Sunday, February 22, 2009

William Godwin (1756-1836)

Godwin was a English political philosopher who, while in the ministry
for which he was trained, had cast off his Toryism and Calvinism and
achieved a place of first importance as the interpreter to England of
the French Encyclopedists. His ideal society is intensely equalitarian
and a complete anarchy, although he tolerated the idea of a loosely
knit democratic transition that would witness the withering of the
State. Strongly antiviolence and completely rationalistic he carried
his doctrine to the point of total alteration in human relations.
Ignoring economics and starting from a highly individualistic
psychology, he argued for education and social conditioning as the
chief factors in character formation. His chief work, Enquiry
Concerning Political Justice, develops the thought of the
prerevolutionary school, is strongly influenced by Helvetius, and is
an argument for the perfectibility of the human species by way of a
refutation of contradictory theories and examination of such
conditions as will perfect the human community. In the philosophical
debate owr whether man is governed by self-love, Godwin argued that
man capable of a genuinely disinterested benevolence. The turning
point in his career was the French Revolution, which spurred him to
write his major work, Political Justice, completed in 1793. Though
many were disillusioned after the early years of the Revolution,
Godwin's liberalism remained intact. The publication of this work
gained him a far-reaching contemporary fame.

It was in 1796 that he renewed an acquaintance with Mary
Wollstonecraft. They took up residence together and, with the
approaching birth of their child and despite his attacks upon the
institution of marriage, were married in 1797. Their brief marriage,
ended by the death of his wife, was described as his happiest period.
Although Godwin wrote indefatigably, only Politfcal Justice is still a
work of enduring fame. His Caleb Williams, a novel with a social
purpose, is another of his works retaining some contemporary interest.
(Irving Horowitz, The Anarchists, 1964, Dell Publishing)
Note: first writer to put foreward anarchist ideas.

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