The Enlightenment and Godwin

William Godwin by Elton Edward Smith and Esther Greenwell Smith, page 20:
as a child of the Enlightenment, in whom theological dogma had softened to moral philosophy and Biblical revelation had been domesticated into the controlling power of Reason, Godwin tended to think first of man and mind and only latterly of God and the Church.

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Hazlitt on Godwin
The fault, then, of Mr. Godwin's philosophy, in one word, was too much ambition -- 'by that sin fell the angels!' He conceived too nobly of his fellows (the most unpardonable crime against them, for there is nothing that annoys our self-love so much as being complimented on imaginary achievements, to which we are wholly unequal)--he raised the standard of morality above the reach of humanity, and by directing virtue to the most airy and romantic heights, made her path dangerous, solitary, and impracticable. The author of the Political Justice took abstract reason for the rule of conduct and abstract good for its end. He places the human mind on an elevation, from which it commands a view of the whole line of moral consequences, and requires it to conform its acts to the larger and more enlightened conscience which it has thus acquired. He absolves man from the gross and narrow ties of sense, custom, authority, private and local attachment, in order that he may devote himself to the boundless pursuit of universal benevolence.

Mr. Godwin gives no quarter to the amiable weaknesses of our nature, nor does he stoop to avail himself of the supplementary aids of an imperfect virtue. Gratitude, promises, friendship, family affection give way, not that they may be merged in the opposite vices or in want of principle, but that the void may be filled up by the disinterested love of good and the dictates of inflexible justice, which is ' the law of laws, and sovereign of sovereigns.' All minor considerations yield, in his system, to the stern sense of duty, as they do, in the ordinary and established ones, to the voice of necessity. Mr. Godwin's theory, and that of more approved reasoners, differ only in this, that what are with them the exceptions, the extreme cases, he makes the every-day rule. No one denies that on great occasions, in moments of fearful excitement, or when a mighty object is at stake, the lesser and merely instrumental points of duty are to be sacrificed without remorse at the shrine of patriotism, of honour, and of conscience.

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Myths About Godwin

There are many common myths about Godwin. One is that he was a socialist (or even a communist). Another that he was a revolutionary (actually there is an anti-revolutions chapter in Political Justice). Another that he was an opponent of Burke (actually he praised Burke several times). Here is one of the more offensive myths:

A Conflict of Visions by Thomas Sowell, p. 28
Thomas Paine's equally polemical reply, The Rights of Man (1791), anticipated in many ways the more systematic unfolding of the unconstrained vision by Godwin two years later [in Political Justice].
Paine's book is in favor of violence, which Godwin detested, and is fully unserious and hateful. The quality of argument is extremely low. Paine simply did not understand Burke's arguments, and so replied with insults and vague utopian grandeur. Godwin, who appreciated Burke and tradition both, and wrote serious and thoughtful arguments, was nothing like Paine.

I don't think Sowell believes this myth due to a political bias. When he says "equally polemical" the other book in question is _Reflections on the Revolution in France_ by Edmund Burke. That is a horrible libel directed at Burke, who Sowell considers a conservative like himself. In fact, Burke's book was not a polemic, and is not comparable to Paine's. Burke wrote a thoughtful, well-argued, objective, serious, and fair book.

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Godwin's Daughter Wanted Her Son To Be Conventional

William Godwin by Elton Edward Smith and Esther Greenwell Smith, p 121
When time came for the widow of Percy Bysshe Shelley to choose a school for their surviving son, someone suggested that he should go to a school where he would be free to think for himself. "To think for himself!" exclaimed the woman who was the daughter of the unique Mary Wollstonecraft and the unique William Godwin, the widow of the unique Percy Shelley, and the author of the unique Frankestein. "Oh my God, teach him to think like other people!" Mary Shelley knew the joys and the perils of independence, and she wanted something different for her boy. Everyone she knew intimately had been an independent thinker, heroic, never ceasing "from mental fight." But for her son she desired the settled calm of an ordinary boyhood and a commonplace life.[1]
[1] The citation is J. Middleton Murry, Heaven--and Earth (London, 1938), p. 254.

This is interesting in several ways. One is as an example of someone renouncing freedom of thought.

It also means that Godwin was right in his dispute with Mary and Shelley about their elopement. It turns out that Mary did not like the results of the lifestyle Godwin warned them against. Earlier in this book, it says most commentators think Shelley was right, and the book itself sides with Shelley. How can it do that when it contains this evidence?

That is not the only oddity of the book. Another is that it openly insults, without argument or substantial comment, three of Godwin's books, including one I've read and enjoyed (Damon and Delia). That is a theme I have observed in most books about Godwin: they are disrespectful towards Godwin.

Another common theme is that books about Godwin usually disagree with and misunderstand some of Godwin's major ideas. Why do people who don't like Godwin write about him, and where are the books by people who do like Godwin?

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Godwin on Poverty

Godwin said "Poverty is an enormous evil". Does that mean he'd be a socialist sympathizer and a critic of the USA, today?


Here is what Godwin meant by 'poverty':

The Enquirer, part 2, essay 1, page 162:
By poverty I understand the state of a man possessing no permanent property, in a country where wealth and luxury have already gained a secure establishment.
Why did Godwin dislike poverty? Here's two of the reasons he gives (p 164):
Every one can see however, that inordinate labour produces untimely decripitude.
the poor are condemned to a want of that leisure which is necessary for the improvement of the mind. They are the predestinated victims of ignorance and prejudice.
To Godwin, poverty meant you work hard all day, every day, so much that you don't ever have time to read books and think, even if you really want to, and you tire out your body so much that you live substantially fewer years, and for all this work you do not gain enough reward to accumlate any savings.

There is nothing like that in the USA today. The homeless don't work. Minimum wage workers have lots of time to read and think if they make it a priority (over watching TV, hobbies, socializing, etc), don't work all day, don't work every day, and can easily accumulate a savings if they are frugal.

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Godwin: Communist or Libertarian?

The Enquirer, part 2, essay 2, page 168:
There is no alternative, but that men must either have their portion of labour assigned them by the society at large, and the produce collected into a common stick; or that each man must be left to exert the portion of industry, and cultivate the habits of economy, to which his mind shall prompt him.

The first of these modes of existence deserves our fixed disapprobation[1].

[1] Political Justice, Book VIII, Chap. II, octavo edition
Godwin is saying that communal sharing of labor and of wealth is bad, and that people working and using resources according to their own personal judgment is good.

Let's look up his cite:
It has already appeared(1*) that one of the most essential of the rights of man is my right to the forbearance of others; not merely that they shall refrain from every thing that may, by direct consequence, affect my life, or the possession of my powers, but that they shall refrain from usurping upon my understanding, and shall leave me a certain equal sphere for the exercise of my private judgement. This is necessary because it is possible for them to be wrong, as well as for me to be so, because the exercise of the understanding is essential to the improvement of man, and because the pain and interruption I suffer are as real, when they infringe, in my conception only, upon what is of importance to me, as if the infringement had been, in the utmost degree, palpable. Hence it follows that no man may, in ordinary cases, make use of my apartment, furniture or garments, or of my food, in the way of barter or loan, without having first obtained my consent.
If, by positive institution, the property of every man were equalized today, without a contemporary change in men's dispositions and sentiments, it would become unequal tomorrow. The same evils would spring up with a rapid growth; and we should have gained nothing, by a project which, while it violated every man's habits, and many men's inclinations, would render thousands miserable.
We have already shown,(3*) and shall have occasion to show more at large,(4*) how pernicious the consequences would be if government were to take the whole permanently into their hands, and dispense to every man his daily bread.
The most destructive of all excesses is that where one man shall dictate to another, or undertake to compel him to do, or refrain from doing, anything ... otherwise than with his own consent.
It is therefore right that property ... should be defended, if need be, by means of coercion.
Persuasion, and not force, is the legitimate instrument for influencing the human mind
These quotes show Godwin's commitment to property rights, and against the use of force. If the best use of a piece of property is not with its owner, then he ought to voluntarily donate it to the better usage. If he disagrees, all you may do is offer him your reasons for your belief to try to persuade him. Consent is paramount.

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Differences Between Bakunin and Godwin

Quotes are all from Bakunin. The page of quotes was collected by someone who likes Bakunin.
If God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish Him. - God and the State, 1871
Godwin didn't hate God.
Freedom without socialism is privilege and injustice, and socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality. - Federalism, Socialism and Anti-Theologism, 1867
Godwin didn't criticize freedom itself.
There can be no equality between schoolmaster and pupils. - The Bear of Berne and the Bear of St.Petersberg, 1870
Godwin said there can and should be such equality.
No one should be entrusted with power, inasmuch as anyone invested with authority must, through the force of an immutable social law, become an oppressor and exploiter of society. - Statism and Anarchy, 1873
Godwin didn't see the people in power as exploiters. He saw them as victims, too, of bad ideas.
No theory, no ready-made system, no book that has ever been written will ever save the world. I cleave to no system, I am a true seeker. - correspondence, n.d.
Godwin didn't trash theories.
Let us put our trust in the eternal spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unsearchable and eternally creative source of all life. The urge to destroy is also a creative urge. - Reaction in Germany, 1842
Godwin didn't trust destruction and annihilation.
One must distinguish between the prejudices of the people and those of the privileged classes. The prejudices of the masses are based only on their ignorance and run counter to their own interests, where the prejudices of the bourgeoisie are based precisely on their interests. Which of the two is incurable? The bourgeoisie, without any doubt. - The Politics of the International, 1869
Godwin said the prejudices of the privileged classes were *not* in their interest. That means they would voluntarily change things if they understood more.
Everywhere religious or philosophical idealism(the one being simply the more or less free interpretation of the other) serves today as the banner of bloody and brutal material force, of shameless material exploitation. - The Knouto-Germanic Empire, 1871
Godwin never writes stuff that sounds like that.
I am a fanatic lover of liberty, considering it as the unique condition under which intelligence, dignity, and the happiness of men can develop and grow; not that purely formal liberty, conceded, measured, and regulated by the State, an eternal lie. No, I mean the only liberty truly worthy of the name, liberty that consists in the full development of all the powers - material, intellectual, and moral - that are latent faculties of each; liberty that recognizes no other restrictions than those outlined for us by the laws of our own individual nature, so that properly speaking, there are no restrictions...

I mean that liberty of each individual which, far from halting as at a boundary before the liberty of others, finds there its confirmation and its extension to infinity; the illimitable liberty of each through the liberty of all, liberty by solidarity, liberty in equality; liberty triumphing over brute force and the principle of authority which was never anything but the intellectualized expression of that force; liberty which, after having overthrown all heavenly and earthly idols, will found and organize a new world, that of human solidarity, on the ruins of all Churches and all States. - The Paris Commune and the Notion of the State
I bolded the three parts of the quote I'm commenting on, and replied to them in order.

Godwin thought we should live according to objective morality, not follow our individual nature.

Godwin thought our liberty did need to halt at the boundary of the liberty of others.

Godwin didn't want to create any ruins, i.e. didn't want to destroy things.

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Godwin on Plato and Aristotle

The Enquirer, part 2, essay 8, page 285
The poets and fine writers of antiquity still appear to us excellent; while the visions of Plato, and the arrangements of Aristotle, have no longer a place but in the brains of a few dreaming and obscure pedants.
Most people today think highly of Plato and Aristotle. A notable exception is Karl Popper.

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People Are Complex

I agree with Feynman that figuring things out is hard. Godwin writes (The Enquirer, part 2, essay 8, page 292)
No one man ever completely understood the character of any other man.
Or the way I say it, "People are complex." Godwin elaborates on this well; read the essay if interested.

A few sentences later Godwin writes:
Let every thing be examined, as far as circumstances will possibly admit, before it as assumed for true.
Or in other words, figuring things out is hard.

I would go even a bit further than Godwin: if circumstances won't admit sufficiet investigation, then you don't know the truth. No excuse about unfortunate circumstances is good enough; the truth isn't easier to come by just because you have only limited ways of trying to find it.

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Godwin on Smalltalk

_William Godwin: A Biographical Study_ by George Woodcock, p 178, quoting Godwin writing self-analysis, not for publication:
I can scarcely ever begin a conversation where I have no preconceived subject to talk of; in these cases I have recourse to topics the most trite and barren, and my memory often refuses to furnish even these.
I consider smalltalk a way for people to get along pleasantly whether they are compatible or not. It's a way for people to talk without putting their own values and ideas into the conversation and thus risking disagreement. It's a waste of time; if you disagree, then learn from each other, and if you can't do that, then this is the wrong person for you to be talking with.

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