William Godwin’s essays form a cohesive, if small, body of work. By his own admission, their author “scarcely in any instance contributed a page to any periodical miscellany” (Thoughts on Man), most of the essays appearing in three separate volumes:
The Enquirer (1797), Thoughts on Man (1831), and a posthumous, rather cranky collection of religious essays usually designated as Essays (1873). The rest serve as prefaces to the novels, the most notable being that to Caleb Williams (1794), in which the organic process of creation, as distinct from a priori rules of composition, is carefully traced by the novelist from a psychological perspective that anticipates the organicist critiques written by Romantic poets and essayists in the following decades. Even so, like so much else he wrote, Godwin’s essays are largely footnotes—of amplification and qualification, and eventually of contradiction—to the work for which he was best known, the classic tract of philosophic anarchism, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793).
It is no coincidence that Godwin’s first and most notable collection, The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature, should allude in its title to that earlier politicophilosophical tract. Each work treats human nature and the constitution of society—both as they are and as they might be. The difference is that the later enquiry foregrounds the enquirer—or at least holds out the promise of a more humane, personalized mode of enquiring. In his preface, Godwin pointedly distinguishes the method of Political Justice, which proceeds synthetically from fundamental principles, from The Enquirer’s method, which involves “an incessant recurrence to experiment and actual observation”—for “the intellectual eye of man, perhaps, is formed rather for the inspection of minute and near, than of immense and distant objects.” In addition to an empirical bent, moreover, the essayist exhibits an immediacy of address arising from “a passion for colloquial discussion.” Even the rational systematizer of Political Justice
observes that “there is a vivacity, and, if he may be permitted to say it, a richness, in the hints struck out in conversation, that are with difficulty attained in any other method.”
That said, the reader of The Enquirer must contend with an authorial diffidence that suggests that “colloquial discussion” did not come easily to Godwin. A glance at the table of contents reveals the topics named in the book’s subtitle (Education, Manners, and Literature) arranged in a systematic schema not unlike that of a volume of moral philosophy. The form taken by most of the essays—“Of Choice in Reading,” “Of Riches and Poverty”—suggests a Baconian provenance that the essays themselves have preserved virtually intact. Like Francis Bacon, Godwin treats conventional topics from the perspective of a rather neutral persona. Indeed, the Enquirer behind these essays, to the extent that he has any tangible presence, is a very generalized figure with none of the idiosyncrasies or genial egoism of a Montaigne. More often than not, Godwin favors the editorial “we” (“We are accustomed to suppose something mysterious and supernatural in the case of men of genius” [“Of the Sources of Genius”]) or the proverbial “he” (“He that has not been accustomed to refine upon words, and discriminate their shades of meaning, will think and reason after a very inaccurate and slovenly manner” [“Of the Study of the Classics”]). The “I” of these essays, where it appears, is the hypothetical “I” of philosophical demonstration (“Again; I desire to excite a given individual to the acquisition of knowledge. The only possible method in which I can excite a sensitive being to the performance of a voluntary action, is by the exhibition of motive” [“Of the Communication of Knowledge”]). Like Bacon, too, Godwin favors an expository style that generally resolves itself aphoristically—“The true object of education, like that of every other moral process, is the generation of happiness” (“Of Awakening the Mind”)— though it lacks Bacon’s witty astringency.
Godwin treats his subjects in general terms, favoring the hypothetical example over the personal anecdote. When he considers the inevitable gains and losses attendant on aging in his Enquirer essay, “Of the Happiness of Youth,” there is no hint of the elegiac regret we would expect from Charles Lamb’s Elia. On the other hand, Godwin’s psychological nominalism, his preoccupation with the minute particulars of character, allows for idiosyncrasy and infirmity in the human constitution—finally exhibiting Elia’s tolerance, if not his poignancy. In the same way, a pedestrian style does not imply pedestrian observations in essays like “Of Choice in Reading,” which addresses simplistic moral attacks on literature. In this essay Godwin distinguishes between the “moral” of a work, which is explicitly formulated, and its actual “tendency,” which is not. Moreover, “the selection of the one, and the character of the other, will in great degree depend upon the previous state of mind of the reader.” His conclusion, that the influence of literature is a joint product of complexity in text and reader alike, indicates a critical sophistication lacking in his conventional observations on literature in the Enquirer’s final section.
Separated from The Enquirer by more than 30 years, Thoughts on Man registers, if only nominally, the Romantic transformation of the essay effected by writers like Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, and Thomas De Quincey. While it would be absurd to speak of a confessional impulse anywhere in this volume, some of the essays do betray a tendency toward autobiography—the emergence of an authentic “I.” Essays like “Of Youth and Age” are premised on the subjective grounds of knowledge: “The philosophy of the wisest man that ever existed, is mainly derived from the act of introspection. We look into our own bosoms, observe attentively every thing that passes there, anatomise our motives, trace step by step the operations of thought, and diligently remark the effects of external impulses upon our feelings and conduct” (“Of Youth and Age”). This is the route followed by Romantic introspectivists in the essays and poetry of earlier decades. If the author of Political Justice had proceeded from the assumption that humanity could change itself and society by a rational act of will, the sadder but wiser essayist in Thoughts on Man yields questions of intellectual doctrine to the vagaries of character and circumstance.
Born 3 March 1756 in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire. Studied at Robert Akers’ school, Hindolveston, 1764–67, 1771–72; Rev. Samuel Newton’s school, Norwich, 1767–71; Hoxton Academy, near London, 1773–78. Minister at Ware, Hertfordshire, Stowmarket, Suffolk, and Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, 1778–83. Moved to London, 1783.
Contributor, English Review, from 1783, and New Annual Register, 1784–91. Married Mary Wollstonecraft, 1797 (died, 1797): one daughter (the writer Mary Shelley) and one stepdaughter. Married Mary Jane Clairmont, 1801: one son (died, 1832), one stepson, and one stepdaughter. Publisher and writer of the Juvenile Library, 1805–25, when it went bankrupt. Yeoman usher of the Exchequer, 1833–36. Died in London, 7 April 1836.
Essays and Related Prose
Sketches of History in Six Sermons, 1784
The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature, 1797
Essay on Sepulchres, 1809
Thoughts on Man, His Nature, Productions, and Discoveries, 1831
Essays Never Before Published, edited by C.Kegan Paul, 1873
Uncollected Writings, 1785–1822, 1968
The Anarchist Writings, edited by Peter Marshall, 1986
Other writings: the philosophical study An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), nine novels (Italian Letters, 1783; Imogen, 1784; Damon and Delia, 1784; Caleb Williams, 1794; St. Leon, 1799; Fleetwood, 1805; Mandeville, 1817; Cloudesley, 1830;
Deloraine, 1833), two plays, many books on history, and a biography of Chaucer.
Collected works edition: Collected Novels and Memoirs, 8 vols., 1992., and Political and Philosophical Writings, 7 vols., 1993, general editor Mark Philp.
Pollin, Burton R., Godwin Criticism: A Synoptic Bibliography, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967
Locke, Don, A Fantasy of Reason: The Life and Thought of William Godwin, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980
Marshall, Peter H., William Godwin, New Haven, Connecticut and London: Yale University Press, 1984
Woodcock, George, William Godwin: A Biographical Study, Montreal: Black Rose, 1989
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