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Word Choice Matters: Godwin’s Thoughts on Man

Godwin takes a linguistic turn to discuss the ethical implications “Of Frankness and Reserve” in our speech and interpersonal dealings.

Editor’s Note

Human beings are fundamentally social creatures just as they exist as individual minds-in-bodies with individual agency. Part of this social nature is the ability to meaningfully communicate from one individual to another verbally and non-verbally. “All other animals are exceedingly limited in their powers of communication,” Godwin observes, and human beings certainly appear to be the most advanced communicators on our planet. What’s more, language and the knowledge it creates is a good not subject to the near-universal laws of scarcity. As Godwin writes, “Language is an instrument capable of being perpetually advanced in copiousness, perspicuity and power.” It is a spontaneously-generated institutional framework through which we can continually expand our knowledge, our collective and individual intelligence, and our senses of interpersonal ethics.

However important language may be, it would be impossible to communicate all of our thoughts through abstract symbolism. We are, therefore, “of necessity reduced to a selection” when expressing our thoughts, and as a result much of our language is characterized by a balance between frankness and reserve. Godwin shows his utilitarianism when he argues that individuals are ethically required to provide their fellows with whatever information may be considered beneficial and useful to fulfilling their interests; he then qualifies the claim by stating that we are also required to withhold whatever information and description might be reasonably expected to cause individuals harm. In all cases, however the balance be struck, our interests should be serving the wider calculus of utils. Should people share this set of motivations in their interpersonal interactions, our social exchanges would—he believed—dramatically alter themselves for the better. To Godwin, people who respected one another enough to always interact on the basis of benevolence could thus “come to understand and confide in each other. This is the only frame that can perfectly conduce to our moral improvement, the awakening of our faculties, the diffusion of science, and the establishment of the purest notions and principles of civil and political liberty.”

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History



Animals are divided into the solitary and the gregarious: the former being only occasionally associated with its mate, and perhaps engaged in the care of its offspring; the latter spending their lives in herds and communities. Man is of this last class or division.

Where the animals of any particular species live much in society, it seems requisite that in some degree they should be able to understand each other’s purposes, and to act with a certain portion of concert.

All other animals are exceedingly limited in their powers of communication. But speech renders that being whom we justly entitle the lord of the creation, capable of a boundless interchange of ideas and intentions. Not only can we communicate to each other substantively our elections and preferences: we can also exhort and persuade, and employ reasons and arguments to convince our fellows, that the choice we have made is also worthy of their adoption. We can express our thoughts, and the various lights and shades, the bleedings, of our thoughts. Language is an instrument capable of being perpetually advanced in copiousness, perspicuity and power.

No principle of morality can be more just, than that which teaches us to regard every faculty we possess as a power intrusted to us for the benefit of others as well as of ourselves, and which therefore we are bound to employ in the way which shall best conduce to the general advantage.

“Speech was given us, that by it we might express our thoughts;” in other words, our impressions, ideas and conceptions. We then therefore best fulfil the scope of our nature, when we sincerely and unreservedly communicate to each other our feelings and apprehensions. Speech should be to man in the nature of a fair complexion, the transparent medium through which the workings of the mind should be made legible.

I think I have somewhere read of Socrates, that certain of his friends expostulated with him, that the windows of his house were so constructed that every one who went by could discover all that passed within. “And wherefore not?” said the sage. “I do nothing that I would wish to have concealed from any human eye. If I knew that all the world observed every thing I did, I should feel no inducement to change my conduct in the minutest particular.”

It is not however practicable that frankness should be carried to the extent above mentioned. It has been calculated that the human mind is capable of being impressed with three hundred and twenty sensations in a second of time. At all events we well know that, even “while I am speaking, a variety of sensations are experienced by me, without so much as interrupting, that is, without materially diverting, the train of my ideas. My eye successively remarks a thousand objects that present themselves, and my mind wanders to the different parts of my body, without occasioning the minutest obstacle to my discourse, or my being in any degree distracted by the multiplicity of these objects.” It is therefore beyond the reach of the faculty of speech, for me to communicate all the sensations I experience; and I am of necessity reduced to a selection.

Nor is this the whole. We do not communicate all that we feel, and all that we think; for this would be impertinent. We owe a certain deference and consideration to our fellow-men; we owe it in reality to ourselves. We do not communicate indiscriminately all that passes within us. The time would fail us; and “the world would not contain the books that might be written.” We do not speak merely for the sake of speaking; otherwise the communication of man with his fellow would be but one eternal babble. Speech is to be employed for some useful purpose; nor ought we to give utterance to any thing that shall not promise to be in some way productive of benefit or amusement.

Frankness has its limits, beyond which it would cease to be either advantageous or virtuous. We are not to tell every thing: but we are not to conceal any thing, that it would be useful or becoming in us to utter. Our first duty regarding the faculty of speech is, not to keep back what it would be beneficial to our neighbour to know. But this is a negative sincerity only. If we would acquire a character for frankness, we must be careful that our conversation is such, as to excite in him the idea that we are open, ingenuous and fearless. We must appear forward to speak all that will give him pleasure, and contribute to maintain in him an agreeable state of being. It must be obvious that we are not artificial and on our guard.—After all, it is difficult to lay down rules on this subject: the spring of whatever is desirable respecting it, must be in the temper of the man with whom others have intercourse. He must be benevolent, sympathetic and affectionate. His heart must overflow with good-will; and he must be anxious to relieve every little pain, and to contribute to the enjoyment and complacent feelings, of those with whom he is permanently or accidentally connected. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.”

There are two considerations by which we ought to be directed in the exercise of the faculty of speech.

The first is, that we should tell our neighbour all that it would be useful to him to know. We must have no sinister or bye ends…

In all these respects we must have no reserve. We should only consider what it is that it would be beneficial to have declared.

We must not look back to ourselves, and consult the dictates of a narrow and self-interested prudence. The whole essence of communication is adulterated, if, instead of attending to the direct effects of what suggests itself to our tongue, we are to consider how by a circuitous route it may react upon our own pleasures and advantage.

Nor only are we bound to communicate to our neighbour all that it will be useful to him to know. We have many neighbours, beside those to whom we immediately address ourselves. To these our absent fellow-beings, we owe a thousand duties. We are bound to defend those whom we hear aspersed, and who are spoken unworthily of by the persons whom we incidentally encounter. We should be the forward and spontaneous advocates of merit in every shape and in every individual in whom we know it to exist…

But we not only owe something to the advantage and interest of our neighbours, but something also to the sacred divinity of Truth. I am not only to tell my neighbour whatever I know that may be beneficial to him, respecting his position in society, his faults, what other men appear to contemplate that may conduce to his advantage or injury, and to advise him how the one may best be forwarded, or the other defeated and brought to nothing: I am bound also to consider in what way it may be in my power so to act on his mind, as shall most enlarge his views, confirm and animate his good resolutions, and meliorate his dispositions and temper. We are all members of one great community: and we shall never sufficiently discharge our duty in that respect, till, like the ancient Spartans, the love of the whole becomes our predominant passion, and we cease to imagine that we belong to ourselves, so much as to the entire body of which we are a part. There are certain views in morality, in politics, and various other important subjects, the general prevalence of which will be of the highest benefit to the society of which we are members; and it becomes us in this respect, with proper temperance and moderation, to conform ourselves to the zealous and fervent precept of the apostle, to “promulgate the truth and be instant, in season and out of season,” that we may by all means leave some monument of our good intentions behind us, and feel that we have not lived in vain…

It is true, that we ought ever to be on the alert, that we may not induce our friend into evil. We should be upon our guard, that we may not from overweening arrogance and self-conceit dictate to another, overpower his more sober judgment, and assume a rashness for him, in which perhaps we would not dare to indulge for ourselves. We should be modest in our suggestions, and rather supply him with materials for decision, than with a decision absolutely made. There may however be cases where an opposite proceeding is necessary. We must arrest our friend, nay, even him who is merely our fellow-creature, with a strong arm, when we see him hovering on the brink of a precipice, or the danger is so obvious, that nothing but absolute blindness could conceal it from an impartial bystander.

But in all cases our best judgment should always be at the service of our brethren of mankind…

But we should on no account suffer any cowardly fears for ourselves, to induce us to withhold from him any assistance that our wider information or our sounder judgment might supply to him.

The next consideration by which we should be directed in the exercise of the faculty of speech, is that we should employ it so as should best conduce to the pleasure of our neighbour…

But, when the mind has once been wakened up from its original lethargy, when we have overstepped the boundary which divides the man from the beast, and are made desirous of improvement, while at the same moment the tumultuous passions that draw us in infinitely diversified directions are called into act, the case becomes exceedingly different. It might be difficult at first to rouse man from his original lethargy: it is next to impossible that he should ever again be restored to it. The appetite of the mind being once thoroughly awakened in society, the human species are found to be perpetually craving after new intellectual food. We read, we write, we discourse, we ford rivers, and scale mountains, and engage in various pursuits, for the pure pleasure that the activity and earnestness of the pursuit afford us. The day of the savage and the civilised man are still called by the same name. They may be measured by a pendulum, and will be found to be of the same duration. But in all other points of view they are inexpressibly different.

Hence therefore arises another duty that is incumbent upon us as to the exercise of the faculty of speech. This duty will be more or less urgent according to the situation in which we are placed.

If I sit down in a numerous assembly, if I become one of a convivial party of ten or twelve persons, I may unblamed be for the greater part, or entirely silent, if I please. I must appear to enter into their sentiments and pleasures, or, if I do not, I shall be an unwelcome guest; but it may scarcely be required for me to clothe my feelings with articulate speech.

But, when my society shall be that of a few friends only, and still more if the question is of spending hours or days in the society of a single friend, my duty becomes altered, and a greater degree of activity will be required from me. There are cases, where the minor morals of the species will be of more importance than those which in their own nature are cardinal. Duties of the highest magnitude will perhaps only be brought into requisition upon extraordinary occasions; but the opportunities we have of lessening the inconveniences of our neighbour, or of adding to his accommodations and the amount of his agreeable feelings, are innumerable. An acceptable and welcome member of society therefore will not talk, only when he has something important to communicate. He will also study how he may amuse his friend with agreeable narratives, lively remarks, sallies of wit, or any of those thousand nothings, which, set off with a wish to please and a benevolent temper, will often entertain more and win the entire good will of the person to whom they are addressed, than the wisest discourse, or the vein of conversation which may exhibit the powers and genius of the speaker to the greatest advantage.

Men of a dull and saturnine complexion will soon get to an end of all they felt it incumbent on them to say to their comrades. But the same thing will probably happen, though at a much later period, between friends of an active mind, of the largest stores of information, and whose powers have been exercised upon the greatest variety of sentiments, principles, and original veins of thinking. When two such men first fall into society, each will feel as if he had found a treasure. Their communications are without end; their garrulity is excited, and converts into a perennial spring. The topics upon which they are prompted to converse are so numerous, that one seems to jostle out the other…

A formal countenance, a demure, careful and unaltered cast of features, is one of the most disadvantageous aspects under which human nature can exhibit itself. The temper must be enterprising and fearless, the manner firm and assured, and the correspondence between the heart and the tongue prompt and instantaneous, if we desire to have that view of man that shall do him the most credit, and induce us to form the most honourable opinion respecting him. On our front should sit fearless confidence and unsubdued hilarity. Our limbs should be free and unfettered, a state of the animal which imparts a grace infinitely more winning than that of the most skilful dancer. The very sound of our voice should be full, firm, mellow, and fraught with life and sensibility; of that nature, at the hearing of which every bosom rises, and every eye is lighted up. It is thus that men come to understand and confide in each other. This is the only frame that can perfectly conduce to our moral improvement, the awakening of our faculties, the diffusion of science, and the establishment of the purest notions and principles of civil and political liberty.

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