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Individuals, Society, and the Cosmos: Godwin’s Thoughts on Man

Godwin argues that philosophers and scientists should discover themselves and their own immediate world before casting about the galaxy.

Editor’s Note

Godwin continues his critique of modern astronomy with the observation that scientists would do well to limit their claims to that which they can reliably and practically measure and explain. Having calculated the distances between planets and stars, “the modern astronomer” applies lingering religious dogma to posit the existence of extraterrestrial “rational inhabitants.” For Godwin, the leap in reasoning was far too bold and indicative of egotism—the same sort of pretensions to mysterious knowledge and power one can find throughout Lives of the Necromancers. But these were no True Believer priests, no crackpot astrologers or alchemists. These were the pioneers of modern empirical sciences and the forefathers of incredible new technologies in development and over the horizon. Godwin’s great fear for modern science was that its practitioners would follow the same path to necromancy as had so many other learned and wise thinkers across the ages. Dwelling too heavily on the infinite mysteries of space, they may forget entirely that “The world that we inhabit, this little globe of earth, is to us an infinite mystery.” With their eyes fixed on the stars, the world’s brightest minds might fail to see the human misery surrounding them and fail to use their talents where they could be of most practical use. Humility would keep the scientists’ eyes trained to the earth and their own fellow creatures: “But man is not omnipotent. If he aspires to be worthy of honour, it is necessary that he should compute his powers, and what it is they are competent to achieve. The globe of earth, with ‘all that is therein,’ is our estate and our empire.” Since Godwin’s time we have been able to greatly appreciate the groundwork laid by early astronomers with their fanciful calculations of unbelievable distances—we have even moved objects back and forth between celestial orbs. But still, the oceans remain largely unknown and unexplored, the natural forces of our own earth are not fully understood and far from contained, and the human brain remains the most complex thing we know of in the entire universe. Perhaps we should, after all, heed Godwin’s call to always look inward before we start splashing around out there in the galaxy.

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History


By William Godwin



The next process of the modern astronomer is to affirm the innumerable orbs around us, discovered with the naked eye, or with which we are made acquainted by the aid of telescopes, to be all stocked with rational inhabitants. The argument for this is, that an all-wise and omnipotent creator could never have produced such immense bodies, dispersed through infinite space, for any meaner purpose, than that of peopling them with “intelligent beings, formed for endless progression in perfection and felicity.”

Now it appears to me, that, in these assertions, the modern astronomers are taking upon themselves somewhat too boldly, to expound the counsels of that mysterious power, to which the universe is indebted for its arrangement and order.

We know nothing of God but from his works. Certain speculative men have adventured to reason upon the source of all the system and the wonders that we behold, a priori, and, having found that the creator is all powerful, all wise, and of infinite goodness, according to their ideas of power, wisdom and goodness, have from thence proceeded to draw their inferences, and to shew us in what manner the works of his hands are arranged and conducted by him. This no doubt they have done with the purest intentions in the world; but it is not certain, that their discretion has equalled the boldness of their undertaking.

The world that we inhabit, this little globe of earth, is to us an infinite mystery. Human imagination is unable to conceive any thing more consummate than the great outline of things below…The birds and the beasts, the insects that skim the air, and the fishes that live in the great deep, are a magazine of wonders, that we may study for ever, without fear of arriving at the end of their excellence. Last of all, comes the crown of the creation, man, formed with looks erect, to commerce with the skies. What a masterpiece of workmanship is his form, while the beauty and intelligence of Gods seems to manifest itself in his countenance! Look at that most consummate of all implements, the human hand; think of his understanding, how composed and penetrating; of the wealth of his imagination; of the resplendent virtues he is qualified to display! “How wonderful are thy works, Oh God; in wisdom hast thou created them all!”

But there are other parts of the system in which we live, which do not seem to correspond with those already enumerated. Before we proceed to people infinite space, it would be as well, if we surveyed the surface of the earth we inhabit. What vast deserts do we find in it; what immense tracks of burning sands! One half of the globe is perhaps irreclaimable to the use of man. Then let us think of earthquakes and tempests, of wasting hurricanes, and the number of vessels, freighted with human beings, that are yearly buried in the caverns of the ocean…

The very idea of our killing, and subsisting upon the flesh of animals, surely somewhat jars with our conceptions of infinite benevolence.

But, when we look at the political history of man, the case is infinitely worse. This too often seems one tissue of misery and vice. War, conquest, oppression, tyranny, slavery, insurrections, massacres, cruel punishments, degrading corporal infliction, and the extinction of life under the forms of law, are to be found in almost every page. It is as if an evil demon were let loose upon us, and whole nations, from one decade of years to another, were struck with the most pernicious madness. Certain reasoners tell us that this is owing to the freedom of will, without which man could not exist. But here we are presented with an alternative, from which it is impossible for human understanding to escape. Either God, according to our ideas of benevolence, would remove evil out of the world, and cannot; or he can, and will not. If he has the will and not the power, this argues weakness; if he has the power and not the will, this seems to be malevolence.

Let us descend from the great stage of the nations, and look into the obscurities of private misery. Which of us is happy? What bitter springs of misery overflow the human heart, and are borne by us in silence! What cruel disappointments beset us! To what struggles are we doomed, while we struggle often in vain! The human heart seems framed, as if to be the capacious receptacle of all imaginable sorrows. The human frame seems constructed, as if all its fibres were prepared to sustain varieties of torment. “In the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread, till thou return to the earth.” But how often does that sweat prove ineffective! There are men of whom sorrow seems to be the destiny, from which they can never escape. There are hearts, into which by their constitution it appears as if serenity and content could never enter, but which are given up to all the furious passions, or are for ever the prey of repining and depression…

The astronomer however proceeds from what we see of the globe of earth, to fashion other worlds of which we have no direct knowledge. Finding that there is no part of the soil of the earth into which our wanderings can penetrate, that is not turned to the account of rational and happy beings, creatures capable of knowing and adoring their creator, that nature does nothing in vain, and that the world is full of the evidences of his unmingled beneficence, according to our narrow and imperfect ideas of beneficence, (for such ought to be our premises) we proceed to construct millions of worlds upon the plan we have imagined. The earth is a globe, the planets are globes, and several of them larger than our earth: the earth has a moon; several of the planets have satellites: the globe we dwell in moves in an orbit round the sun; so do the planets: upon these premises, and no more, we hold ourselves authorised to affirm that they contain “myriads of intelligent beings, formed for endless progression in perfection and felicity.” Having gone thus far, we next find that the fixed stars bear a certain resemblance to the sun; and, as the sun has a number of planets attendant on him, so, we say, has each of the fixed stars, composing all together “ten thousand times ten thousand” habitable worlds.

All this is well, so long as we view it as a bold and ingenious conjecture. On any other subject it would be so regarded; and we should consider it as reserved for the amusement and gratification of a fanciful visionary in the hour, when he gives up the reins to his imagination. But, backed as it is by a complexity of geometrical right lines and curves, and handed forth to us in large quartos, stuffed with calculations, it experiences a very different fortune. We are told that, “by the knowledge we derive from astronomy, our faculties are enlarged, our minds exalted, and our understandings clearly convinced, and affected with the conviction, of the existence, wisdom, power, goodness, immutability and superintendency of the supreme being; so that, without an hyperbole, ‘an undevout astronomer is mad(e).’”

It is singular, how deeply I was impressed with this representation, while I was a schoolboy, and was so led to propose a difficulty to the wife of the master. I said, “I find that we have millions of worlds round us peopled with rational creatures. I know not that we have any decisive reason for supposing these creatures more exalted, than the wonderful species of which we are individuals. We are imperfect; they are imperfect. We fell; it is reasonable to suppose that they have fallen also. It became necessary for the second person in the trinity to take upon him our nature, and by suffering for our sins to appease the wrath of his father. I am unwilling to believe that he has less commiseration for the inhabitants of other planets. But in that case it may be supposed that since the creation he has been making a circuit of the planets, and dying on the cross for the sins of rational creatures in uninterrupted succession.” The lady was wiser than I, admonished me of the danger of being over-inquisitive, and said we should act more discreetly in leaving those questions to the judgment of the Almighty.

But thus far we have reasoned only on one side of the question. Our pious sentiments have led us to magnify the Lord in all his works, and, however imperfect the analogy, and however obscure the conception we can form of the myriads of rational creatures, all of them no doubt infinitely varied in their nature, their structure and faculties, yet to view the whole scheme with an undoubting persuasion of its truth. It is however somewhat in opposition to the ideas of piety formed by our less adventurous ancestors, that we should usurp the throne of God…and, by means of our telescopes and our calculations, penetrate into mysteries not originally intended for us. According to the received Mosaic chronology we are now in the five thousand eight hundred and thirty-fifth year from the creation: the Samaritan version adds to this date. It is therefore scarcely in the spirit of a Christian, that Herschel talks to us of a light, which must have been two millions of years in reaching the earth…


It is also no more than just, that we should bear in mind the apparent fitness or otherwise, of these bodies, so far as we are acquainted with them, for the dwelling-place of rational creatures. Not to mention the probable extreme coldness of Jupiter and Saturn, the heat of the sunbeams in the planet Mercury is understood to be such as that water would unavoidably boil and be carried away, and we can scarcely imagine any living substance that would not be dissolved and dispersed in such an atmosphere. The moon, of which, as being so much nearer to us, we may naturally be supposed to know most, we are told by the astronomers has no water and no atmosphere, or, if any, such an atmosphere as would not sustain clouds and ascending vapour. To our eye, as seen through the telescope, it appears like a metallic substance, which has been burned by fire, and so reduced into the ruined and ragged condition in which we seem to behold it. The sun appears to be still less an appropriate habitation for rational, or for living creatures, than any of the planets. The comets, which describe an orbit so exceedingly eccentric, and are subject to all the excessive vicissitudes of heat and cold, are, we are told, admirably adapted for a scene of eternal, or of lengthened punishment for those who have acquitted themselves ill in a previous state of probation. Buffon is of opinion, that all the planets in the solar system were once so many portions of our great luminary, struck off from the sun by the blow of a comet, and so having received a projectile impulse calculated to carry them forward in a right line, at the same time that the power of attraction counteracts this impulse, and gives them that compound principle of motion which retains them in an orbicular course. In this sense it may be said that all the planets were suns; while on the contrary Herschel pronounces, that the sun itself is a planet, an opake body, richly stored with inhabitants.

The modern astronomers go on to account to us for the total disappearance of a star in certain cases, which, they say, may be in reality the destruction of a system, such as that of our sun and its attendant planets, while the appearance of a new star may, in like manner, be the occasional creation of a new system of planets. “We ought perhaps,” says Herschel, “to look upon certain clusters of stars, and the destruction of a star now and then in some thousands of ages, as the very means by which the whole is preserved and renewed. These clusters may be the laboratories of the universe, wherein the most salutary remedies for the decay of the whole are prepared.”

All this must appear to a sober mind, unbitten by the rage which grows out of the heat of these new discoverers, to be nothing less than astronomy run mad. This occasional creation of new systems and worlds, is in little accordance with the Christian scriptures, or, I believe, with any sober speculation upon the attributes of the creator. The astronomer seizes upon some hint so fine as scarcely by any ingenuity to be arrested, immediately launches forth into infinite space, and in an instant returns, and presents us with millions of worlds, each of them peopled with ten thousand times ten thousand inhabitants.

We spoke a while since of the apparent unfitness of many of the heavenly bodies for the reception of living inhabitants. But for all this these discoverers have a remedy. They remind us how unlike these inhabitants may be to ourselves, having other organs than ours, and being able to live in a very different temperature. “The great heat in the planet Mercury is no argument against its being inhabited; since the Almighty could as easily suit the bodies and constitutions of its inhabitants to the heat of their dwelling, as he has done ours to the temperature of our earth. And it is very probable that the people there have such an opinion of us, as we have of the inhabitants of Jupiter and Saturn; namely, that we must be intolerably cold, and have very little light at so great a distance from the sun.”

These are the remarks of Ferguson. One of our latest astronomers expresses himself to the same purpose.

“We have no argument against the planets being inhabited by rational beings, and consequently by witnesses of the creator’s power, magnificence and benevolence, unless it be said that some are much nearer the sun than the earth is, and therefore must be uninhabitable from heat, and those more distant from cold. Whatever objection this may be against their being inhabited by rational beings, of an organisation similar to those on the earth, it can have little force, when urged with respect to rational beings in general.

“But we may examine without indulging too much in conjecture, whether it be not possible that the planets may be possessed by rational beings, and contain animals and vegetables, even little different from those with which we are familiar…”

There is certainly no end to the suppositions that may be made by an ingenious astronomer. May we not suppose that we might do nearly as well altogether without the sun, which it appears is at present of little use to us as to warmth and heat? As to light, the great creator might, for aught we know, find a substitute; feelers, for example, endued with a certain acuteness of sense: or, at all events, the least imaginable degree of light might answer every purpose to organs adapted to this kind of twilight…The comets also must be a delectable residence; that of 1680 completing its orbit in 576 years, and being at its greatest distance about eleven thousand two hundred millions of miles from the sun, and at its least within less than a third part of the sun’s semi-diameter from its surface. They must therefore have delightful vicissitudes of light and the contrary; for, as to heat, that is already provided for. Archdeacon Brinkley’s postulate is, that these bodies are “possessed by rational beings, and contain animals and vegetables, little different from those with which we are familiar.”

Now the only reason we have to believe in these extraordinary propositions, is the knowledge we possess of the divine attributes. From the force of this consideration it is argued that God will not leave any sensible area of matter unoccupied, and therefore that it is impossible that such vast orbs as we believe surround us even to the extent of infinite space, should not be “richly stored with rational beings, the capable witnesses of his power, magnificence and benevolence.” All difficulties arising from the considerations of light, and heat, and a thousand other obstacles, are to give way to the perfect insight we have as to how the deity will conduct himself in every case that can be proposed. I am not persuaded that this is agreeable to religion; and I am still less convinced that it is compatible with the sobriety and sedateness of common sense…

One of the most important lessons that can be impressed on the human mind, is that of self-knowledge and a just apprehension of what it is that we are competent to achieve. We can do much. We are capable of much knowledge and much virtue. We have patience, perseverance and subtlety. We can put forth considerable energies, and nerve ourselves to resist great obstacles and much suffering. Our ingenuity is various and considerable. We can form machines, and erect mighty structures. The invention of man for the ease of human life, and for procuring it a multitude of pleasures and accommodations, is truly astonishing. We can dissect the human frame, and anatomise the mind. We can study the scene of our social existence, and make extraordinary improvements in the administration of justice, and in securing to ourselves that germ of all our noblest virtues, civil and political liberty. We can study the earth, its strata, its soil, its animals, and its productions, “from the cedar that is in Lebanon, to the hyssop that springeth out of the wall.”

But man is not omnipotent. If he aspires to be worthy of honour, it is necessary that he should compute his powers, and what it is they are competent to achieve. The globe of earth, with “all that is therein,” is our estate and our empire. Let us be content with that which we have. It were a pitiful thing to see so noble a creature struggling in a field, where it is impossible for him to distinguish himself, or to effect any thing real. There is no situation in which any one can appear more little and ludicrous, than when he engages in vain essays, and seeks to accomplish that, which a moment’s sober thought would teach him was utterly hopeless.

Even astronomy is to a certain degree our own. We can measure the course of the sun, and the orbits of the planets. We can calculate eclipses. We can number the stars, assign to them their places, and form them into what we call constellations. But, when we pretend to measure millions of miles in the heavens, and to make ourselves acquainted with the inhabitants of ten thousand times ten thousand worlds and the accommodations which the creator has provided for their comfort and felicity, we probably engage in something more fruitless and idle…

Let us beware how we mar the magnificent scene with our interpolations and commentaries! Simplicity is of the essence of the truly great. Let us look at the operations of that mighty power from which we ourselves derive our existence, with humility and reverential awe! It may well become us…The business of human life is serious; the useful investigations in which we may engage are multiplied. It is excellent to see a rational being conscious of his genuine province, and not idly wasting powers adapted for the noblest uses in unmeasured essays and ill-concocted attempts.

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