Passionate about liberty and want a chance to win $4,000? Check out our video contest!

Mar 1, 1975

Godwin, “Enquiry Concerning Political Justice”

Roy Childs comments on one of’s favorite authors, William Godwin.

Nearly two hundred years ago, a man sought to respond to the argument of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. He did so in the form of a lengthy and elegantly written treatise on political philosophy, and he endeavored to provide a comprehensive case for liberty by building on a brilliant foundation: the right of independent, private judgment. “The universal exercise of private judgment is a doctrine so unspeakably beautiful,” he wrote, “that the true politician will certainly feel infinite reluctance in admitting the idea of interfering with it.”

When these words were first penned, progress was considered by everyone to be synonymous with the triumph of liberty. Indeed, politics was “the science of liberty.”

But as they travelled down the troubled road of the nineteenth century together, Politics and Liberty reached a fork. Liberty took one path, and Politics another. The “unspeakably beautiful” doctrine was overshadowed by a cloud which signified that a terrible storm lay ahead on the road of mankind’s history. That storm was the triumph of statism; Liberty was rarely heard from again.

Symbolic as this is, even more so was the fate of the author of the above quotation: William Godwin. For Godwin was born in 1756, when liberty was on everyone’s mind; his early career was illustrious, and he published his treatise, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, in 1793, experiencing a burst of fame and growing influence. Soon afterward, however, his star began ominously to fade until, by the time of his death in 1836, both he and his doctrine had slipped into the obscurity which surrounds both to this day.

Godwin’s treatise was full of paradoxes and contradictions: he became the father of both individualist and collectivist anarchism; he was a fiery individualist who endorsed altruism and utilitarianism, while at the same time promoting the independence of women; he was an economic egalitarian who nonetheless thought that men had no right to forcibly redistribute another’s “excessive” wealth; and he was an anarchist who argued for government as a temporary expedient.

The Enquiry was his most significant work; K. Codell Carter has edited it somewhat for this edition, and has added a few appendices from Godwin’s other writings, but nothing essential to Godwin’s position has been omitted or changed. Here, then, stands themagnum opus of one of the great minds of the eighteenth century.

Godwin builds his case solidly on the foundation of individualism, of individual sovereignty. He tells us that “all the great steps of human improvement [have] been the work of individuals,” and that “man is a species of being whose excellence depends upon his individuality, and who can be neither great nor wise, but in proportion as he is independent.” To protect that independence,

Every man has a certain sphere of discretion, which he has a right to expect shall not be infringed by his neighbors. This right flows from the very nature of man… . No man can be justified in setting up his judgment as a standard for others… . [Man] must consult his own reason, draw his own conclusions, and conscientiously conform himself to his ideas of propriety… . For that purpose each must have his sphere of discretion. No man must encroach upon my province, nor I upon his. He may advise me, moderately and without pertinaciousness, but he must not expect to dictate to me. He may censure me freely and without reserve; but he should remember that I am to act by my deliberation and not his.

It is on the basis of these principles “that what is commonly called the right of property is founded.” Godwin thinks—and repeats constantly—that you should act to benefit others, and that you should give away property in excess of your needs, but stresses again and again that there should be no use of violence—either individual or governmental—to achieve these ends:

We should set bounds to no man’s accumulation. We should repress by wise and effectual, yet moderate and humane penalties, all forcible invasion to be committed by one man upon the acquisitions of another… . Force is an expedient, the uses of which is much to be deplored. It is contrary to the nature of intellect, which cannot be improved but by conviction and persuasion. It corrupts the man who employs it, and the man upon whom it is employed.

But this does not mean that Godwin is a pacifist:

Violence is so prompt a mode of deciding differences of opinion and contentions of passion, that there will infallibly be some persons who will resort to this mode. How is their violence to be repressed, or prevented from being accompanied occasionally with the most tragical effects? Violence must necessarily be preceded by an opinion of the mind dictating that violence; and, as he who first had resort to force instead of argument, is unquestionably erroneous, the best and most desirable mode of correcting him, is by convincing him of his error. But the urgency of the case, when, for example, a dagger is pointed to my own breast or that of another, may be such as not to afford time for expostulation. Hence the propriety and duty of defense.

Godwin even concedes that there might be room for government:

Every man… has a sphere of discretion; that sphere is limited by the coordinate sphere of his neighbor. The maintenance of this limitation, the office of taking care that no man exceeds his sphere, is the first business of government. Its powers, in this respect, are a combination of the powers of individuals to control the excesses of each other.

This, however, is only a temporary bow to government authority:

We should not forget, that government is, abstractly taken, an evil, an usurpation upon the private judgment and individual conscience of mankind; and that, however we may be obligated to admit it as a necessary evil for the present, it behooves us, as the friends of reason and the human species, to admit as little of it as possible, and carefully to observe, whether, in consequence of the gradual illumination of the human mind, that little may not hereafter be diminished.

And, with that unquenchable optimism:

With what delight must every well-informed friend of mankind look forward to the auspicious period, the dissolution of political government, of that brute engine, which has been the only perennial cause of the vices of mankind, and which… has mischiefs of various sorts incorporated with its substance, and no otherwise removable than by its utter annihilation.

Naturally, all of this is only part of the story; Godwin’s treatise spans every subject from human psychology to religion to the futility of revolution. His doctrine of utilitarianism and general belief in some form of egalitarianism undercut his argument, but as the reader can judge from the quotes reprinted here, Godwin’s doctrine is one very much worth investigating. We have, after all, seen the consequences of man’s turning his back on the “unspeakably beautiful” doctrine of independent judgment, and on justice. In that sense, Godwin seems to be speaking more to our time than to his own, and this is why he is so worth studying:

It is an old observation, that the history of mankind is little else than a record of crimes… . Though the evils that arise to us from the structure of the material universe are neither trivial nor few, yet the history of political society sufficiently shows that man is of all other beings the most formidable enemy to man. Among the various schemes that he has formed to destroy and plague his kind, war is the most terrible. Satiated with petty mischief and the retail of insulated crimes, he rises in this instance to a project that lays nations waste, and thins the population of the world. Man directs the murderous engine against the life of his brother; he invents with indefatigable care refinements in destruction; he proceeds in the midst of gaiety and pomp to the execution of his horrid purpose; whole ranks of sensitive beings, endowed with the most admirable faculties, are mowed down in an instant; they perish by inches in the midst of agony and neglect, lacerated with every variety of method that can give torture to the frame… . If this be the unalterable allotment of our nature, the eminence of our rational faculties must be considered as rather an abortion than a substantial benefit… .

Certainly every man who takes a dispassionate survey of this picture, will feel himself inclined to pause respecting the necessity of the havoc which is thus made of his species, and to question whether the established methods for protecting mankind against the caprices of each other are the best that can be devised.

In his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, William Godwin paused, and questioned. I think that one might profitably spend a few evenings alone with this work doing the same. Reviewed by R. A. Childs, Jr. / Political Philosophy (370 pages) / LR Price $6.50