Romantic Rationalist: A William Godwin Reader

Romantic Rationalist: A William Godwin Reader


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William Godwin (1756–1836) was one of the first exponents of utilitarianism and the first modern proponent of anarchism. He was not only a radical philosopher but a pioneer in libertarian education, a founder of communist economics, and an acute and powerful novelist whose literary family included his partner, pioneering feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, and his daughter Mary Godwin (later Mary Shelley). This work offers for the first time a handy collection of Godwin’s key writings in a clear and concise form, together with an assessment of his influence, a biographical sketch, and an analysis of his contribution to anarchist theory and practice. Godwin’s work will be of interest to all those who believe that rationality, truth, happiness, individuality, equality, and freedom are central concerns of human enquiry and endeavor.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781629632285
Publisher: PM Press
Publication date: 02/01/2017
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

William Godwin was one of the first exponents of utilitarianism and the first modern proponent of anarchism. John Clark is the Curtin Distinguished Professor in Humane Letters and the Professions, a professor of philosophy, and a member of the environmental studies faculty at Loyola University–New Orleans. He is the author or editor of a dozen books, most recently, The Impossible Community. He lives in New Orleans. Peter Marshall is a historian, philosopher, travel writer, and poet. He has written sixteen books, including Demanding the Impossible and William Godwin. He was a founding member of a libertarian community in England. 

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Romantic Rationalist: A William Godwin Reader

By Peter Marshall

PM Press

Copyright © 2017 Peter Marshall
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62963-328-2



William Godwin, an unassuming ex-minister and political journalist, woke up one day in 1793, to find that he was famous. His Enquiry concerning Political Justice, inspired by the explosive experience of the French Revolution and the vigorous political debate which followed in Britain, swept the board. 'He blazed', his fellow radical William Hazlitt wrote later, 'as a sun in the firmament of reputation; no one was more talked of, more looked up to, more sought after, and wherever liberty, truth and justice was the theme, his name was not far off. ... No work in our time gave such a blow to the philosophical mind of the country as the celebrated Enquiry concerning Political Justice.'

William Pitt's government, shaken by the revolutionary ideas sweeping the country and the formation of political associations clamouring for reform, fully realized the danger of Godwin's work, which offered the first clear statement of anarchist principles. Pitt however decided not to prosecute Godwin for treason (which carried the death penalty) on the grounds that 'a three guinea book could never do much harm among those who had not three shillings to spare'. The book in fact was sold at half the price, and while this was still more than half the average monthly wages of a labourer, working people banded together in hundreds of places to buy it by subscription and to read it aloud at their meetings. Pirated editions appeared in Ireland and Scotland; radical publishers issued lengthy extracts in cheap collections. There was sufficient demand for Godwin to revise the work for cheaper editions in 1796 and 1798. It not only influenced artisan leaders like John Thelwall and Francis Place, who were laying the foundations of the British labour movement, but obscure young poets like Wordsworth, Southey and Coleridge. Indeed, Godwin's ideas expressed the aspirations of the emerging working class and dissenting intellectuals to such an extent that a contemporary observed that 'perhaps no work of equal bulk ever had so many proselytes in an equal space of time'.

The very success of Godwin's work, despite its philosophical weight and elegant style, shows how near the Britain of the 1790s was to revolution. The war declared by Pitt on revolutionary France however soon raised the spectre of British patriotism. His systematic persecution of the radical leaders and the introduction of Gagging Acts in 1794 eventually silenced and then broke the reform movement for a generation. Godwin came boldly to the defence of civil liberties and of his radical friends in a series of eloquent pamphlets but by the turn of the century, he too had fallen into one common grave with the cause of liberty. Thrown up by the vortex of the French Revolution, he sank when it subsided. Most people in the ruling class, De Quincey wrote, felt of Godwin with 'the same alienation and horror as of a ghoul, or a bloodless vampyre'.

But not all was lost. It was with 'inconceivable emotions' that the young Percy Bysshe Shelley found in 1812 that Godwin was still alive and he went on not only to elope with his daughter but to become the greatest anarchist poet by putting Godwin's philosophy to verse. Robert Owen, sometimes called the father of British socialism, became friendly soon after and acknowledged Godwin as his political master. In the l830s and 1840s, at the height of their agitation, the Owenites and Chartists reprinted many extracts from Godwin's works in their journals and brought out a new edition of Political Justice in 1842. Through the early British socialist thinkers, especially William Thompson and Thomas Hodgskin, Godwin's vision of the ultimate withering away of the state and of a free and equal society began to haunt the Marxist imagination.

Yet despite Godwin's influence on the British labour movement, he was virtually lost to the main international anarchist tradition in the nineteenth century. Proudhon, the first self-styled anarchist, only mentions Godwin twice as a communist of the same school as Owen. There is no evidence that Bakunin read him. Tolstoy spoke of Godwin as providing the answer to the question of how society could be established without a state authority, quoted him on law, and shared his views of reason and perfectibility, but he worked out his ideas independently. It was Kropotkin who rediscovered Godwin for the anarchist movement in the twentieth century, recognizing that the author of Political Justice was the first person to state 'in a quite definite form the political and economic principles of anarchism'. The anarchist historian Max Nettlau concurred. The sentiment was further echoed by Rudolf Rocker and confirmed by the studies of George Woodcock.

Since the Second World War, complete English editions of Political Justice have appeared in Toronto and London, a Spanish translation in Buenos Aires and a French translation in Toronto, and abridged versions in Los Angeles, London, Tokyo, Bombay, Naples and Oxford. In 1953, the Belgian anarchist Hem Day (i.e., Marcel Dieu) devoted the first issue of his Cahiers de Pensée et Action to a collection of penetrating and sympathetic essays by an international symposium of anarchists on 'Un Précurseur Trop Oublié'. A host of academic studies and articles have further recognized Godwin as a serious political philosopher, an original moral thinker, a pioneer in communist economics and progressive education and a powerful novelist.

Godwin is no longer a 'neglected prophet of individual freedom'. He is not only the greatest radical British philosopher but the most profound exponent of philosophical anarchism. He is moreover not merely of historical interest. Political Justice finds echoes in the 'counter culture' of the sixties and seventies which questions the validity of the modern industrial state and celebrates the values of simplicity and sincerity and the joy of freedom. He speaks directly to the new radicalism which has emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century and at the beginning of the twenty-first century, which seeks a libertarian way between the bureaucratic centralism of socialist states and the organized lovelessness of the capitalist world. The more they fail, the more attractive anarchism appears. As governments East and West grow more authoritarian, secretive and centralized, Godwin's insights are being increasingly appreciated. Never since the time of the French Revolution has his message been so urgent, relevant and interesting.



Godwin at first sight would appear an unlikely candidate to become the first and greatest philosopher of anarchism. He was born in 1756 in Wisbech, the capital of North Cambridgeshire, at a time when Britain was expanding its empire in America and India and the Industrial Revolution was about to begin. Britain was developing into a powerful nation state, but the landed gentry still controlled power and Parliament was corrupt and dependent on the Crown.

The region of East Anglia in which Godwin grew up had a long tradition of rebellion. The local peasantry and artisans retained something of the staunch independence which had inspired in 1549 the revolt of 20,000 men against enclosures of common land. In the following century, they participated enthusiastically in the English Revolution, helped organize the Independent movement against the king and listened to the teachings of the Levellers. They would also have heard of the Diggers, those proto-anarchists inspired by Gerrard Winstanley who rejected all man-made laws, obeyed only the dictates of reason and tried to farm the land in common.

Godwin moreover was born into a family of Dissenters who rejected the Church of England and its articles of faith. Although officially tolerated since 1689, the Dissenters were unable to have their births registered, to enter the national universities, or to hold public office. The result was that they formed a separate and distinct cultural group and made up a permanent opposition to the State of England. Godwin was steeped in this tradition: his grandfather had been a leading Dissenting minister, his father was a minister and he aspired from an early age to follow in their footsteps.

Godwin was the seventh of thirteen children and was brought up in a tiny village called Guestwick in the northern part of Norfolk. Theatmosphere at home was pious and austere; on one occasion, his father even rebuked Godwin for stroking the cat on Sunday. He was however liberal in politics and religion and would sit in his meetinghouse in 'Cromwell's chair', so named because it was said to have been a gift from the leader of the English Revolution. While Godwin's father was stern and remote, his mother was simple and affectionate and his subsequent rejection of the ties of family do not seem to have been the result of a particularly unhappy home life. Unlike his brothers and sister, Godwin proved to be an unusually serious boy, both deeply religious and intellectually precocious. It was decided to send him at the age of eleven to become the sole pupil of a reverend Samuel Newton in the great city of Norwich. It was to prove the most formative period of Godwin's life.

Newton was a powerful figure among Norwich Dissenters; he was also a petty tyrant. Godwin recalls that he was 'like a butcher, that has left off trade, but would with transport travel fifty miles for the pleasure of felling an ox'. His wife was an 'animated statue of ice'. Hitherto Godwin had heard only constant praise from those about him; now Newton complained of his proud stubbornness and proceeded to birch him. The idea of such a violation had for Godwin something in it as abrupt as a fall from heaven to earth. It left Godwin with an indelible hatred of corporal punishment in particular and of coercion and tyranny in general.

But while Godwin rebelled against Newton's sadistic rule, he adopted many of his beliefs which were profoundly to shape his future philosophy. Newton was in fact a member of an obscure Calvinist sect that followed the teachings of Robert Sandeman. Sandeman was the most extreme Calvinist in the eighteenth century; Godwin joked sardonically that whereas Calvin had condemned ninety-nine in a hundred to eternal punishment, Sandeman contrived a scheme for damning ninety-nine in a hundred of the followers of Calvin. At the same time, Sandeman lay great stress on reason: grace was to be achieved not by good works or faith, but by the rational perception of truth, the right or wrong judgement of the understanding. The Sandemanians moreover interpreted literally the teachings of the New Testament to practice brotherly love and share their wealth among the members of their sects. They were also democratic and egalitarian, both rejecting majority rule in favour of consensus and annihilating the distinctions of civil life within the sect. All men and women, they affirmed, are equally fit to be saved or damned.

Godwin went on of course to pull the Calvinist God down from the heavens and to believe in the innocence and perfectibility of all human beings, but he retained much of the social and economic teaching of the Sandemanians. Indeed, he held that morality principally depended on doing to others as we would wish to be done unto, and that property is a trust to be distributed to the most needy.

He not only traced his excessive stoicism and condemnation of the private affections to his early Calvinism, but specifically held Sandemanianism responsible for his central belief that rational judgement is the source of human actions. On leaving Newton's intellectual and emotional hothouse, Godwin entered at the age of seventeen the Dissenting Academy at Hoxton, one of the best centres of higher education in eighteenth-century England. Godwin received here a thorough grounding in Locke's psychology which saw the mind as a blank sheet, in Newtonian science which pictured the universe as a machine governed by natural laws, and in Hutcheson's ethics which upheld benevolence and utility as the cornerstones of virtue. The academy was extremely favourable to free enquiry, and Godwin formed in his own time a belief in determinism, or in the philosophical language of the day, 'necessity' (i.e., all actions are determined), and in idealism or 'immaterialism' (i.e., the external world is created by the mind). These beliefs subsequently underwent no fundamental change.

Godwin's tutors were also extremely liberal in their views. In religion, they denied the divinity of Christ and original sin. In politics, they looked back to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 as the happiest era in British history and were strenuous advocates of the civil rights of humanity.

Godwin was a Tory and a Sandemanian when he entered Hoxton Academy. Being cautious about accepting new ideas and fearful of eternal punishment, he left five years later with his beliefs intact. He was determined as ever to enter the ministry. Three times he tried to become a minister, and three times he was rejected by rural congregations. They no doubt disliked his learned sermons and pricklish manner. His intellectual development during this time however was rapid and the liberal influence of Hoxton Academy had its effect. The political debate raging over the American War of Independence led him to support the Whig opposition to the war, and the reading of Roman historians and Jonathan Swift made him a republican overnight. Then when he was living quietly in Stowmarket as a candidate minister at the age of twenty-six, an artisan put into his hands the works of D'Holbach, Helvétius and Rousseau, the most subversive philosophers of the French Enlightenment whose banned works were causing an uproar on the other side of the Channel.

Godwin read in Rousseau that man is naturally good but corrupted by institutions, that the foundation of private property was the beginning of the downfall of humanity, and that man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains. From Helvétius and D'Holbach, he learned that all men are equal and society should be formed for human happiness. When he closed the covers of their books, his whole world view had changed. They immediately undermined his Calvinist view of man, although for the time being he became a follower of Socinus (who denied the divinity of Christ and original sin) rather than an atheist. Realizing that he was not cut out to be a minister, Godwin decided to go to London and try to earn his living by teaching and writing.

Godwin's first book was the Life of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham (1783), which was little more than a meandering biography of the Tory politician. He then wrote a couple of vigorous pamphlets on the Whig side, A Defence of the Rockingham Party (1783) and Instructions to a Statesman (1784), and a lively and ironic collection of literary imitations, The Herald of Literature (1783). These were followed by three short novels written in quick succession, Damon and Delia (1784), Italian Letters (1784) and Imogen (1784), which were useful stylistic experiments and reflected a growing social criticism. Eager to rid himself of his sermons he published a selection in Sketches of History (1784), but not without the observation that God acts like a 'political legislator' in a 'theocratic state' and that he has 'not a right to be a tyrant'.

The most important political work of this period was undoubtedly An Account of the Seminary (1783), about a school Godwin intended to open in Epsom for the instruction of twelve pupils in the Greek, Latin, French and English languages. Although no pupils turned up, the prospectus remains one of the most incisive and eloquent accounts of libertarian and progressive education. It shows Godwin believing that children are not only born innocent and benevolent, but that the tutor should foster their particular talents and treat them gently and kindly. The ex-Tory student and Calvinist minister had moreover come to recognize that:

The state of society is incontestably artificial; the power of one man over another must be always derived from convention, or from conquest; by nature we are equal. The necessary consequence is, that government must always depend upon the opinion of the governed. Let the most oppressed people under heaven once change their mode of thinking and they are free. ... Government is very limited in its power of making men either virtuous or happy; it is only in the infancy of society that it can do anything considerable; in its maturity it can only direct a few of our outward actions. But our moral dispositions and character depend very much, perhaps entirely, upon education.

Five years before the French Revolution, Godwin had already worked out the main outlines of Political Justice.


Excerpted from Romantic Rationalist: A William Godwin Reader by Peter Marshall. Copyright © 2017 Peter Marshall. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements xi

Editor's Note xii

Foreword John P. Clark xiv


I Influence 2

II The Making of an Anarchist 6

III Analysis 22


I Summary of Principles 48

II Human Nature 52

1 Necessity and Free Will 52

2 The Characters of Men Originate in their External Circumstances 53

3 The Voluntary Actions of Men Originate in their Opinions 54

4 Equality 55

5 Individuality and Society 57

6 Perfectibility 58

III Ethics 61

1 Morality 61

2 Moral Rules 62

3 Justice 64

4 Private and Domestic Affections 66

5 Benevolence 69

6 Duty 70

7 Rights 71

8 Coercion 73

9 Promises 75

10 Marriage 76

11 Religion 78

IV Politics 82

1 Political Enquiry 82

2 Government 83

3 Social Contract 86

4 Constitutions 86

5 Legislation 87

6 Law 88

7 Punishment 92

8 Obedience and Authority 94

9 Freedom of Thought and Expression 96

10 Patriotism 98

11 Monarchy 99

12 Aristocracy 100

13 Democracy 102

14 Republicanism 102

15 Representation 102

16 Ballot 103

17 Assemblies 106

18 Political Associations and Parties 108

19 Revolutions 109

20 Reform 110

V Economics 114

1 Importance of Property 114

2 Effects of Unequal Distribution 114

3 Economic Justice 117

4 Degrees of Property 121

5 Rights of Property 123

6 Population 124

VI Education 127

1 Power of Education 127

2 Innocence of Children 128

3 Love of Liberty in Children 129

4 Nature of Education 132

5 Evils of National Education 132

6 Teachers 134

7 Schools 135

8 Method of Teaching 136

9 Learning through Desire 138

10 Education in a Free Society 141

VII Free Society 143

1 Freedom 143

2 Anarchy 145

3 Decentralization 147

4 Administration of Justice and Defence 149

5 Dissolution of Government 151

6 Social Arrangements 153

Further Reading 158

Bibliography 160

About the Author 162

Index 163

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