The Purpose of Life is to Cultivate Virtue: Godwin’s Thoughts on Man
For his concluding essay, Godwin argues that humanity’s full potential will be reached by a right‐thinking, right‐doing “remnant.”
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
At long last, Godwin’s Thoughts on Man draws to a close.
Having penetrated the key moments, principles, and metaphysical forces operating on human beings throughout their lives, Godwin has proceeded to discover within each of us an unlimited potential for sublimity and goodness. All the world exists in our minds, and social relationships allow us to transcend ourselves and explore reality from others’ points‐of‐view. In his concluding remarks, Godwin separates the human species into two vast and distinct classes of individuals: “the successfully tempted, and the tempted in vain.” The former give in to the temptations of wealth, power, and privilege, indulging their material senses at the expense of transcendent emotional connection with their fellow creatures. The latter resist temptation and achieve a fuller humanity.
Despite their minority position, the tempted in vain are “the salt of the earth which preserves the entire mass from putridity and dishonour.” Foreshadowing Albert Jay Nock’s famous “Isaiah’s Job” nearly a century later, Godwin continues: “They are like the remnant, which…the God of Abraham pronounced as worthy to redeem the whole community. They are like the two witnesses amidst the general apostasy, spoken of in the book of Revelations, who were the harbingers and forerunners of the millenium [sic], the reign of universal virtue and peace. Their excellence only appears with the greater lustre amidst the general defection.” Those in the Remnant stood in respectful awe of the individual person’s illimitable majesty, the precious importance of each and every intelligent creature. With the death of a single mind, a universe of creativity, experience, and passion blinked out of existence. Godwin concludes that “We are ourselves the models of all the excellence that the human mind” is capable of, and if the Remnant acted appropriately “human understanding and human virtue will hereafter accomplish such things as the heart of man has never yet been daring enough to conceive.”
By William Godwin
THOUGHTS ON MAN: HIS NATURE, PRODUCTIONS AND DISCOVERIES INTERSPERSED WITH SOME PARTICULARS RESPECTING THE AUTHOR (Excerpts)
ESSAY XXIII. OF HUMAN VIRTUE. THE EPILOGUE.
The life of man is divided into many stages; and we shall not form a just estimate of our common nature, if we do not to a certain degree pass its successive periods in review, and observe it in its commencement, its progress, and its maturity.
It has been attempted to be established in an early part of the present volume, that all men, idiots and extraordinary cases being put out of the question, are endowed with talents, which, if rightly directed, would shew them to be apt, adroit, intelligent and acute, in the walk for which their organisation especially fitted them. We are bound therefore, particularly in the morning of life, to consider every thing that presents itself to us in the human form, with deference and attention…
He is placed on the threshold of existence; and an eventful journey is open before him. For the first four or five years of life indeed he has little apprehension of the scenes that await him. But a child of quick apprehension early begins to have day‐dreams, and to form imaginations of the various chances that may occur to him, and the things he shall have to do, when, according to the language of the story‐books, he “goes out to seek his fortune.”
“God made man upright.” Every child that is born, has within him a concealed magazine of excellence. His heart beats for every thing that is lovely and good; and whatever is set before him of that sort in honest colours, rouses his emulation. By how many tokens does he prove himself worthy of our approbation and love—the unaffected and ingenuous sobriety with which he listens to what addresses itself to his attention, the sweetness of his smile, his hearty laugh, the clear, bell tones of his voice, his sudden and assured impulses, and his bounding step!
To his own heart he promises well of himself. Like Lear in the play, he says, “I will do such things!—What they are, yet I know not.” But he is assured, frank and light‐spirited. He thinks of no disguise. He “wears his heart upon his sleeve.” He looks in the face of his seniors with the glistening eye of confidence, and expects to encounter sympathy and encouragement in return. Such is man, as he comes from the hands of his maker.
Thus prepared, he is turned into the great field of society. Here he meets with much that he had not anticipated, and with many rebuffs. He is taught that he must accommodate his temper and proceedings to the expectations and prejudices of those around him. He must be careful to give no offence. With how many lessons, not always the most salutary and ingenuous, is this maxim pregnant! It calls on the neophyte to bear a wary eye, and to watch the first indications of disapprobation and displeasure in those among whom his lot is cast. It teaches him to suppress the genuine emotions of his soul. It informs him that he is not always to yield to his own impulses, but that he must “stretch forth his hands to another, and be carried whither he would not.”
It recommends to him falseness, and to be the thing in outward appearance that he is not in his heart.
Still however he goes on. He shuts up his thoughts in his bosom; but they are not exterminated. On the contrary he broods over them with genial warmth; and the less they are exposed to the eye of day, the more perseveringly are they cherished…
By and by he becomes a young man. And, whatever checks he may have received before, it usually happens that all his hopes and projects return to him now with recruited strength. He has no longer a master. He no longer crouches to the yoke of subjection, and is directed this way and that at the judgment of another. Liberty is at all times dear to the free‐soured and ingenuous; but never so much so, as when we wear it in its full gloss and newness. He never felt before, that he was sui juris, that he might go whithersoever he would, without asking leave, without consulting any other director than the law of his own mind. It is nearly at the same season that he arrives at the period of puberty, at the stature, and in a certain degree at the strength, which he is destined to attain. He is by general consent admitted to be at years of discretion.
Though I have put all these things together, they do not, in the course of nature, all come at the same time. It is a memorable period, when the ingenuous youth is transferred from the trammels of the schoolmaster to the residence of a college. It was at the age of seventeen that, according to the custom of Rome, the youthful citizen put on the manly gown, and was introduced into the forum. Even in college‐life, there is a difference in the privileges of the mere freshman, and of the youth who has already completed the first half of his period in the university.
The season of what may be denominated the independence of the individual, is certainly in no small degree critical. A human being, suddenly emancipated from a state of subjection, if we may not call it slavery, and transported into a state of freedom, must be expected to be guilty of some extravagancies and follies.
But upon the whole, with a small number of exceptions, it is creditable to human nature, that we take this period of our new powers and immunities with so much sobriety as we do.
The young man then, calls to mind all that he imagined at an earlier season, and that he promised himself. He adds to this the new lights that he has since obtained, and the nearer and more distinct view that he has reached, of the realities of life.
He recollects the long noviciate that he served to reach this period, the twenty years that he passed in ardent and palpitating expectation; and he resolves to do something worthy of all he had vowed and had imagined. He takes a full survey of his stores and endowments; and to the latter, from his enthusiasm and his self‐love, he is morally sure to do justice…The youth, whose morning of life is not utterly abortive, palpitates with the desire to promote the happiness of others, and with the desire of glory…
How many generous purposes, what bright and heart‐thrilling visions of beneficence and honour, does the young man, just starting in the race of life, conceive! There is no one in that period of existence, who has received a reasonable education, and has not in his very nonage been trod down in the mire of poverty and oppression, that does not say to himself, “Now is the time; and I will do something worthy to be remembered by myself and by others.” Youth is the season of generosity…
With what disdain he looks at the temptations of selfishness, effeminate indulgence, and sordid gain! He feels within himself that he was born for better things. His elders, and those who have already been tamed down and emasculated by the corrupt commerce of the world, tell him, “All this is the rhapsody of youth, fostered by inexperience; you will soon learn to know better; in no long time you will see these things in the same light in which we see them.” But he despises the sinister prognostic that is held out to him, and feels proudly conscious that the sentiments that now live in his bosom, will continue to animate him to his latest breath.
Youth is necessarily ingenuous in its thoughts, and sanguine in its anticipations of the future. But the predictions of the seniors I have quoted, are unfortunately in too many cases fulfilled. The outline of the scheme of civil society is in a high degree hostile to the growth and maturity of human virtue. Its unavoidable operation, except in those rare cases where positive institutions have arrested its tendency, has been to divide a great portion of its members, especially in large and powerful states, into those who are plentifully supplied with the means of luxury and indulgence, and those who are condemned to suffer the rigours of indigence.
The young man who is born to the prospect of hereditary wealth, will not unfrequently feel as generous emotions, and as much of the spirit of self‐denial, as the bosom of man is capable of conceiving. He will say, What am I, that I should have a monopoly of those things, which, if “well dispensed, in unsuperfluous, even proportion,” would supply the wants of all? He is ready, agreeably to the advice of Christ to the young man in the Gospel, to “sell all that he has, and give to the poor,” if he could be shewn how so generous a resolution on his part could be encountered with an extensive conspiracy of the well‐disposed, and rendered available to the real melioration of the state of man in society. Who is there so ignorant, or that has lived in so barren and unconceiving a tract of the soil of earth, that has not his tale to tell of the sublime emotions and the generous purposes he has witnessed, which so often mark this beautiful era of our sublunary existence?
But this is in the dawn of life, and the first innocence of the human heart…Once the young man of “great possessions…” was willing before, to be nourished with the simplest diet, and clad with the plainest attire. He knew that he was but a man like the rest of his species, and was in equity entitled to no more than they. But he presently learns a very different lesson. He believes that he cannot live without splendour and luxury; he regards a noble mansion, elegant vesture, horses, equipage, and an ample establishment, as things without which he must be hopelessly miserable. That income, which he once thought, if divided, would have secured the happiness and independence of many, he now finds scarcely sufficient to supply his increased and artificial cravings.
But, if the rich are seduced and led away from the inspirations of virtue, it may easily be conceived how much more injurious, and beyond the power of control, are the effects on the poor. The mysterious source from which the talents of men are derived, cannot be supposed in their distribution to be regulated by the artificial laws of society, and to have one measure for those which are bestowed upon the opulent, and another for the destitute. It will therefore not seldom happen that powers susceptible of the noblest uses may be cast, like “seed sown upon stony places,” where they have scarcely any chance to be unfolded and matured. In a few instances they may attract the attention of persons both able and willing to contribute to their being brought to perfection. In a few instances the principle may be so vigorous, and the tendency to excel so decisive, as to bid defiance to and to conquer every obstacle. But in a vast majority the promise will be made vain, and the hopes that might have been entertained will prove frustrate. What can be expected from the buds of the most auspicious infancy, if encountered in their earliest stage with the rigorous blasts of a polar climate?
And not only will the germs of excellence be likely to be extinguished in the members of the lower class of the community, but the temptations to irregular acts and incroachments upon the laws for the security of property will often be so great, as to be in a manner irresistible. The man who perceives that, with all his industry, he cannot provide for the bare subsistence of himself and those dependent upon him, while his neighbour revels in boundless profusion, cannot but sometimes feel himself goaded to an attempt to correct this crying evil. What must be expected to become of that general good‐will which is the natural inheritance of a well‐constituted mind, when urged by so bitter oppression and such unendurable sufferings? The whole temper of the human heart must be spoiled, and the wine of life acquire a quality acrimonious and malignant.
But it is not only in the extreme classes of society that the glaring inequality with which property is shared produces its injurious effects. All those who are born in the intermediate ranks are urged with a distempered ambition, unfavourable to independence of temper, and to true philanthropy. Each man aspires to the improvement of his circumstances, and the mounting, by one step and another, higher in the scale of the community. The contemplations of the mind are turned towards selfishness. In opulent communities we are presented with the genuine theatre for courts and kings. And, wherever there are courts, duplicity, lying, hypocrisy and cringing dwell as in their proper field. Next come trades and professions, with all the ignoble contemplations, the resolved smoothness, servility and falshood, by which they are enabled to gain a prosperous and triumphant career.
It is by such means, that man, whom “God made upright,” is led away into a thousand devious paths, and, long before the closing scene of his life, is rendered something the very reverse of what in the dawning of existence he promised to be…He feels the purity of his purposes; but is goaded by one excitement and exasperation after another, till he becomes debased, worthless and criminal…
Such are the “inventions of man,” or rather such is the operation of those institutions which ordinarily prevail in society. Still, however, much honour ought to be rendered to our common nature, since all of us are not led away by the potent spells of the enchantress. If the vulgar crew of the vessel of Ulysses were by Circe changed into brutes, so was not their commander. The human species is divided into two classes, the successfully tempted, and the tempted in vain. And, though the latter must be admitted to be a small minority, yet they ought to be regarded as the “salt of the earth,” which preserves the entire mass from putridity and dishonour. They are like the remnant, which…the God of Abraham pronounced as worthy to redeem the whole community. They are like the two witnesses amidst the general apostasy, spoken of in the book of Revelations, who were the harbingers and forerunners of the millenium, the reign of universal virtue and peace. Their excellence only appears with the greater lustre amidst the general defection.
Nothing can be more unjust than the spirit of general levelling and satire, which so customarily prevails. History records, if you will, the vices and follies of mankind. But does it record nothing else? Are the virtues of the best men, the noblest philosophers, and the most disinterested patriots of antiquity, nothing?…
Let us then pay to human virtue the honour that is so justly its due! Imagination is indeed a marvellous power; but imagination never equalled history, the achievements which man has actually performed…
Let then no man, in the supercilious spirit of a fancied disdain, allow himself to detract from our common nature. We are ourselves the models of all the excellence that the human mind can conceive. There have been men, whose virtues may well redeem all the contempt with which satire and detraction have sought to overwhelm our species. There have been memorable periods in the history of man, when the best, the most generous and exalted sentiments have swallowed up and obliterated all that was of an opposite character. And it is but just, that those by whom these things are fairly considered, should anticipate the progress of our nature, and believe that human understanding and human virtue will hereafter accomplish such things as the heart of man has never yet been daring enough to conceive.