Love is the Result of Inquality: Godwin’s Thoughts on Man
Our author puts forth a romanticized, mythologized version of history to defend the claim that love is the result of imagination, inequality, and difference.
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
Oddly enough, perhaps, given that Godwin was married to the famous early feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft, he argues throughout the following essay that “a passion of the mind” so strong as love depends upon “imagination”–the process of discovering that which is different or unequal to oneself. Expanding upon the subject matter of his last essay, our author presents the parent‐child relationship as his first case study. He sees no parallel, no match for the intensity of feeling in any other social relationship. Parents are profoundly changed by their children and children have a perpetual hero and model in the parent. Yet, as most of us would no doubt agree, “No parent ever understood his child, and no child ever understood his parent.” Their love is possible only because of the incredible possibilities conjured into existence by this new relationship. Parents and children so strike each other’s imaginations that they leave one another in constant, exhausting, though entirely stimulating flux.
Godwin’s thoughts on the nature of familial love rest on the assumption that the relationship exists without exploitation. Parents especially may poison the natural well of filial love with physical, mental, emotional and other abuse. Children may affect the same by continual disobedience and sabotage of the parents’ interests. But what if exploitation from one side of the relationship produces a genuine feeling of love from the other nonetheless? To say the least, Godwin’s assumption of benevolence in the traditional family seems a romantic gesture. His treatment of the sexes is plagued with similar problems. He begins this section with the claim that “Nothing can be more certain, however we may seek to modify and abate it, than the inequality of the sexes.” As evidence, he offers the observation that men and women often argue and fight with one another, especially those in romantic relationships. Godwin then provides us a rosy portrait of High Medieval “courtly love” which is more caricature than history. The medieval period was so disorderly that “Each sex stood in need of the other; and the basis of their union was mutual esteem.” This new sort of benevolence replaced the simple slavery of women and “Equality fled and was no more [while] love, almighty, perdurable love, came to supply its place.” He concludes by reiterating his argument that love is a result of perceived inequality–which is to say that romance is much like any other market exchange. Both parties value the other enough to make certain sacrifices to maintain the relationship. While an economic analysis of love may indeed be apt, it must be admitted that Godwin’s arguments in this chapter are some of his very weakest, based as they are in simplified, romanticized, and problematic history and an odd muddling of biological and sociological concepts.
By William Godwin
THOUGHTS ON MAN: HIS NATURE, PRODUCTIONS AND DISCOVERIES INTERSPERSED WITH SOME PARTICULARS RESPECTING THE AUTHOR (Excerpts)
ESSAY XV. OF LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP.
Who is it that says, “There is no love but among equals?” Be it who it may, it is a saying universally known, and that is in every one’s mouth. The contrary is precisely the truth, and is the great secret of every thing that is admirable in our moral nature.
By love it is my intention here to understand, not a calm, tranquil, and, as it were, half‐pronounced feeling, but a passion of the mind. We may doubtless entertain an approbation of other men, without adverting to the question how they stand in relation to ourselves, as equals or otherwise. But the sentiment I am here considering, is that where the person in whom it resides most strongly sympathises with the joys and sorrows of another, desires his gratification, hopes for his welfare, and shrinks from the anticipation of his being injured; in a word, is the sentiment which has most the spirit of sacrifice in it, and prepares the person in whom it dwells, to postpone his own advantage to the advantage of him who is the object of it.
Having placed love among the passions, which is no vehement assumption, I then say, there can be no passion, and by consequence no love, where there is not imagination. In cases where every thing is understood, and measured, and reduced to rule, love is out of the question. Whenever this sentiment prevails, I must have my attention fixed more on the absent than the present, more upon what I do not see than on what I do see. My thoughts will be taken up with the future or the past, with what is to come or what has been. Of the present there is necessarily no image. Sentiment is nothing, till you have arrived at a mystery and a veil, something that is seen obscurely, that is just hinted at in the distance, that has neither certain outline nor colour, but that is left for the mind to fill up according to its pleasure and in the best manner it is able.
The great model of the affection of love in human beings, is the sentiment which subsists between parents and children…
The original feature in this sentiment is the conscious feeling of the protector and the protected. Our passions cannot subsist in lazy indolence; passion and action must operate on each other; passion must produce action, and action give strength to the tide of passion. We do not vehemently desire, where we can do nothing. It is in a very faint way that I entertain a wish to possess the faculty of flying; and an ordinary man can scarcely be said to desire to be a king or an emperor. None but a madman, of plebeian rank, falls in love with a princess. But shew me a good thing within my reach; convince me that it is in my power to attain it; demonstrate to me that it is fit for me, and I am fit for it; then begins the career of passion…
What can be more clear and sound in explanation, than the love of a parent to his child? The affection he bears and its counterpart are the ornaments of the world, and the spring of every thing that makes life worth having. Whatever besides has a tendency to illustrate and honour our nature, descends from these, or is copied from these, grows out of them as the branches of a tree from the trunk, or is formed upon them as a model, and derives from them its shape, its character, and its soul…
The love of the parent to his child is nursed and fostered by two plain considerations; first, that the subject is capable of receiving much, and secondly, that my power concerning it is great and extensive.
When an infant is presented to my observation, what a wide field of sentiment and reflection is opened to me! Few minds are industrious and ductile enough completely to compass this field, if the infant is only accidentally brought under their view…The Book of Fate lies open before me. This infant, powerless and almost impassive now, is reserved for many sorrows and many joys, and will one day possess a power, formidable and fearful to afflict those within its reach, or calculated to diffuse blessings, wisdom, virtue, happiness, to all around. I conceive all the various destinations of which man is susceptible; my fancy at least is free to select that which pleases me best; I unfold and pursue it in all its directions, observe the thorns and difficulties with which it is beset, and conjure up to my thoughts all that it can boast of inviting, delightful and honourable.
But if the infant that is near to me lays hold of my imagination and affections at the moment in which he falls under my observation, how much more do I become interested in him, as he advances from year to year!…Every lesson that the child leans, every comment that he makes upon it, every sport that he pursues, every choice that he exerts, the demeanour that he adopts to his playfellows, the modifications and character of his little fits of authority or submission, all make him more and more an individual to me, and open a wider field for my sagacity or my prophecy, as to what he promises to be, and what he may be made…
And there are men that say, that all this mystery, the most beautiful attitude of human nature, and the crown of its glory, is pure selfishness!
Let us now turn from the view of the parental, to that of the filial affection.
The great mistake that has been made on this subject, arises from the taking it nakedly and as a mere abstraction. It has been sagely remarked, that when my father did that which occasioned me to come into existence, he intended me no benefit, and therefore I owe him no thanks. And the inference which has been made from this wise position is, that the duty of children to parents is a mere imposture, a trick, employed by the old to defraud the young out of their services.
I grant most readily, that the mere material ligament that binds together the father and the child, by itself is worthless, and that he who owes nothing more than this to his father, owes him nothing. The natural, unanimated relationship is like the grain of mustard‐seed in the discourses of Jesus Christ…
The hard and insensible man may know little of the debt he owes to his father; but he that is capable of calling up the past, and beholding the things that are not as if they now were, will see the matter in a very different light. Incalculable are the privations (in a great majority of instances), the toils, the pains, the anxieties, that every child imposes on his father from the first hour of his existence. If he could know the ceaseless cares, the tender and ardent feelings, the almost incredible efforts and exertions, that have accompanied him in his father’s breast through the whole period of his growth, instead of thinking that he owed his parent nothing, he would stand still and wonder that one human creature could do so much for another…
But even this is not the most agreeable point of view in which we may consider the filial affection. I come back to my first position, that where there is no imagination, there can be no passion, and by consequence no love. No parent ever understood his child, and no child ever understood his parent. We have seen that the affectionate parent considers his child like a flower in the bud, as a mine of power that is to be unfolded, as a creature that is to act and to pass through he knows not what, as a canvas that “gives ample room and verge enough,” for his prophetic soul to hang over in endless visions, and his intellectual pencil to fill up with various scenes and fortunes. And, if the parent does not understand his child, certainly as little does the child understand his parent. Wherever this relation subsists in its fairest form, the parent is as a God, a being qualified with supernatural powers, to his offspring. The child consults his father as an oracle; to him he proposes all his little questions; from him he learns his natural philosophy, his morals, his rules of conduct, his religion, and his creed. The boy is uninformed on every point; and the father is a vast Encyclopedia, not merely of sciences, but of feelings, of sagacity, of practical wisdom, and of justice, which the son consults on all occasions, and never consults in vain. Senseless and inexpert is that parent, who endeavours to govern the mind by authority, and to lay down rugged and peremptory dogmas to his child; the child is fully and unavoidably prepared to receive every thing with unbounded deference, and to place total reliance in the oracle which nature has assigned him. Habits, how beautiful! Inestimable benefit of nature, that has given me a prop against which to sustain my unripened strength, and has not turned me loose to wander with tottering steps amidst the vast desert of society!
But it is not merely for contemplative wisdom that the child honours his parent; he sees in him a vast fund of love, attachment and sympathy. That he cannot mistake; and it is all a mystery to him. He says, What am I, that I should be the object of this? and whence comes it? He sees neither the fountain from which it springs, nor the banks that confine it. To him it is an ocean, unfathomable, and without a shore.
To the bounty of its operations he trusts implicitly. The stores of judgment and knowledge he finds in his father, prompt him to trust it. In many instances where it appeared at first obscure and enigmatical, the event has taught him to acknowledge its soundness. The mutinousness of passion will sometimes excite a child to question the decrees of his parent; it is very long before his understanding, as such, comes to set up a separate system, and teaches him to controvert the decisions of his father.
Perhaps I ought earlier to have stated, that the filial connection we have here to consider, does not include those melancholy instances where some woful defect or utter worthlessness in the parent counteracts the natural course of the affections, but refers only to cases, where the character of father is on the whole sustained with honour, and the principle of the connection is left to its true operation. In such cases the child not only observes for himself the manifestations of wisdom and goodness in his parent, but is also accustomed to hear well of him from all around. There is a generous conspiracy in human nature, not to counteract the honour borne by the offspring to him from whom he sprung, and the wholsome principle of superiority and dependence which is almost indispensible between persons of different ages dwelling under the same roof. And, exclusively of this consideration, the men who are chiefly seen by the son are his father’s friends and associates; and it is the very bent, and, as it were, law of our nature, that we do not associate much, but with persons whom we favour, and who are prepared to mention us with kindness and honour.
Thus every way the child is deeply imbued with veneration for his parent, and forms the habit of regarding him as his book of wisdom, his philosopher and guide. He is accustomed to hear him spoken of as a true friend, an active ally, and a pattern of justice and honour; and he finds him so. Now these are the true objects of affection,—wisdom and beneficence; and the human heart loves this beneficence better when it is exercised towards him who loves, first, because inevitably in almost all instances we are best pleased with the good that is done to ourselves, and secondly, because it can scarcely happen but that we in that case understand it best, both in its operation and its effects.
The active principles of religion are all moulded upon this familiar and sensible relation of father and child: and to understand whet the human heart is capable to conceive on this subject, we have only to refer to the many eloquent and glowing treatises that have been written upon the love of God to his creatures, and the love that the creature in return owes to his God…
To proceed…Nothing can be more certain, however we may seek to modify and abate it, than the inequality of the sexes…
Thus it is painted to us as having been in Paradise; and with similar inequality have the sexes subsisted in all ages and nations since. If it were possible to take from the fair sex its softness and attractive grace, and endow it instead with audacious, masculine and military qualities, there is scarcely any one that does not perceive, with whatever advantages it might be attended in other respects, that it would be far from tending to cherish and increase the passion of love.
It is in reality obvious, that man and woman, as they come from the hands of nature, are so much upon a par with each other, as not to afford the best subjects between whom to graft a habit of entire, unalterable affection. In the scenes of vulgar and ordinary society, a permanent connection between persons of opposite sexes is too apt to degenerate into a scene of warfare, where each party is for ever engaged in a struggle for superiority, and neither will give way. A penetrating observer, with whom in former days I used intimately to converse, was accustomed to say, that there was generally more jarring and ill blood between the two parties in the first year of their marriage, than during all the remainder of their lives. It is at length found necessary, as between equally matched belligerents on the theatre of history, that they should come to terms, make a treaty of peace, or at least settle certain laws of warfare, that they may not waste their strength in idle hostilities.
The nations of antiquity had a way of settling this question in a very summary mode. As certain Oriental tribes have determined that women have no souls, and that nothing can be more proper than to shut them up, like singing birds in cages, so the Greeks and Romans for the most part excluded their females from the society of the more martial sex. Marriage with them was a convenience merely; and the husband and wife were in reality nothing more than the master and the slave. This point once settled as a matter of national law, there was certainly in most cases little danger of any vexatious rivalship and struggle for power.
But there is nothing in which the superiority of modern times over the ancient has been more conspicuous, than in our sentiments and practices on this subject. This superiority, as well as several other of our most valuable acquisitions, took its rise in what we call the dark ages. Chivalry was for the most part the invention of the eleventh century. Its principle was built upon a theory of the sexes, giving to each a relative importance, and assigning to both functions full of honour and grace. The knights (and every gentleman during that period in due time became a knight) were taught, as the main features of their vocation, the “love of God and the ladies.” The ladies in return were regarded as the genuine censors of the deeds of knighthood. From these principles arose a thousand lessons of humanity. The ladies regarded it as their glory to assist their champions to arm and to disarm, to perform for them even menial services, to attend them in sickness, and to dress their wounds. They bestowed on them their colours, and sent them forth to the field hallowed with their benedictions. The knights on the other hand considered any slight towards the fair sex as an indelible stain to their order; they contemplated the graceful patronesses of their valour with a feeling that partook of religious homage and veneration, and esteemed it as perhaps the first duty of their profession, to relieve the wrongs, and avenge the injuries of the less powerful sex.
This simple outline as to the relative position of the one sex and the other, gave a new face to the whole scheme and arrangements of civil society. It is like those admirable principles in the order of the material universe, or those grand discoveries brought to light from time to time by superior genius, so obvious and simple, that we wonder the most common understanding could have missed them, yet so pregnant with results, that they seem at once to put a new life and inspire a new character into every part of a mighty and all‐comprehensive mass.
The passion between the sexes, in its grosser sense, is a momentary impulse merely; and there was danger that, when the fit and violence of the passion was over, the whole would subside into inconstancy and a roving disposition, or at least into indifference and almost brutal neglect. But the institutions of chivalry immediately gave a new face to this. Either sex conceived a deep and permanent interest in the other. In the unsettled state of society which characterised the period when these institutions arose, the defenceless were liable to assaults of multiplied kinds, and the fair perpetually stood in need of a protector and a champion. The knights on the other hand were taught to derive their fame and their honour from the suffrages of the ladies. Each sex stood in need of the other; and the basis of their union was mutual esteem.
The effect of this was to give a hue of imagination to all their intercourse. A man was no longer merely a man, nor a woman merely a woman. They were taught mutual deference. The woman regarded her protector as something illustrious and admirable; and the man considered the smiles and approbation of beauty as the adequate reward of his toils and his dangers. These modes of thinking introduced a nameless grace into all the commerce of society. It was the poetry of life. Hence originated the delightful narratives and fictions of romance; and human existence was no longer the bare, naked train of vulgar incidents, which for so many ages of the world it had been accustomed to be. It was clothed in resplendent hues, and wore all the tints of the rainbow. Equality fled and was no more; and love, almighty, perdurable love, came to supply its place.
By means of this state of things the vulgar impulse of the sexes towards each other, which alone was known to the former ages of the world, was transformed into somewhat of a totally different nature. It became a kind of worship. The fair sex looked upon their protectors, their fathers, their husbands, and the whole train of their chivalry, as something more than human. There was a grace in their motions, a gallantry in their bearing, and a generosity in their spirit of enterprise, that the softness of the female heart found irresistible. Nor less on the other hand did the knights regard the sex to whose service and defence they were sworn, as the objects of their perpetual deference. They approached them with a sort of gallant timidity, listened to their behests with submission, and thought the longest courtship and devotion nobly recompensed by the final acceptance of the fair.
The romance and exaggeration characteristic of these modes of thinking have gradually worn away in modern times; but much of what was most valuable in them has remained. Love has in later ages never been divested of the tenderness and consideration, which were thus rendered some of its most estimable features. A certain desire in each party to exalt the other, and regard it as worthy of admiration, became inextricably interwoven with the simple passion. A sense of the honour that was borne by the one to the other, had the happiest effect in qualifying the familiarity and unreserve in the communion of feelings and sentiments, without which the attachment of the sexes cannot subsist. It is something like what the mystic divines describe of the beatific vision, where entire wonder and adoration are not judged to be incompatible with the most ardent affection, and all meaner and selfish regards are annihilated.
From what has been thus drawn together and recapitulated it seems clearly to follow, as was stated in the beginning, that love cannot exist in its purest form and with a genuine ardour, where the parties are, and are felt by each other to be, on an equality; but that in all cases it is requisite there should be a mutual deference and submission, agreeably to the apostolic precept, “Likewise all of you be subject one to the other.” There must be room for the imagination to exercise its powers; we must conceive and apprehend a thousand things which we do not actually witness; each party must feel that it stands in need of the other, and without the other cannot be complete; each party must be alike conscious of the power of receiving and conferring benefit; and there must be the anticipation of a distant future, that may every day enhance the good to be imparted and enjoyed, and cause the individuals thus united perpetually to become more sensible of the fortunate event which gave them to each other, and has thus entailed upon each a thousand advantages in which they could otherwise never have shared.