Benevolent Mr Godwin

E.P. Thompson

  • Political Justice by William Godwin, introduced by Jonathan Wordsworth
    Woodstock, £150.00, November 1992, ISBN 1 85196 019 8
  • The Political and Philosophical Writings of William Godwin edited by Mark Philp
    Pickering & Chatto, £395.00, March 1993, ISBN 1 85196 026 0
  • Political Writings by Mary Wollstonecraft, edited by Janet Todd
    Pickering & Chatto, 411 pp, £39.95, March 1993, ISBN 1 85196 019 8
  • Memoirs of Wollstonecraft by William Godwin, introduced by Jonathan Wordsworth
    Woodstock, 199 pp, £8.95, April 1993, ISBN 1 85477 125 6

A feast for the Godwinians. First comes the handsome facsimile of the quarto first edition of Political Justice (1793) in the series edited by Jonathan Wordsworth for Woodstock Books. This series makes available facsimiles of works which were significant to the Romantic poets, and in particular to Wordsworth and Coleridge. Jonathan Wordsworth’s breezy and unpedantic introduction seeks to bring the leader into that circle at that time, so that s/he can place the two heavy volumes on a desk and be drawn into the self-satisfied philosophical benevolence and contempt for all received opinion and custom which inspired those young enthusiasts. We open them beside the solicitor’s clerk, Henry Crabb Robinson, who later recalled: ‘It made me feel more generously. I had never before, nor ... have I ever since felt so strongly the duty of not living to one’s self, but of having for one’s sole duty the good of the community.’ The 1793 edition sold 3000 copies at the high price of three guineas – too pricey for the Government to worry about a prosecution. Woodstock Books will count itself fortunate if it can sell as many. At £150 it will also not be prosecuted.

Mark Philp has given himself a more difficult task. He has edited the new seven-volume edition of the Political and Philosophical Writings of William Godwin, having edited previously, with some help from Marilyn Butler, all of Godwin’s novels. Philp is undoubtedly the country’s leading Godwinian, having established his authority with his study of Political Justice. He has perhaps become over-committed to the role, although he has also edited an interesting collection of essays on the French Revolution and British popular politics. The present series is a selection and not the complete output, and we may be thankful for that. It could have been pruned down more. I find Volume I – Political Writings I – superfluous, apart from the editor’s general introduction to the series; as are Volumes VI, Essays, and VII, Religious Writings. These will be useful to the close scholar of Godwin’s evolution, who might, however, have found the texts by other means. Most are dull texts.

My main complaint is that Dr Philp might have given more thought to the problems of editing and to the needs of his intended readership. The editing is not pedantic: indeed, compared with some series, such as the Bollingen Coleridge, it is lightweight. Each text has a two or three-page introduction: when it was published, where, what was the immediate response in reviews. Anything with a capital letter gets a footnote in explanation: thus we are told who Guy Fawkes was (twice), who was Caligula, Nebuchadnezzar, who were Goths and Vandals, what was the Inquisition, Pandora (box of) and Procrustes (bed of). We may live in a multicultural society but this is taking things a bit far. Readers who open these volumes will come with some preparation. But in any case Godwin is using all these terms as commonplace figures of speech and not as part of a historical enquiry. The volume from which most of these examples come – Volume II, Political Writings II – suffers from editorial brevity in other respects. It includes three significant interventions: the ‘Cursory strictures on the charge delivered by Lord Chief Justice Eyre to the Grand Jury’, Godwin’s strong public protest – perhaps his most courageous literary act – against the nonsensical construction of the law of treason by Eyre (which has recently attracted renewed ironical attention from John Barrell) which was hurled into print on the very eve of the notorious Treason Trials of 1794. The second piece is the ‘Considerations’ on the Two Acts (1795), in which Godwin seemed to come forward (anonymously) to condone legislation against popular organisations like the Corresponding Societies and assemblies judged to be tumultuous (such as John Thelwall’s public political lectures), while moaning on and on about Bills so loosely drawn that they might even touch benign philosophers like himself. The third piece, ‘Thoughts occasioned by the perusal of Dr Parr’s Spital Sermon’ (1801), is more honourable. The intellectual tide had turned strongly against Godwin since 1797 and he had remained silent. Now at last he responded to some major critics, including Dr Parr, Mackintosh and Malthus.

On all three texts the editor is correct but less helpful than he could be. We get little sense of the point of crisis at which the first was thrown into the press, nor of its possible influence. For the second we are allowed a note of one page. This implies that the essay was generally well received – based on a rapid round-up of reviews – with only John Thelwall dissenting. (We are given a reference to Thelwall’s Tribune but not to his private exchange of letters with Godwin, first published in 1906, in Cestre’s John Thelwall.) My impression is very different. The campaign against the Two Acts was most extensive, as is evidenced by the volume of petitions and meetings against them, and it extended from Charles James Fox and the Whigs, and the intellectual Jacobins, to the popular societies. When Thelwall complained that Godwin, in renouncing all active agitation, proposed that the public mind was to be transformed ‘by writing quarto volumes, and conversing with a few speculative philosophers by the fire side’, he carried most reformers with him. It was Thelwall, not Godwin, who was the reformers’ hero of the day. It was Thelwall who defied the Two Acts and who continued to give public lectures disguised as Classical history. Godwin was held to have let down the cause.

Of course, this cannot all go into an editorial note. But it is an episode which illustrated a parting of the ways between activist and philosophical reformers and which has recently received renewed attention from historians of political thought: the reader could have been more fully informed. As to the third text, the editor simply goes limp. He tells us almost nothing of Dr Samuel Parr, nor of his offending sermon, nor of his previous associations with Godwin, and almost nothing of Sir James Mackintosh’s influential refutal of the ‘new philosophy’. At £395 the reader expects a little more.

But the real test for an editor is the handling of the three editions of Political Justice, 1793, 1796 and 1798, together with such manuscript drafts and later memos as are recovered here. As is to be expected, Philp passes this test with flying colours. The 1793 text appears in Volume III and the variant texts in Volume IV. If the results remain confusing, that is because of the impossibility of the project. Godwin did not just rewrite whole chapters, he dropped some altogether, and moved others – or parts of others – to new places. De Quincey said that the second edition ‘as regards principles is not a recast, but absolutely a travesty of the first’. He overstated the case. But no conveniently readable variorum edition can be put together from manuscripts so messed about. We must prop ourselves up with both volumes, and perhaps also with the final volume (which includes the consolidated index), and be thankful that Godwin found an editor with the patience to tease it all out.

Philp admires Godwin. He could scarcely have completed his task if he didn’t. And he commends him for ‘retaining a core of consistency of doctrine throughout his career’. What is this?

At the centre of Godwin’s position is a commitment to a duty-based conception of morality, revolving around benevolence and a conception of utility couched in perfectionist terms, constrained by the right of private judgment and further fuelled by a commitment to the potential moral equality of mankind. It is this constellation of concepts and commitments which forms the heart of Godwin’s doctrine, and which remains central to his work throughout his life.

This is also where his ‘enduring relevance to political and moral philosophy lies’.

That is a considerable mouthful, and one may munch on these concepts, revolving couches, fuelled commitments and constellations for many an hour, while still finding them indigestible. Philp wishes us to see Godwin as making minor adjustments within a stable constellation, but something more drastic was involved in the revisions. From 1793 he was in retreat: as he revised the claim for perfectibility to the ‘progressive nature of man’; as he came to lay stress on ‘politeness’ and showed more and more distaste for any revolutionary, tumultuous or plebeian reformers; as he found, belatedly, space for imagination and even for the domestic affections; as he gave in, with Wollstonecraft, to the Gothic institution of marriage, it was difficult for contemporaries to feel that he was aloft in the same constellation.

One star in that constellation might merit closer attention: ‘benevolence’. Hazlitt also saw its central place: Godwin, he wrote, ‘absolves man from the gross and narrow ties of sense, custom, authority, private and local attachments, in order that he may devote himself to the boundless pursuit of universal benevolence’. And this was certainly the way in which Godwin was taken by his young disciples. Still, in 1797, Crabb Robinson was writing to his brother: ‘Our Philosophy has freed us from a weighty pack of instincts – natural affections which antient philosophers have stuck upon the human frame – constitution like burrs and patches.’

‘Benevolence’ can be chased back down 18th-century corridors to Shaftesbury and beyond, and up and down Hartleyan staircases, but one wonders how far it was a philosophical term of art at all and how far a social posture. If I may leave the philosophical high ground, this was borne in on me when I consulted a schoolgirl’s diary, by one of the Quaker Gurneys of Norwich, who were very much caught up in the advanced thought of the time. Laura Gurney’s diary, which she sometimes read aloud with friends, is an index to the approved yes-words and boo-words of the time (1797). Her brother, John, who had purloined her inkstand, got a decidedly poor reference: ‘How I do hate real Tyrannicalness! ... How dis-improved he is!’ On the other hand, she was very much taken by a young man named Pitchford (with whom she exchanged diary readings): ‘I admire – love him ... because he is so virtuous, so interesting, so democratical, – so truly benevolent.’ In the next week’s entry this is a little qualified:

I think Pitchford’s finest characteristic is a universal sort of benevolence. I do not think it is quite universal though, for I think he is governed by his private likesdislikes. He has too much party spirit to be perfectly benevolent. He says in his journal that his benevolence never ripens into beneficence.

What the young Godwinians were trying to establish for themselves was a supremely privileged position of wholly disinterested rationality; from which great height they could look down on their fellow beings, whether aristocratic or vulgar. It was from such a height that Mr Collins looked down on Caleb Williams at the end of that novel:

I regard you as vicious; but I do not consider the vicious as proper objects of indignation and scorn. I consider you as a machine; you are not constituted, I am afraid, to be greatly useful to your fellow men: but you did not make yourself; you are just what circumstance irresistibly compelled you to be. I am sorry for your ill properties; but I entertain no enmity to you, nothing but benevolence.

What a put-down! And, in the context of the novel, perhaps an irony against Godwin’s own theories. But a correct record of them nonetheless. As Wordsworth was to recall, with greater irony, but not without reminiscent sympathy:

                                     What delight! –
How glorious! – in self-knowledge and self-rule
To look through all the frailties of the world,
And with a resolute mastery shaking off
The accidents of nature, time and place,
That make up the weak being of the past,
Build social freedom on its only base:
The freedom of the individual mind,
Which, to the blind restraint of general laws
Superior, magisterially adopts
One guide – the light of circumstances, flashed
Upon an independent intellect.

How ‘independent’ could intellect be, however? In the Hartleyan tradition reason could coexist with paternalism: philanthropy or benevolence were synonymous with the gentry. But with Godwin benevolence has migrated to the radical intelligentsia. He does not write of it as the property of an educated middle class only: he writes of it rather as Reason, and it is a cardinal point that all men are capable of being liberated by Reason. But (he wrote in the Enquirer) the existing state of society is ‘a state of slavery and imbecility’. ‘It puts an end to that independence and individuality, which are the genuine characteristics of an intellectual existence, and without which nothing eminently honourable, generous or delightful can in any degree subsist.’ Where is the social location of Reason in Godwin’s time? Very clearly it must be among the enlightened intelligentsia. Only they can rise above ‘circumstances’ and attain to true independence.

If such terms are ever helpful there is no position which better deserves to be called ‘bourgeois radical’ than Godwin’s. This can even be expressed, almost comically, in the form of equations. On the one hand, we have Gothic superstition/habit/institutions (all these = aristocracy) sitting on top of Reason = Intelligentsia. On the other hand, we have Reason = Intelligentsia sitting on top of circumstanecs/custom/ignorance = the plebs. Thus Reason was sandwiched between aristocratic institutions (above) and mob ignorance (below).

When regarding the impediments of the first situation Godwin could view ‘the people’ with equanimity as allies: ‘The real enemies of liberty in any country are not the people, but those higher orders who find their imaginary profit in a contrary system. Infuse just views into a certain number of the liberally educated and reflecting members; give to the people guides and instructors; and the business is done.’ But Godwin has scarcely reached this optimistic point before he is racked by doubts: he remembers the second equation. And he immediately continues: ‘This however is not to be accomplished but in a gradual manner.’ And at once he turns to face the danger of popular societies, and the distastefulness of revolutions: ‘During a period of revolution, enquiry, and all those patient speculations to which mankind are indebted for their greatest improvements, are suspended ... Such speculations demand leisure, and a tranquil and dispassionate temper; they can scarcely be pursued when all the passions of man are afloat.’

This, then, was the voice of an enlightened intelligentsia, with its virtues but also its arrogant vices. (To be fair, they had good reason to be cautious of the crowd, as they looked back on the Priestley Riots in Birmingham and countless burnings of Tom Paine in effigy.) Where does this leave ‘benevolence’? It could always be recommended for both public and private reasons. As a private virtue it brought its own reward in ‘self-approbation’: ‘No man ever performed an act of exalted benevolence, without having sufficient reason to know, at least so long as the sensation was present to his mind, that all the gratifications of appetite were contemptible in comparison.’ The public virtue of benevolence was its social utility – disinterested rational judgment and action for the benefit of society. But at the zenith of its popularity ‘benevolence’ began to lose its identity and to migrate from its first meaning to its second. As Godwin wrote in Political Justice(third edition): ‘Morality is a system of conduct which is determined by a consideration of the greatest general good: he is entitled to the highest moral approbation, whose conduct is in the greatest number of instances ... governed by views of benevolence, and made subservient to public utility.’ We are presented here with benevolence in a very different aspect: we have moved from self-approbation to public approbation, and from the rational intention of the individual to the exterior notion of a rational standard of utility out there, in society, to which the individual adjusts.

For a moment Godwin held this difficulty in his hand and frowned at it:

Intention no doubt is of the essence of virtue. But it will not do alone. In deciding the merits of others, we are bound ... to proceed in the same manner as deciding die merits of inanimate substances. The turning point is their utility. Intention is of no further value than as it leads to utility: it is the means, and not the end.

Godwin has crossed a threshold here into utilitarianism, and utilitarianism of a bleak kind, with all its repetitious, self-satisfied abbreviations of history and culture. It was only necessary to wed his thought to the calculations of orthodox political economy (much as Bentham did) to have this new progeny. Godwin himself did not follow this to its final conclusion: he held fast, as a querulous utopian, but Philp’s consistent ‘constellation’ looks very different. It was in alarm at this slippage that Wordsworth withdrew aghast. It seemed to him to be a matter less of rational argument than of sensibility. He could not read the second edition of Political Justice because of its ‘execrable’ style. In a very interesting note he turned away from the leading conservative and the leading radical philosopher on the same grounds.

I consider such books as Mr Godwyn’s, Mr Paley’s and those of the whole tribe of authors of that class as impotent to all their intended good purposes ... I know no ... system of moral philosophy written with sufficient power to melt into our affections, to incorporate itself with the blood and vital juices of our minds ... These bald and naked reasonings are impotent over our habits, they cannot form them.

We must thank Jonathan Wordsworth and Mark Philp for enabling us to celebrate the bicentenary of Political Justice. It was one of those rare moments when a section of the English intelligentsia called all things in question, and the vibrations were felt for decades. A most un-English moment. But what am I to do now with yet one more Pickering volume, Mary Wollstonecraft’s Political Writings, comprising the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, her Rights of Men, and chapters from her unfinished history of the French Revolution? This is edited by Janet Todd, who previously edited, with Marilyn Butler, a seven-volume edition of Wollstonecraft. We did not need a new edition of the Vindication: there is a good one, thoughtfully edited by Miriam Brody, still on Penguin’s lists. But it is useful to have available Wollstonecraft’s sharp early polemical reply to Burke. It is not benevolent at all. Indeed, I do not like to put Godwin and Wollstonecraft together in the bed of the same review. I have never been able to understand how she got into that Sartre-De Beauvoir double act with him. Her sensibility was more ardent and volatile – she shared Wordsworth’s distrust of ‘bald and naked reasonings’ – and she did not posture in Godwin’s way. Intellectually she remained her own person, living in her separate establishment.

There comes down with this torrent of books yet one more – a neat and cheap paperback facsimile of Godwin’s Memoirs of Wollstonecraft. This was flung into the press immediately following her death, when Godwin, for once, was deeply moved out of his habitual self-preoccupation. I have never been able to make my mind up whether this was an act of piety which met the claims they both made for open sincerity, or a blunder which exposed her to her enemies.