AN ENQUIRY CONCERNING POLITICAL JUSTICE, AND ITS INFLUENCE ON GENERAL VIRTUE AND HAPPINESS by William Godwin. eBook £1.50 (see eBookshelf) Also available from Kobo Check out other Christiebooks titles HERE
“In 1793, William Godwin, the first philosopher of anarchism, published An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. This three-volume work gives evidence of being strongly influenced by the ideas of the French Revolution and argues that the rational being, the human, must be given complete freedom to exercise pure reason. All forms of government, being founded on irrational assumptions, are tyrannical and eventually must be eliminated. Laws have been produced not by wisdom but by greed and fear, so they should be replaced by the products of reasonable people’s ability to make decisions. Accumulated property is a means of exploitation and, consequently, must be abolished. This last point was, however, modified in a later edition. With its varying degrees of indebtedness to Aristippus, Plato, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Claude-Adrien Helvétius, and despite its equivocating alterations in the final revision, Godwin’s book gave evidence of original thinking and provided generations of revolutionary thinkers with stimulation and guidance.
“Godwin asserts that the general human objective is happiness; that politics, the promotion of individual good, is humanity’s most important pursuit; and that the two traditional articles of political liberty have been, first, “security of our persons,” and, second, “security of our property.” Godwin asks, however, would not a good government “take away all restraints upon the enquiring mind”? The early chapters of the book develop Godwin’s view that throughout history government has had a corrupting influence, but only because people have not lived up to their potential truthfulness and to their ability to see what is evil and what is good. The assumption is that if people will define clearly to themselves the genuinely good principles of life, government will improve.
“Godwin surveys historically the destructiveness and futility of war, and to emphasize its irrational causes, he quotes at some length from the satire on war in book 2 of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). In the present condition, Godwin continues, punishment is the only means of repressing the violent revolt of the deprived masses. If government is a subject for discussion, however, then people might reasonably agree about it some day and see the advantages of freedom and equality…
“From these premises Godwin proceeds to demonstrate that, of the three principal causes of moral improvement, both literature and education, though beneficial, have limitations, and that the third cause, political justice, is strong where the first two are weak. Political justice is strong in the extent of its operation. When political justice is equally addressed to all, it will impart virtue to all. Since error and injustice tend to destroy themselves, it is doubtful whether they could be perpetuated without governmental support, for government “reverses the genuine propensities of mind, and instead of suffering us to look forward, teaches us to look backward for perfection.” To exemplify how political institutions have in the past militated against moral improvement, Godwin points out the destructive passions engendered by the inequality of property, the magnificence accorded to enormous wealth, and the insolence and usurpation of rich persons. Traditionally, both legislation and administration of the law have favored the rich and have repressed the freedom of the poor to resist the rich…”
WILLIAM GODWIN by Herbert Read
“In the history of English poetry, no name is more secure than that of Shelley: he ranks with the greatest — with Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth, and the years only add to the depth of our appreciation of his genius. But Shelley’s name is indissociably linked with another name — the name of a man to whom he owed not only his philosophy of life, but even his personal happiness, for he ran away with the philosopher’s daughter. This philosopher was William Godwin, and in his day no man was more famous. His fame rested on one book, though he wrote many others, and this book, Political Justice, was not only what we would now call a “best-seller”, but, if we take account of the effect it had, a political event of the first importance.
“An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness, to give it its full title, was first published in February 1793, in two volumes. It had been written at a time when the French Revolution still seemed to premise a new arm of liberty and happiness — when, in Wordsworth’s words, Europe
was thrilled with joy,
France standing on the top of golden hours.
And human nature seeming born again.
“Not only Shelly, but all the great figures of our Romantic Movement came under the spell of this book, and sought the intellectual companionship of its author. Coleridge, Charles Lamb, Southey, De Quincey were for a time Godwin’s disciples. Wordsworth told a young student to burn his books on chemistry and read Godwin on necessity.
“Coleridge and Southey decided to put Godwin’s principles into practice, and evolved a scheme for a community, called a Pantisocracy, which they hoped to establish in America. So grand was the influence of this book that it became a subject of grave anxiety to the government, and the possibility of taking proceedings against Godwin was discussed by the Cabinet, and only dismissed because, as Pitt remarked, a book which was priced at three guineas could not have much effect because only the propertied classes could afford to buy it.
“Pitt, of course, was wrong. Not even three guineas — a considerable sum in those days — can prevent new and original ideas from being absorbed by minds which are open to fertilization, and minds had been forcibly [?] open by the fall of the Bastille and subsequent events in France. The influence of Godwin was for a time widespread and decisive, but the tide was running against him. The Reign of Terror had broken out in France and everywhere, and especially in England, first emotional revulsion, and then intellectual reaction, set in. Southey and Wordsworth deserted Godwin. Coleridge, though retaining his immense respect for Godwin’s intellect, became critical and decidedly opposed to most of Godwin’s ideas. It was left to the next generation — a generation born in the years of Revolution — to take up Godwin’s ideas with sympathy and courage, and to make them the inspiration of their lives. In particular, it was left to the poet Shelley, who was born only a year before the publication of Political Justice, and who did not meet Godwin until 1811, by which time he was almost forgotten by the public at large.
“Godwin’s influence on Shelley was absolute. When Shelley, at the age of 18, first wrote to Godwin, seeking his acquaintance, he said: “The name of Godwin has been accustomed to excite in us feelings of reverence and admiration. I have been accustomed to consider him as a luminary too dazzling for the darkness which surrounds him, and from the earliest period of my knowledge of his principles, I have ardently desired to share in the footing of intimacy that intellect which I have delighted to contemplate in its emanations.” In a second letter he was more specific. “It is now a period of more than two years since first I saw your inestimable book on Political Justice: it opened to my mind fresh and more extensive views; it materially influenced my character, and I rose from its perusal a wiser and better man. I was no longer the votary of romance; till then I had existed in an ideal world — now I found that in this universe of ours was enough to excite the interest of the heart, enough to employ the discussions of reason; I beheld, in short, that I had duties to perform”.
“By “duties to perform” Shelley meant direct revolutionary action, and he set off to Ireland to conduct a campaign for Catholic Emancipation — with poor results. The real influence of Godwin was to be reflected in the poetic works of Shelley, [unreadable handwritten insert]. No philosophy was ever so entirely taken over and transmuted into the finer texture of poetry as Godwin’s by Shelley. Shelley absorbed Godwin’s principles not merely as an influence, but rather as a complete mental furniture, and though Shelley, as he developed, was to owe more and more to Plato, it was never to the detriment of his original master. Shelley reconciled what he took from Plato with what he retained from Godwin and what he retained from Godwin was the whole system of Political Justice — “the first moral system”, as he defined it, “explicitly founded upon the doctrine of the negativeness of right; and the positiveness of duties — an obscure feling [sic] of which has been the basis of all the political liberty and private virtue in the world”.
“Though Political Justice has been neglected for more than a century and it is now impossible to obtain the book in its country of origin, it remains one of the great classics of political thought, comparable to Rousseau’s Contract Social and Marx’s Capital or De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. It expresses, more eloquently than any other work of its kind, certain truths about men and society which have been ignored for a century and a half. In spite of his rationalism, which he inherited from the Age of Enlightenment, and because he had his deeper intuitions, Godwin realized that any society compatible with human happiness must be a living body, a natural growth; he realized that opposed to this idea of society was a rational concept, the State, which if allowed to exercise its authority in defiance of natural laws and limitations, could only lead to the enslavement of the human mind. If the authoritarian State is now omnipotent over the greater part of the world, and if people are now more enslaved and oppressed than they were a century ago, it is because the truths expressed by Godwin have been neglected. They were to some extent embodied in the social reforms initiated in England by Robert Owen, from which the co-operative and trade union movements sprang and many of his ideas were to be reaffirmed by political philosophers like Proudhon, Elisée Reclus and Kropotkin, but since 1870 a different conception of socialism or communism has prevailed, and the principles for which Godwin stood have been obscured, in my opinion only temporarily, by the principles which we associate with the name of Karl Marx.
“I would like to have given you a more detailed account of Godwin’s ideas, and I would like to have given you a fuller demonstration of the way in which Shelley gave these ideas a poetic form. But these tasks are beyond the scope of a short talk, and I can only recommend you to explore the subject further in the excellent study of Godwin which George Woodcock has just written. George Woodcock is one of our younger poets, and the editor of a literary review called Now. This is his first venture into the field of biography and criticism, and the generous welcome which it has received in the English press is a tribute, not only to Mr Woodcock’s literary gifts, but also to the vitality of Godwin’s ideas, and to the renewed interest in them which is now manifest among the younger generation in England.”
William Godwin (1756-1836): from: ‘Anarchism in the Dramas of Ernst Toller’ by Michael Ossar
“Of all the anarchists we shall consider, William Godwin was the first to present a theory of anarchism rendered in a form of unparalleled purity, unalloyed by compromise and empiricism. Moreover, his work and ideas provide the foundation on which later thinkers built, even when they modified it. For these reasons, we shall examine these ideas in some detail.
“The fundamental principle of Godwin’s political philosophy is well stated in his remark: “There is but one power to which I can yield a heartfelt obedience, the decision of my own understanding, the dictate of my own conscience. We shall see that this anti-authoritarian, even anti-political, aspect of anarchism is its most pervasive, indeed well-nigh its defining characteristic. Oscar Wilde, for example, wrote in a similar vein: “There is no necessity to separate the monarch from the mob; all authority is equally bad.” And Proudhon issued a categorial rejection meant to include not only authoritarian monarchs, but democracy as well: “Whoever puts his hand on me to govern MC is a usurper and a tyrant; I declare him my enemy.” It should not therefore surprise us to learn that scholars have detected anarchist ideas in nearly every heresy which has appeared on the stage of history: in the Albigensian, the Anabaptists, in Muntzer, Meslier, Jacques Roux, Morelly, Sylvain Marechal, Fichte, Multatuli, Thoreau, Whitman, Aristippus, Zeno, Fenelon, Diderot, in Winstanley’s Diggers, and in the Spartacus revolt. Even Rousseau has been called a spiritual ancestor of the anarchists, though as James Joll, Ernst Cassirer and Peter Gay point out, it was his theories of education and the famous first sentence of Book I of Le Contrat social that appealed to the anarchists, and not the idea of the social contract itself, which they rejected. But the heretic, who by definition resists what he considers an unjust and coercive use of power by established authority, does not necessarily reject all manifestations of authority, nor does he propose a program of direct action to eliminate it. William Godwin did summarily reject authority, as the above quotation indicates, and it is he who must be considered the first anarchist in the modern sense of the term—at least, the first man to develop his ideas on the subject in a systematic way in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), a work which was written in the heat of the French Revolution and perhaps inspired by Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution. Godwin’s theories proceed from the principle that justice and happiness are linked, that man will do good if only he can recognize is and that doing it will make him happy. Godwin shows himself a true representative of the age of reason, and in a sense mirrors Kant’s confidence in the efficacy (not to mention the moral necessity) of an individualist ethical system—the individual himself must choose how to behave, and if he is able to choose intelligently and in accord with the categorical imperative, Kant and Godwin are confident that universal human reason will lead him to affirm by and large those values which most societies mistakenly try to enforce by coercive means. To anticipate, we will be able to classify Godwin (and Max Stirner) on the right end of the spectrum of anarchism—as an “individualist anarchism,” in contrast to more socially-oriented varieties such as anarcho-syndicalism and communist anarchism. In the case of Stirner (or Nietzsche, for that matter) we are not at all certain that extreme individualism will necessarily engender justice, and justice happiness. Stirner wrote: “Let me withdraw the might that I have conceded to others out of ignorance regarding the strength of my own might! Let me say to myself, what my might reaches to is my property; and let me claim as property everything I feel myself strong enough to attain, and let me extend my actual property as far as I entitle, that is, empower myself to take…. ” It must be noted, however, that Stirner’s life was a good deal tamer than his theoretical posturings. Stirner points out in The Ego and His Own that children, for example, while they appear weak, actually wield enormous power by virtue of their lovableness. Thus, power must be defined in a rather broad sense.
“Godwin’s view of human nature was much more agreeable—in fact, totally optimistic. Man was infinitely perfectible: “Perfectibility is one of the most unequivocal characteristics of the human species, so that the political as ‘well as the intellectual state of man may be presumed to be in a course of progressive improvement.” Evil he explains in the following way: All vice is nothing more than error and mistake reduced into practice and adopted . the principle of our conduct.”
“If vice is error, then it can be corrected by reason, since the mind is a tabula on which a prudent education can write the truth. All crime has a cause, and if the cause is eliminated, the crime will be, too. Most crimes result from the unequal distribution of wealth, and thus ultimately from property. Like Proudhon, Godwin regarded private property as theft and thought that its abolition would abolish crime as well. The progress of science would lift the burden of disagreeable toil from man’s shoulders. Reason would control and check potentially disruptive emotions like ambition and vanity: “Do you want my table? Make one for yourself, or, if I be more skillful in that respect than you, I will make one for you. Do you want it immediately? Let is compare the urgency of your wants and mine, and let justice decide.”
“Cooperation of the sort envisioned by Godwin, however, wis entirely voluntary and non-institutionalized, unlike Proudhon’s People’s Bank scheme, which we shall have to consider later. The logical consequence of Godwin’s individualism and faith in the efficacy of reason in taming the passions becomes most evident when we examine his view of ideal interpersonal relationships: “I shall assiduously cultivate the intercourse of that woman whose accomplishment shall strike me in the most powerful manner. ‘But it may happen that other men will feel for her the same preference that I do? This will create no difficulty. We may all enjoy her conversation and we shall all be wise enough to consider the sensual intercourse a vety trivial object.” We have perhaps even rnore difficulty in suppressing a smile at the following chapter entitled “On the Mode of Excluding Visitors”: “Let us suppose that we are ourselves destined …to give this answer that our father or wife is not at home when they are really in the house. Should we not feel our tongue contaminated with the base plebeian lie? …He must in reality be the weakest of mankind who should conceive umbrage at a plain answer in this case, when he was informed of the moral considerations that induced me to employ it.” Godwin goes on then to suppose that we refuse out of simple dislike; “for some moral fault we perceive or think we perceive in him. Why should he be kept in ignorance of our opinion respecting him, and prevented from the opportunity either of amendment or vindication?”
“Because Godwin holds such an optimistic view of the possibilities of voluntary cooperation in forging a viable society, he views government as a disagreeble nuisance: “Government can have no more than two legitimate purposes, the suppression of injustice among individuals within the community, and the common defense against external invasion,” though, as we have seen, rationality in league with education will soon eliminate injustice anyhow. Other anarchists, for example, deny even the need for punishment.
“Democracy, while it is the best of the known forms of government, is not ideal, involving as it does the delegation of one’s power to make decisions. Further, it divides men into two classes—the governors and the governed—on a spurious basis. Godwin advocates the dissolution of powerful, centralized bureaucracies into local units of participating government which he called “parishes.” Laws could then be dispensed with and all would participate in all decisions.
“Education, too, ought to be decentralized. It is not, in any event, the function of the state, nor even of society. The general aim should be for the individual to internalize moral principles to such an extent that a considerate, benevolent and tolerant social association will result which can safely abjure coercion. Ritter in the article referred to above points out the distasteful aspects of tyranny of public opinion. Similarly, George Orwell comments on the anarchist Houyhyhnms in Gulliver’s Travels.
“This illustrates very well the totalitarian tendency which is implicit in the anarchist or pacifist vision of society. In a society where there is no law, and in theory no compulsion, the only arbiter of behaviour is public opinion. But public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity in gregarious animals, is less tolerant than any system of law.”
“Orwell, the reluctant socialist, proves to be a reluctant anarchist as well, though he would admit, one supposes, that of the two sorts of compulsion, public opiniori is preferable to coercion. Moreover, what Godwin means by an internalized system of ethics is not identical with what Orwell calls “public opinion.”
“Godwin’s analysis and vision were immensely popular when Political Justice was first published and enjoyed a vogue not only among such men as Coleridge and Godwin’s benefactor, victim and son-in-law, Shelley, but also among working men. By the time he died, his work was forgotten, though Woodcock traces his influence to the nineteenth century English labor movement, to Robert Owen whom he knew personally, to William Morris, Bernard Shaw and Herbert Read.”