Although he is perhaps best known for being the father of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, William Godwin was also one of the first philosophical exponents of anarchism. How did he defend the idea that we should get rid of all political authority? What were his main ideas, and how did he influence other thinkers? In this article, we explore his life and major work: An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1792).
William Godwin’s Life
Born in Cambridgeshire in 1756, William Godwin was a social philosopher, novelist, and political journalist, most famous for advocating anarchism, atheism, and the value of personal freedom.
Originally training to be a Protestant pastor, the advent of the french revolution led to Godwin giving up his position as a minister and taking up political journalism and satirical writing. Originally a Tory, Godwin became a fervent supporter of the Whig party, writing for whig publications such as the New Annual Register and the Political Herald.
Godwin lived most of his life as a bachelor. However, he eventually married Mary Wollstonecraft, a famous early advocate of feminism and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1752). This attracted much condemnation, mostly because Godwin had been a lifelong fervent critic of marriage. Although they married, their relationship was unconventional. William and Mary did not share a home, moving into two adjoining homes instead so that both could retain their independence. This arrangement, however, did not last long, as Mary died shortly after the birth of their daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who would later go on to write the novel Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus (1818).
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An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793)
Although Godwin published extensively in newspapers and wrote politically charged pamphlets, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice is Godwin’s magnum opus. Work on the manuscript was made possible thanks to the support of Godwin’s patron George Robinson, a prominent bookseller and publisher. Robinson’s financial support freed Godwin from the need to write journalistic articles and enabled him to dedicate sixteen months to putting his political philosophy down in writing in a systematic form.
Like other anarchists such as Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin, Godwin advocates the abolition of the state. Godwin argues that government corrupts both those who govern and those who are governed, aggravates social inequalities, and perpetuates ignorance and dependence.
Godwin’s anarchism is premised on the view that all humans are morally equal (Honderich, 1995, p. 321; Horowitz, 1964, p. 106), by which he means that we are all equally valuable from the moral point of view and, therefore, all have to follow the same rules of moral conduct. As a consequence, Godwin rejects artificial hierarchies such as those based on rank, noble birth, or wealth, which grant some privileges and rights which are not extended to all.
Godwin’s central objection to the state is that it limits people’s capacity to live their lives in accordance with their view of what rationality and morality require. Godwin advocates complete freedom of thought and expression for individuals, as this is the only way of ensuring both moral and material progress. Government restrictions on speech and thought, therefore, are a hindrance to progress. In place of reason, they promote retrograde customs, traditions, and artificial hierarchies.
Although monarchies, oligarchies, and aristocracies are the worst forms of government, no government is permissible. Democratic governments differ from despotic ones only as a matter of degree. Godwin was thus opposed to voting, majority rule, representation, and legislative assemblies as a way of determining collective rules. After all, if we are all equal, why should a small group of elected individuals be entitled to make rules that apply to all? Political assemblies promote a false unanimity, forcing minorities to accept arrangements that they do not consent to, impeding them from living in the way that they believe rationality requires.
Unlike anarcho-capitalists such as David Friedman and Murray Rothbard, Godwin places great weight on the importance of benevolence. He writes, “Does any person in distress apply to me for relief? It is my duty to grant it and I commit a breach of duty by refusing” (Horowitz, 1964, p. 111). This belief in the obligation to help others leads Godwin to place strict limits on the permissible exercise of property rights. It is impermissible for those who have more property than others to use it as they please. Justice, Godwin argues, requires owners to view their property as held in trust, the ultimate aim being to use it in such a way as to maximize freedom, knowledge, and happiness for all (Horowitz, 19674, p. 112)
Godwin’s ideal world draws inspiration from the ancient greek city-state or polis. It is a vision of a world in which small voluntary groups are joined together in a loose federation of communities (Garrett, 1971, p. 111). Like Kropotkin, Godwin was a techno-optimist, in that he had a deep-seated belief that technical progress would reduce the burden of survival. In his vision of the future, minimal physical labor would be required to sustain oneself, freeing people from the drudgery of work.
The Impact of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice
Godwin’s vigorous defense of freedom, reason, and the equality of all humans did not go unnoticed, either amongst the proletariat or the governing classes. Following the publication of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice in 1793, the Privy Council (a body of leading advisors to the UK monarchy, still existent today) considered prosecuting Godwin. However, it was deemed that doing so was unnecessary on the ground that the book was too expensive for working-class people to afford. As a consequence, it was deemed unlikely to be widely read.
The privy council turned out to be wrong in their prediction. An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice quickly became a best-seller and was circulated widely amongst radical societies and workers’ associations, who would pitch together to purchase a copy which was then loaned out to members or read aloud to groups.
Godwin’s work also drew the attention of young radicals of the time, catapulting him into fame amongst the young intellectuals in London at the turn of the 18th Century. Of particular note was Godwin’s influence on the founding fathers of the British romantic movement, including the poets William Woodsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, who would later go on to marry his daughter Mary. His influence on Shelley was particularly deep (Sabine, 1948, p. 625). Godwin’s thought serves as the inspiration for a number of Shelley’s poems and plays, including Ode to Liberty, The Masque of Anarchy, and Prometheus Unbound.
Not all were enamored by Godwin. Perhaps the most famous critic of Godwin’s work was the economist Thomas Malthus. In fact, rebutting the central contentions of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice was the motivation for Malthus’ most famous work, An Essay on the Principle of Population as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society. In his essay, Malthus took issue with Godwin’s unwavering belief in the power of technology to ensure rising living standards. Contra Godwin, Malthus argued that the population will always tend to increase more rapidly than our capacity to grow enough food to feed everyone. The utopian society described by Godwin is impossible unless society imposes strict limits on reproduction. Given that this would be near impossible in a world without centralized authority, Godwin’s proposal is doomed to fail.
William Godwin: An Armchair Revolutionary?
Unlike Bakunin, Proudhon, and Kropotkin, Godwin was no revolutionary. Like the agorists, Godwin advocates a peaceful transition to a stateless society. Although impressed by the ideals of the French Revolution, he abhorred violence in general and the guillotining of opponents of the revolution in particular. For Godwin, the key to change is education. If the state was ever to be abolished, it would be because reason and education would both undermine people’s belief in the necessity of the state and render it increasingly unnecessary (Kinna, 2005, p. 42).
Although a fervent believer in education, like many other anarchists, he rejected compulsory schooling (Kinna, 2019, p. 89). Authority, Godwin argued, stifles creativity (Kinna, 2009, p. 67). Reason, if encouraged and fostered, will lead people to the truth. There is thus no need to force people to follow the dictates of reason; Godwin believed that people would eventually find their own ways to them (and the anarchist form of government which they entail).
Garrett, Roland. (1971) ‘Anarchism or Political Democracy: The Case of William Godwin’ Social Theory and Practice, Vol. 1, No. 3, pp. 111-120.
Honderich, Ted. (1995) The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Horowitz, Irving. (1964) The Anarchists. Dell Publishing Company, New York.
Kinna, Ruth. (2009) Anarchism: A Beginners Guide. Oneworld Publishing, Oxford.
Kinna, Ruth. (2019) The Government of No One: The Theory and Practice of Anarchism. Pelican books, London.
Sabine, George. (1948) Review of Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, The Philosophical Review, Vol. 57, No. 6, pp. 625-627