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

Political Justice brought its author instant fame. Society was for a moment intimidated by the boldness of the attack. The world was in a generous mood, and men did not yet resent Godwin’s flattering suggestion that they were demigods who disguised their own greatness. He had assailed all the accepted dogmas and venerable institutions of contemporary civilisation, from monarchy to marriage, but it was only after several years that society recovered its breath, and turned to rend him. He became an oracle in an ever-widening circle of friends, and was naively pleased to find, when he went into the country, that even in remote villages his name was known. He was everywhere received as a sage, and some years passed before he discovered how much of this deference was a polite disguise for the vulgar curiosity that attends a sudden celebrity. Prosperity was a wholesome stimulus. He was “exalted in spirits,” and became for a time (he tells us) “more of a talker than I was before, or have been since.”

In this mood he wrote the one book which has lived as a popular possession, and held its place among the classics which are frequently reprinted. Caleb Williams (published in 1794) is incomparably the best of his novels, and the one great work of fiction in our language which owes its existence to the fruitful union of the revolutionary and romantic movements. It spoke to its own day as Hugo’s Les Misérables and Tolstoy’s Resurrection spoke to later generations. It is as its preface tells us, “a general review of the modes of domestic and unrecorded despotism by which man becomes the destroyer of man.” It conveys in the form of an eventful personal history the essence of the criticism against society, which had inspired Political Justice. Godwin’s imagination was haunted by a persistent nightmare, in which a lonely individual finds arrayed against him all the prejudices of society, all the forms of convention, all the forces of law. They hurl themselves upon him in a pitiless pursuit, and wherever he flees, the pervading corruptions, the ingrained cowardices of over-governed mankind beset his feet like gins and pitfalls. It was a hereditary nightmare, and with a less pedestrian imagination, his daughter, Mary Shelley, used the same theme of a remorseless pursuit in Frankenstein.

Caleb Williams, a promising lad of humble birth but good parts, is broken at the outset of his career, in the tremendous clash between two formidable characters, who represent, each in his own way, the corruptions of aristocracy. Mr. Tyrrel is a brutal English squire, a coarse and domineering bully, whom birth and wealth arm with the power to crush his dependents. Mr. Falkland personifies the spirit of chivalry at its best and its worst. All his native humanity and acquired polish is in the end turned to cruelty by the influence of a worship of honour and reputation which make him “the fool of fame.” As the absorbing story unfolds itself, we realise (if indeed we are not too much enthralled by the plot to notice the moral) that all the institutions of society and law are nicely adjusted to give the moral errors of the great their utmost scope. Society is a vast sounding-board which echoes the first whispers of their private folly, until it swells into a deafening chorus of cruelty and wrong. There are vivid scenes in a prison which give life to Godwin’s reasoned criticisms of our penal methods. There is a band of outlaws whose rude natural virtues remind us, by contrast with the corruption of all the officers of the law, how much less demoralising it is to revolt against a crazy system of coercion than to become its tool. To describe the book in greater detail would be to destroy the pleasure of the reader. It is a forensic novel. It sets out to frame an indictment of society, and a novelist who imposes this task on himself must in the end create an impression of improbability by the partiality with which he selects his material. But there is fire enough in the telling, and interest enough in the plot to silence our criticisms while we read. Caleb Williams is a capital story; it is also a living and humane book, which conveys with rare power and reasoned emotion the revolt of a generous mind against the oppressions of feudalism and the stupidities of the criminal law.

Three years later (1797) Godwin once more restated the main positions of Political Justice. The Enquirer is a volume of essays, which range easily over a great variety of subjects from education to English style. His opinions have neither advanced nor receded, and the mood is still one of assurance, enthusiasm, and hope. The only noteworthy change is in the style. Political Justice belongs to the generation of Gibbon, eloquent, elaborate and periodic at its best; heavy and slightly verbose at its worst. With The Enquirer we are just entering the generation of Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt. The language is simpler and more flexible, the construction of the sentences more varied, the mood more vivacious, and the tone more conversational. The best things in the book belong to that social psychology, the observation of men in classes and professions, in which this age excelled. There is an outspoken attack on the clergy, as a class of men who have vowed themselves to study without enquiry, who must reason for ever towards a conclusion fixed by authority, whose very survival depends on the perennial stationariness of their understanding. Another essay attempts a vivacious criticism of “common honesty,” the moral standard of the average decent citizen, a code of negative virtues and moral mediocrity which is content to avoid the obvious unsocial sins and concerns itself but little to enforce positive benevolence. The reader who would meet Godwin at his best should turn to the essay On Servants. Starting from the universal reluctance of the upper and middle classes to allow their children to associate closely with servants, he enlarges the confession of the systematic degradation of a class which this separation involves, into a condemnation of our whole social structure.

The year 1797 marks the culmination of Godwin’s career, and it would have been well for his fame if it had been its end. He had just passed his fortieth year; he had made the most notable contribution to English political thought since the appearance of the Wealth of Nations; he had won the gratitude and respect of his friends by his intervention in the trial of the Twelve Reformers. He was famous, prosperous, popular, and his good fortune brought to his calm temperament the stimulus of excitement and high spirits which it needed. There came to him in this year the crown of a noble love. It was in the winter of 1791 that he first met Mary Wollstonecraft, the one woman of genius who belonged to the English revolutionary circle. He was not impressed, thought that she talked too much, and in his diary spelled her name incorrectly.

In the interval between 1791 and 1797 Mary Wollstonecraft was to write one of the books which belong to the spiritual foundations of the next century, to taste fame and detraction, to know the joys of love and maternity, and to experience a misery and wrong which made life itself an unendurable shame. A later chapter will attempt an estimate of the ideas and personality of this brilliant and courageous woman. A few sentences must suffice here to recall the bare facts of her life history. Born in 1759, the child of a drunken and disreputable father, she had struggled with indomitable energy, first as a teacher and then as a translator and literary “hack,” to keep herself and help her still more unfortunate sisters. In 1792 she published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a plea for the human dignity of her sex and for its claim to education. At the end of this year she went to Paris as much to see the Revolution as to perfect herself in French. She there met a clever and interesting American, one Gilbert Imlay, a traveller of some little note, a soldier in the War of Independence, and now a speculative merchant. He lived with her, and in documents acknowledged her as his wife, though neither felt the need of a binding ceremony. A baby, Fanny, was born, but Imlay’s business imposed long separations. He gradually tired of the woman who had honoured him too highly, and entered on more than one intrigue. Mary Wollstonecraft attempted in despair to drown herself in the Thames, was saved and nursed back to life and courage by devoted friends. She again took up her pen to gain a livelihood, and for the sake of her child’s future, gradually returned to the literary circle which valued her, not merely for her genius and originality, but also for her beauty, her vivacity, and her charm, for her daring and independence, and her warm, impulsive, affectionate heart.

Godwin met her again while she was bruised and lonely and disillusionised with mankind. Her charming volume of travel sketches (Letters from Norway, 1796) had made, as it well might, a deep impression on his taste. He was, what Imlay was not, her intellectual equal, and his character deserved her respect. He has left in the little book which he published to vindicate her memory, a delicate sketch of their mutual love: “The partiality we conceived for each other was in that mode which I have always considered as the purest and most refined style of love. It grew with equal advances in the mind of each. It would have been impossible for the most minute observer to have said who was before and who was after. One sex did not take the priority which long-established custom has awarded it, nor the other overstep that delicacy which is so severely imposed. I am not conscious that either party can assume to have been the agent or the patient, the toil spreader or the prey in the affair. When in the course of things, the disclosure came, there was nothing in a manner for either party to disclose to the other.... There was no period of throes and resolute explanation attendant on the tale. It was friendship melting into love.”

The two lovers, in strict obedience to the principles of Political Justice, made their home, at first with no legal union, in a little house in the Polygon, Somers Town, then the extreme limit of London, separated from the suburban village of Camden Town by open fields and green pastures. A few doors away Godwin had his study, where he spent most of his industrious day, often breakfasted and sometimes slept. Both partners of this daringly unconventional union had their own particular friends and retained their separate places in society. Some quaint notes have survived, which passed between them, borrowing books or making appointments. “Did I not see you, friend Godwin,” runs one of these, “at the theatre last night? I thought I met a smile, but you went out without looking round. We expect you at half-past four.” It was the coming of a child which induced them to waive their theories and face for its sake a repugnant compliance with custom. They were married in Old St. Pancras Church on March 29, 1797, and the insignificant fact was communicated only gradually, and with laboured apologies for the inconsistency, to their friends.

Southey, who met them in this month, has left a lively portrait: “Of all the lions or literati I have seen here, Mary Imlay’s countenance is the best, infinitely the best: the only fault in it is an expression somewhat similar to what the prints of Horne Tooke display an expression indicating superiority; not haughtiness, not sarcasm in Mary Imlay, but still it is unpleasant. Her eyes are light brown, and ... they are the most meaning I ever saw.... As for Godwin himself he has large noble eyes and a nose oh, most abominable nose. Language is not vituperatious enough to describe the effect of its downward elongation.” Godwin, if one may trust the portrait by Northcote, had impressive if not exactly handsome features. The head is shapely, the brow ample, the nose decidedly too long, the shaven lips and chin finely chiselled. The whole suggestion is of a character self-absorbed and contemplative. He was short and sturdy in build, and in his sober dress and grave deportments, suggested rather the dissenting preacher than the prophet of philosophic anarchism. He was not a ready debater or a fluent talker. His genius was not spontaneous or intuitive. It was rather an elaborate effort of the will, which deliberately used the fruits of his accumulative study and incessant activity of mind. He resembled, says Hazlitt, who admired and liked him, “an eight-day clock that must be wound up long before it can strike. He is ready only on reflection: dangerous only at the rebound. He gathers himself up, and strains every nerve and faculty with deliberate aim to some heroic and dazzling achievement of intellect; but he must make a career before he flings himself armed upon the enemy, or he is sure to be unhorsed.”

No two minds could have presented a greater contrast. Had Mary Wollstonecraft lived they must have moulded each other into something finer than Nature had made of either. The year of married life was ideally happy, and the strange experiment in reconciling individualism with love apparently succeeded. Mrs. Godwin, for all her revolutionary independence, leaned affectionately on her husband, and he, in spite of his rather overgrown self-esteem, regarded her with reverence and pride. She was quick in her affections and resentments, but looking back many years later Godwin declares that they were “as happy as is permitted to human beings.” “It must be remembered, however, that I honoured her intellectual powers and the nobleness and generosity of her propensities; mere tenderness would not have been adequate to produce the happiness we experienced.”

Godwin’s novels suggest that, on the whole, he shared her views about women, though in a later essay (on “Friendship,” in Thoughts on Man), there are some passages which suggest a less perfect understanding. But he never used his pen to carry on her work, and the emancipation of women had to await its philosopher in John Stuart Mill. The happy marriage ended abruptly and tragically. On August 30, 1797, was born the child Mary, who was to become Shelley’s wife, and carry on in a second generation her parents’ tradition of fearless love and revolutionary hope. Ten days after the birth, the mother died in spite of all that the devotion of her husband and the skill of his medical friends could do to save her. A few broken-hearted letters are left to record Godwin’s agony of mind.

With the death of Mary Wollstonecraft in 1797, ended all that was happy and stimulating in Godwin’s career. It was for him the year of private disaster, and from it he dated also the triumph of the reaction in England. The stimulus of the revolutionary period was withdrawn. He lived no longer among ardent spirits who would brave everything and do anything for human perfectibility. Some were in Botany Bay, and others, like the indomitable Holcroft, were absorbed in the struggle to live, with the handicap of political persecution against them. Godwin, indeed, never fell into despair over the ruin of his political hopes. Like Beethoven he revered Napoleon, at all events until he assumed the title of Emperor, and would console himself with the conviction that this “auspicious and beneficent genius” had “without violence to the principles of the French Revolution ... suspended their morbid activity,” while preserving “all the great points” of its doctrine. But while all England hung on the event of the titanic struggle against this “beneficent genius,” what was a philanthropist to do? The world was rattling back into barbarism, and the generation which emerged from the long nightmare of war, famine, and repression, was incomparably less advanced in its thinking, narrower and timider in its whole habit of mind than the men who were young in 1789. There was nothing to do, and a philosopher whose only weapon was argument, kept silence when none would listen. Of what use to talk of “peace and the powers of the human mind,” while all England was gloating over the brutal cartoons of Gillray, and trying on the volunteer uniforms, in which it hoped to repel Napoleon’s invasion? We need not wonder that Godwin’s output of philosophic writing practically ceased with the eighteenth century. He was henceforth a man without a purpose, who wrote for bread and renounced the exercise of his greater powers.

The end of Godwin’s active apostolic life is clearly marked in a pamphlet which he issued in 1801 ("Thoughts occasioned by the Perusal of Dr. Parr’s Spital Sermon, preached at Christ Church, April 15, 1800, being a reply to the attacks of Dr. Parr, Mr. Mackintosh, the author [Malthus] of the Essay on Population and others"). It is a masterly piece of writing. Coleridge scribbled in the copy that now lies on the shelves of the British Museum this tribute to its author: “I remember few passages in ancient or modern authors that contain more just philosophy in appropriate, chaste or beautiful diction than the fine following pages. They reflect equal honour on Godwin’s head and heart. Though I did it in the zenith of his reputation, yet I feel remorse even to have only spoken unkindly of such a man. S. T. C.”

Godwin tells how the reaction burst over him, and he dates it from 1797: “After having for four years heard little else than the voice of commendation, I was at length attacked from every side, and in a style which defied all moderation and decency.... The cry spread like a general infection, and I have been told that not even a petty novel for boarding-school misses now ventures to aspire to favour unless it contains some expression of dislike or abhorrence to the new philosophy.” Some of the attacks were scurrilous and all of them proceeded on the common assumption of the defenders of authority in all ages and nations, that the man who would innovate in morals is himself immoral.

He goes on to sketch the present case of the revolutionary party: “The societies have perished, or where they have not, have shrunk to a skeleton; the days of democratical declamation are no more; even the starving labourer in the alehouse is become the champion of aristocracy.... Jacobinism was destroyed; its party as a party was extinguished; its tenets were involved in almost universal unpopularity and odium; they were deserted by almost every man high or low in the island of Great Britain.” Even the young Pantisocrats had gone over to the enemy, and Wordsworth, grave and disillusionised, tried to forget that he had ever exhorted his fellow-students to burn their books and “read Godwin on Necessity.” The defection of Dr. Parr and Mackintosh was symptomatic. Both had been Godwin’s personal friends, and both of them had hailed the new philosophy. No one remembers them to-day, but they were in their time intellectual oracles. The scholar Parr was called by flatterers the Whig Johnson, and Mackintosh enjoyed in Whig society a reputation as a brilliant talker, and an encyclopædic mind which reminds us of Macaulay’s later fame. They had both to make their peace with the world and to bury their compromised past; the easiest way was to fall upon Godwin.

Malthus was a more worthy antagonist, though Godwin did not yet perceive how formidable his attack in reality was. To the picture of human perfection he opposed the nightmare of an over-populated planet, and combated universal benevolence by teaching that even charity is an economic sin. English society cares little either for Utopias or for science. But it welcomes science with rapture when it destroys Utopias. If Godwin had pricked men’s consciences, Malthus brought the balm. Altruism was exposed at length for the thing it was, an error in the last degree unscientific and uneconomic. The rickety arithmetic of Malthusianism was used against the revolutionary hope, exactly as a travestied version of Darwinianism was used in our own day against Socialism. Godwin preserved his dignity in this controversy and made concessions to his critics with a rare candour. But while he abandons none of his fundamental doctrines, one feels that he will never fight again.

Only once in later years did Godwin the philosopher break his silence, and then it was to attempt in 1820 an elaborate but far from impressive answer to Malthus. The history of that controversy has been brilliantly told by Hazlitt. It seems to-day too distant to be worth reviving. Our modern pessimists write their jeremiads not about the future over-population of the planet, but about the declining birth-rate. That elaborate civilisations shows a decline in fertility is a fact now so well recognised, that we feel no difficulty in conceding to Godwin that the reasonable beings of his ideal community might be trusted to show some degree of self-control.

Godwin possessed two of the cardinal virtues of a thinker, courage and candour. No fear of ridicule deterred him from pushing his premises to their last conclusion; no false shame restrained him in a controversy from recanting an error. He discarded the wilder developments of his theory of “universal benevolence,” and gave it in the end a form which has ceased to be paradoxical. When he wrote Political Justice he was a celibate student who had escaped much of the formative experience of a normal life. As a husband and a father he revised his creed, and devoted no small part of his later literary activity to the work of preaching the claims of those “private affections” which he had scouted as an elderly youth of forty. The re-adjustment in his theory was so simple, that only a great philosopher could have failed to make it sooner. Justice requires me to use all my powers to contribute to the sum of human benefit. But as regards opportunity, I am not equally situated towards all my fellows. By devoting myself more particularly to wife or child with an exclusive affection which is not in the abstract altogether reasonable, I may do more for the general good than I could achieve by a severely impartial benevolence.

He developed this view first in his Memoir of Mary Wollstonecraft, then in the preface to St. Leon, and finally in the pamphlet which answered Mackintosh and Dr. Parr. The man who would be “the best moral economist of his time” will use much of it to seek “the advantage and content of those with whom he has most frequent intercourse,” and this not merely from calculation, but from affection. “I ought not only in ordinary cases to provide for my wife and children, my brothers and relations before I provide for strangers, but it would be well that my doing so should arise from the operation of those private and domestic affections by which through all ages of the world the conduct of mankind has been excited and directed.”

The recantation is sufficiently frank. The family, dissipated in Political Justice by the explosive charities of “universal benevolence,” is now happily re-united. Godwin maintains, however, that his moral theory and his political superstructure stands intact, and the claim is not unreasonable. He retains his criterion of justice and utility, though he has seen better how to apply it. The duty of universal benevolence is still paramount; the end of contributing to the general good still sovereign, and a reasoned virtue is still to be recommended in preference to instinctive goodness, even where their results are commonly the same. “The crown of a virtuous character consists in a very frequent and very energetic recollection of the criterion by which all his actions are to be tried.... The person who has been well instructed and accomplished in the great schools of human experience has passions and affections like other men. But he is aware that all these affections tend to excess, and must be taught each to know its order and its sphere. He therefore continually holds in mind the principles by which their boundaries are fixed.”

What Godwin means is something elementary, and for that reason of the first importance. Let a man love his wife above other women, but “universal benevolence” will forbid him to exploit other women in order to surround her with luxury. Let him love his sons, but virtue will forbid him to accumulate a fortune for them by the sweated labour of poor men’s children. Let him love his fellow-countrymen, but reason forbids him to seek their good by enslaving other races and waging aggressive wars. Godwin, in short, no longer denies the beauty and duty (to use Burke’s phrase) of loving “the little platoon to which I belong,” but he urges that these domestic affections are in little danger of neglect. Men learned to love kith and kin, neighbours and comrades, while still in the savage state. The characteristic of a civilised morality, the necessary accompaniment of all the varied and extended relationships which modern existence has brought with it, must be a new and emphatic stress on my duty to the stranger, to the unknown producer with whom I stand in an economic relationship, and to the foreigner beyond my shores. “Let us endeavour to elevate philanthropy into a passion, secure that occasions enough will arise to drag us down from an enthusiastic eminence. A virtuous man will teach himself to recollect the principle of universal benevolence as often as pious men repeat their prayers.”

If the central tendencies of Godwin’s teaching survive these later modifications, it is none the less true that some of his theoretic foundations have been shaken in the work of reconstruction. The isolated individual shut up in his own animal skin and communicating with his fellows through the antennæ of his logical processes, has vanished away. Allow him to extend his personality through the private affections, and he has ceased to be the abstract unit of individualism. Godwin should have revised not only his doctrine of the family, but his hatred of co-operation. There is still something to be learned from the view of his school that the human mind, as it begins to absorb the collective experience of the race, is an infinitely variable spiritual stuff, an intellectual protoplasm. They stated the view with a rash emphasis, until one is forced to ask whether a mind which is originally nothing at all, can absorb, or as psychologists say, “apperceive” anything whatever. Nothing comes out of nothing, and nothing can be added to nothing.

Godwin and his school set out to show that the human mind is not necessarily fettered for all time by the prejudices and institutions in which it has clothed itself. When he had done stripping us, it was a nice question whether even our nakedness remained. He treated our prejudices and our effete institutions as though they were something external to us, which had come out of nowhere and could be flung into the void from whence they came. When you have called opinion a prejudice, or traced an institution to false reasoning, you have, after all, only exhibited an interesting zoological fact about human beings. We are exactly the sort of creature which evolves such prejudices. Godwin in unwary moments would talk as though aristocracy and positive law had come to us from without, by a sort of diabolic revelation. This, however, is not a criticism which destroys the value of his thinking. His positions required restatement in terms of the idea of development. If he did not anticipate the notion of evolution, he was the apostle of the idea of progress. We may still retain from his reasonings the hopeful conclusion that the human mind is a raw material capable of almost unlimited variation, and, therefore, of some advance towards “perfection.” We owe an inestimable debt to the school which proclaimed this belief in enthusiastic paradoxes.

Godwin’s influence as a thinker permeated the older generation of “philosophic radicals” in England. The oddest fact about it is that it had apparently no part in founding the later philosophic anarchism of the Continent. None of its leaders seem to have read him; and Political Justice was not translated into German until long after it had ceased to be read in England. Its really astonishing blindness to the importance of the economic factor in social changes must have hastened its decline. Godwin writes as though he had never seen a factory nor heard of capital. In all his writing about crime and punishment, full as it is of insight, sympathy and good sense, it is odd that a mind so fertile nowhere anticipated the modern doctrine of the connection between moral and physical degeneracy. He saw in crime only error, where we see anæmia: he would have cured it with syllogisms, where we should administer proteids. His entire psychology, both social and individual, is vitiated by a naïve and headstrong intellectualism. Life is rather a battle between narrow interests and the social affections than a debate between sound and fallacious reasoning. He saw among mankind only sophists and philosophers, where we see predatory egoists and their starved and stunted victims. But we have advanced far enough on our own lines of thinking to derive a new stimulus from Godwin’s one-sided intellectualism. Our danger to-day is that we may succumb to an economic and physiological determinism. We are obsessed by financiers and bacilli; it is salutary that our attention should be directed from time to time to the older bogeys of the revolution, to kings and priests, authority and superstition, to prejudice and political subjection. “The greatest part of the people of Europe,” wrote Helvetius, “honour virtue in speculation; this is an effect of their education. They despise it in practice; that is an effect of the form of their governments.” We think that we have got beyond that epigram to-day. But have we quite exhausted its meaning?

Precisely because of its revolutionary naïveté, its unscientific innocence, there is in Godwin’s democratic anarchism a stimulus peculiarly tonic to the modern mind. No man has developed more firmly the ideal of universal enlightenment, which has escaped feudalism, only to be threatened by the sociological expert. No writer is better fitted to remind us that society and government are not the same thing, and that the State must not be confounded with the social organism. No moralist has written a more eloquent page on the evil of coercion and the unreason of force. Political Justice is often an imposing system. It is sometimes an instructive fallacy. It is always an inspiring sermon. Godwin hoped to “make it a work from the perusal of which no man should rise without being strengthened in habits of sincerity, fortitude and justice.” There he succeeded.