Ignorance is the Result of Mental Isolation: Godwin’s Thoughts on Man
Godwin’s next “thought on man” examines the origins of mental atrophy and urges readers to exercise their minds with steady and vigorous Socratic discussion.
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
In his essay on the nature of human beliefs, Godwin begins by noting once again that man’s most special and unique faculty is his high capacity to reason. It is not, of course, that human beings are the only rational creatures, but we have the greatest ability of any beings with which we are familiar to form abstract mental worlds–the playgrounds for human thought, in which alternative physical realities are imagined and destroyed in the blink of an eye. Godwin argues that man’s capacity to reason is at once the source of our incredible creative potential and “all the follies, extravagances and hallucinations of human intellect.” Through the combination of abstract, mental creativity and mechanical, physical action human beings are able to manifest both their dreams and their nightmares. Further, because we are fundamentally individuals first, we have a great deal of difficulty separating ourselves from our own minds and therefore have a dangerous tendency to impose our own abstract mental ideals on the minds of others. In this way, intellectuals and politicians construct artificial, abstract collective identities blindly or feverishly adopted by many others down the chain. In this way, “creeds the most outrageous and contradictory have served as the occasion or pretext for the most impassioned debates, bloody wars, inhuman executions, and all that most deeply blots and dishonours the name of man.”
While we do indeed possess an almost limitless capacity for mental abstraction and creativity, Godwin sharply qualifies the claim by noting the myriad forces which impose upon individuals’ minds. Our education, our political systems, our existing concentrations of social power and influence, and a long list of other phenomena, all infringe upon clear and original thinking. Most influences in the student’s life encourage unfree thought, and positively discourage originality and revisionism. But Godwin does not dismiss old learning and received wisdom out of hand; rather, he embraces a sort of Socratic method of intellectual living, in which participants are actively engaged in the process of coming to an evolving understanding of their world. To Godwin, certainty in one’s knowledge was poisonous to continued learning, and true education should consist of becoming a better and better questioner. Received wisdom could indeed contain much truth, but once we allow the status quointelligentsia and political class to become the arbiters of truth we allow them to lock us in mental cages. In conclusion, Godwin states that the liberating educator’s goal “should be to teach us a wholsome diffidence and humility, and induce us to confess that, when we have done all, we are ignorant, dim‐sighted and fallible, that our best reasonings may betray, and our wisest conclusions deceive us.”
By William Godwin
THOUGHTS ON MAN: HIS NATURE, PRODUCTIONS AND DISCOVERIES INTERSPERSED WITH SOME PARTICULARS RESPECTING THE AUTHOR (Excerpts)
ESSAY XIII. OF BELIEF.
One of the prerogatives by which man is eminently distinguished from all other living beings inhabiting this globe of earth, consists in the gift of reason.
Beasts reason. They are instructed by experience; and, guided by what they have already known of the series of events, they infer from the sense of what has gone before, an assured expectation of what is to follow. Hence, “beast walks with man, joint tenant of the shade;” and their sagacity is in many instances more unerring than ours, because they have no affectation to mislead them; they follow no false lights, no glimmering intimation of something half‐anticipating a result, but trust to the plain, blunt and obvious dictates of their simple apprehension. This however is but the first step in the scale of reason, and is in strictness scarcely entitled to the name.
We set off from the same point from which they commence their career. But the faculty of articulate speech comes in, enabling us to form the crude elements of reason and inference into a code. We digest explanations of things, assigning the particulars in which they resemble other classes, and the particulars by which they are distinguished from whatever other classes have fallen under our notice. We frame propositions, and, detaching ourselves from the immediate impressions of sense, proceed to generalities, which exist only, in a way confused, and not distinctly adverted to, in the conceptions of the animal creation.
It is thus that we arrive at science, and go forward to those subtleties, and that perspicuity of explanation, which place man in a distinct order of being, leaving all the other inhabitants of earth at an immeasurable distance below him. It is thus that we communicate our discoveries to each other, and hand down the knowledge we have acquired, unimpaired and entire, through successive ages, and to generations yet unborn.
But in certain respects we pay a very high price for this distinction. It is to it that we must impute all the follies, extravagances and hallucinations of human intellect. There is nothing so absurd that some man has not affirmed, rendering himself the scorn and laughing‐stock of persons of sounder understanding. And, which is worst, the more ridiculous and unintelligible is the proposition he has embraced, the more pertinaciously does he cling to it; so that creeds the most outrageous and contradictory have served as the occasion or pretext for the most impassioned debates, bloody wars, inhuman executions, and all that most deeply blots and dishonours the name of man—while often, the more evanescent and frivolous are the distinctions, the more furious and inexpiable have been the contentions they have produced.
The result of the whole, in the vast combinations of men into tribes and nations, is, that thousands and millions believe, or imagine they believe, propositions and systems, the terms of which they do not fully understand, and the evidence of which they have not considered. They believe, because so their fathers believed before them…
The thinking principle within us is so subtle, has passed through so many forms of instruction, and is under the influence and direction of such a variety of causes, that no man can accurately pronounce by what impulse he has been led to the conclusion in which he finally reposes. Every ingenuous person, who is invited to embrace a certain profession, that of the church for example, will desire, preparatorily to his final determination, to examine the evidences and the merits of the religion he embraces, that he may enter upon his profession under the influence of a sincere conviction, and be inspired with that zeal, in singleness of heart, which can alone prevent his vocation from being disgraceful to him. Yet how many motives are there, constraining him to abide in an affirmative conclusion? His friends expect this from him. Perhaps his own inclination leads him to select this destination rather than any other. Perhaps preferment and opulence wait upon his decision. If the final result of his enquiries lead him to an opposite judgment, to how much obloquy will he be exposed! Where is the man who can say that no unconscious bias has influenced him in the progress of his investigation? Who shall pronounce that, under very different circumstances, his conclusions would not have been essentially other than they are?
But the enquiry of an active and a searching mind does not terminate on a certain day. He will be for ever revising and reconsidering his first determinations. It is one of the leading maxims of an honourable mind, that we must be, at all times, and to the last hour of our existence, accessible to conviction built upon new evidence, or upon evidence presented in a light in which it had not before been viewed. If then the probationer for the clerical profession was under some bias in his first investigation, how must it be expected to be with him, when he has already taken the vow, and received ordination? Can he with a calm and unaltered spirit contemplate the possibility, that the ground shall be cut away from under him, and that, by dint of irrefragable argument, he shall be stripped of his occupation, and turned out naked and friendless into the world?
But this is only one of the broadest and most glaring instances. In every question of paramount importance there is ever a secret influence urging me earnestly to desire to find one side of the question right and the other wrong. Shall I be a whig or a tory, believe a republic or a mixed monarchy most conducive to the improvement and happiness of mankind, embrace the creed of free will or necessity? There is in all cases a “strong temptation that waketh in the heart.” Cowardice urges me to become the adherent of that creed, which is espoused by my nearest friends, or those who are most qualified to serve me. Enterprise and a courageous spirit on the contrary bid me embrace the tenet, the embracing of which shall most conduce to my reputation for extraordinary perspicuity and acuteness, and gain me the character of an intrepid adventurer, a man who dares commit himself to an unknown voyage.
In the question of religion, even when the consideration of the profession of an ecclesiastic does not occur, yet we are taught to believe that there is only one set of tenets that will lead us in the way of salvation. Faith is represented as the first of all qualifications. “If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin.” With what heart then does a man set himself to examine, and scrupulously weigh the evidence on one side and the other, when some undiscerned frailty, some secret bias that all his care cannot detect, may lurk within, and insure for him the “greater condemnation?” I well remember in early life, with what tingling sensation and unknown horror I looked into the books of the infidels and the repositories of unlawful tenets, lest I should be seduced. I held it my duty to “prove all things;” but I knew not how far it might be my fate; to sustain the penalty attendant even upon an honourable and virtuous curiousity.
It is one of the most received arguments of the present day against religious persecution, that the judgments we form are not under the authority of our will, and that, for what it is not in our power to change, it is unjust we should be punished: and there is much truth in this. But it is not true to the fullest extent. The sentiments we shall entertain, are to a considerable degree at the disposal of inticements on the one side, and of menaces and apprehension on the other. That which we wish to believe, we are already greatly in progress to embrace; and that which will bring upon us disgrace and calamity, we are more than half prepared to reject. Persecution however is of very equivocal power: we cannot embrace one faith and reject another at the word of command.
It is a curious question to decide how far punishments and rewards may be made effectual to determine the religion of nations and generations of men. They are often unsuccessful. There is a feeling in the human heart, that prompts us to reject with indignation this species of tyranny. We become more obstinate in clinging to that which we are commanded to discard. We place our honour and our pride in the firmness of our resistance. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Yet there is often great efficacy in persecution. It was the policy of the court of Versailles that brought almost to nothing the Huguenots of France. And there is a degree of persecution, if the persecuting party has the strength and the inexorableness to employ it, that it is perhaps beyond the prowess of human nature to stand up against.
The mind of the enquiring man is engaged in a course of perpetual research; and ingenuousness prompts us never to be satisfied with the efforts that we have made, but to press forward. But mind, as well as body, has a certain vis inertiae, and moves only as it is acted upon by impulses from without. With respect to the adopting new opinions, and the discovery of new truths, we must be indebted in the last resort, either to books, or the oral communications of our fellow‐men, or to ideas immediately suggested to us by the phenomena of man or nature. The two former are the ordinary causes of a change of judgment to men: they are for the most part minds of a superior class only, that are susceptible of hints derived straight from the external world, without the understandings of other men intervening, and serving as a conduit to the new conceptions introduced. The two former serve, so to express it, for the education of man, and enable us to master, in our own persons, the points already secured, and the wisdom laid up in the great magazine of human knowledge; the last imparts to us the power of adding to the stock, and carrying forward by one step and another the improvements of which our nature is susceptible.
It is much that books, the unchanging records of the thoughts of men in former ages, are able to impart to us. For many of the happiest moments of our lives, for many of the purest and most exalted feelings of the human heart, we are indebted to them. Education is their province; we derive from them civilization and refinement; and we may affirm of literature, what Otway has said of woman, “We had been brutes without you.” It is thus that the acquisitions of the wise are handed down from age to age, and that we are enabled to mount step after step on the ladder of paradise, till we reach the skies.
But, inestimable as is the benefit we derive from books, there is something more searching and soul‐stirring in the impulse of oral communication. We cannot shut our ears, as we shut our books; we cannot escape from the appeal of the man who addresses us with earnest speech and living conviction…
The man, who lives in solitude, and seldom communicates with minds of the same class as his own, works out his opinions with patient scrutiny, returns to the investigation again and again, imagines that he had examined the question on all sides, and at length arrives at what is to him a satisfactory conclusion. He resumes the view of this conclusion day after day; he finds in it an unalterable validity; he says in his heart, “Thus much I have gained; this is a real advance in the search after truth; I have added in a defined and palpable degree to what I knew before.” And yet it has sometimes happened, that this person, after having been shut up for weeks, or for a longer period, in his sanctuary, living, so far as related to an exchange of oral disquisitions with his fellow‐men, like Robinson Crusoe in the desolate island, shall come into the presence of one, equally clear‐sighted, curious and indefatigable with himself, and shall hear from him an obvious and palpable statement, which in a moment shivers his sightly and glittering fabric into atoms. The statement was palpable and near at hand; it was a thin, an almost imperceptible partition that hid it from him; he wonders in his heart that it never occurred to his meditations. And yet so it is: it was hid from him for weeks, or perhaps for a longer period: it might have been hid from him for twenty years, if it had not been for the accident that supplied it. And he no sooner sees it, than he instantly perceives that the discovery upon which he plumed himself, was an absurdity, of which even a schoolboy might be ashamed.
A circumstance not less curious, among the phenomena which belong to this subject of belief, is the repugnance incident to the most ingenuous minds, which we harbour against the suddenly discarding an opinion we have previously entertained, and the adopting one which comes recommended to us with almost the force of demonstration. Nothing can be better founded than this repugnance. The mind of man is of a peculiar nature. It has been disputed whether we can entertain more than one idea at a time. But certain it is, that the views of the mind at any one time are considerably narrowed. The mind is like the slate of a schoolboy, which can contain only a certain number of characters of a given size, or like a moveable panorama, which places a given scene or landscape before me, and the space assigned, and which comes within the limits marked out to my perception, is full. Many things are therefore almost inevitably shut out, which, had it not been so, might have essentially changed the view of the case, and have taught me that it was a very different conclusion at which I ought to have arrived.
At first sight nothing can appear more unreasonable, than that I should hesitate to admit the seemingly irresistible force of the argument presented to me. An ingenuous disposition would appear to require that, the moment the truth, or what seems to be the truth, is set before me, I should pay to it the allegiance to which truth is entitled. If I do otherwise, it would appear to argue a pusillanimous disposition, a mind not prompt and disengaged to receive the impression of evidence, a temper that loves something else better than the lustre which all men are bound to recognise, and that has a reserve in favour of ancient prejudice, and of an opinion no longer supported by reason.
In fact however I shall act most wisely, and in the way most honourable to my character, if I resolve to adjourn the debate. No matter how complete the view may seem which is now presented to my consideration, or how irresistible the arguments: truth is too majestic a divinity, and it is of too much importance that I should not follow a delusive semblance that may shew like truth, not to make it in the highest degree proper that I should examine again and again, before I come to the conclusion to which I mean to affix my seal, and annex my sanction, “This is the truth…”
Such is the nature of the human mind—at least, such I find to be the nature of my own—that many trains of thinking, many chains of evidence, the result of accumulated facts, will often not present themselves, at the time when their presence would be of the highest importance. The view which now comes before me is of a substance so close and well‐woven, and of colours so brilliant and dazzling, that other matters in a certain degree remote, though of no less intrinsic importance, and equally entitled to influence my judgment in the question in hand, shall be entirely shut out, shall be killed, and fail to offer themselves to my perceptions…
This circumstance in the structure of the human understanding is well known, and is the foundation of many provisions that occur in the constitution of political society. How each man shall form his creed, and arrange those opinions by which his conduct shall be regulated, is of course a matter exclusively subjected to his own discretion. But, when he is called upon to act in the name of a community, and to decide upon a question in which the public is interested, he of necessity feels himself called upon to proceed with the utmost caution. A judge on the bench, a chancellor, is not contented with that sudden ray of mental illumination to which an ingenuous individual is often disposed to yield in an affair of abstract speculation. He feels that he is obliged to wait for evidence, the nature of which he does not yet anticipate, and to adjourn his decision. A deliberative council or assembly is aware of the necessity of examining a question again and again. It is upon this principle that the two houses of the English parliament are required to give a first, a second and a third reading, together with various other forms and technicalities, to the provision that is brought before them, previously to its passing into a law. And there is many a fundamental dogma and corner‐stone of the sentiments that I shall emphatically call my own, that is of more genuine importance to the individual, than to a nation is a number of those regulations, which by courtesy we call acts of parliament.
Nothing can have a more glaring tendency to subvert the authority of my opinion among my fellow‐men, than instability…We ought at all times to be open to conviction. We ought to be ever ready to listen to evidence. But, conscious of our human frailty, it is seldom that we ought immediately to subscribe to the propositions, however specious, that are now for the first time presented to us. It is our duty to lay up in our memory the suggestions offered upon any momentous question, and not to suffer them to lose their inherent weight and impressiveness; but it is only through the medium of consideration and reconsideration, that they can become entitled to our full and unreserved assent…
There are many notions or judgments floating in the mind of every man, which are mutually destructive of each other. In this sense men’s opinions are governed by high and low spirits, by the state of the solids and fluids of the human body, and by the state of the weather. But in a paramount sense that only can be said to be a man’s opinion which he entertains in his clearest moments, and from which, when he is most himself, he is least subject to vary. In this emphatical sense, I should say, a man does not always know what is his real opinion. We cannot strictly be said to believe any thing, in cases where we afterwards change our opinion without the introduction of some evidence that was unknown to us before. But how many are the instances in which we can be affirmed to be in the adequate recollection of all the evidences and reasonings which have at some time occurred to us, and of the opinions, together with the grounds on which they rested, which we conceived we had justly and rationally entertained?
The considerations here stated however should by no means be allowed to inspire us with indifference in matters of opinion. It is the glory and lustre of our nature, that we are capable of receiving evidence, and weighing the reasons for and against any important proposition in the balance of an impartial and enlightened understanding. The only effect that should be produced in us, by the reflection that we can at last by no means be secure that we have attained to a perfect result, should be to teach us a wholsome diffidence and humility, and induce us to confess that, when we have done all, we are ignorant, dim‐sighted and fallible, that our best reasonings may betray, and our wisest conclusions deceive us.