And its Influence on Morals and Happiness
Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on Morals and Happiness by William Godwin (1756-1836) was first published in February 1793, the month following the execution of Louis XVI of France. It proved to be immediately popular and influential. Godwin, the son of a Calvinist preacher, was educated at Hoxton Academy, after which, he became a minister to a dissenter congregation in Ware. However, partially as a result of reading Rousseau, Helvetius and d’ Holbach his thinking changed and he left the ministry in 1783, the year the American war of Independence ended, by which point he had become a complete sceptic in matters of religion and turned to philosophy and ultimately to anarchism for the truth. This was to be a period of huge political turmoil and continuing uncertainty, which had seen revolution in America and France, as well as the madness of King George III, and the Regency crisis. It was a time of Whigs and Tories, of frenzied political argument and a flood of political pamphlet publishing. The Enquiry came hot on the heels of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) and Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791-1792) in a time that witnessed severe government repression of civil liberties. In essence it is a wide- ranging disquisition on moral and political philosophy. Its central message or theme is that of the potential for human perfectibility through the pursuit of reason and truth. At times it has a visionary quality, which perhaps explains why its publication was met with such delighted excitement and approval by the young Romantic poets, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley and others. It appeared in a moment of great optimism, when there was a sense that the revolution would lead to sweeping reforms and the abolition of ancient abuses of privilege and inequality and hopes that traditional antagonisms and hostilities between England and France would soon come to an end. For a brief period Godwin was very much the toast of the town, but as the excesses of the Terror mounted in France and the heads rolled beneath the guillotine, thinking changed, attitudes hardened and the mood darkened. Godwin’s star fell as rapidly as it had risen. England and France would go to war and as quickly as Godwin had been taken up by the young radicals he was cast aside by them as they matured into conservatives, both socially and politically, rejecting many of the ideas that had seemed so appealing to their younger selves. Godwin was seen as a figurehead for dangerous ideas and as being a representative of the somewhat wilder and more extreme ideas of the young Jacobins. Consequently, he became a scapegoat to be satirised and attacked. It is important to note, however, that although his book was published during revolutionary times Godwin, who was spoken of in social circles as ‘The Philosopher’, never advocated violent revolutionary change, but indeed insisted that change had to come about gradually and peacefully. He argued that people had to be persuaded, not coerced and advocated systematic philosophical radicalism since history had demonstrated that those who overthrew tyrants with violence frequently became tyrants themselves. Godwin’s anarchist vision of society comprises three basic principles: ‘political simplicity’, ‘public inspection’ and ‘positive sincerity’. He declares in effect that there must be a complete restructuring of human society, prefiguring later thinkers such as Marx in maintaining that the masses had been misled on account of the ‘mysterious and complicated nature of the social system.’ Likewise, he explains most crime as resulting from economic inequality which would cease once there was a more egalitarian distribution of wealth. In general terms he argues for a combination of federalism and increased localism and envisages a system founded on sincerity, open and honest discourse and truth that would be answerable to the public through a process ‘of public inspection’ and censorship, driven by benevolence. His wish was to usher in a new anarchist order which would see an end to imperialism, state terror and legalised murder. He stated: “Sound reasoning and truth, when adequately communicated, must always be victorious over error: Sound reasoning and truth are capable of being so communicated: Truth is omnipotent: The vices and moral weakness of man are not invincible: Man is perfectible, or in other words susceptible of perpetual improvement.” His ideas are as relevant and as worthy of consideration in today’s troubled political climate as when they were written. Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on Morals and Happiness, Third Edition, is read for Ukemi Audiobooks by Michael Lunts.