William Godwin

English journalist, political philosopher and novelist

William Godwin (3 March 17567 April 1836) was an English journalist, political philosopher, educationalist, novelist, historian and biographer. He is considered one of the first exponents of utilitarianism, and the first modern proponent of anarchism. He was the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, father of Mary Shelley and father-in-law of Percy Bysshe Shelley.

If there be such a thing as truth, it must infallibly be struck out by the collision of mind with mind.


The proper method for hastening the decay of error is not by brute force, or by regulation which is one of the classes of force, to endeavour to reduce men to intellectual uniformity; but on the contrary by teaching every man to think for himself.
  • Truth is powerful, and, if not instantly, at least by slow degrees, may make good her possession. Gleams of good sense may penetrate through the thickest clouds of error. But we are supposing in the present case that truth is the object of the preceptor. Upon that assumption it would be strange indeed, if he were not able to triumph over corruption and sophistry, with the advantage of being continually at hand, of watching every change and symptom as they may arise, and more especially with the advantage of real voice, of accommodated eloquence, and of living sympathies, over a dead letter. These advantages are sufficient; and, as the true object of education is not to render the pupil the mere copy of his preceptor, it is rather to be rejoiced in, than lamented, that various reading should lead him into new trains of thinking; open to him new mines of science and new incentives to virtue; and perhaps, by a blended and compound effect, produce in him an improvement which was out of the limits of his lessons, and raise him to heights the preceptor never knew.
    • The Enquirer : Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature (1797), Essay XV : Of Choice In Reading, p. 130, (1823 edition)
  • It has an unhappy effect upon the human understanding and temper, for a man to be compelled in his gravest investigation of an argument, to consider, not what is true, but what is convenient. The lawyer never yet existed who has not boldly urged an objection which he knew to be fallacious, or endeavoured to pass off a weak reason for a strong one. Intellect is the greatest and most sacred of all endowments; and no man ever trifled with it, defending an action to-day which he had arraigned yesterday, or extenuating an offence on one occasion, which, soon after, he painted in the most atrocious colours, with absolute impunity. Above all, the poet, whose judgment should be clear, whose feelings should be uniform and sound, whose sense should be alive to every impression and hardened to none, who is the legislator of generations and the moral instructor of the world, ought never to have been a practising lawyer, or ought speedily to have quitted so dangerous an engagement.
    • The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer vol. 1, p. 370 (1803)
  • The first authentic record on this subject (alchemy) is an edict of Diocletian, about 300 years after Christ, ordering a diligent search to be made in Egypt for all the ancient books which treated of the art of making gold and silver, that they might be consigned to the flames. This edict necessarily presumes a certain antiquity to the pursuit; and fabulous history has recorded Solomon, Pythagoras, and Hermes among its distinguished votaries.
A common mortal periodically selected by his fellow-citizens to watch over their own interests, can never be supposed to possess this stupendous virtue.
It is false that kings are entitled to the eminence they obtain. They possess no intrinsic superiority over their subjects. The line of distinction that is drawn is the offspring of pretense, an indirect means employed for effecting certain purposes, and not the language of truth.
No man must encroach upon my province nor I upon his. He may advise me, moderately and without perniciousness, but he must not expect to dictate to me. He may censure me freely and without reserve but he should remember that I am to act by my deliberation and not his. He may exercise a republican boldness in judging, but he must not be peremptory and imperious in prescribing. Force may never be resorted to but, in the most extraordinary and imperious emergency.
Full title: Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Modern Morals and Manners (1793); some variations exist in subsequent editions
  • The true object of moral and political disquisition is pleasure or happiness.
    The primary, or earliest, class of human pleasure is the pleasures of external senses.
    In addition to these, man is susceptible of certain secondary pleasures, as the pleasures of intellectual feeling, the pleasures of sympathy, and the pleasures of self-approbation.
    The secondary pleasures are probably more exquisite than the primary;
    Or, at least,
    The most desirable state of man is that in which he has access to all these sources of pleasure, and is in possession of a happiness the most varied and uninterrupted.
    This state is a state of high civilization.
    • Summary of Principles 1.1
  • Government was intended to suppress injustice, but it offers new occasions and temptations for the commission of it.
    • "Summary of Principles" 2.4
  • Government was intended to suppress injustice, but its effect has been to embody and perpetuate it.
    • "Summary of Principles" 2.7
  • The pleasures of self-approbation, together with the right cultivation of all our pleasures, require individual independence. Without independence men cannot become either wise, or useful, or happy.
    • "Summary of Principles" 1.3
  • Duty is that mode of action which constitutes the best application of the capacity of the individual to the general advantage. Right is the claim of the individual to his share of the benefit arising from his neighbors' discharge of their several duties.
    • "Summary of Principles". 1.5
  • Perfectibility is one of the most unequivocal characteristics of the human species.
    • Vol. 1, bk. 1 : Of the Powers of Man Considered in his Social Capacity, ch. 2
  • Men may one day feel that they are partakers of a common nature, and that true freedom and perfect equity, like food and air, are pregnant with benefit to every constitution.
    • Vol. 1, bk. 1, ch. 3
  • If there be such a thing as truth, it must infallibly be struck out by the collision of mind with mind.
    • Vol. 1, bk. 1, ch.4
  • No man must encroach upon my province nor I upon his. He may advise me, moderately and without perniciousness, but he must not expect to dictate to me. He may censure me freely and without reserve but he should remember that I am to act by my deliberation and not his. He may exercise a republican boldness in judging, but he must not be peremptory and imperious in prescribing. Force may never be resorted to but, in the most extraordinary and imperious emergency.
    • Book II, "Of Rights"
  • The illustrious archbishop of Cambray was of more worth than his chambermaid, and there are few of us that would hesitate to pronounce, if his palace were in flames, and the life of only one of them could be preserved, which of the two ought to be preferred … Supposing the chambermaid had been my wife, my mother or my benefactor. This would not alter the truth of the proposition. The life of Fenelon would still be more valuable than that of the chambermaid; and justice, pure, unadulterated justice, would still have preferred that which was most valuable. Justice would have taught me to save the life of Fenelon at the expence of the other. What magic is there in the pronoun "my", to overturn the decisions of everlasting truth?
    • Vol.1, bk. 2, ch. 2
  • The political freedom of conscience and of the press, so far from being as it is commonly supposed an extension, is a new case of the limitation of rights and discretion. Conscience and the press ought to be unrestrained, not because men have a right to deviate from the exact line that duty prescribes, but because society, the aggregate of individuals, has no right to assume the prerogative of an infallible judge, and to undertake authoritatively to prescribe to its members in matters of pure speculation.
    • Vol. 1, bk 2 : Principles of Society , Ch. 5 : Of Rights (1797 edition)
  • Whenever government assumes to deliver us from the trouble of thinking for ourselves, the only consequences it produces are those of torpor and imbecility.
    • Vol. 2, bk. 6, ch. 1
  • To conceive that compulsion and punishment are the proper means of reformation, is the sentiment of a barbarian; civilisation and science are calculated to explode so ferocious an idea. It was once universally admitted and approved; it is now necessarily upon the decline.
    • Vol. 2, bk. 7, ch. 5
  • The proper method for hastening the decay of error is not by brute force, or by regulation which is one of the classes of force, to endeavour to reduce men to intellectual uniformity; but on the contrary by teaching every man to think for himself.
    • Vol. 2, bk. 8, ch. 6
  • Let us here return to the sublime conjecture of Franklin, that “mind will one day become omnipotent over matter.” If over all other matter, why not over the matter of our own bodies? If over matter at ever so great a distance, why not over matter which, however ignorant we may be of the tie that connects it with the thinking principle, we always carry about with us, and which is in all cases the medium of communication between that principle and the external universe? In a word, why may not man be one day immortal?
    The different cases in which thought modifies the external universe are obvious to all. It is modified by our voluntary thoughts or design. We desire to stretch out our hand, and it is stretched out. We perform a thousand operations of the same species every day, and their familiarity annihilates the wonder. They are not in themselves less wonderful than any of those modifications which we are least accustomed to conceive. — Mind modifies body involuntarily.
    • Vol. 2, bk. 8, ch. 7
  • The reason a man lives under any particular government is partly a necessity; he cannot easily avoid living under some government, and it is often scarcely in his power to abandon the country in which he was born: it is also partly, a choice of evil; no man can be said, in this case, to enjoy that freedom which is essential to the forming a contract unless it could be shown that he had a power of instituting, somewhere, a government adapted to his own conceptions.
    • Book III, "Of Obedience"
  • Government in reality, as has abundantly appeared, is a question of force, and not of consent. It is desirable that a government should be made as agreeable as possible to the ideas and inclinations of its subjects and that they should be consulted, as extensively as may be, respecting its construction and regulations. But, at last, the best constituted government that can be formed particularly for a large community, will contain many provisions that, far from having obtained the consent of all its members, encounter even in their outset a strenuous, thought ineffectual opposition.
    • Book III, "Of Obedience"
  • A common mortal periodically selected by his fellow-citizens to watch over their own interests, can never be supposed to possess this stupendous virtue.
    • Book III, Chapter 9
  • The benefit of the governed is made to lie on one side and the benefit of the governors on the other.
    • Book III, Chapter 9
  • The pistol and dagger may as easily be made the auxiliaries of vice, as of virtue.
    • Book IV, "Of Tyrannicide"
  • The plebeian must expect to find himself neglected and despised in proportion as he is remiss in cultivation the objects of esteem; the lord will always be surrounded with sycophants and slaves. The lord therefore has no motive to industry and exertion; no stimulus to rouse him from the lethargic 'oblivious pool', out of which every human intellect originally arose.
    • Book V, Chapter 10, "Of Hereditary Distinction"
  • The man that does not know himself not to be at the mercy of other men, that does not feel that he is invulnerable to all the vicissitudes of fortune, is incapable of a constant and inflexible virtue.
    • Book V, "Of Education"
  • Ministers and favorites are a sort of people who have a state prisoner in their custody, the whole management of whose understanding and actions they can easily engross.
    • Book V, Ch. 5
  • Ministers become a sort of miniature kings in their turn. Though they have the greatest opportunity o observing the impotence and unmeaningness of the character, they envy it. It is their trade perpetually to extol the dignity and importance of the master they serve; and men cannot long anxiously endeavor to convince others of the truth of any proposition without becoming half convinced themselves.
    • Book V, Ch. 5
  • It is false that kings are entitled to the eminence they obtain. They possess no intrinsic superiority over their subjects. The line of distinction that is drawn is the offspring of pretense, an indirect means employed for effecting certain purposes, and not the language of truth. It tramples upon the genuine nature of things, and depends for its support upon this argument, 'that, were it not for impositions of a similar nature, mankind would be miserable.'
    • Book V, Ch. 6, "Of Subjects"
  • Privilege is a regulation rendering a few men, and those only, by the accident of their birth, eligible to certain situations. It kills all liberal ambition in the rest of mankind, by opposing to it an apparently insurmountable bar. It diminishes it in the favored class itself, by showing them the principal qualification as indefeasibly theirs. Privilege entitles a favored few to engross to themselves gratifications which the system of the universe left at large to all her sons; it puts into the hands of those few the means of oppression against the rest of their species; it fill them witth vain-glory, and affords them every incitement to insolence and a lofty disregard to the feeling and interests of others.
    • Book V, Chapter 11, "Moral Effects of Aristocracy"
  • Mankind will never be, in an eminent degree, virtuous and happy till each man shall possess that portion of distinction and no more, to which he is entitled by his personal merits. The dissolution of aristocracy is equally the interest of the oppressor and the oppressed. The one will be delivered from the listlessness of tyranny, and the other from the brutalizing operation of servitude.
    • Book V, Chapter 11, "Moral Effects of Aristocracy"
  • The case of mere titles is so absurd that it would deserve to be treated only with ridicule were t not for the serious mischief they impose on mankind. The feudal system was a ferocious monster, devouring, where it came, all that the friend of humanity regards with attachment and love. The system of titles appears under a different form. The monster is at length destroyed, and they who followed in his train, and fattened upon the carcasses of those he slew, have stuffed his skin, and, b exhibiting it, hope still to terrify mankind into patient and pusillanimity.
    • Book V, Chapter 13
  • Till mankind be satisfied with the naked statement of what they really perceive, till they confess virtue to be then most illustrious, when she more disdains the aid of ornament, they will never arrive at that manly justice of sentiment at which they seem destined one day to arrive. By his scheme of naked virtue will be every day a gainer; every succeeding observer willl more fully do her justice, while vice, deprived of that varnish with which she delighted to glow her actions of that gaudy exhibition which may be made alike by every pretender will speedily sink into unheeded contempt.
    • Book V, Chapter 12, "Of Titles"
  • Democracy is a system of government according to which every member of society is considered as a man and nothing more.
    • Book V, Chapter 13, "General Features of Democracy"
    • Massacre is the too possible attendant upon revolution , and massacre is perhaps the most hateful scene, alllowing for its omentary duration, that any imagination can suggest, The fearful, hopeless, expectation of the defeated, and the blood-hound fury of their conquerors, is a complication of mischief that all which has been told of internal regions can scarcely surpass. The cold-blooded massacres that are perpetrated under the naem of criminal justice fall short of these in some of their most frightful aggravations. The ministers and instruments of law have by perform, and often bear their parts in the most shocking enormities without being sensible to the passions allied murders with the rudeness of an insulting triumph ; and, as the conduct themselves , in a certain sort, by known principles of injustice, the evil we have reason to apprehend has its limits. But the instruments of massacre are discharged from every restraint.
    • Book VIII, Ch.
  • Anarchy, in its own nature, is an evil of short duration. The more horrible are the mischiefs it inflicts, the more does it hasten to a close.
    • Book 7, Ch. 5
  • Nothing can be of more importance than to separate prejudice and mistake on the one hand from reason and demonstration on the other.
    • Book III, Ch.1
  • Simplify the social system, in the manner which every motive, but those of usurpation and ambition, powerfully recommends; render the plain dictates of justice level to every capacity; remove the necessity of implicit faith; and we may expect the whole species to become reasonable and virtuous.
    • Portable Enlightenment Reader, p. 477
  • The evil of marriage, as is it practiced in the European countries, extends further than we have yet described. The method is for a thoughtless and romantic youth of each sex, to come together, to see each other, for a few times, and under circumstances full of delusion and then to vow eternal attachment. What is the consequence of this? In almost every instance they find themselves deceived. They are reduced to make the best of an irretrievable mistake. They are led to conceive it their wiser policy, to shut their eyes upon realities, happy, if by any perversion of intellect, they can persuade themselves that they were right in their first crude opinion of each other. Thus the institution of marriage is made a system of fraud; and men who carefully mislead their judgement in the daily affair of their life, must be expected to have a crippled judgement in every other concern.
  • Portable Enlightenment Reader, p. 478-479
Full title: Things as They Are; or The Adventures of Caleb Williams
  • I did not hate the author of my misfortunestruth and justice acquit me of that; I rather pitied the hard destiny to which he seemed condemned. But I thought with unspeakable loathing of those errors, in consequence of which every man is fated to be, more or less, the tyrant or the slave. I was astonished at the folly of my species, that they did not rise up as one man, and shake off chains so ignominious, and misery so insupportable. So far as related to myself, I resolved — and this resolution has never been entirety forgotten by me — to hold myself disengaged from this odious scene, and never fill the part either of the oppressor or the sufferer.

Quotes about Godwin

It was Godwin, in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice … who was the first to formulate the political and economical conceptions of anarchism, even though he did not give that name to the ideas developed in his remarkable work. ~ Peter Kropotkin
  • The Spirit of the Age was never more fully shown than in its treatment of this writer —  its love of paradox and change, its dastard submission to prejudice and to the fashion of the day. Five-and twenty years ago he was in the very zenith of a sultry and unwholesome popularity; he blazed 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, justice was the theme, his name was not far off. Now he has sunk below the horizon, and enjoys the serene twilight of a doubtful immortality. Mr. Godwin, during his lifetime, has secured to himself the triumphs and the mortifications of an extreme notoriety and of a sort of posthumous fame. His bark, after being tossed in the revolutionary tempest, now raised to heaven by all the fury of popular breath, now almost dashed in pieces, and buried in the quicksands of ignorance, or scorched with the lightning of momentary indignation, at length floats on the calm wave that is to bear it down the stream of time.
    Mr. Godwin's person is not known, he is not pointed out in the street, his conversation is not courted his opinions are not asked, he is at the head of no cabal, he belongs to no party in the State, he has no train of admirers, no one thinks it worth his while even to traduce and vilify him, he has scarcely friend or foe the world make a point (as Goldsmith used to say) of taking no more notice of him than if such an individual had never existed; he is to all ordinary intents and purposes dead and buried. But the author of Political Justice and of Caleb Wiliams can never die; his name is an abstraction in letters; his works are standard in the history of intellect.
  • What is striking about the population question to our modern eyes is not whether England actually was or was not in danger of petering out as a nation. In retrospect, what is interesting is how harmonious either view of the population problem was with a vision that puts its faith in natural law, reason, and progress. Was the population declining? Then it should be encouraged to grow, as it “naturally” would under the benign auspices of the laws that Adam Smith had shown to be the guiding principles of a free market economy. Was the population growing? All to the good, since everyone agreed that a growing population was a source of national wealth. No matter which way one cut the cake, the result was favorable to an optimistic prognosis for society; or, to put it differently, there was nothing in the population question, as it was understood, to shake men’s faith in their future.
    Perhaps no one summed up this optimistic outlook so naively and completely as William Godwin. Godwin, a minister and pamphleteer, looked at the heartless world about him and shrank back in dismay. But he looked into the future and what he saw was good. In 1793 he published Political Justice, a book that excoriated the present but gave promise of a distant future in which “there will be no war, no crime, no administration of justice, as it is called, and no government. Besides this there will be no disease, anguish, melancholy, or resentment.” What a wonderful vision! It was, of course, highly subversive, for Godwin’s utopia called for complete equality and for the most thoroughgoing anarchic communism: even the property contract of marriage would be abolished. But in view of the high price of the book (it sold for three guineas) the Privy Council decided not to prosecute the author, and it became the fashion of the day in the aristocratic salons to discuss Mr. Godwin’s daring ideas.
    • Robert Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers, 7th ed. (1999), Chap. 4 : The Gloomy Presentiments of Parson Malthus and David Ricardo
  • It was Godwin, in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (2 vols., 1793), who was the first to formulate the political and economical conceptions of anarchism, even though he did not give that name to the ideas developed in his remarkable work. Laws, he wrote, are not a product of the wisdom of our ancestors: they are the product of their passions, their timidity, their jealousies and their ambition. The remedy they offer is worse than the evils they pretend to cure. If and only if all laws and courts were abolished, and the decisions in the arising contests were left to reasonable men chosen for that purpose, real justice would gradually be evolved. As to the state, Godwin frankly claimed its abolition. A society, he wrote, can perfectly well exist without any government: only the communities should be small and perfectly autonomous. Speaking of property, he stated that the rights of every one ‘to every substance capable of contributing to the benefit of a human being’ must be regulated by justice alone: the substance must go ‘to him who most wants it’. His conclusion was communism. Godwin, however, had not the courage to maintain his opinions. He entirely rewrote later on his chapter on property and mitigated his communist views in the second edition of Political Justice (8 vols., 1796).
  • I have finished Godwin. His work [Enquiry Concerning Political Justice] cannot be too highly praised. All mankind are indebted to the author. The cause of despotism never met a more formidable adversary. He goes to the root of every evil that now plagues man and degrades him almost beneath the savage beast. He shows the source whence all the misfortunes of mankind flow. That source he demonstrates to be political government.
    • Daniel O'Connell, journal entry (30 January 1796), quoted in Arthur Houston, Daniel O'Connell: His Early Life, and Journal, 1795 to 1802 (1906), pp. 119-120
  • Two other general characteristics of rationalist politics may be observed. They are the politics of perfection, and they are the politics of uniformity; either of these characteristics without the other denotes a different style of politics, the essence of rationalism is their combination. The evanescence of imperfection may be said to be the first item of the creed of the Rationalist. He is not devoid of humility; he can imagine a problem which would remain impervious to the onslaught of his own reason. But what he cannot imagine is politics which do not consist in solving problems, or a political problem of which there is no 'rational' solution at all. Such a problem must be counterfeit. And the 'rational' solution of any problem is, in its nature, the perfect solution. There is no place in his scheme for a 'best in the circumstances', only a place for 'the best'; because the function of reason is precisely to surmount circumstances. Of course, the Rationalist is not always a perfectionist in general, his mind governed in each occasion by a comprehensive Utopia; but invariably he is a perfectionist in detail. And from this politics of perfection springs the politics of uniformity; a scheme which does not recognize: circumstance can have no place for variety. 'There must in the nature of things be one best form of government which all intellects, sufficiently roused from the slumber of savage ignorance, will be irresistibly incited to approve,' writes Godwin. This intrepid Rationalist states in general what a more modest believer might prefer to assert only in detail; but the principle holds — there may not be one universal remedy for all political ills, but the remedy for any particular ill is as universal in its application as it is rational in its conception. If the rational solution for one of the problems of a society has been determined, to permit any relevant part of the society to escape from the solution is, ex hypotkesi, to countenance irrationality. There can be no place for preference that is not rational preference, and all rational preferences necessarily coincide. Political activity is recognized as the imposition of a uniform condition of perfection upon human conduct.
    • Michael Oakeshott, "Rationalism in Politics" (1947), published in Rationalism in Politics and other essays (1962)
  • It is now a period of more than two years since first I saw your inestimable book of Political Justice. It opened to my mind fresh and more extensive views; it materially influenced my character, and I rose from its perusal a wiser and a better man. I was no longer the votary of romance; till then I had existed in an ideal world—now I found that in this universe of ours was enough to excite the interest of the heart, enough to employ the discussions of reason; I beheld, in short, that I had duties to perform. Conceive the effect which the Political Justice would have upon a mind before jealous of its independence, participating somewhat singularly in a peculiar susceptibility.
    • Percy Bysshe Shelley to William Godwin (10 January 1812), quoted in Letters from Percy Bysshe Shelley to William Godwin, Vol. I (1891), p. 11
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