Read CHAPTER IV - “POLITICAL JUSTICE” of Shelley‚ Godwin and Their Circle , free online book, by H. N. Brailsford, on

The controversy which produced Political Justice was a dialogue between the future and the past. The task of speculation in England had been, through a stagnant century, to define the conditions of political stability, and to admire the elaborate checks and balances of the British Constitution as though change were the only evil that threatened mankind. For Burke, change itself was but an incident in the triumph of continuity and conservation. For Godwin the whole life of mankind is a race through innovation to perfection, and his main concern is to exhort the athlete to fling aside the garments of prejudice, tradition, and constraint, until one asks at the end how much of flesh and blood has been torn away with the garments. If one were to attempt in a phrase to sum up his work, the best title which one could invent for it would be Prolegomena to all Future Progress. What in a word are the conditions of progress?

His attitude to mankind is by turns a pedagogue’s disapprobation and a patron’s encouragement. The worst enemy of progress was the systematic optimism of Leibnitz and Pope, which Voltaire had overthrown. There is indeed enough of progress in the past to fire our courage and our hopes. In moments of depression, he would admire the beautiful invention of writing and the power of mind displayed in human speech. But the general panorama of history exhorts us to fundamental change. In bold sweeping rhetoric he assures us that history is little else than the record of crime. War has diminished neither its horror nor its frequency, and man is still the most formidable enemy to man. Despotism is still the fate of the greatest part of mankind. Penal laws by the terror of punishment hold a numerous class in abject penury. Robbery and fraud are none the less continual, and the poor are tempted for ever to violence against the more fortunate. One person in seven comes in England on the poor rates. Can the poor conceive of society as a combination to protect every man in his rights and secure him the means of existence? Is it not rather for them a conspiracy to engross its advantages for the favoured few? Luxury insults them; admiration is the exclusive property of the rich, and contempt the constant lacquey of poverty. Nowhere is a man valued for what he is. Legislation aggravates the natural inequality of man. A house of landlords sets to work to deprive the poor of the little commonage of nature which remained to them, and its bias stands revealed when we recollect that in England (as Paine had pointed out) while taxes on land produce half a million less than they did a century ago, taxes on articles of general consumption produce thirteen millions more. Robbery is a capital offence because the poor alone are tempted to it. Among the poor alone is all combination forbidden. Godwin was often an incautious rhetorician. He painted the present in colours of such unrelieved gloom, that it is hard to see in it the possibility of a brighter future. Mankind seems hopeless, and he has to prove it perfectible.

Are these evils then the necessary condition of society? Godwin answers that question as the French school, and in particular Helvetius, had done, by a preliminary assault on the assumptions of a reactionary philosophy. He proposes to exhort the human will to embark with a conscious and social resolve on the adventure of perfection. He must first demonstrate that the will is sovereign. Man is the creature of necessity, and the nexus of cause and effect governs the moral world like the physical. We are the product of our conditions. But among conditions some are within the power of the will to change and others are not. Montesquieu had insisted that it is climate which ultimately differentiates the races of mankind. Climate is clearly a despotism which we can never hope to reform away. Another school has taught that men come into the world with innate ideas and a predetermined character. Others again would dispute that man is in his actions a reasonable being, and would represent him as the toy of passion, a creature to whom it is useless to present an argument drawn from his own advantage. The first task of the progressive philosopher is to clear away these preliminary obstacles. Man is the creature of conditions, but primarily of those conditions which he may hope to modify education, religion, social prejudice and above all government. He is also in the last resort a being whose conduct is governed by his opinions. Admit these premises and the way is clear towards perfection. It is a problem which in some form and in some dialect confronts every generation of reformers. We are the creatures of our own environment, but in some degree we are ourselves a force which can modify that environment. We inherit a past which weighs upon us and obsesses us, but in some degree each generation is born anew. Godwin used the new psychology against the old superstition of innate ideas. A modern thinker in his place would advance Weissmann’s biological theory that the acquired modifications of an organism are not inherited, as an answer to the pessimism which bases itself upon heredity.

Godwin starts boldly with the thesis that “the characters of men originate in their external circumstances.” He brushes aside innate ideas or instincts or even ante-natal impressions. Accidents in the womb may have a certain effect, and every man has a certain disposition at birth. But the multiplicity of later experiences wears out these early impressions. Godwin, in all this, reproduces the current fallacy of his generation. Impressions and experiences were for them something external, flung upon the surface of the mind. They were just beginning to realise that the mind works when it perceives. Change a nobleman’s child at birth with a ploughman’s, and each will grow up quite naturally in his new circumstances. Exercise makes the muscles; education, argument, and the exchange of opinion the mind. “It is impression that makes the man, and compared with the empire of impression, the mere differences of animal structure are inexpressibly unimportant and powerless.” Change continues through life; everything mental and physical is in flux; why suppose that only in the propensities of the new-born infant is there something permanent and inflexible? Helvetius had been Godwin’s chief precursor in this opinion. He had gone so far as to declare that men are at birth equal, some raw human stuff which “education,” in the broad sense of the word, proceeds to modify in the long schooling from the cradle to the grave. Men differ in genius, he would assert, by education and experience, not by natural organisation. The original acuteness of the senses has little to do with the development of talent. The new psychology had swept “faculties” away. Interest is the main factor in the development of perception and attention. The scarcity of attention is the true cause of the scarcity of genius, and the chief means of promoting it are emulation and the love of glory.

Godwin is too cautious to accept this ultra-revolutionary statement of the potential equality of men without some reserves. But the idea inspires him as it inspired all the vital thought of his day. It set humane physicians at the height of the Terror to work on discovering a method by which even defective and idiot children might be raised by “education” to the normal stature of the human mind. It fired Godwin himself with a zeal for education. “Folly,” said Helvetius, “is factitious.” “Nature,” said Godwin, “never made a dunce.” The failures of education are due primarily to the teacher’s error in substituting compulsion for persuasion and despotism for encouragement. The excellences and defects of the human character are not due to occult causes beyond the reach of ingenuity to modify or correct, nor are false views the offspring of an irresistible destiny. Our conventional schools are the slaughterhouses of mind; but of all the external influences which build up character and opinion, the chief are political. It is Godwin’s favourite theme, and he carries it even further than Holbach and Helvetius had done. From this influence there is no escape, for it infects the teacher no less than the taught. Equality will make men frank, ingenuous and intrepid, but a great disparity of ranks renders men cold, irresolute, timid and cautious. However lofty the morality of the teacher, the mind of the child is continually corrupted by seeing, in the society around him, wealth honoured, poverty contemned, intrepid virtue proscribed and servility encouraged. From the influence of social and political institutions there is no escape: “They poison our minds before we can resist or so much as suspect their malignity. Like the barbarous directors of Eastern seraglios they deprive us of our virility, and fit us for their despicable employment from the cradle. So false is the opinion that has too generally prevailed that politics is an affair with which ordinary men have little concern.”

Here Godwin is introducing into English thinking an idea originally French. English writers from Locke to Paine had spoken of government as something purely negative, so little important that only when a man saw his property threatened or his shores invaded, was he forced to recollect that he had a country. Godwin saw its influence everywhere, insinuating itself into our personal dispositions and insensibly communicating its spirit to our private transactions. The idea in his hands made for hope. Reform, or better still, abolish governments, and to what heights of virtue might not men aspire? We need not say with Rousseau that men are naturally virtuous. The child, as Helvetius delighted to point out, will do that for a coral or a doll which he will do at a mature age for a title or a sceptre. Men are rather the infinitely malleable, variable stuff on which education and persuasion can play.

The first essential dogma of perfectibility, the first presupposition of progress is, then, that men’s characters depend on external circumstances. The second dogma, the second condition of hope is that the voluntary actions of men originate in their opinions. It is an orthodox Socratic position, but Godwin was not a student of Plato. He laid down this dogma as the necessary basis of any reform by persuasion. There is much virtue in the word “voluntary.” In so far as actions are voluntary, the doctrine is self-evident. A voluntary action is accompanied by foresight, and the idea of certain consequences is its motive. A judgment “this is good” or “this is desirable,” has preceded the action, and it originates therefore in an opinion however fugitive. In moments of passion my attention is so engrossed by a particular view of the subject that I forget considerations by which I am commonly guided. Even in battles between reason and sense, he holds, the contending forces assume a rational form. It is opinion contending with opinion and judgment with judgment. At this point the modern reader will become sceptical. These internal struggles assume a rational form only when self-consciousness reviews them that is to say when they are over. In point of fact, Godwin argues, sheer sensuality has a smaller empire over us than we commonly suppose. Strip the feast of its social pleasures, and the commerce of the sexes of all its intellectual and emotional allurements, and who would be overcome?

One need not follow Godwin minutely in his handling of what is after all a commonplace of academic philosophy. He was concerned to insist that men’s voluntary actions originate in opinion, that he might secure a fulcrum for the leverage of argument and persuasion. Vice is error, and error can always be corrected. “Show me in the clearest and most unambiguous manner that a certain mode of proceeding is most reasonable in itself, or most conducive to my interest, and I shall infallibly pursue that mode, so long as the views you suggested to me continue present to my mind.” The practical problem is therefore to make ourselves and our fellows perfectly conscious of our motives, and always prepared to render a reason for our actions. The perfection of human character is to approach as nearly as possible to the absolutely voluntary state, to act always, in other words, from a clear and comprehensive survey of the consequences which we desire to produce.

The incautious reader may be invited to pause at this point, for in this premise lies already the whole of philosophic anarchism. You have admitted that voluntary action is rational. You have conceded that all action ought to be voluntary. The silent assumption is that by education and effort it can be made so. One may doubt whether in the sense required by Godwin’s argument any human action ever is or can be absolutely “voluntary,” rational or self-conscious. To attain it, we should have to reason naked in a desert with algebraic symbols. To use words is to think in step, and to beg our question. But Godwin is well aware that most men rarely reason. He is here framing an ideal, without realising its remoteness. The mischief of his faith in logic as a force, was that it led him to ignore the aesthetic and emotional influences, by which the mass of men can best be led to a virtuous ideal. Shelley, who was a thorough Platonist, supplements, as we shall see , this characteristic defect in his master’s teaching. The main conclusions follow rapidly. Sound reasoning and truth when adequately communicated must always be victorious over error. Truth, then, is omnipotent, and the vices and moral weaknesses of man are not invincible. Man, in short, is perfectible, or in other words, susceptible of perpetual improvement. These sentiments have to the modern ear a platitudinous ring. So far from being platitudes, they are explosives capable of destroying the whole fabric of government. For if truth is omnipotent, why trust to laws? If men will obey argument, why use constraint?

But let us move slowly towards this extreme conclusion. If reason appears to-day to play but a feeble part in society, and exerts only a limited empire over the actions of men, it is because unlettered ignorance, social habits and the positive institutions of government stand in the way. Where the masses of mankind are sunk in brutal ignorance, one need not wonder that argument and persuasion have but a small influence with them. Truth indeed is rarely recondite or difficult to communicate. Godwin might have quoted Helvetius: “It is with genius as with an astronomer; he sees a new star and forthwith all can see it.” Nor need we fear the objection that by introducing an intellectual element into virtue, we have removed it beyond the reach of simple men. A virtuous action, indeed, must be good both in intention and in tendency. Godwin was like Helvetius and Priestley, a Utilitarian in ethics, and defined duty as that mode of action on the part of the individual which constitutes the best possible application of his capacity to the general benefit, in every situation that presents itself. One may be mistaken as to what will contribute to the general benefit, as Sir Everard Digby was, for example, when he thought it his duty to blow up King James and the Parliament. But the simple man need be at no loss. An earnest desire will in some degree generate capacity. There Godwin opened a profoundly interesting and stimulating line of thought. The mind is formed not by its innate powers, but by its governing desires. As love brings eloquence to the suitor, so if I do but ardently desire to serve my kind, I shall find out a way, and while I study a plan shall find that my faculties have been exercised and increased. Moreover, in the struggle after virtue I am not alone.

Burke made the first of the virtues prudence. Godwin would have given sincerity that place. To him and his circle the chief business of social converse was by argument and exhortation to strengthen the habit of virtue. There was something to be said for the practice of auricular confession; but how much better would it be if every man were to make the world his confessional and the human species the keeper of his conscience. The practice of sincerity would give to our conversation a Roman boldness and fervour. The frank distribution of praise and blame is the most potent incentive to virtue. Were we but bold and impartial in our judgments, vice would be universally deserted and virtue everywhere practised. Our cowardice in censure and correction is the chief reason of the perpetuation of abuses. If every man would tell all the truth he knew, it is impossible to predict how short would be the reign of usurpation and folly. Let our motive be philanthropy, and we need not fear ruggedness or brutality, disdain or superiority, since we aim at the interest of him we correct, and not at the triumph of the corrector. In an aside Godwin demands the abolition of social conventions which offend sincerity. If I must deny myself to a visitor, I should scorn the polite lie that I am “not at home.”

It is a consequence also of this doctrine, that there should be no prosecutions for libel, even in private matters. Truth depends on the free shock of opinions, and the unrestrained discussion of private character is almost as important as freedom in speculative enquiry. “If the truth were universally told of men’s dispositions and actions, gibbets and wheels might be dismissed from the face of the earth. The knave unmasked would be obliged to turn honest in his own defence. Nay, no man would have time to turn a knave. Truth would follow him in his first irresolute essays, and public disapprobation arrest him in the commencement of his career.” It is shameful for a good man to retort on a slander, “I will have recourse to the only means that are congenial to guilt: I will compel you to be silent.” Freedom in this matter, as in all others, will engender activity and fortitude; positive institution (Godwin’s term for law and constraint) makes the mind torpid and lethargic. It is hardly necessary to reproduce Godwin’s vigorous arguments for unfettered freedom in political and speculative discussion, against censorships and prosecutions for religious and political opinions. Even were we secure from the possibility of mistake, mischief and not good would accrue from the attempt to impose our infallible opinions upon our neighbours. Men deserve approbation only in so far as they are independent in their opinions and free in their actions.

Equally clear is it that the establishment of religion and all systems of tests must be abolished. They make for hypocrisy, check advance in speculation, and teach us to estimate a disinterested sincerity at a cheap rate. We need not fear disorder as a consequence of complete liberty of speech. “Arguments alone will not have the power, unassisted by the sense or the recollection of oppression or treachery to hurry the people into excesses. Excesses are never the offspring of speculative reason, are never the offspring of misrepresentation only, but of power endeavouring to stifle reason, and to traverse the commonsense of mankind.”

A more original deduction from Godwin’s demand for the unlimited freedom of opinion, was that he objected vehemently to any system of national education. Condorcet had drawn up a marvellously complete project for universal compulsory education, with full liberty indeed for the teachers, whose technical competence alone the State would guarantee, and with a scheme of free scholarships, an educational “ladder” more generous than anything which has yet been realised in fact. Godwin objects that State-regulated institutions will stereotype knowledge and make for an undesirable permanence and uniformity in opinion. They diffuse what is known and forget what remains to be known. They erect a system of authority and separate a tenet from the evidence on which it rests, so that beliefs cease to be perceptions and become prejudices. No Government is to be trusted with the dangerous power to create and regulate opinions through its schools. Such a power is, indeed, more dangerous than that of an Established Church, and would be used to strengthen tyranny and perpetuate faulty institutions.

Godwin, needless to say, takes, as did Condorcet, the side of frankness in the controversy which was a test of democratic faith in this generation whether “political imposture” is allowable, and whether a statesman should encourage the diffusion of “salutary prejudices” among the unlearned, the poor and women. This was indeed the main eighteenth century defence for monarchy and aristocracy. Kings and governors are not wiser than other men, but it is useful that they should be thought so. Such imposture, Godwin argued, is as futile as the parallel use by religion of the pains and penalties of the afterworld. It is the sober who are demoralised by it, and not the lawless who are deterred. To terrify men is a strange way of rendering them judicious, fearless and happy. It is to leave men indolent and unbraced by truth. He objects even to the trappings and ceremonies which are used to render magistrates outwardly venerable and awe-inspiring, so that they may impress the irrational imagination. These means may be used as easily to support injustice as to render justice acceptable. They divide men into two classes; those who may reason, and those who must take everything on trust. This is to degrade them both. The masses are kept in perpetual vibration between rebellious discontent and infatuated credulity. And can we suppose that the practice of concealment and hypocrisy will make no breaches in the character of the governing class?

The general effect of any meddling of authority with opinion is that the mind is robbed of its genuine employment. Such a system produces beings wanting in independence, and in that intrepid perseverance and calm self-approbation which grow from independence. Such beings are the mere dwarfs and mockeries of men.

Godwin was at issue here as much with Rousseau as with Burke, but his trust in the people, it should be explained, was based rather on faith in what they might become, than on admiration for what they were.

That all government is an evil, though doubtless a necessary evil, was the typical opinion of the individualistic eighteenth century. It would not long have survived such proposals as Paine’s scheme of old age pensions and Condorcet’s project of national education. When men have perceived that an evil can be turned to good account, they are already on the road which will lead them to discard their premises. But Godwin was quite unaffected by this new Liberalism. No positive good was to be hoped from government, and much positive evil would flow from it at the best. In his absolute individualism he went further. The whole idea of government was radically wrong. For him the individual was tightly enclosed in his own skin, and any constraint was an infringement of his personality. He would have poured scorn on the half-mystical conception of a social organism. Nor did it occur to him that a man might voluntarily subject himself to government, losing none of his own autonomy in the act, from a persuasion that government is on the whole a benefit, and that submission, even when his own views are thwarted, is a free man’s duty within certain limits, accepted gladly for the sake of preserving an institution which commonly works well. He did not see the institution working well; he did not believe in the benefits; he was convinced that more than all the advantages of the best of governments could be obtained from the free operation of opinion in an unorganised community.

His main point is lucidly simple. It was an application of the Whig and Protestant doctrine of the right of private judgment. “If in any instance I am made the mechanical instrument of absolute violence, in that instance I fall under a pure state of external slavery.” Nor is the case much better, if instead of waiting for the actual application of coercion, I act in obedience to authority from the hope and fear of the State’s rewards and punishments. For virtue has ceased, and I am acting from self-interest. It is a triviality to distinguish, as Whig thinkers do, between matters of conscience (in which the State should not meddle) and my conduct in the civil concerns of daily life (which the State should regulate). What sort of moralist can he be, who makes no conscience of what he does in his daily intercourse with other men? “I have deeply reflected upon the nature of virtue, and am convinced that a certain proceeding is incumbent on me. But the hangman supported by an Act of Parliament assures me that I am mistaken. If I yield my opinion to his dictum, my action becomes modified, and my character also.... Countries exposed to the perpetual interference of decrees instead of arguments, exhibit within their boundaries the mere phantoms of men.”

The root of the whole matter is that brute force is an offence against reason, and an unnecessary offence, if in fact men are guided by opinion and will yield to argument. “The case of punishment is the case of you and me differing in opinion, and your telling me that you must be right since you have a more brawny arm.”

If I must obey, it is better and less demoralising to yield an external submission so as to escape penalty or constraint, than to yield to authority from a general confidence which enslaves the mind. Comply but criticise. Obey but beware of reverence. If I surrender my conscience to another man’s keeping, I annihilate my individuality as a man, and become the ready tool of him among my neighbours who shall excel in imposture and artifice. I put an end moreover to the happy collision of understandings upon which the hopes of human improvement depend. Governments depend upon the unlimited confidence of their subjects, and confidence rests upon ignorance.

Government (has not Burke said so?) is the perpetual enemy of change, and prompts us to seek the public welfare not in alteration and improvement, but in a timid reverence for the decisions of our ancestors, as if it were the nature of the human mind always to degenerate and never to advance. Godwin thought with John Bright, “We stand on the shoulders of our forefathers and see further.”

In proportion as weakness and ignorance shall diminish, the basis of government will also decay. That will be its true euthanasia.

There is indeed nothing to be said for government save that for a time, and within jealously drawn limits, it may be a fatal and indispensable necessity. A just government cannot be founded on force: for force has no affinity with justice. It cannot be based upon the will of God; we have no revelation that recommends one form of government rather than another. As little can it be based upon contract. Who were the parties to the pretended social contract? For whom did they consent, for themselves or for their descendants, and to how great a variety of propositions? Have I assented or my ancestors for me, to the laws of England in fifty volumes folio, and to all that shall hereafter be added to them? In a few contemptuous pages Godwin buries the social contract. Men when they digest the articles of a contract are not empowered to create rights, but only to declare what was previously right. But the doctrine of the natural rights of man fares no better at his hands. There is no such thing as a positive right to do as we list. One way of acting in every emergency is reasonable, and the other is not. One way will benefit mankind, and the other will not. It is a pestilent doctrine and a denial of all virtue, to say that we have a right to do what we will with our own. Everything we possess has a destination prescribed to it by the immutable voice of reason and justice.

Duties and rights are correlative. As it cannot be the duty of men or societies to do anything to the detriment of human happiness, so it appears with equal evidence that they cannot have the right to do so. There cannot be a more absurd proposition than that which affirms the right of doing wrong. The voice of the people is not the voice of God, nor does universal consent or a majority vote convert wrong into right. It is absurd to say that any set of people has a right to set up any form of government it chooses, or any sect to establish any superstition however detestable. All this would have delighted Burke, but Godwin stands firmly in his path by asserting what he calls the one negative right of man. It is in a word, the right to exercise virtue, the right to a region of choice, a sphere of discretion, which his neighbours must not infringe save by censure and remonstrance. When I am constrained, I cease to be a person, and become a thing. “I ought to exercise my talents for the benefit of others, but the exercise must be the fruit of my own conviction; no man must attempt to press me into the service.”

Government is an evil, and the business of human advancement is to dispense with it as rapidly as may be. In the period of transition Godwin had but a secondary interest, and his sketch of it is slight. He dismisses in turn despotism, aristocracy, the “mixed monarchy” of the Whigs, and the president with kingly powers of some American thinkers. His pages on these subjects are vigorous, well-reasoned, and pointed in their satire. It required much courage to write them, but they do not contain his original contribution to political theory. What is most characteristic in his line of argument is his insistence on the moral corruption that monarchy and aristocracy involve. The whole standard of moral values is subverted. To achieve ostentation becomes the first object of desire. Disinterested virtue is first suspected and then viewed with incredulity. Luxury meanwhile distorts our whole attitude to our fellows, and in every effort to excel and shine we wrong the labouring millions. Aristocracy involves general degradation, and can survive only amid general ignorance. “To make men serfs and villeins it is indispensably necessary to make them brutes.... A servant who has been taught to write and read, ceases to be any longer a passive machine.”

From the abolition of monarchy and aristocracy Godwin, and indeed the whole revolutionary school, expected the cessation of war. War and conquest elevate the few at the expense of the rest, and cannot benefit the whole community. Democracies have no business with war save to repel an invasion of their territory. He thought of patriotism and love of country much as did Dr. Price. They are (as Hervé has argued in our own day) specious illusions invented to render the multitude the blind instruments of crooked designs. We must not be lured into pursuing the general wealth, prosperity or glory of the society to which we belong. Society is an abstraction, an “ideal existence,” and is not on its own account entitled to the smallest regard. Let us not be led away into rendering services to society for which no individual man is the better. Godwin is scornful of wars to maintain the balance of power, or to protect our fellow-countrymen abroad. Some proportion must be observed between the evil of which we complain and the evil which the proposed remedy inevitably includes. War may be defensible in support of the liberty of an oppressed people, but let us wait (here he is clearly censuring the practice of the French Republic) until the oppressed people rises. Do not interfere to force it to be free, and do not forget the resources of pacific persuasion. As to foreign possessions there is little to be said. Do without them. Let colonies attend to their own defence; no State would wish to have colonies if free trade were universal. Liberty is equally good for every race of men, and democracy, since it is founded on reason, a universal form of government. There follow some naïve prescriptions for conducting democratic wars. Sincerity forbids ambuscades and secresy. Never invade, nor assume the offensive. A citizen militia must replace standing armies. Training and discipline are of little value; the ardour of a free people will supply their place.

Godwin’s leading idea when he comes to sketch a shadowy constitution is an extreme dislike of overgrown national States. Political speculation in his day idealised the city republic of antiquity. Helvetius, hoping to get rid as far as possible of government, had advocated a system of federated commonwealths, each so small that public opinion and the fear of shame would act powerfully within it. He would have divided France into thirty republics, each returning four deputies to a federal council. The Girondins cherished the same idea, and lost their heads for it. Tolstoy, going back to the village community as the only possible scene of a natural and virtuous life, exhibits the same tendency.

For Godwin the true unit of society is the parish. Neighbours best understand each others’ concerns, and in a limited area there is no room for ambition to unfold itself. Great talents will have their sphere outside this little circle in the work of moulding opinion. Within the parish public opinion is supreme, and acts through juries, which may at first be obliged to exert some degree of violence in dealing with offenders: “But this necessity does not arise out of the nature of man, but out of the institutions by which he has already been corrupted. Man is not originally vicious. He would not ... refuse to be convinced by the expostulations that are addressed to him, had he not been accustomed to regard them as hypocritical, and to conceive that while his neighbour, his parent and his political governor pretended to be actuated by a pure regard to his interest or pleasure, they were in reality, at the expense of his, promoting their own.... Render the plain dictates of justice level to every capacity ... and the whole species will become reasonable and virtuous. It will then be sufficient for juries to recommend a certain mode of adjusting controversies, without assuming the prerogative of dictating that adjustment. It will then be sufficient for them to invite offenders to forsake their errors.... Where the empire of reason was so universally acknowledged, the offender would either readily yield to the expostulations of authority, or if he resisted, though suffering no personal molestation, he would feel so weary under the unequivocal disapprobation and the observant eye of public judgment as willingly to remove to a society more congenial to his errors.” The picture is not so Utopian as it sounds. It is a very fair sketch of the social structure of a Macedonian village community under Turkish rule, with the massacres left out.

For the rest Godwin was reluctantly prepared to admit the wisdom of instituting a single chamber National Assembly, to manage the common affairs of the parishes, to arrange their disputes and to provide for national defence. But it should suffice for it to meet for one day annually or thereabouts. Like the juries it would at first issue commands, but would in time find it sufficient to publish invitations backed by arguments. Godwin, who is quite prepared to idealise his district juries, pours forth an unstinted contempt upon Parliaments and their procedure. They make a show of unanimity where none exists. The prospect of a vote destroys the intellectual value of debate; the will of one man really dominates, and the existence of party frustrates persuasion. The whole is based upon “that intolerable insult upon all reason and justice, the deciding upon truth by the casting up of numbers.” He omits to tell us whether he would allow his juries to vote. Fortunately legislation is unnecessary: “The inhabitants of a small parish living with some degree of that simplicity which best corresponds with the real nature and wants of a human being, would soon be led to suspect that general laws were unnecessary and would adjudge the causes that came before them not according to certain axioms previously written, but according to the circumstances and demand of each particular cause.”

Godwin had a clear mental picture of the gradual decay of authority towards the close of the period of transition; his vision of the earlier stages is less definite. He set his faith on the rapid working of enquiry and persuasion, but he does not explain in detail how, for example, we are to rid ourselves of kings. He once met the Prince Regent, but it is not recorded that he talked to him of virtue and equality, as the early Quakers talked to the man Charles Stuart. He is chiefly concerned to warn his revolutionary friends against abrupt changes. There must be a general desire for change, a conviction of the understanding among the masses, before any change is wise. When a whole nation, or even an unquestionable majority of a nation, is resolved on change, no government, even with a standing army behind it, can stand against it. Every reformer imagines that the country is with him. What folly! Even when the majority seems resolved, what is the quality of their resolution? They do, perhaps, sincerely dislike some specific tax. But do they dislike the vice and meanness that grow out of tyranny, and pant for the liberal and ingenuous virtue that would be fostered in their own minds by better conditions? It is a disaster when the unillumined masses are instigated to violent revolution. Revolutions are always crude, bloody, uncertain and inimical to tolerance, independence, and intellectual inquiry. They are a detestable persecution when a minority promotes them. If they must occur, at least postpone them as long as possible. External freedom is worthless without the magnanimity, firmness and energy that should attend it. But if a man have these things, there is little left for him to desire. He cannot be degraded, nor become useless and unhappy. Let us not be in haste to overthrow the usurped powers of the world. Make men wise, and by that very operation you make them free. It is unfortunate that men are so eager to strike and have so little constancy to reason. We should desire neither violent change nor the stagnation that inflames and produces revolutions. Our prayer to governments should be, “Do not give us too soon; do not give us too much; but act under the incessant influence of a disposition to give us something.”

These are the reflections of a man who wrote amid the Terror. He had seen the Corresponding Society at work, and the experience made him more than sceptical of any form of association in politics, and led him into a curiously biassed argument, rhetorical in form, forensic in substance. Temporary combinations may be necessary in a time of turmoil, or to secure some single limited end, such as the redress of a wrong done to an individual. Where their scope is general and their duration long continued, they foster declamation, cabal, party spirit and tumult. They are frequented by the artful, the intemperate, the acrimonious, and avoided by the sober, the sceptical, the contemplative citizen. They foster a fallacious uniformity of opinion and render the mind quiescent and stationary. Truth disclaims the alliance of marshalled numbers. The conditions most favourable to reasoned enquiry and calm persuasion are to be found in small and friendly circles. The moral beauty of the spectacle offered by these groups of friends united to pursue truth and foster virtue, will render it contagious. So the craggy steep of science will be levelled and knowledge rendered accessible to all.

The conception of the State which Godwin sought to supplant was itself limited and negative. Government was little else in his day than a means for internal defence against criminals and for external defence against aggression. For the rest, it helped landlords to enclose commons, kept down wages by poor relief and in a muddle-headed way interfered with the freedom of trade. But its central activity was the repression of crime, and for Godwin’s system the test question was his handling of the problem of crime and punishment. He was no Platonist, but not for the first time we discover him in a familiar Socratic position. “Do you punish a man,” asked Socrates, “to make him better or to make him worse?” Godwin starts by rejecting the traditional conception of punishment. The word means the infliction of evil upon a vicious being, not merely because the public advantage demands it, but because there is a certain fitness and propriety in making suffering the accompaniment of vice, quite apart from any benefit that may be in the result. No adherent of the doctrine of necessity in morals can justify that attitude. The assassin could no more avoid the murder he committed than could the dagger. Justice opposes any suffering, which is not attended by benefit. Resentment against vice will not excuse useless torture. We must banish the conception of desert. To punish for what is past and irrecoverable must be ranked among the most baleful conceptions of barbarism. Xerxes was not more unreasonable when he lashed the waves of the sea, than that man would be who inflicted suffering on his fellow from a view to the past and not from a view to the future.

Excluding all idea of punishment in the proper sense of the word, it remains only to consider such coercion as is used against persons convicted of injurious action in the past, for the purpose of preventing future mischief. Godwin now invites us to consider the futility of coercion as a means of reforming, or as he would say, “enlightening the understanding” of a man who has erred. Our aim is to bring him to the acceptance of our conception of duty. Assuming that we possess more of eternal justice than he, do we shrink from setting our wit against his? Instead of acting as his preceptor we become his tyrant. Coercion first annihilates the understanding of its victim, and then of him who adopts it. Dressed in the supine prerogatives of a master, he is excused from cultivating the faculties of a man. Coercion begins by producing pain, by violently alienating the mind from the truth with which we wish it to be impressed. It includes a tacit confession of imbecility.

With some hesitation Godwin allows the use of force to restrain a man found in actual violence. We may not have time to reason with him. But even for self-defence there are other resources. “The powers of the mind are yet unfathomed.” He tells the story of Marius, who overawed the soldier sent into his cell to execute him, with the words, “Wretch, have you the temerity to kill Marius?” Were we all accustomed to place an intrepid confidence in the unaided energy of the intellect, to despise force in others and to refuse to employ it ourselves, who shall say how far the species might be improved? But punitive coercion deals only with a man whose violence is over. The only rational excuse for it is to restrain a man from further violence which he will presumably commit. Godwin condemns capital punishment as excessive, since restraint can be attained without it, and corporal chastisement as an offence against the dignity of the human mind. Let there be nothing in the state of transition worse than simple imprisonment. Godwin, however, dissents vehemently from Howard’s invention of solitary confinement, designed to shield the prisoner from the contamination of his fellow criminals. Man is a social animal and virtue depends on social relations. As a preliminary to acquiring it is he to be shut out from the society of his fellows? How shall he exercise benevolence or justice in his cell? Will his heart become softened or expand who breathes the atmosphere of a dungeon? Solitary confinement is the bitterest torment that human ingenuity can inflict. The least objectionable method of depriving a criminal of the power to harm society is banishment or transportation. Expose him to the stimulus of necessity in an unsettled country. New conditions make new minds. But the whole attempt to apply law breaks down. You must heap edict on edict, and to make your laws fit your cases, must either for ever wrest them or make new ones. Law does not end uncertainty, and it debilitates the mind. So long as men are habituated to look to foreign guidance and external rules for direction, so long the vigour of their minds will sleep.

If Fenelon, saint and philosopher, with an incompleted masterpiece in his pocket, and Fenelon’s chambermaid, were both in danger of burning to death in the archiepiscopal palace at Cambrai, and if I could save only one of them, which ought I to save? It is a fascinating problem in casuistry, and Godwin with his usual decision of mind, has no doubt about the solution. He would save Fenelon as the more valuable life, and above all Fenelon’s manuscript, and the maid, he is quite sure, would wish to give her life for his. Something (the modern reader will object) might be urged on the other side. Just because he was a saint, it might be argued that he was the fitter of the two to face the great adventure, and one may be sure that he himself would have thought so. A philosopher who gives his life for a kitten will have advanced the Kingdom of Heaven. The chambermaid, moreover, may have in her a potentiality of love and happiness which are worth many a masterpiece of French prose. But Godwin has not yet exhausted his moral problem. How, if the maid were my mother, wife or benefactress? Once more he gives his unflinching answer. Justice still requires of me in the interests of mankind to save the more valuable life. “What magic is there in the pronoun ‘my’ to overturn the decisions of everlasting truth?” My mother may be a fool, a liar, or a thief. Of what consequence then, is it that she is “mine”? Gratitude ought not to blind me to my duty, though she have suckled me and nursed me. The benevolence of a benefactor ought indeed to be esteemed, but not because it benefited me. A benefactor ought to be esteemed as much by another as by me, solely because he benefited a human being. Gratitude, in short, has no place in justice or virtue, and reason declines to recognise the private affections.

Such, crudely stated, is Godwin’s famous doctrine of “universal benevolence.” The virtuous man is like Swift’s Houyhnhnms, noble quadrupeds, wholly governed by reason, who cared for strangers as well as for the nearest neighbour, and showed the same affection for their neighbour’s offspring as for their own. The centre of Godwin’s moral teaching was yet another Socratic thought. Politics are “the proper vehicle of a liberal morality,” and morals concern our relation to the whole body of mankind. To realise justice is our prime concern as rational beings, and society is nothing but embodied justice. Justice deals with beings capable of pleasure and pain. Here we are partakers of a common nature with like faculties for suffering or enjoyment. “Justice,” then, “is that impartial treatment of every man in matters that relate to his happiness, which is measured solely by a consideration of the properties of the receiver and the capacity of him who gives.” Every man with whom I am in contact is a sentient being, and one should be as much to me as another, save indeed where equity corrects equality, by suggesting to me that one individual may be of more value than another, because of his greater power to benefit mankind. Justice exacts from us the application of our talents, time, and resources with the single object of producing the greatest sum of benefit to sentient beings. There is no limit to what I am bound to do for the general weal. I hold my person and property both in trust on behalf of mankind. A man who needs L10 has an absolute claim on me, if I have it, unless it can be shown that the money could be more beneficially applied. Every shilling I possess is irrevocably assigned by some claim of eternal justice. Every article of property, it follows, should belong to him in whose hands it will be of most benefit, and the instrument of the greatest happiness.

It is the love of distinction which attends wealth in corrupt societies that explains the desire for luxury. We desire not the direct pleasure to be derived from excessive possessions, but the consideration which is attached to it. Our very clothes are an appeal to the goodwill of our neighbours, and a refuge from their contempt. Society would be transformed if the distinction were reversed, if admiration were no longer rendered to the luxurious and avaricious and were accorded only to talent and virtue. Let not the necessity of rewarding virtue be suggested as a justification for the inequalities of fortune. Shall we say, to a virtuous man: “If you show yourself deserving, you shall have the essence of a hundred times more food than you can eat, and a hundred times more clothes than you can wear. You shall have a patent for taking away from others the means of a happy and respectable existence, and for consuming them in riotous and unmeaning extravagance.” Is this the reward that ought to be offered to virtue, or that virtue should stoop to take? Godwin is at his best on this theme of luxury: “Every man may calculate in every glass of wine he drinks, and every ornament he annexes to his person, how many individuals have been condemned to slavery and sweat, incessant drudgery, unwholesome food, continual hardships, deplorable ignorance and brutal insensibility, that he may be supplied with these luxuries. It is a gross imposition that men are accustomed to put upon themselves, when they talk of the property bequeathed to them by their ancestors. The property is produced by the daily labour of men who are now in existence. All that the ancestors bequeathed to them was a mouldy patent which they show as a title to extort from their neighbours what the labour of those neighbours has produced.”

It is a flagrant immorality that one man should have the power to dispose of the produce of another man’s toil, yet to maintain this power is the main concern of police and legislation. Morality recognises two degrees of property, (1) things which will produce the greatest benefit, if attributed to me, in brief the necessities of life, my food, clothes, furniture and apartment; (2) the empire which every man may claim over the produce of his own industry, even over that part of it which ought not to be used and appropriated by himself. Every man is a steward. But subject to censure and remonstrance, he must be free to dispose of his property as his own understanding shall dictate. The ideal is equality, and all society should be what Coleridge called a Pantisocracy. It is wrong for any one to enjoy anything, unless something similar is accessible to all, and wrong to produce luxuries until the elementary wants of all are satisfied. But it would be futile and wrong to attempt to equalise property by positive enactment. It would be useless until men are virtuous, and unnecessary when they are so. The moment accumulation and monopoly are regarded by any society as dishonourable and mischievous, the revolution in opinion will ensure that comforts shall tend to a level.

Godwin objects to the plans put forward in France during the Revolution for interfering with bequests and inheritance. He would, however, check the incentives to accumulation by abolishing the feudal system, primogeniture, titles and entail. Property is sacred that good men may be free to give it away. Reform public opinion, and a man engaged in amassing wealth would soon hide his treasures as carefully as he now displays them. The first step is to rob wealth of its distinction. Wealth is acquired to-day in over-reaching our neighbours, and spent in insulting them. Establish equality on a firm basis of rational opinion, and you cut off for ever the great occasion of crime, remove the constant spectacle of injustice with all its attendant demoralisation, and liberate genius now immersed in sordid cares.

“In a state of society where men lived in the midst of plenty, and where all shared alike the bounties of nature, the sentiments of oppression, servility and fraud would inevitably expire. The narrow principle of selfishness would vanish. No man being obliged to guard his little store, or provide with anxiety and pain for his restless wants, each would lose his individual existence in the thought of the general good. No man would be an enemy to his neighbour, for they would have no subject of contention, and of consequence philanthropy would resume the empire which reason assigns her. Mind would be delivered from her perpetual anxiety about corporal support, and freed to expatiate in the field of thought, which is congenial to her. Each would assist the enquiries of all.”

Unnecessary tasks absorb most of our labour to-day. In the ideal community, Godwin reckons that half an hour’s toil from every man daily will suffice to produce the necessities of life. He modified this sanguine estimate in a later essay (The Enquirer) to two hours. He dismisses all objections based on the sloth or selfishness of human nature, by the simple answer that this happy state of things will not be realised until human nature has been reformed. Need individuality suffer? It need fear only the restraint imposed by candid public opinion. That will not be irksome, because it will be frank. We shrink from it to-day, only because it takes the form of clandestine scandal and backbiting. Godwin contemplates no Spartan plan of common labour or common meals. “Everything understood by the term co-operation is in some sense an evil.” To be sure, it may be indispensable in order to cut a canal or navigate a ship. But mechanical invention will gradually make it unnecessary. The Spartans used slaves. We shall make machines our helots. Indeed, so odious is co-operation to a free mind, that Godwin marvels that men can consent to play music in concert, or can demean themselves to execute another man’s compositions, while to act a part in a play amounts almost to an offence against sincerity. Such extravagances as this passage are amongst the most precious things in Political Justice. Godwin was a fanatic of logic who warns us against his individualist premises by pressing them to a fantastic conclusion.

The sketch of the ideal community concludes with a demolition of the family. Cohabitation, he argued, is in itself an evil. It melts opinions to a common mould, and destroys the fortitude of the individual. The wishes of two people who live together can never wholly coincide. Hence follow thwartings of the will, bickering and misery. No man is always cheerful and kind. We manage to correct a stranger with urbanity and good humour. Only when the intercourse is too close and unremitted do we degenerate into surliness and invective. In an earlier chapter Godwin had formulated a general objection to all promises, which reminds us of Tolstoy’s sermons from the same individualistic standpoint on the text, “Swear not at all.” Every conceivable mode of action has its tendency to benefit or injure mankind. I am bound in duty to one course of action in every emergency the course most conducive to the general welfare. Why, then, should I bind myself by a promise? If my promise contradicts my duty it is immoral, if it agrees with it, it teaches me to do that from a precarious and temporary motive which ought to be done from its intrinsic recommendations. By promising we bind ourselves to learn nothing from time, to make no use of knowledge to be acquired. Promises depose us from a full use of our understanding, and are to be tolerated only in the trivial engagements of our day-to-day existence. It follows that marriage is an evil, for it is at once the closest form of cohabitation, and the rashest of all promises. Two thoughtless and romantic people, met in youth under circumstances full of delusion, have bound themselves, not by reason but by contract, to make the best, when they discover their deception, of an irretrievable mistake. Its maxim is, “If you have made a mistake, cherish it.” So long as this institution survives, “philanthropy will be crossed in a thousand ways, and the still augmenting stream of abuse continue to flow.”

Godwin has little fear of lust or license. Men will, on the whole, continue to prefer one partner, and friendship will refine the grossness of sense. There are worse evils than open and avowed inconstancy the loathsome combination of deceitful intrigue with the selfish monopoly of property. That a child should know its father is no great matter, for I ought not in reason to prefer one human being to another because he is “mine.” The mother will care for the child with the spontaneous help of her neighbours. As to the business of supplying children with food and clothing, “these would easily find their true level and spontaneously flow from the quarter in which they abounded to the quarter that was deficient.” There must be no barter or exchange, but only giving from pure benevolence without the prospect of reciprocal advantage.

The picture of this easy-going Utopia, in which something will always turn up for nobody’s child, concludes with two sections which exhibit in nice juxtaposition the extravagance and the prudence of Godwin. We may look forward to great physical changes. We shall acquire an empire over our bodies, and may succeed in making even our reflex notions conscious. We must get rid of sleep, one of the most conspicuous infirmities of the human frame. Life can be prolonged by intellect. We are sick and we die because in a certain sense we consent to suffer these accidents. When the limit of population is reached, men will refuse to propagate themselves further. Society will be a people of men, and not of children, adult, veteran, experienced; and truth will no longer have to recommence her career at the end of thirty years. Meanwhile let the friends of justice avoid violence, eschew massacres, and remember that prudent handling will win even rich men for the cause of human perfection.

So ends Political Justice, the strangest amalgam in our literature of caution with enthusiasm, of visions with experience, of French logic with English tactlessness, a book which only genius could have made so foolish and so wise.