The Diffident Man and the Rotten Voter: Godwin’s Thoughts on Man
Godwin casts himself—and the ideal social reform advocate—as a constant missionary for reason, truth, and justice.
In the following essay, Godwin synthesizes his earlier thoughts on frankness, reserve, and voting by ballot into forceful—if qualified—support for a missionary lifestyle. Continuing to treat the volume as a half-way autobiography, Godwin further reflects on his own life and offers readers valuable glimpses into the personal life and mind of one of the era’s great writers. For about a decade and a half (ca. 1790s-1800s), Godwin was internationally celebrated and beloved as the brilliant author of both serious philosophy (Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, 1793) and path-breaking fiction (Caleb Williams, 1794). During the heady and violent days of revolution in France, Godwin rose to the top levels of radical British public intellectuals. He tasted wealth, fame, infamy, romance, death, and despair within the space of a decade and most of his life thereafter was spent riddled with debt, fed by a dwindling stock of public respect and recognition. Godwin’s fate as an author and philosopher rose and fell with the Revolution in France and the corresponding processes of class formation and repression in Britain. Through his whole life, whatever his current fortunes or stature, Godwin remained convinced: the true free society required generations of radical missionaries willing to embrace the frankness of reason and the wisdom of reserve.
During his youth, Godwin was given to excessive bouts of diffidence—shyness and lack of confidence to the point of inaction. Our author admits to great pride in his own intellectual acumen and his ability to adapt his thinking to accommodate or explain new information. Our Godwin was a prideful academic, to be sure, but certainly he was capable of progressive change. Encountering opposition from fellow students, Godwin saw only “the most glaring injustice” and more often than not continued on his sophistry until his position had been utterly defeated by the weight of evidence. Students apparently knocked Godwin down enough proverbial pegs to inspire a sort of personality revolution out of which he emerged “less a speaker, than a listener [who] by no means made it a law with myself to defend principles and characters I honoured on every occasion on which I might hear them attacked.” Once the Enquiry propelled him to stardom, however, Godwin grew out of his boyish fear of being attacked. Fame nurtured in him a healthy regard for his own abilities tempered by the personal knowledge that even the best and brightest are very, very often wrong. Godwin describes himself variously as a “missionary,” a “knight-errant,” and a “lion,” boldly preaching truth to power when it was most dangerous to do so. He risked much and more to honor the truth, and as a personal matter the battle was made more significant for the victory provided against a diffident spirit. Rather than falling victim to passivity, injustice, and falsehood, Godwin lived at least a period of his life as a conscious and constant missionary for the Right, the Good, and the True. He was—or, at least, sincerely tried to be—the very opposite of the lazy and conceited homo democraticus.
THOUGHTS ON MAN: HIS NATURE, PRODUCTIONS AND DISCOVERIES INTERSPERSED WITH SOME PARTICULARS RESPECTING THE AUTHOR (Excerpts)
ESSAY XVIII. OF DIFFIDENCE.
The following Essay will be to a considerable degree in the nature of confession, like the Confessions of St. Augustine or of Jean Jacques Rousseau. It may therefore at first sight appear of small intrinsic value, and scarcely worthy of a place in the present series. But, as I have had occasion more than once to remark, we are all of us framed in a great measure on the same model, and the analysis of the individual may often stand for the analysis of a species. While I describe myself therefore, I shall probably at the same time be describing no inconsiderable number of my fellow-beings.
It is true, that the duty of man under the head of Frankness, is of a very comprehensive nature. We ought all of us to tell to our neighbour whatever it may be of advantage to him to know, we ought to be the sincere and zealous advocates of absent merit and worth, and we are bound by every means in our power to contribute to the improvement of others, and to the diffusion of salutary truths through the world.
From the universality of these precepts many readers might be apt to infer, that I am in my own person the bold and unsparing preacher of truth, resolutely giving to every man his due, and, agreeably to the apostle’s direction, “instant in season, and out of season.” The individual who answers to this description will often be deemed troublesome, often annoying; he will produce a considerable sensation in the circle of those who know him; and it will depend upon various collateral circumstances, whether he shall ultimately be judged a rash and intemperate disturber of the contemplations of his neighbours, or a disinterested and heroic suggester of new veins of thinking, by which his contemporaries and their posterity shall be essentially the gainers.
I have no desire to pass myself upon those who may have any curiosity respecting me for better than I am; and I will therefore here put down a few particulars, which may tend to enable them to form an equitable judgment.
One of the earliest passions of my mind was the love of truth and sound opinion…
During my college-life therefore, I read all sorts of books, on every side of any important question, that were thrown in my way, or that I could hear of. But the very passion that determined me to this mode of proceeding, made me wary and circumspect in coming to a conclusion. I knew that it would, if any thing, be a more censurable and contemptible act, to yield to every seducing novelty, than to adhere obstinately to a prejudice because it had been instilled into me in youth. I was therefore slow of conviction, and by no means “given to change.” I never willingly parted with a suggestion that was unexpectedly furnished to me; but I examined it again and again, before I consented that it should enter into the set of my principles…
Young and eager as I was in my mission, I received in this way many a bitter lesson. But the peculiarity of my temper rendered this doubly impressive to me. I could not pass over a hint, let it come from what quarter it would, without taking it into some consideration, and endeavouring to ascertain the precise weight that was to be attributed to it. It would however often happen, particularly in the question of the claims of a given individual to honour and respect, that I could see nothing but the most glaring injustice in the opposition I experienced. In canvassing the character of an individual, it is not for the most part general, abstract or moral, principles that are called into question: I am left in possession of the premises which taught me to admire the man whose character is contested; and conformably to those premises I see that his claim to the honour I have paid him is fully made out.
In my communications with others, in the endeavour to impart what I deemed to be truth, I began with boldness: but I often found that the evidence that was to me irresistible, was made small account of by others; and it not seldom happened, as candour was my principle, and a determination to receive what could be strewn to be truth, let it come from what quarter it would, that suggestions were presented to me, materially calculated to stagger the confidence with which I had set out…I often encountered an opposition I had not anticipated, and was often presented with objections, or had pointed out to me flaws and deficiencies in my reasonings, which, till they were so pointed out, I had not apprehended. I had not lungs enabling me to drown all contradiction; and, which was still more material, I had not a frame of mind, which should determine me to regard whatever could be urged against me as of no value. I therefore became cautious. As a human creature, I did not relish the being held up to others’ or to myself, as rash, inconsiderate and headlong, unaware of difficulties the most obvious, embracing propositions the most untenable, and “against hope believing in hope.” And, as an apostle of truth, I distinctly perceived that a reputation for perspicacity and sound judgment was essential to my mission. I therefore often became less a speaker, than a listener, and by no means made it a law with myself to defend principles and characters I honoured, on every occasion on which I might hear them attacked.
A new epoch occurred in my character, when I published, and at the time I was writing, my Enquiry concerning Political Justice. My mind was wrought up to a certain elevation of tone; the speculations in which I was engaged, tending to embrace all that was most important to man in society, and the frame to which I had assiduously bent myself, of giving quarter to nothing because it was old, and shrinking from nothing because it was startling and astounding, gave a new bias to my character. The habit which I thus formed put me more on the alert even in the scenes of ordinary life, and gave me a boldness and an eloquence more than was natural to me. I then reverted to the principle which I stated in the beginning, of being ready to tell my neighbour whatever it might be of advantage to him to know, to shew myself the sincere and zealous advocate of absent merit and worth, and to contribute by every means in my power to the improvement of others and to the diffusion of salutary truth through the world. I desired that every hour that I lived should be turned to the best account, and was bent each day to examine whether I had conformed myself to this rule. I held on this course with tolerable constancy for five or six years: and, even when that constancy abated, it failed not to leave a beneficial effect on my subsequent conduct.
But, in pursuing this scheme of practice, I was acting a part somewhat foreign to my constitution. I was by nature more of a speculative than an active character, more inclined to reason within myself upon what I heard and saw, than to declaim concerning it. I loved to sit by unobserved, and to meditate upon the panorama before me…
All this however had a tendency to subtract from my vocation as a missionary. I was no longer a knight-errant, prepared on all occasions by dint of arms to vindicate the cause of every principle that was unjustly handled, and every character that was wrongfully assailed. Meanwhile I returned to the field, occasionally and uncertainly. It required some provocation and incitement to call me out: but there was the lion, or whatever combative animal may more justly prefigure me, sleeping, and that might be awakened…
And so much for confession. I am by no means vindicating myself.
I honour much more the man who is at all times ready to tell his neighbour whatever it may be of advantage to him to know, to shew himself the sincere and untemporising advocate of absent merit and worth, and to contribute by every means in his power to the improvement of others, and to the diffusion of salutary truths through the world.
This is what every man ought to be, and what the best devised scheme of republican institutions would have a tendency to make us all.
But, though the man here described is to a certain degree a deserter of his true place in society, and cannot be admitted to have played his part in all things well, we are by no means to pronounce upon him a more unfavourable judgment than he merits. Diffidence, though, where it disqualifies us in any way from doing justice to truth, either as it respects general principle or individual character, a defect, yet is on no account to be confounded in demerit with that suppression of truth, or misrepresentation, which grows out of actual craft and design.
The diffident man, in some cases seldomer, and in some oftener and in a more glaring manner, deserts the cause of truth, and by that means is the cause of misrepresentation, and indirectly the propagator of falshood. But he is constant and sincere as far as he goes; he never lends his voice to falshood, or intentionally to sophistry; he never for an instant goes over to the enemy’s standard, or disgraces his honest front by strewing it in the ranks of tyranny or imposture. He may undoubtedly be accused, to a certain degree, of dissimulation, or throwing into shade the thing that is, but never of simulation, or the pretending the thing to be that is not. He is plain and uniform in every thing that he professes, or to which he gives utterance; but, from timidity or irresolution, he keeps back in part the offering which he owes at the shrine where it is most honourable and glorious for man to worship.
And this brings me back again to the subject of the immediately preceding Essay, the propriety of voting by ballot.
The very essence of this scheme is silence. And this silence is not merely like that which is prompted by a diffident temper, which by fits is practiced by the modest and irresolute man, and by fits disappears before the sun of truth and through the energies of a temporary fortitude. It is uniform. It is not brought into act only, when the individual unhappily does not find in himself the firmness to play the adventurer. It becomes matter of system, and is felt as being recommended to us for a duty.
Nor does the evil stop there…In the question of ballot…there it is known that the voter has his secret. When I am silent upon a matter occurring in the usual intercourses of life where I might speak, nay, where we will suppose I ought to speak, I am at least guilty of dissimulation only. But the voter by ballot is strongly impelled to the practice of the more enormous sin of simulation. It is known, as I have said, that he has his secret. And he will often be driven to have recourse to various stratagems, that he may elude the enquirer, or that he may set at fault the sagacity of the silent observer. He has something that he might tell if he would, and he distorts himself in a thousand ways, that he may not betray the hoard which he is known to have in his custody. The institution of ballot is the fruitful parent of ambiguities, equivocations and lies without number.