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Happy Birthday William Godwin

March 3, 2016


An odd cove to be sure.   I’m not sure that I’ve read Political Justice (1793) since my student days, but I think of it often enough.

As John Lennon’s piano chords play in my head I “imagine” William Godwin’s Utopia.  A society without Government and without Laws, without Property and without War.  And (incidentally) there’s no sex – because in a rational world, we will have transcended the need for all that sticky and disruptive nonsense.  And there’s no death – because in a rational world, those diseases that prey upon us will have been dealt with at source and our bodies will repair themselves as rationally as our minds.   And there’s no sleep – because sleep is for the weak minded.

So, we’re to imagine a world in which everybody just sits around and has rational, sexless, improving conversations with one another for ever and ever and ever.

You may say he’s a dreamer – and yes – he probably was the only one.

He did dial things back a bit in later versions…

Godwin felt that particular familiar affections were similarly irrational.  Your house is on fire and inside are your mother and Europe’s leading moralist.  You only have time to save one.  Sorry Ma.

And of course, he and Mary Wollstonecraft were an item – a more stable and rational relationship than the one she’d “enjoyed” with her ex – Gilbert Imlay.  Yet Godwin did Wollstonecraft something of a disservice when he published her life story, since it contained incendiary material that would be used against Wollstonecraft’s legacy for decades.  The passionate life and hideously painful death of Mary Wollstonecraft are described in such detail by Godwin not because he was trying to injure her reputation, but rather, he was the kind of out of touch rationalist who simply lacked the social awareness to realise that there are certain things that it’s just not wise to bring up.

Godwin was the most remarkable, in some ways, of the great generation of 1790s perfectibilitists – the believers in perfectibility – the people who traced the full implications of Lockean impressionism so as to declare that if our ideas are not innate, then there is nothing that cannot be achieved with the right educative environment.

The worst thing that can be said of Godwin’s optimistic anarchy is that it helped to provoke Malthus, whose work on population was intended to provide scientific proof that we really can’t be that much better than we are.  If Malthus has proved (despite all the evidence) more influential than Godwin, that’s because it’s been in a lot of people’s interest to keep us less than we really are.


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