William Godwin Quotes
“Strange that men, from age to age, should consent to hold their lives at the breath of another, merely that each in his turn may have a power of acting the tyrant according to the law! Oh, God! give me poverty! Shower upon me all the imaginary hardships of human life! I will receive them with all thankfulness. Turn me a prey to the wild beasts of the desert, so I be never again the victim of man, dressed in the gore-dripping robes of authority! Suffer me at least to call life, the pursuits of life, my own! Let me hold it at the mercy of the elements, of the hunger of the beasts, or the revenge of barbarians, but not of the cold-blooded prudence of monopolists and kings!”
“Godwin on Fenelon and his Valet *
Following is an excerpt from William Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Book II, Chapter II: “Of Justice”:
In a loose and general view I and my neighbour are both of us men; and of consequence entitled to equal attention. But, in reality, it is probable that one of us is a being of more worth and importance than the other. A man is of more worth than a beast; because, being possessed of higher faculties, he is capable of a more refined and genuine happiness. In the same manner the illustrious archbishop of Cambray was of more worth than his valet, and there are few of us that would hesitate to pronounce, if his palace were in flames, and the life of only one of them could be preserved, which of the two ought to be preferred.
But there is another ground of preference, beside the private consideration of one of them being further removed from the state of a mere animal. We are not connected with one or two percipient beings, but with a society, a nation, and in some sense with the whole family of mankind. Of consequence that life ought to be preferred which will be most conducive to the general good. In saving the life of Fenelon, suppose at the moment he conceived the project of his immortal Telemachus, should have been promoting the benefit of thousands, who have been cured by the perusal of that work of some error, vice and consequent unhappiness. Nay, my benefit would extend further than this; for every individual, thus cured, has become a better member of society, and has contributed in his turn to the happiness, information, and improvement of others.
Suppose I had been myself the valet; I ought to have chosen to die, rather than Fenelon should have died. The life of Fenelon was really preferable to that of the valet. But understanding is the faculty that perceives the truth of this and similar propositions; and justice is the principle that regulates my conduct accordingly. It would have been just in the valet to have preferred the archbishop to himself. To have done otherwise would have been a breach of justice.
Suppose the valet had been my brother, my father, or my benefactor. This would not alter the truth of the proposition. The life of Fenelon would still be more valuable than that of the valet; and justice, pure, unadulterated justice, would still have preferred that which was most valuable. Justice would have taught me to save the life of Fenelon at the expense of the other. What magic is there in the pronoun “my,” that should justify us in overturning the decisions of impartial truth? My brother or my father may be a fool or a profligate, malicious, lying or dishonest. If they be, of what consequence is it that they are mine?”
“Till we come to try to put our own thoughts upon paper, we can have no notion how broke and imperfect they are, or find where the imperfection lies. Language is a scheme of machinery of so subtle a kind, that it is only by long habits that we can learn to conduct it in a masterly manner, or to the best purposes.”
“Add to this the species of government which prevails over nine tenths of the globe, which is despotism: a government, as Locke justly observes, altogether "vile and miserable," and "more to be deprecated than anarchy itself."(2*) Certainly every man who takes a dispassionate survey of this picture will feel himself inclined to pause respecting the necessity of the havoc which is thus made of his species, and to question whether the established methods for protecting mankind against the caprices of each other are the best that can be devised. He will be at a loss which of the two to pronounce most worthy of regret, the misery that is inflicted, or the depravity by which it is produced. If this be the unalterable allotment of our nature, the eminence of our rational faculties must be considered as rather an abortion than a substantial benefit; and we shall not fail to lament that, while in some respects we are elevated above the brutes, we are in so many important ones destined for ever to remain their inferiors.”
“Truth is powerful, and, if not instantly, at least by slow
degrees, may make good her possession. Gleams of good sense may
penetrate through the thickest clouds of error … and, as the true
object of education is not to render the pupil the mere copy of his
preceptor, it is rather to be rejoiced in, than lamented, that various
reading should lead him into new trains of thinking; open to him new
mines of science and new incentives to virtue; and perhaps, by a blended
and compound effect, produce in him an improvement which was out of the
limits of his lessons, and raise him to heights the preceptor never
“The only mode which is employed to repress this violence, and to maintain the order and peace of society, is punishment. Whips, axes and gibbets, dungeons, chains and racks are the most approved and established methods of persuading men to obedience, and impressing upon their minds the lessons of reason. There are few subjects upon which human ingenuity has been more fully displayed than in inventing instruments of torture. The lash of the whip a thousand times repeated and flagrant on the back of the defenceless victim, the bastinado on the soles of the feet, the dislocation of limbs, the fracture of bones, the faggot and the stake, the cross, impaling, and the mode of drifting pirates on the Volga, make but a small part of the catalogue. When Damiens, the maniac, was arraigned for his abortive attempt on the life of Louis XV of France, a council of anatomists was summoned to deliberate how a human being might be destroyed with the longest protracted and most diversified agony. Hundreds of victims are annually sacrificed at the shrine of positive law and political institution.”
“Nothing could’ve been more easy to predict, than that it was of no avail for him to have right on his side when his adversary had influence and wealth, and therefore could so victoriously justify any extravagancies that he might think proper to commit. This maxim was completely illustrated in the sequel. Wealth and despotism easily know how to engage those laws as coadjutors of their oppression, which were perhaps at first intended for the safeguards of the poor.”
“I had no power of withdrawing my person from a disgustful society, in the most cheerful and valuable part of the day; but I soon brought to perfection the art of withdrawing my thoughts, and saw and heard the people about me, for just as short a time, and as seldom, as I pleased. Such is man in himself considered; so simple his nature; so few his wants. How different from the man of artificial society! Palaces are built for his reception, a thousand vehicles provided for his exercise, provinces are ransacked for the gratification of his appetite, and the whole world traversed to supply him with apparel and furniture. Thus vast is his expenditure, and the purchase slavery.”
“Why should Milton, Shakespeare, and Lord Bacon, and Sir Philip Sidney die? Perhaps yet they shall not wholly die. I am not contented to visit the house in Bread-Street where Milton was born, or that in Bunhill-Row where he died, I want to repair to the place where he now dwells. Some spirit shall escape from his ashes, and whisper to me things unfelt before. I am not satisfied to converse only with the generation of men that now happens to subsist; I wish to live in intercourse with the Illustrious Dead of All Ages. I demand the friendship of Zoroaster. Orpheus, and Linus, and Musaeus shall be welcome to me. I have a craving and an earnest heart, that can never be contented with anything in this sort, while something more remains to be obtained. And I feel that thus much at least the human race owes to its benefactors, that they should never be passed by without an affectionate remembrance. I would say, with Ezekiel, the Hebrew, in his Vision, ‘Let these dry bones live!’ Not let them live merely in cold generalities and idle homilies of morality; but let them live, as my friends, my philosophers, my instructors, and my guides! I would say with the moralist of old, ‘Let me act, as I would wish to have acted, if Socrates or Cato were the spectators of what I did!’ And I am not satisfied only to call them up by a strong effort of the imagination, but I would have them, and men like them, ‘around my path, and around my bed,’ and not allow myself to hold a more frequent intercourse with the living, than with the good departed.”
“Men are apt to grow, in the apostolical phrase, too ‘worldly’: the propensity of our nature, or rather the operation of our state, is to plunge us, the lower orders of the community, in the concerns of the day, and their masters, in the cares of wealth and gain. It is good for us, sometimes to be ‘in the mount.’ Those things are to be cherished, which tend to elevate us above our ordinary sphere, and to abstract us from our common and every-day concerns. The affectionate recollection and admiration of the dead will act gently upon our spirits, and fill us with a composed seriousness, favourable to the best and most honourable contemplations.”
“The views into which I have been led, as to the effects flowing from the mortality of man to human affairs, and the feelings and sentiments it becomes us to cherish respecting the Illustrious Dead, I apprehend to be reasonable and true. Inestimable benefit will in my opinion flow, from the habit of seeing with the intellectual eye things not visible to the eye of the sense, and our attaining the craft and mystery, by which we may, spiritually, each in his several sphere, ‘Compel the earth and ocean to give up / Their dead alive.’ For just so much time as any one shall spend in reading and meditating on the suggestions of these pages, provided it be done in a serious frame, the project is a reality, and as if it were executed: and I hope most persons who shall be induced to examine these hints, will derive from them a solemnity and composure of spirit, which so far as it operates at all, will be favourable to elevation of mind, to generous action, and to virtue.”
- Date of birth: March 03, 1756
- Died: April 07, 1836
- Born: in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, England.
- Description: William Godwin was the son and grandson of strait-laced Calvinist ministers. Strictly-raised, he followed in paternal footsteps, becoming a minister by age 22. His reading of atheist d'Holbach and others caused him to lose both his belief in the doctrine of eternal damnation, and his ministerial position. Through further reading, Godwin gradually became godless. He promoted anarchism (but not anarchy). His Political Justice and The Enquirer (1793) argued for morality without religion, causing a scandal. He followed that philosophical book with a trail-blazing fictional adventure-detective story, Caleb Williams (1794), to introduce readers to his ideas in a popular format. Godwin, a leading thinker and author ranking in his day close to Thomas Paine, was enormously influential among famous peers.
He and Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, secretly married in 1797. She died tragically after giving birth to daughter Mary in 1797. Godwin's loving but candid biography of his wife, Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798), further scandalized society. Godwin, caring not only for the baby Mary, but her half-sister Fanny, remarried. He and his second wife opened a bookshop for children. Godwin, out of necessity, became a proficient author of children's books, employing a pseudonym due to his notoriety. His daughter Mary, at 16, famously ran off with poet Percy Shelley, whose Necessity of Atheism was influenced by Godwin. Mary's novel Frankenstein also paid homage to her father's views. Godwin's life was marked by poverty and further domestic tragedies. Godwin's prized manuscript attacked the Christian religion and was intended to free the mind from slavery. The Genius of Christianity Unveiled: in a Series of Essays was published only many years after his death.