“When we look at human society…we [can] imagine that men might subsist very well in clusters and congregated bodies without the coercion of law…”

Editor’s Note

Anthony Comegna, PhD

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

In his sixth Thoughts on Man essay, William Godwin addressed the origins of ethics: What exactly motivates moral social behavior? Why, precisely, do individuals develop very particular moral sentiments, sensibilities, and habits? In search of an answer, Godwin inverts the standard set of Hobbesian assumptions about human nature. Indeed, the entire essay presumes that “One of the most obvious views which are presented to us by man in society is the inoffensiveness and innocence that ordinarily characterise him.” Thanks largely to this inherent kindliness in human nature, “Society for the greater part carries on its own organization.” Godwin argues that when individuals are left free to pursue their own interests as they see fit, they will in fact have very little to do with one another, each man and woman going about his or her particular business. There are, of course and however, those who would use their superior strength, cunning, or wiles to exploit their fellow creatures. Laws, in fact, only exist to restrain the destructive actions of those few exploiters, whereas the rest of us require no prior compulsion to behave appropriately in society. Why, though, do we decent people behave this decently?

Godwin offers a series of observational attempts to resolve what appears a difficult dilemma. The answer cannot be a love of fellow men–after all, we do not even know strangers let alone feel for them such a powerful emotion. It cannot be fear–most of our moral decisions are not made in a state of actual fear. Rather, Godwin settles on the twin explanations of “forecast and prudence,” to explain the origins of ethics. Our lack of knowledge about future events and conditions lead us to live more empathetic, helpful, and humble lives. Those separated from the rest of society by virtue of their political power, however, possess a much greater degree of control over the present and future. As such, their actions are far less likely to be self‐​constrained and history becomes a long series of anecdotes about conquerors and their respective paths of destruction. Godwin concludes by suggesting that we may more profitably view the world from the bottom‐​up, with countless individuals more or less randomly pursuing their self‐​interests, leaving alone that which is outside their legitimate sphere of interest. Thus, while no single individual shapes history as such, those who venture beyond the limits of nature and attempt to do so record their names with blood and scorn. Decent people, meanwhile, diligently mind their own affairs.

One of the most obvious views which are presented to us by man in society is the inoffensiveness and innocence that ordinarily characterise him.



Society for the greater part carries on its own organization. Each man pursues his proper occupation, and there are few individuals that feel the propensity to interrupt the pursuits of their neighbours by personal violence. When we observe the quiet manner in which the inhabitants of a great city, and, in the country, the frequenters of the fields, the high roads, and the heaths, pass along, each engrossed by his private contemplations, feeling no disposition to molest the strangers he encounters, but on the contrary prepared to afford them every courteous assistance, we cannot in equity do less than admire the innocence of our species, and fancy that, like the patriarchs of old, we have fallen in with “angels unawares.”

There are a few men in every community, that are sons of riot and plunder, and for the sake of these the satirical and censorious throw a general slur and aspersion upon the whole species.

When we look at human society with kind and complacent survey, we are more than half tempted to imagine that men might subsist very well in clusters and congregated bodies without the coercion of law; and in truth criminal laws were only made to prevent the ill‐​disposed few from interrupting the regular and inoffensive proceedings of the vast majority.

From what disposition in human nature is it that all this accommodation and concurrence proceed?

It is not primarily love. We feel in a very slight degree excited to good will towards the stranger whom we accidentally light upon in our path.

Neither is it fear.

It is principally forecast and prudence. We have a sensitiveness, that forbids us for a slight cause to expose ourselves to we know not what. We are unwilling to be disturbed.

We have a mental vis inertiae, analogous to that quality in material substances, by means of which, being at rest, they resist being put into a state of motion. We love our security; we love our respectability; and both of these may be put to hazard by our rashly and unadvisedly thrusting ourselves upon the course of another. We like to act for ourselves. We like to act with others, when we think we can foresee the way in which the proposed transaction will proceed, and that it will proceed to our wish.

Let us put the case, that I am passing along the highway, destitute and pennyless, and without foresight of any means by which I am to procure the next meal that my nature requires.

The vagrant, who revolves in his mind the thought of extorting from another the supply of which he is urgently in need, surveys the person upon whom he meditates this violence with a scrutinising eye. He considers, Will this man submit to my summons without resistance, or in what manner will he repel my trespass? He watches his eye, he measures his limbs, his strength, and his agility. Though they have met in the deserts of Africa, where there is no law to punish the violator, he knows that he exposes himself to a fearful hazard; and he enters upon his purpose with desperate resolve. All this and more must occur to the man of violence, within the pale of a civilised community.

Begging is the mildest form in which a man can obtain from the stranger he meets, the means of supplying his urgent necessities.

But, even here, the beggar knows that he exposes himself not only to refusal, but to the harsh and opprobrious terms in which that refusal may be conveyed. In this city there are laws against begging; and the man that asks alms of me, is an offender against the state. In country‐​towns it is usual to remark a notice upon entering, to say, Whoever shall be found begging in this place, shall be set in the stocks.

There are modes however in which I may accost a stranger, with small apprehension that I shall be made to repent of it. I may enquire of him my way to the place towards which my business or my pleasure invites me. Ennius of old has observed, that lumen de lumine, to light my candle at my neighbour’s lamp, is one of the privileges that the practices of civil society concede.

But it is not merely from forecast and prudence that we refrain from interrupting the stranger in his way. We have all of us a certain degree of kindness for a being of our own species. A multitude of men feel this kindness for every thing that has animal life. We would not willingly molest the stranger who has done us no injury. On the contrary we would all of us to a certain extent assist him, under any unforeseen casualty and tribulation. A part therefore of the innocence that characterises our species is to be attributed to philanthropy…

How comes it then that our nature labours under so bitter an aspersion? We have been described as cunning, malicious and treacherous. Other animals herd together for mutual convenience; and their intercourse with their species is for the most part a reciprocation of social feeling and kindness. But community among men, we are told, is that condition of human existence, which brings out all our evil qualities to the face of day. We lie in wait for, and circumvent each other by multiplied artifices. We cannot depend upon each other for the truth of what is stated to us; and promises and the most solemn engagements often seem as if they were made only to mislead. We are violent and deadly in our animosities, easily worked up to ferocity, and satisfied with scarcely any thing short of mutilation and blood. We are revengeful: we lay up an injury, real or imaginary, in the store‐​house of an undecaying memory, waiting only till we can repay the evil we have sustained tenfold, at a time when our adversary shall be lulled in unsuspecting security. We are rapacious, with no symptom that the appetite for gain within us will ever be appeased; and we practise a thousand deceits, that it may be the sooner, and to the greater degree glutted. The ambition of man is unbounded; and he hesitates at no means in the course it prompts him to pursue. In short, man is to man ever the most fearful and dangerous foe: and it is in this view of his nature that the king of Brobdingnag says to Gulliver, “I cannot but conclude the bulk of your race to be the most pernicious generation of little, odious vermin, that were ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.” The comprehensive faculties of man therefore, and the refinements and subtlety of his intellect, serve only to render him the more formidable companion, and to hold us up as a species to merited condemnation.

It is obvious however that the picture thus drawn is greatly overcharged, that it describes a very small part of our race, and that even as to them it sets before us a few features only, and a partial representation.

History—the successive scenes of the drama in which individuals play their part—is a labyrinth, of which no man has as yet exactly seized the clue.

It has long since been observed, that the history of the four great monarchies, of tyrannies and free states, of chivalry and clanship, of Mahometanism and the Christian church, of the balance of Europe and the revolution of empires, is little else than a tissue of crimes, exhibiting nations as if they were so many herds of ferocious animals, whose genuine occupation was to tear each other to pieces, and to deform their mother‐​earth with mangled carcases and seas of blood.

But it is not just that we should establish our opinion of human nature purely from the records of history. Man is alternately devoted to tranquillity and to violence. But the latter only affords the proper materials of narration. When he is wrought upon by some powerful impulse, our curiosity is most roused to observe him. We remark his emotions, his energies, his tempest. It is then that he becomes the person of a drama. And, where this disquietude is not the affair of a single individual, but of several persons together, of nations, it is there that history finds her harvest. She goes into the field with all the implements of her industry, and fills her storehouses and magazines with the abundance of her crop. But times of tranquillity and peace furnish her with no materials. They are dismissed in a few slight sentences, and leave no memory behind.

Let us divide this spacious earth into equal compartments, and see in which violence, and in which tranquillity prevails. Let us look through the various ranks and occupations of human society, and endeavour to arrive at a conclusion of a similar sort. The soldier by occupation, and the officer who commands him, would seem, when they are employed in their express functions, to be men of strife. Kings and ministers of state have in a multitude of instances fallen under this description. Conquerors, the firebrands of the earth, have sufficiently displayed their noxious propensities.

But these are but a small part of the tenantry of the many‐​peopled globe. Man lives by the sweat of his brow. The teeming earth is given him, that by his labour he may raise from it the means of his subsistence. Agriculture is, at least among civilised nations, the first, and certainly the most indispensible of professions. The profession itself is the emblem of peace. All its occupations, from seed‐​time to harvest, are tranquil; and there is nothing which belongs to it, that can obviously be applied to rouse the angry passions, and place men in a frame of hostility to each other. Next to the cultivator, come the manufacturer, the artificer, the carpenter, the mason, the joiner, the cabinet‐​maker, all those numerous classes of persons, who are employed in forming garments for us to wear, houses to live in, and moveables and instruments for the accommodation of the species. All these persons are, of necessity, of a peaceable demeanour. So are those who are not employed in producing the conveniencies of life, but in conducting the affairs of barter and exchange. Add to these, such as are engaged in literature, either in the study of what has already been produced, or in adding to the stock, in science or the liberal arts, in the instructing mankind in religion and their duties, or in the education of youth. “Civility,” “civil,” are indeed terms which express a state of peaceable occupation, in opposition to what is military, and imply a tranquil frame of mind, and the absence of contention, uproar and violence. It is therefore clear, that the majority of mankind are civil, devoted to the arts of peace, and so far as relates to acts of violence innocent, and that the sons of rapine constitute the exception to the general character.

We come into the world under a hard and unpalatable law, “In the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread.” It is a bitter decree that is promulgated against us, “He that will not work, neither shall he eat.” We all of us love to do our own will, and to be free from the manacles of restraint. What our hearts “find us to do,” that we are disposed to execute “with all our might.” Some men are lovers of strenuous occupation. They build and they plant; they raise splendid edifices, and lay out pleasure‐​grounds of mighty extent. Or they devote their minds to the acquisition of knowledge…

Others again would waste perhaps their whole lives in reverie and idleness…

But all men, alike the busy of constitution and the idle, would desire to follow the impulses of their own minds, unbroken in upon by harsh necessity, or the imperious commands of their fellows.

We cannot however, by the resistless law of our existence, live, except the few who by the accident of their birth are privileged to draw their supplies from the labour of others, without exerting ourselves to procure by our efforts or ingenuity the necessaries of food, lodging and attire. He that would obtain them for himself in an uninhabited island, would find that this amounted to a severe tax upon that freedom of motion and thought which would otherwise be his inheritance. And he who has his lot cast in a populous community, exists in a condition somewhat analogous to that of a negro slave, except that he may to a limited extent select the occupation to which he shall addict himself, or may at least starve, in part or in whole, uncontroled, and at his choice. Such is, as it were, the universal lot…

I go forth in the streets, and observe the occupations of other men. I remark the shops that on every side beset my path. It is curious and striking, how vast are the ingenuity and contrivance of human beings, to wring from their fellow‐​creatures, “from the hard hands of peasants” and artisans, a part of their earnings, that they also may live. We soon become feelingly convinced, that we also must enter into the vast procession of industry…

It is through the effect of this necessity, that civilised communities become what they are. We all fall into our ranks. Each one is member of a certain company or squadron. We know our respective places, and are marshaled and disciplined with an exactness scarcely less than that of the individuals of a mighty army. We are therefore little disposed to interrupt the occupations of each other. We are intent upon the peculiar employment to which we have become devoted. We “rise up early, and lie down late,” and have no leisure to trouble ourselves with the pursuits of others. Hence of necessity it happens in a civilised community, that a vast majority of the species are innocent, and have no inclination to molest or interrupt each other’s avocations.

But, as this condition of human society preserves us in comparative innocence, and renders the social arrangement in the midst of which we exist, to a certain degree a soothing and agreeable spectacle, so on the other hand it is not less true that its immediate tendency is, to clip the wings of the thinking principle within us, and plunge the members of the community in which we live into a barren and ungratifying mediocrity…

The help however that we should afford to our fellow‐​men requires of us great discernment in its administration. The deceitfulness of appearances is endless. And nothing can well be at the same time more lamentable and more ludicrous, than the spectacle of those persons, the weaver, the thresher, and the mechanic, who by injudicious patronage are drawn from their proper sphere, only to exhibit upon a larger stage their imbecility and inanity, to shew those moderate powers, which in their proper application would have carried their possessors through life with respect, distorted into absurdity…

Many illustrious examples however may be found in the annals of literature, of patronage judiciously and generously applied, where men have been raised by the kindness of others from the obscurest situations, and placed on high, like beacons, to illuminate the world…

But the thing that in this place it was most appropriate to say, is, that we ought not quietly to affirm, of the man whose mind nature or education has enriched with extraordinary powers…It is a thing deeply to be regretted, that such a man will frequently be compelled to devote himself to pursuits comparatively vulgar and inglorious, because he must live. Much of this is certainly inevitable. But what glorious things might a man with extraordinary powers effect, were he not hurried unnumbered miles awry by the unconquerable power of circumstances? The life of such a man is divided between the things which his internal monitor strongly prompts him to do, and those which the external power of nature and circumstances compels him to submit to. The struggle on the part of his better self is noble and admirable. The less he gives way, provided he can accomplish the purpose to which he has vowed himself, the more he is worthy of the admiration of the world. If, in consequence of listening too much to the loftier aspirations of his nature, he fails, it is deeply to be regretted—it is a man to a certain degree lost—but surely, if his miscarriage be not caused by undue presumption, or the clouds and unhealthful atmosphere of self‐​conceit, he is entitled to the affectionate sympathy and sorrow of every generous mind.