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1831

“Of Body and Mind:” Godwin’s Thoughts on Man

“Man is a godlike being. We launch ourselves in conceit into illimitable space, and take up our rest beyond the fixed stars.”

Editor’s Note

William Godwin was a contemporary of giants in liberal thought from Tom Paine and William Cobbett to Godwin’s own wife, Mary Wollstonecraft.  Considered by many the first identifiably anarchist liberal thinker in the modern era, Godwin left deep and lasting impressions on liberalism and literature (including the invention of mystery novels).  His career as a journalist and popular writer spanned many decades rife with transformative changes largely centered on Godwin’s England.  During his lifetime, he witnessed the American colonial rebellion, the tandem rises of republicanism and revolution, endless wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, and rapid economic, scientific, and social change.  Through it all, very little escaped his attention and analysis.

In his 1831 collection of essays, Thoughts on Man, Godwin synthesized a lifetime of liberal education and philosophizing into a series of escalating observations about the human species.  He considered it the most complete presentation of his philosophical system.  The preface to Thoughts on Man both explains the author’s purpose and identifies his target audience:  the reading public.  The first essay, “Of Body and Mind,” echoes Renaissance and Enlightenment humanism, remarking on the supposedly perfect fitness of the human body to meet the peculiar and almost supernatural needs of the mind or spirit.  Amazing and fascinating as anatomy and biology may be, however, Godwin believed that body and mind were essentially different.  The body is limited by its corporeality, whereas the immaterial mind is by nature illimitable.  At once both flesh and spirit, human beings are thus condemned by Nature to a dual existence.  We are in a constant state of war with ourselves as the material and immaterial aspects of our existence struggle for supremacy.  Our minds seeks to be free of our bodies and our bodies lose all vitality when the mind is absent.  The eternal and endless struggle between our nature as an intellectual being and our existence within a sharply limited material universe built from the level of individual to social and international conflict as human life became more complex.  All conflict and historical change, in essence, reflected the fundamental social forces “Of Body and Mind.”

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

THOUGHTS ON MAN:  HIS NATURE, PRODUCTIONS AND DISCOVERIES INTERSPERSED WITH SOME PARTICULARS RESPECTING THE AUTHOR (Excerpts)

By William Godwin

PREFACE

In the ensuing volume I have attempted to give a defined and permanent form to a variety of thoughts, which have occurred to my mind in the course of thirty-four years…

My mind has been constitutionally meditative, and I should not have felt satisfied, if I had not set in order for publication these special fruits of my meditations…

One thing further I feel prompted to say. I have always regarded it as my office to address myself to plain men, and in clear and unambiguous terms. It has been my lot to have occasional intercourse with some of those who consider themselves as profound, who deliver their oracles in obscure phraseology, and who make it their boast that few men can understand them, and those few only through a process of abstract reflection, and by means of unwearied application.

To this class of the oracular I certainly did not belong. I felt that I had nothing to say, that it should be very difficult to understand. I resolved, if I could help it, not to “darken counsel by words without knowledge.” This was my principle in the Enquiry concerning Political Justice. And I had my reward. I had a numerous audience of all classes, of every age, and of either sex. The young and the fair did not feel deterred from consulting my pages…

I have aimed at a popular, and (if I could reach it) an interesting style…

I know many men who are misanthropes, and profess to look down with disdain on their species. My creed is of an opposite character. All that we observe that is best and most excellent in the intellectual world, is man: and it is easy to perceive in many cases, that the believer in mysteries does little more, than dress up his deity in the choicest of human attributes and qualifications. I have lived among, and I feel an ardent interest in and love for, my brethren of mankind. This sentiment, which I regard with complacency in my own breast, I would gladly cherish in others. In such a cause I am well pleased to enrol myself a missionary.

February 15, 1831.

 


 

ESSAY I. OF BODY AND MIND.

THE PROLOGUE…

Let us have regard to his corporeal structure. There is a simplicity in it, that at first perhaps we slightly consider. But how exactly is it fashioned for strength and agility! It is in no way incumbered. It is like the marble when it comes out of the hand of the consummate sculptor; every thing unnecessary is carefully chiseled away; and the joints, the muscles, the articulations, and the veins come out, clean and finished…

Man cannot keep pace with a starting horse: but he can persevere, and beats him in the end.

What an infinite variety of works is man by his corporeal form enabled to accomplish! In this respect he casts the whole creation behind him.

What a machine is the human hand! When we analyse its parts and its uses, it appears to be the most consummate of our members. And yet there are other parts, that may maintain no mean rivalship against it…

In the visage of man, uncorrupted and undebased, we read the frankness and ingenuousness of his soul, the clearness of his reflections, the penetration of his spirit. What a volume of understanding is unrolled in his broad, expanded, lofty brow! In his countenance we see expressed at one time sedate confidence and awful intrepidity, and at another godlike condescension and the most melting tenderness. Who can behold the human eye, suddenly suffused with moisture, or gushing with tears unbid, and the quivering lip, without unspeakable emotion?…

Thus far I have not mentioned speech, not perhaps the most inestimable of human gifts, but, if it is not that, it is at least the endowment, which makes man social, by which principally we impart our sentiments to each other, and which changes us from solitary individuals, and bestows on us a duplicate and multipliable existence. Beside which it incalculably increases the perfection of one. The man who does not speak, is an unfledged thinker; and the man that does not write, is but half an investigator.

Not to enter into all the mysteries of articulate speech and the irresistible power of eloquence, whether addressed to a single hearer, or instilled into the ears of many,—a topic that belongs perhaps less to the chapter of body than mind,—let us for a moment fix our thoughts steadily upon that little implement, the human voice. Of what unnumbered modulations is it susceptible! What terror may it inspire! How may it electrify the soul, and suspend all its functions! How infinite is its melody! How instantly it subdues the hearer to pity or to love! How does the listener hang upon every note praying that it may last for ever…

It is here especially that we are presented with the triumphs of civilisation…

From the countenance of man let us proceed to his figure. Every limb is capable of speaking, and telling its own tale. What can equal the magnificence of the neck, the column upon which the head reposes! The ample chest may denote an almost infinite strength and power…

The upright figure of man produces, incidentally as it were, and by the bye, another memorable effect. Hence we derive the power of meeting in halls, and congregations, and crowded assemblies. We are found “at large, though without number,” at solemn commemorations and on festive occasions. We touch each other, as the members of a gay party are accustomed to do, when they wait the stroke of an electrical machine, and the spark spreads along from man to man. It is thus that we have our feelings in common at a theatrical representation and at a public dinner, that indignation is communicated, and patriotism becomes irrepressible.

One man can convey his sentiments in articulate speech to a thousand; and this is the nursing mother of oratory, of public morality, of public religion, and the drama. The privilege we thus possess, we are indeed too apt to abuse; but man is scarcely ever so magnificent and so awful, as when hundreds of human heads are assembled together, hundreds of faces lifted up to contemplate one object, and hundreds of voices uttered in the expression of one common sentiment.

But, notwithstanding the infinite beauty, the magazine of excellencies and perfections, that appertains to the human body, the mind claims, and justly claims, an undoubted superiority…Before I proceeded to consider the ascendancy of mind, the dominion and loftiness it is accustomed to assert, it appeared but just to recollect what was the nature and value of its subject and its slave.

By the mind we understand that within us which feels and thinks, the seat of sensation and reason. Where it resides we cannot tell, nor can authoritatively pronounce, as the apostle says, relatively to a particular phenomenon, “whether it is in the body, or out of the body.” Be it however where or what it may, it is this which constitutes the great essence of, and gives value to, our existence; and all the wonders of our microcosm would without it be a form only, destined immediately to perish, and of no greater account than as a clod of the valley…

The intellectual man is like a disembodied spirit.

He is almost in the state of the dervise in the Arabian Nights, who had the power of darting his soul into the unanimated body of another, human or brute, while he left his own body in the condition of an insensible carcase, till it should be revivified by the same or some other spirit. When I am, as it is vulgarly understood, in a state of motion, I use my limbs as the implements of my will. When, in a quiescent state of the body, I continue to think, to reflect and to reason, I use, it may be, the substance of the brain as the implement of my thinking, reflecting and reasoning; though of this in fact we know nothing.

We have every reason to believe that the mind cannot subsist without the body; at least we must be very different creatures from what we are at present, when that shall take place. For a man to think, agreeably and with serenity, he must be in some degree of health…But this is instrumental merely. All these things are negatives, conditions without which we cannot think to the best purpose, but which lend no active assistance to our thinking.

Man is a godlike being. We launch ourselves in conceit into illimitable space, and take up our rest beyond the fixed stars. We proceed without impediment from country to country, and from century to century, through all the ages of the past, and through the vast creation of the imaginable future. We spurn at the bounds of time and space; nor would the thought be less futile that imagines to imprison the mind within the limits of the body, than the attempt of the booby clown who is said within a thick hedge to have plotted to shut in the flight of an eagle…

The mind may aptly be described under the denomination of the “stranger at home.” On set occasions and at appropriate times we examine our stores, and ascertain the various commodities we have, laid up in our presses and our coffers. Like the governor of a fort in time of peace, which was erected to keep out a foreign assailant, we occasionally visit our armoury, and take account of the muskets, the swords, and other implements of war it contains, but for the most part are engaged in the occupations of peace, and do not call the means of warfare in any sort to our recollection…

In the ruminations of the inner man, and the dissecting our thoughts and desires, we employ our intellectual arithmetic, we add, and subtract, and multiply, and divide, without asking the aid, without adverting to the existence, of our joints and members. Even as to the more corporeal part of our avocations, we behold the external world, and proceed straight to the object of our desires, without almost ever thinking of this medium, our own material frame, unaided by which none of these things could be accomplished. In this sense we may properly be said to be spiritual existences, however imperfect may be the idea we are enabled to affix to the term spirit….

Man is a creature of mingled substance. I am many times a day compelled to acknowledge what a low, mean and contemptible being I am…A variety of circumstances occur to us, while we eat, and drink, and submit to the humiliating necessities of nature, that may well inculcate into us this salutary lesson. The wonder rather is, that man, who has so many things to put him in mind to be humble and despise himself, should ever have been susceptible of pride and disdain…

Hence it is that unenlightened man, in almost all ages and countries, has been induced, independently of divine revelation, to regard death, the most awful event to which we are subject, as not being the termination of his existence. We see the body of our friend become insensible, and remain without motion, or any external indication of what we call life. We can shut it up in an apartment, and visit it from day to day. If we had perseverance enough, and could so far conquer the repugnance and humiliating feeling with which the experiment would be attended, we might follow step by step the process of decomposition and putrefaction, and observe by what degrees the “dust returned unto earth as it was.” But, in spite of this demonstration of the senses, man still believes that there is something in him that lives after death. The mind is so infinitely superior in character to this case of flesh that incloses it, that he cannot persuade himself that it and the body perish together.

There are two considerations, the force of which made man a religious animal. The first is, his proneness to ascribe hostility or benevolent intention to every thing of a memorable sort that occurs to him in the order of nature. The second is that of which I have just treated, the superior dignity of mind over body. This, we persuade ourselves, shall subsist uninjured by the mutations of our corporeal frame, and undestroyed by the wreck of the material universe.

 

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