“Godwin did not see political revolution as intellectual progress; in fact he viewed it as a hindrance to progress.”

“Godwin’s Philosophy: A Revaluation.” Journal of the History of Ideas 39 (October/​December 1978): 615–626.

The popular notion that Godwin believed mankind was of “necessity” compelled toward some future state of perfection oversimplifies Godwin’s view of human nature, human institutions, and the idea of progress.

A dialectic of stasis and flux, central to Godwin’s philosophy, helps us to understand his theory of progress. He sees these two opposing concepts as manifest everywhere. The evidence of stasis is abundant in human society, as its etymologically related words suggest: state, estate, static, statism, stagnate, status quo, statute, and standardize. In opposition to this insidious stagnation and inflexibility inherent in the concept of stasis, Godwin posits his liberating and progressive principle of flux. Flux is exemplified “by a spirit of enquiry to which a philanthropic mind will allow no pause.” Above all “we should never stand still, … everything most interesting to the general welfare, wholly delivered from restraint, should be in a state of change, moderate and as it were imperceptible, but continual.”

According to Godwin, the nature of government reflects stasis whereas the nature of the human mind exhibits flux. Godwin, however, acknowledges that the mind also has a sluggish tendency, a “vis inertiae” that withstands stimulation and makes it all the more critical to maintain a process of detachment in one’s pursuit of truth.

Both political institutions and the law come under attack as instances of lethargic stasis in Godwin’s philosophy. In his Political Justice (1793), Godwin envisions a utopian anarchism which allows for continual flux and a democratic pursuit of truth, replacing the dictates of a stagnant hierarchy. While writing Political Justice Godwin reversed his belief in the necessity of government and came to embrace its elimination. By logical extension, Godwin’s philosophy is inimical to the inherent stasis (and therefore evil) embodied in law. Theoretically, law should have the same inferior status as opinion, yet law hypostatizes its own opinion, thereby transforming it into a universal truth duly enforceable by the state. In direct contradiction to Bentham’s view of law in which crime and punishment are quantifiable and formulaic, Godwin advances the belief that “delinquency and punishment are, in all cases, incommensurable,” and that no “two crimes are ever alike.”

Paradoxically, despite his radical criticisms of the existing social order, Godwin’s own belief in progress was of a gradual and reformist nature. He saw intellectual progress, the cultivation of truth and sincerity, as hinged upon a collective effort which evolved by small, imperceptible degrees. Godwin did not see political revolution as intellectual progress; in fact he viewed it as a hindrance to progress: a time when reason became clouded by “the passions of revenge, hatred, fear, selfishness.” Ultimately, he entrusted his faith to “the achievement of revolutionary consciousness,” but until that time “There will be oppressors, as long as there are individuals inclined … to take party with the oppressor.” Thus, Godwin identifies human intelligence and its capacity to reason as the final authority.

Godwin’s philosophy admits of several paradoxes, such as the problematic nature of all truth‐​seeking, and the necessary “atomistic subjectivism” that results from his scrupulous respect for the individual. Still Godwin’s outlook for human progress is indeed bright, both in its source and in its vast possibilities.