Godwin, William

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Godwin, William (3 March 1756—7 April 1836)

Godwin was the founder of philosophical anarchism. The government, he held, corrupts society as well as makes its citizens dependent and ignorant.

The son of a dissenting minister, he was an English philosopher, a skeptic, and moral theorist. He greatly influenced Shelley, who married his daughter, Mary, author of Frankenstein (1818). (A doctor himself, Godwin must have mused at what he had wrought.)

With the dramatist Thomas Holcroft (1745-1809), he developed an atheism which showed in his various works, including the posthumous Essays Never Before Published. In that work, he urges the abolition of all government, names the Christian God as the worst possible governor, one who destroys all that is good in human beings. His influence extended to Coleridge, who convinced him at one time to adopt a pantheistic worship of nature, and to Robert Southey and William Wordsworth.

Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) recorded the view that men are ultimately guided by reason and therefore, being rational creatures, could live in harmony without laws and institutions. His novels, Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), St. Leon (1799), and Fleetwood (1805) contain similar humanistic views.

Godwin’s last years, during which he tended to become more conservative and was a vague pantheist, were spent in poverty. A few days before his death, he wrote as follows to his daughter, Mrs. Shelley:

  • I leave behind me a manuscript, in a considerable state of forwardness for the press, entitled, ‘The Genius of Christianity Unveiled: in a Series of Essays.’ I am most unwilling that this, the concluding work of a long life, and written, as I believe, in the full maturity of my understanding, should be consigned to oblivion. It has been the main object of my life, since I attained to years of discretion, to do my part to free the human mind from slavery. I adjure you therefore, or whomsoever else into whose hands these papers may fall, not to allow them to be consigned to oblivion.

Mrs. Shelley appears to have disregarded this solemn adjuration, but the work was not published until 1873.

Godwin is buried in a family plot with Mary Shelley, her son, and her husband Percy’s heart, or possibly liver, at St. Peter’s Church in Bournemouth, England. The tombstone reads, “William Godwin, Author of Political Justice, Born Mar 3, 1756 Died Apr 7, 1836 Age 50.”

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(See entries for Mary Shelley and for Percy Bysshe Shelley.)

{BDF; EU, Peter H. Hare; FO; HAB; JM; JMR; JMRH; RAT; RE}