas of other men. He was a reasoner and a doctrinaire; and yet he must have had in himself those untamed volcanic emotions which we associate with the heroes of the romantic novels of the age. He believed in the almost unlimited powers of the human mind, and his own career, which saw his rise from stable-boy and cobbler to dramatist, was itself a monument to the human will. Looking in their mirrors, the progressives of that generation were tempted to think that perfection might have been within their reach had not their youth been stunted by the influence of Calvin and the British Constitution. Rectitude, courage and unflinching truth were Holcroft’s ideal. He firmly believed (an idea which lay in germ in Condorcet and was for a time adopted by Godwin) that the will guided by reason might transform not only the human mind but the human body. Like the Christian Scientists of to-day he asserted, as Mrs. Shelley tells us, that “death and disease existed only through the feebleness of man’s mind, that pain also had no reality.”

He was a man of fifty when he met Godwin at thirty, and he had packed into his half century a more various experience of men and things than the studious and sedentary Godwin could have acquired if he had lived the life of the Wandering Jew. Theirs was a friendship of mutual stimulation and intimate exchange which is commoner between a man and a woman than between two men. They met almost daily, and in spite of some violent lovers’ quarrels, their affection lasted till Holcroft’s death in 1809. It is not hard to understand their quarrels. Neither of them had natural tact, and Godwin’s sensibility was morbid. Unflinching truthfulness, even in literary criticism, must have tried their tempers, and the single word “démêle,” best translated “row,” occurs often in Godwin’s diary as his note on one of their meetings. It is not easy to decide which influenced the other more. Godwin’s was the trained, systematic, academical mind, but Holcroft added to a rich and curious experience of life and a vein of native originality, wide reading and something more than a mere amateur’s taste for music and art. It was Holcroft who drove Godwin out of his compromising Unitarianism into a view which for some years he boldly described as Atheism. His religious opinions were afterwards modified (or so he supposed) by S. T. Coleridge; but that influence is not conspicuous in his posthumous essay on religion, and the best label for his attitude is perhaps Huxley’s word, “Agnostic.”

As the French Revolution approached, the two friends fell under the prevailing excitement. Godwin attended the Revolution Society’s dinners, and Holcroft was, as we have seen, a leading member of the Corresponding Society. There is no difficulty in accounting for most of the opinions which the two friends held in common, and which Godwin was soon to embody in Political Justice. Some were common to all the group; others lie in germ at least in the writings of the Encyclopaedists. Even communism was anticipated by Mably, and was held in some tentative form by many of the leading men of the Revolution. (See Kropotkin: The Great French Revolution.) The puzzle is rather to account for the anarchist tendency which seems to be wholly original in Godwin. It was a revolt not merely against all coercive action by the State, but also against collective action by the citizens. The root of it was probably the extreme individualism which felt that a man surrendered too much of himself, too much of truth and manhood in any political association. The beginnings of this line of thought may be detected in a vivid contemptuous account of the riotous Westminster election of 1788, in which Holcroft had worked with the Foxites: “Scandal, pitiful, mean, mutual scandal, never was more plentifully dispersed. Electioneering is a trade so despicably degrading, so eternally incompatible with moral and mental dignity that I can scarcely believe a truly great mind capable of the dirty drudgery of such vice. I am at least certain no mind is great while thus employed. It is the periodical reign of the evil nature or demon.”

This, to be sure, is no more than a hint of a tendency, but it shows that experience was already fermenting in the brain of one member at least of the pair, and it took these alchemists no great while to distil from it their theoretic spirit. The doings of the Corresponding Society were destined to enlarge and confirm this experience. In the hopes, the indignations, and the perils of the years of revolutionary excitement Godwin had his intimate share. He was one of a small committee which undertook the publication of Paine’s Rights of Man, and when the repression began, those who were struck down were his associates and in some cases his intimates. Holcroft, as we have seen, was tried for high treason, and Joseph Gerrald, who was sent to Botany Bay, was a friend for whom he felt both admiration and affection. If the fate of these men was a haunting pain to their friends, their high courage and idealistic faith was a noble stimulus. “Human Perfectibility” had its martyrs, and the words of Gerrald as he stood in the dock awaiting the sentence that was to send him to his death among thieves and forgers, deserve a respectful record: “Moral light is as irresistible by the mind as physical by the eye. All attempts to impede its progress are vain. It will roll rapidly along, and as well may tyrants imagine that by placing their feet upon the earth they can stop its diurnal motion, as that they shall be able by efforts the most virulent and pertinacious to extinguish the light of reason and philosophy, which happily for mankind is everywhere spreading around us.” It was in this atmosphere of enthusiasm and devotion that Political Justice was written.

The main work of Godwin’s life was begun in July, 1791. He was fortunate in securing a contract from the publisher Robinson, on generous terms which ultimately brought him in one thousand guineas. Political Justice has been generally classed among the answers to Burke, but Godwin’s aim was in fact something more ambitious. A note in his diary deserves to be quoted: “My original conception proceeded on a feeling of the imperfections and errors of Montesquieu, and a desire of supplying a less faulty work. In the just fervour of my enthusiasm I entertained the vain imagination of “hewing a stone from the rock,” which by its inherent energy and weight, should overbear and annihilate all opposition and place the principles of politics on an immoveable basis.”

When he came to answer his critics, he apologised for extravagances on the plea of haste and excitement; but in fact the work was slowly and deliberately written, and was not completed until January, 1793. Its doctrines, since the book is not now readily accessible, will be summarised fully and in Godwin’s own phraseology in the next chapter, but it seems proper to draw attention here to the cool yet unprovocative courage of its writer. It is filled with “hanging matters.” Pitt was, perhaps, no more disposed to punish a man for expounding the fundamental principles of philosophic anarchism than was the Russian autocracy in our own day when it tolerated Tolstoy. It was not for writing Utopia that Sir Thomas More lost his head. But the book is quite unflinching in its application of principle, and its attacks on monarchy are as uncompromising as those for which Paine was outlawed. The preface calmly discusses the possibility of prosecution, issues what is in effect a quiet challenge, and concludes with the consolation that “it is the property of truth to be fearless and to prove victorious over every adversary.” The fact was that Godwin watched the dangers of his friends “almost with envy” (letter to Gerrald). But he held that a man who deliberately provokes martyrdom acts immorally, since he confuses the progress of reason by exciting destructive passions, and drives his adversaries into evil courses.

“For myself,” he wrote, “I will never adopt any conduct for the express purpose of being put upon my trial, but if I be ever so put, I will consider that day as a day of triumph.” Godwin escaped punishment for his activity on behalf of Holcroft and the twelve reformers, because his activity was successful. He escaped prosecution for Political Justice because it was a learned book, addressed to educated readers, and issued at the astonishing price of three guineas. The propriety of prosecuting him was considered by the Privy Council; and Pitt is said to have dismissed the suggestion with the remark that “a three guinea book could never do much harm among those who had not three shillings to spare.” That this three-guinea book was bought and read to the extent of no less than four thousand copies is a tribute not merely to its vitality, but to the eagerness of the middle-classes during the revolutionary ferment to drink in the last words of the new philosophy.

A new edition was soon called for, and was issued early in 1796. Much of the book was recast and many chapters entirely rewritten, as the consequence not so much of any material change in Godwin’s views, as of the profit he had derived from private controversies. Condorcet (though he is never mentioned) is, if one may make a guess, the chief of the new influences apparent in the second edition. It is more cautious, more visibly the product of a varied experience than the first draft, but it abandons none of his leading ideas. A third edition appeared in 1799, toned down still further by a growing caution. These revisions undoubtedly made the book less interesting, less vivid, less readable. No modern edition has ever appeared, and its direct influence had become negligible even before Godwin’s death. It is harder to account for the oblivion into which the book has fallen, than to explain its early popularity. It is not a difficult book to read. “The young and the fair,” Godwin tells us, “did not feel deterred from consulting my pages.” His style is always clear and often eloquent. His vocabulary seems to a modern taste overloaded with Latin words, but the architecture of his sentences is skilful in the classical manner. He can vary his elaborate periods with a terse, strong statement which comes with the force of an unexpected blow. He has a knack of happy illustration, and a way of enforcing his points by putting problems in casuistry which have an alluring human interest. The book moved his own generation profoundly, and even to-day his more enthusiastic passages convey an irresistible impression of sincerity and conviction.