Thursday, February 25, 2021

Richard Gough Thomas - William Godwin: A Political Life

This was a remarkable accidental discovery. Ironically I came across Richard Gough Thomas' new biography of William Godwin because I was working on a critique of Thomas Robert Malthus. Malthus directed the first edition of his 1798 book An Essay on the Principle of Population at the radical ideas of Godwin. In looking to read more, in particular about Godwin's own refutation of Malthus' work, I stumbled upon this new study of his life.

Thomas begins by making it clear that he is writing a political study of Godwin. But neither he, nor the reader, can ignore Godwin's fascinating and complex life. He was married (all to briefly) to Mary Wollstonecraft and was father to Mary Shelley. Wollstonecraft's ideas on women's equality and freedom were enormously influential on Godwin and he remained devoted to her memory and ideas long after her death. Godwin devotes a fascinating section to a discussion of how his Godwin's biography of her was a powerful defence of her life, ideas and their relationship, rather than the crude, salacious work that it was portrayed as at the time.

Thomas sees Godwin as an early philosophical anarchist. However he points out that Godwin was not really an activist despite the widespread political activity taking place at the time. Instead Godwin was celebrated for his ideas which became enormously influential. His first book Political Justice was a major work of 800 pages. This "serious philosophical treatise" was aimed at a relatively wealthy audience. But despite it's high price (£1 16s) it sold widely as it was bought by many of the political societies that had sprung up in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Thus his ideas were taken up widely within English radical movements. Godwin's arguments were, as Thomas explains "optimistic and forward-looking". They are individualistic, but fit into a wider social framing. Thomas explains Godwin's central philosophy:

Everybody wants to be happy; evil actions are simply mistakes caused by incomplete information or insufficient consideration on the part of the individual. The philosopher's position seems naïve, but it allows him to frame moral error as something that can be corrected through greater critical reasoning - in short, that we can learn to be better people. In order to do this... we need to recognise that our understanding of the world is shaped by the society we live in. Ignorance, inequality and privation may seem normal to us but as sources of unhappiness, they are wrongs that can ne put right if we critically evaluate (and correct) the things that cause them. We have not yet done so, the philosopher suggests, because too few people have been willing to look beyond the current system for answers.

For Godwin striving to become as knowledgeable as possible about the world, would help us to become a better person, so long as "we are willing to think for ourselves and act according to our own reasoned judgement". In fact this is our duty, as individuals to work towards the best possible society.

Those of us who've sat through seemingly endless meetings that are trying to make a decision through consensus may have heard similar arguments against "leadership" that Godwin articulated. Thomas explains that Godwin was "sceptical that any large group of people can really be of one mind". Individual leaders hold power and influence that means that the collective will be siding with them out of personal loyalty rather than being convinced through argument. This becomes radical when Godwin, as Thomas explains, argues that 

if a leader derives their authority from the people under them, that authority evaporates if those people choose to withdraw their consent. Furthermore, Godwin says, if we have a duty to act according to our own reasoned judgement - and authority cannot actually prevent us from doing so - then a leader that claims to derive their authority from consent has not right to exert authority over those who withdraw their consent.

In an era when only a minority had a vote, and when even the idea of universal suffrage was accepted by barely anyone, these were radical ideas. They also dovetailed with the radicalism of the French Revolution. However the second edition of Political Justice developed these themes in more revolutionary ways. For Godwin the accumulation of wealth was morally wrong and he called for "the abolition of almost all forms of property". Instead possession should be about need. As Godwin says, in a rational society:

The word property would probably remain; its signification only would be modified. The mistake does not so properly lie in the idea itself, as in the source from which it is traced. What I have, if it be necessary for my use, is truly mine; what I have, though the fruit of my own industry, if unnecessary, it is an usurpation for me to retain.
These arguments linked with Godwin's thoughts on population. People procreated because they had to do so to survive. But if there was no economic imperative then "population would settle at a manageable level". Godwin's ideas on population developed though his works. Initially agreeing with much of Malthus he became increasingly critical and his final major work On Population was a systematic critique of Malthus based on the best available information about population. Nonetheless even his early position was far better than Malthus' cynical belief in the inevitability of over-population. In fact, towards the end of his life, Godwin hoped he would demolish Malthus' work: "if I am right the system of Malthus can never rise again, and the world is delivered for ever from this accursed apology in favour of vice and misery, or hard-heartedness and oppression."

Despite focusing his book on Godwin's ideas, Thomas does talk about how Godwin's life and ideas were shaped by circumstance. Living perpetually in debt and fearful of debtor's prison, Godwin would have thought constantly about poverty and inequality. Thomas also does justice to Godwin's other works, including lesser known novels, and his children's books. The latter responsible for keeping the wolf from the door. The figures of Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft don't dominate the narrative, but Thomas eloquently shows how Godwin's life revolved around them and was shaped, in part, by their own ideas and actions. I was once again reminded of the repeated and great tragedies at the heart of this extended family.

Thomas's book gave me a new appreciation for Godwin's ideas. These, Thomas concludes, boil down to the idea that "the betterment of humanity was in [Godwin's] view contingent on our ability to foster critical reason and empathy in future generations." While the utopianism at the heart of Godwin's thought might be inadequate for changing the system, it did come from a fundamental desire to make the world a better, more equal, place for all its inhabitants. That is in no small part why his ideas inspired radicals in new and exciting ways and why William Godwin remains important today. As such Richard Gough Thomas' book is a fascinating and exciting look at Godwin's life which I highly recommend.

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