Godwin, William (1756-1836)
William Godwin, the founder of philosophical anarchism and the author of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793)—one of the most significant political texts of its day—had a profound impact on a whole generation of writers, including the romantic poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron.
The son of a dissenting minister, Godwin briefly entered the clergy, where he became familiar with the radical politics of Richard Price, Joseph Priestley, Thomas Paine, and the French philosophers of the Enlightenment. His anarchist leanings emerged quite early in his career. A character in the first book Godwin published under his own name, Sketches of History (1784), declared, “God Himself has no right to be a tyrant.” Godwin’s best-selling book, Political Justice, published during the French Revolution, established Godwin’s fame as a nonviolent anarchist and classical liberal. By political justice he meant the principles of morality and truth by which society properly worked. He believed that “government by its very nature counteracts the improvement of the human mind,” leading mankind into ignorance and dependence. Emphasizing the crucial importance of individualism, he argued that people acting rationally could live without government or other institutions of society that limited man’s freedom, such as marriage.
In 1794, Godwin’s first novel, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, appeared to acclaim. It depicted the victimization of the individual by society. In the Preface, Godwin explained, “[I]t was proposed in the invention of the following work, to comprehend, as far as the progressive nature of a single story would allow, a general review of the modes of domestic and unrecorded despotism, by which man becomes the destroyer of man.”
Outraged by the government’s treatment of radicals, Godwin penned several influential pamphlets, among them “Considerations on Lord Grenville’s and Mr. Pitt’s Bills Concerning Treasonable and Seditious Practices and Unlawful Assemblies,” in which he attacked the government’s view of treason. His pamphlets also attacked radical appeals to passion as damaging to both reason and human perfectibility. A collection of his essays, published as The Enquirer. Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature (1797), was a proximate cause of Thomas Malthus’s classic “Essay on the Principle of Population” (1798), in which Malthus disputed Godwin’s trust in man and reason.
A key figure in London’s intellectual circle, Godwin became reacquainted with the famed precursor of feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft, whom he married in 1797, despite his having attacked the institution. Wollstonecraft died some months later while giving birth to their daughter, Mary, who was later to marry Shelley and write the classic novel Frankenstein (1818). Grief-stricken, Godwin wrote a passionate tribute to Wollstonecraft: Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Women (1798).
Among Godwin’s most important and influential works in later life were Of Population (1820), in which he attacked Malthus; History of the Commonwealth of England (4 vols., 1824–1828); and Thoughts on Man (1831), a collection of political and philosophical essays.
Clark, J. P. The Philosophical Anarchism of William Godwin. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977.
McElroy, Wendy. The Debates of Liberty: An Overview of Individualist Anarchism. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2002.
Woodcock, George. William Godwin: A Biographical Study. Montreal and New York: Black Rose Books, 1989.
Originally published .