William Godwin (1756 – 1836) was a poet, political philosopher, journalist, and novelist during the late 18th to the early 19th century. He was the father of philosophical anarchism and is most famous for his works An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) and Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of, Caleb Williams (1794). In these books, Godwin opposed the idea of class systems and the political institutions they entail. He is seen as a political radical for his use of literature to openly oppose political institutions.
Godwin is also famous for his marriage to Mary Wollstonecraft, the famed feminist author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). The two were a very controversial couple that sparked interest all across Britain and Europe. The two later had a daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who we now know as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Wollstonecraft died shortly after her daughter’s birth, leaving Godwin to raise young Mary by himself.
After Wollstonecraft’s death, Godwin published a biography and a small collection of his late wife’s works. He went on to marry Mary Jane Clairmont in 1801 and continued to be a proponent of political anarchism. He also published several children’s books under the name Edward Baldwin.
Godwin, in his later life, went through a series of financial struggles, and in 1833 accepted a government sinecure, a move rather contradictory to his work as a philosophical political anarchist. Godwin died in the spring of 1836.
Early LifeGodwin was raised in a stable middle class household with very strict Calvanist beliefs. His father, John Godwin, was a minister, and never was really close to his son. Godwin’s mother, Jane Godwin, was much closer to him than his father. Godwin was educated in the same manner as his father, in the church. He became a minister but never truly grew to believe what he preached. After his time as a minister, he decided to focus his energies on writing, particularly those concerning political affairs.
Godwin wrote several periodicals from 1756 to 1836 for The New Annual Registry. Most notable of his early works were his annual “Sketches of English History”. These were Godwin’s summaries and reviews of political affairs for each year. These summaries varied from country to country both near and far from Godwin. Godwin’s goal in writing these sketches was to eventually amass an overwhelming amount of information to overthrow the institutions of politics and religion. He even sought out to end social institutions themselves.
Political AnarchismOne field in which Godwin is considered an expert and a forerunner in is that of political anarchism. In his book An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, he argues for the destruction of political institutions. He argues that at the root of government lies in a very corrupt system that only corrupts and perpetuates the need to be dependent. He argues that it takes away human ingenuity and defeats the will to progress or grow.
He wrote this great work in response to the French Revolution in 1793. Godwin was influenced by the very violent political and physical reconstruction of the French government. This novel can best be described in conversation with Edmund Burke’s A Vindication of Natural Society, in the sense that Burke critiques the government through the lens of an anarchist, while Godwin describes how an anarchist society would work better.
In this work Godwin discusses the idea that the government places limits or controls on society and argues that through political anarchism there would be no government to place limits on human understanding and growth. There would be no limit to free will which he parallels with virtue. He argues by limiting free will and taking away choice man can’t truly be virtuous. He argues that by allowing men to develop limitlessly they can understand truth and through that understanding make clear and good decision from that truth.In 1794, Godwin further illustrated this argument by writing the novel Things as They Are; or, Caleb Williams. This novel was essentially the first mystery novel and is one Godwin’s most pervasive works.
Influence on Frankenstein
Outside of Mary Shelley's dedication of Frankenstein (1818) to Godwin, there is definitely some Godwin-esque philosophy that the creature seems to understand and support. The novel itself also employs some of Godwin’s theories on society and political institutions. While it cannot be said whether Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly modeled the creature after Godwin, it can be said that the creature definitely uses some ideas from Godwin’s theory on society to critique human society and political institutions.
Godwin argued that when the government places limits on society, it is subjugated it into small non-inclusive circles. These circles then perpetuate the need for government. This parallels with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly’s novel Frankenstein because of the small circles the creature was excluded from. The creature’s status as a monster places him outside of all the social circles in the novel. The creature, however, is quite intelligent and sees the flaws in the circles being so closed off. This notion of closed circles is very prevalent in the novel and shows just how much Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly was influenced by her father’s works.
During the later part of Godwin’s life, he suffered many hardships. He went through several bouts of depression caused by financial strains, as well as from the deaths of several close people. His stepdaughter, Fanny, committed suicide, several of his grandchildren died young, and Percy Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly’s husband, and Godwin's mentee, also died. He still, however, continued to write during this time. Most notable of that time were his children’s books, primers to the Bible and history he published from 1801 to 1830. During this time he was recognized by the government and given a sinecure position, which awkwardly contrasted with his anarchist philosophy throughout his life. In the end, Godwin died an accomplished man and writer in 1836.
Philp, Mark, "William Godwin", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2013/entries/godwin/>.
William Godwin, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness, vol. 2 (London: G.G.J. and J. Robinson, 1793).