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Title: Shelley, Godwin and Their Circle
Author: Brailsford, Henry Noel, 1873-1958
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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  THE HOME UNIVERSITY LIBRARY
  OF MODERN KNOWLEDGE

      LXXVII
  SHELLEY, GODWIN
  AND THEIR CIRCLE



      _EDITORS OF_
  THE HOME UNIVERSITY LIBRARY
  OF MODERN KNOWLEDGE

  PROFESSOR GILBERT MURRAY, O.M., LL.D., F.B.A.
  JULIAN S. HUXLEY, D.Sc., F.R.S.
  PROFESSOR G. N. CLARK, LL.D., F.B.A.



  SHELLEY, GODWIN
  AND THEIR CIRCLE


      _By_
  H. N. BRAILSFORD
      M.A.


  OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS
  LONDON NEW YORK TORONTO



_First published in 1913, and reprinted in 1919, 1925, 1927, 1930, 1936
and 1942_


PRINTED IN GREAT BRITAIN



CONTENTS

  CHAPTER                                        PAGE

     I THE FRENCH REVOLUTION IN ENGLAND             7

    II THOMAS PAINE                                56

   III WILLIAM GODWIN AND THE REVOLUTION           78

    IV "POLITICAL JUSTICE"                         94

     V GODWIN AND THE REACTION                    142

    VI GODWIN AND SHELLEY                         168

   VII MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT                        186

  VIII SHELLEY                                    212

       BIBLIOGRAPHY                               252

       INDEX                                      255



SHELLEY, GODWIN, AND
THEIR CIRCLE



CHAPTER I

THE FRENCH REVOLUTION IN ENGLAND


The history of the French Revolution in England begins with a sermon and
ends with a poem. Between that famous discourse by Dr. Richard Price on
the love of our country, delivered in the first excitement that followed
the fall of the Bastille, and the publication of Shelley's _Hellas_
there stretched a period of thirty-two years. It covered the dawn, the
clouding and the unearthly sunset of a hope. It begins with the grave
but enthusiastic prose of a divine justly respected by earnest men, who
with a limited horizon fulfilled their daily duties in the city. It ends
in the rapt vision, the magical music of a singer, who seemed as he sang
to soar beyond the range of human ears. The hope passes from the
confident expectation of instant change, through the sobrieties of
disillusionment and the recantations of despair, to the iridescent
dreams of a future which has taken wing and made its home in a fairy
world.

In 1789 when Dr. Price preached to his ardent congregation of
Nonconformist Radicals in the meeting-house at the Old Jewry, the
prospect was definite and the place of the millennium was merely the
England over which George III. ruled. The hope was a robust but
pedestrian "mental traveller," and its limbs wore the precise garments
of political formulæ. It looked for honest Parliaments and manhood
suffrage, for the triumph of democracy and the abolition of war. Its
scene as Wordsworth put it, was

        Not in Utopia, subterraneous fields,
  Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where,
  But in the very world which is the world
  Of all of us, the place where in the end
  We find our happiness, or not at all.


The impetus of its own aspiration carried it swiftly beyond the prosaic
demand for Parliamentary Reform. It evolved its programme for the
reconstruction of all human institutions, and projected the amendment of
human nature itself. America had made an end of kings and France was in
the full tide of revolution. Nothing was too mighty for this
new-begotten hope, and the path to human perfectibility stretched as
plain as the narrow road to Bunyan's Heavenly City.

There followed the phase when persecution from alarmed defenders of
things as they are, disgust at the failures of the revolution in France,
and contempt for the futilities of the revolution at home, drove the new
movement into as many refuges as its votaries had temperaments. For some
there was cynicism, for others recantation. "The French Revolution" as
Hazlitt put it, "was the only match that ever took place between
philosophy and experience; and waking from the trance of theory we hear
the words Truth, Reason, Virtue, Liberty, with the same indifference or
contempt that a cynic who has married a jilt or a termagant listens to
the rhapsodies of lovers." Godwin found his own alluring by-way, and
turning away at once from political repression and political agitation,
became the pioneer of philosophic anarchism. To Shelley at the end of
this marvellous thirty years of ardour, speculation, and despair, the
hope became winged. She had her place no longer in "the very world
which is the world of all of us." She had moved to

    Kingless continents, sinless as Eden
  Around mountains and islands inviolably
    Prankt on the sapphire sea.


It requires no inordinate effort for us who live in an equable political
climate to realise the atmosphere of Dr. Price's Old Jewry sermon. The
lapse of a century indeed has made him a more intelligible figure than
he could have seemed to the generation which immediately followed him.
He was temperate in his rationalism and thrifty in his philanthropy. He
tended to Unitarianism in his theology, but was a sturdy defender of
Free Will. He had written a widely-read apology for the Colonial side in
the American Civil War. A stout individualist in his political theory,
inspired, as were nearly all the English progressive thinkers of his
day, by an extreme jealousy of State action, he yet guarded himself
carefully against anarchical conclusions, and followed Saint Paul in
teaching obedience to magistrates. He had written a treatise on ethics
which on some points anticipated Kant. But his most characteristic
pre-occupation was a study of finance in the interests of national
thrift and social benevolence. This cold moralist, who despised the
emotional aspects of human nature and found no place for the affections
in his scheme of the virtues, lapsed into passion when he attacked the
National Debt, and developed an arithmetical enthusiasm when he
explained his plan for providing through voluntary insurance for the old
age of the worthy poor. He was not quite the first of the philosophers
to dream of the abolition of war, and to plan an international tribunal
for the settlement of disputes between nations. In that he followed
Leibnitz, as he anticipated Kant.

It was such an essentially cold and calculating intellect as this which
in that age of ferment could launch the new doctrine of the infinite
perfectibility of mankind. Modern readers know the Rev. Dr. Price only
from the fulminations of Burke, in whose pages he figures now as an
incendiary and again as a fool. He was in point of fact the soul of
sobriety and the mirror of all the respectabilities in his serious
dissenting world. It is worth while to note that he was also, with his
friend Priestley, perhaps the only English Nonconformist preacher who
has ever enjoyed a European reputation. No less a man than Condorcet
refers to him as one of the formative minds of the century.

Dr. Price's sermon is worth a glance, not merely because it was the goad
which provoked Burke to eloquent fury, but still more because it is a
document which records for us the mood in which even the older and
graver progressives of his generation greeted the French Revolution. It
was an official discourse delivered before the Society for Commemorating
the Revolution in Great Britain. This typically English club claimed to
have met annually since 1688 for a dinner and a sermon. The centenary of
our own Revolution and the events in France gave it for a moment a
central place on the political stage. It was an eminently respectable
society, mainly composed of middle-class Nonconformists, with four
Doctors of Divinity on its Committee, an entrance fee of half-a-guinea,
and a radical peer, Earl Stanhope, for its Chairman. At its annual
meeting in November, 1789, Dr. Price "disdaining national partialities
and rejoicing in every triumph of liberty and justice over arbitrary
power," had moved an address congratulating the French National Assembly
on "the Revolution in that country and on the prospect it gives to the
two first kingdoms in the world of a common participation in the
blessings of civil and religious liberty." The sermon was an eloquent
expansion of this address.

It opens with a defence of the cosmopolitan attitude which could rejoice
at an improvement in the prospects of our hereditary rival. Christ
taught not patriotism, but universal benevolence, as the parable of the
Good Samaritan shows. "My neighbour" is he to whom I can do most good,
whether foreigner or fellow-citizen. We should love our country
"ardently but not exclusively," considering ourselves "citizens of the
world," and taking care "to maintain a just regard to the rights of
other countries." Patriotism had been in history a scourge of mankind.
It was among the Romans no better than "a principle holding together a
band of robbers in their attempts to crush all liberty but their own."
The aim of those who love their kind can be only to spread Truth, Virtue
and Liberty. To make mankind happy and free, it should suffice to
instruct them. "Ignorance is the parent of bigotry, intolerance,
persecution and slavery. Inform and instruct mankind and these evils
will be excluded." There follow some rambling remarks on the need for a
revisal of the Liturgy and the Articles, a complaint of the servility
shown in a recent address to King George, who ought to consider himself
rather the servant than the sovereign of his people, and a prediction
that France and England, each delivered from despotism by a happy
revolution, will now "not merely refrain from engaging in wars with one
another, but unite in preventing wars everywhere." As for our own
Revolution of 1688, it was a great but not a perfect work. It had left
religious toleration incomplete and the Parliamentary franchise unequal.
We must continue to enforce its principles, especially in the matter of
removing the disabilities that still weigh upon dissenters. Those
principles are briefly (1) Liberty of Conscience, (2) The right to
resist power when it is abused, and (3) The right to choose our own
governors, to cashier them for misconduct and to frame a government for
ourselves. There follows a curious little moral exhortation which shows
how far the good Dr. Price was from forgetting his duties as a preacher.
He had been distressed by the lax morals of some of his colleagues in
the agitation for Reform, and he pauses to deplore that "not all who are
zealous in this cause are as conspicuous for purity of morals as for
ability." He cannot reconcile himself to the idea of an immoral patriot,
and begs that they will at least hide their vices. The old man finds
his peroration in Simeon's prayer. He had seen the great salvation. "I
have lived to see thirty millions of people indignant and resolute,
spurning at slavery and demanding liberty with an irresistible voice,
their king led in triumph and an arbitrary monarch surrendering himself
to his subjects. And now methinks I see the ardour for liberty catching
and spreading, a general amendment beginning in human affairs; the
dominion of kings changed for the dominion of laws, and the dominion of
priests giving way to the dominion of reason and conscience."

The world remembers the scholar Salmasius only because he provoked
Milton to a learned outbreak of bad manners. There is something immortal
even in the ill-temper of great men, and Dr. Price lives in modern
memory chiefly because he moved Burke to declamatory rage. His
_Reflections on the French Revolution_ was an answer to the Old Jewry
sermon, which, eloquent itself, was to beget much eloquence in others.
For four years the mighty debate went on, and it became as the
disputants conversed across the echoes of the Terror, rather a dialogue
between the past and the future, than a discussion between human voices.
Burke answered Dr. Price, and to Burke in turn replied Tom Paine with
the brilliant, confident, hard-hitting logic of a pamphlet (_The Rights
of Man_) which for all the efforts of Pitt to suppress it, is still read
and circulated to-day. Two notable answers were ephemeral, one from Mary
Wollstonecraft, and another (_Vindiciae Gallicae_) from Mackintosh, who
afterwards recanted his own opinions and lived to be known as Sir James.

To lift the discussion to the height of a philosophical argument was
reserved for William Godwin, a mind steeped in the French and English
speculation of his century, gifted with rare powers of analysis, and
inspired with a faith in human reason in general and his own logical
capacity in particular, which no English mind before him or after him
has approached. In spite of a lucid style and a certain cold eloquence
which illumines if it does not warm, Godwin's _Political Justice_ was
dead before its author, while Burke lives and was never more widely read
than to-day.

The ghosts of great men have an erratic habit in walking. It is passion
rather than any mere intellectual momentum which drives them from the
tomb. There is, moreover, in Burke a variety and a humanity which
appeals in some one of its phases and moods to all of us in turn. The
great store-house of his emotions and his phrases has the catholicity of
the Bible. Each man can find in it what he seeks. He is like the
luminous phantom which walked in _Faust_ through the witcheries of the
Brocken. Each man saw in her his own first love. He has been hero and
prophet to Whigs and Tories, and in our own generation we have seen him
bequeath an equal inspiration to a Cecil and a Morley. It is no part of
our task to attempt even the briefest exposition of his philosophy; we
are concerned with him here chiefly as an influence which helped by its
vehemence and its superb rhetorical exaggerations to drive the
revolutionary thinkers who answered him to parallel exaggerations and
opposite extremes. Inspired himself with a distrust of generalisation,
and a hatred of philosophers, he none the less evolved a philosophy as
he talked. Against his will he was forced into the upper air in his
furious pursuit of the "political aeronauts." His was a volcanic
intellect which flung up principles in its moments of eruption, and
poured them forth pell-mell with the vituperations and the exaltations.

No logical dissection can reach the inner truth of Burke. Every
statement of a principle in an orator or a pamphleteer is coloured by
the occasion, the emotion, and the mood of an audience to whom it is
addressed. Burke spoke amid the angers and alarms inspired first by the
subversive energy, and then by the doctrinaire cruelty of the French
Revolution. It was in the process of "diffusing the Terror" that most of
his philosophical _obiter dicta_ were uttered. The real nerve of the
thinking of a mind so vehement, so passionate, so essentially dramatic
is to be sought not in some principle which was the major premise of his
syllogisms, but in some pervading emotion. Fanny Burney said of him that
when he spoke of the Revolution his face immediately assumed "the
expression of a man who is going to defend himself against murderers."
That is exactly the tone of all his later utterances. His mission was to
spread panic because he felt it. By no other reading can one explain or
excuse the rage of his denunciation of the excellent Dr. Price.

If his was philosophy it was philosophy seeing red. He predicted the
Terror before it occurred, and by his work in stirring Europe to the
coalition against France, he did much to realise his own forebodings.
But, to do Burke justice, his was a disinterested fear, and it would be
fairer to call it a hatred of cruelty. Burke was not a man to take fire
because he thought a principle false. His was rather the practical logic
which found a principle false because it led to evil; and the evil which
caused his mind to blaze was nearly always cruelty. He hated the French
philosophers because in the groves of their Academy "at the end of every
vista you see nothing but the gallows." He pursued Rousseau and Dr.
Price because their teaching, on his reading of cause and effect, had
set the tumbrils rolling and weighted the guillotine for Marie
Antoinette. It was precisely the same impulse which had caused him to
pursue Warren Hastings for his cruelties towards the Begums of Oude. The
spring of all this speculation was a nerve which twitched with a
maddening sensitiveness at the sight of suffering.

To rouse Burke's genius to its noblest utterance, there must needs be a
suffering which he could personify and dramatise. He saw nothing of the
dull peasant misery which in truth explained the Revolution. He ignored
those catalogues of injustice and wrong that composed the mandates (the
_cahiers_) which the Deputies carried with them to the National
Assembly. He forgot the famines, the exactions, the oppressive
privileges which made revolt, and saw only the pathos of the Queen's
helplessness before it. In Paine's immortal epigram, he "pitied the
plumage and forgot the dying bird." But it is paradoxically true that
while he pursued the friends of humanity, his real impulse was the
hatred of cruelty which modern men call humanitarian. To that hatred he
was always true. No abstract principle, but always this dominating
passion, covers his inconsistencies, and bridges the gulf between his
earlier Whiggery and his later Toryism. In the French Revolution he saw
only cruelty, and he opposed it as he had opposed Indian Imperialism,
negro slavery, the savage criminal justice of his day, and the penal
laws against the Irish Catholics. Of Burke one must ask not so much What
did he believe? as Whom did he pity?

It was the contrast of temperament and attitude which made the cleavage
between Burke and the friends of the French Revolution deep and
irreconcilable. In the fundamentals of political theory he often seems
to agree with some of them, and they differ as often among themselves.
Burke seems often to retain the typical eighteenth century fiction that
the State is based on some original pact or social contract. That was
Rousseau's starting point, and it was Godwin's work (after Hume) to
shatter this heritage which French and English speculation had been
content to accept from Locke. There are passages in which Burke appears
to accept the notion, unintelligible to modern minds, of the natural, or
as he put it, "primitive," rights of man. He reserved his contempt for
those who sought to tabulate or codify these rights, and he would always
brush aside any argument based upon them, by asking the prior question,
what in the given emergency was best for the good of society, or the
happiness of men. Paine, when he was in his more _a priori_ moods, was
capable of deducing his whole practical system from the abstract rights
of man; Godwin was a modern in virtually dismissing the whole notion.
While Burke was belabouring Dr. Price, he whittled away the whole
theoretic significance of the English Revolution of 1688, but he
remained its partisan. He tried to deny Dr. Price's claim to "choose our
governors," but he could not relapse into the seventeenth-century Tory
doctrine of non-resistance, and would always allow in extreme cases the
right of rebellion. Here again there was no final opposition, for there
are passages in Godwin against rash rebellion and the anarchy of
revolution more impressive, if less emotional, than anything in Burke.

Modern criticism is disposed to base the greatness of Burke on his
inspired anticipation of the historical view of politics. Quotation has
made classical those noble passages which glorify the continuous life of
mankind, link the present by a chain of pieties to the past, conjure up
a glowing vision of the social organism, and celebrate the wisdom of our
ancestors and the infallibility of the race. There was, indeed, a real
opposition of temperament here; but Burke had no monopoly of the
historical vision. It is a travesty to suggest that the revolutionary
school despised history. Paine, indeed, was a self-taught man, who knew
nothing of history and cared less. But Godwin wrote history with success
and even penned a remarkable essay (_On Sepulchres_) in which he
anticipated the Comtist veneration for the great dead, and proposed a
national scheme for covering the country with monuments to their memory.
Condorcet, perhaps the greatest intellect and certainly the noblest
character among them, wrote the first attempt at a systematic
evolutionary interpretation of history.

But it makes some difference whether a man sees history from above or
from below. Burke saw it from the comfortable altitude of the Whig
aristocracy to which he had allied himself. The revolutionary school saw
its inverse, from the standpoint of the "swinish multitude" (an angry
indiscretion of Burke's) for whom it had worked to less advantage. Paine
was a man of the people, and Godwin belonged by birth to the dissenting
community for whom history had been chiefly a record of persecution,
illuminated by rebellion. For Burke the product of history was the
sacred constitution in which he saw an "entailed heritage," the social
fabric "well cramped and bolted together in all its parts." For Godwin
it was mainly a chronicle of criminal wars, savage oppressions, and
social misery. Burke, in a moment of paradoxical exaltation, was capable
of singing the praises of "prejudice," which "renders a man's virtue his
habit." For Condorcet, on the other hand, history was the orderly
procession of the human mind, advancing through a series of well-marked
epochs (he enumerated nine) from the pastoral state to the French
Revolution, each epoch marked primarily by the shedding of some moral,
social, or theological "prejudice," which had hampered its advance.

It is easy to criticise the naïve intellectualism of such a view as
this, which ignores or thrusts into the background the economic causes
of advance and retrogression. But it is certainly not an unhistorical
view. Burke dreaded fundamental discussions which "turn men's duties
into doubts." The revolutionary school believed that all progress
depended on the daring and thoroughness of these discussions. History
for them was a continuous Socratic dialogue, in which the philosophers
of innovation were always arrayed against the sophists of authority.
They hoped everything from the leadership of the illuminated few who
gradually permeate the mass and raise it with them. Burke held that "the
individual is foolish, but the species is wise," and the "natural
aristocracy" in whom he trusted was to keep the inert mass in a
condition of stable equilibrium.

We retain from Burke to-day the sonorous generalisations, the
epigrammatic maxims, which each of us applies in his own way. But to
Burke's contemporaries they meant only one thing--a defence of the
unreformed franchise. All his reverence for the pre-ordained order of
providence, the "divine tactic" which had made society what it was,
meant for them in bald prose that Old Sarum should have two members.
Burke had not "a doubt that the House of Commons represents perfectly
the whole commons of Great Britain." They, with no mystical view of
history to guide them, pointed out that its electors were a mere handful
of 12,000 in the whole population, and that Birmingham, Manchester,
Leeds, Sheffield and Bradford had not a Member among them. While Burke
perorated about the ways of providence, they pointed to that auctioneer
who put up for sale to the highest bidder the fee simple of the Borough
of Gatton with the power of nominating two members for ever. That
auctioneer is worth quoting: "Need I tell you, gentlemen, that this
elegant contingency is the only infallible source of fortune, titles,
and honours in this happy country? That it leads to the highest
situations in the State? And that, meandering through the tempting
sinuosities of ambition, the purchaser will find the margin strewed with
roses, and his head quickly crowned with those precious garlands that
flourish in full vigour round the fountain of honour? On this halcyon
sea, if any gentleman who has made his fortune in either of the Indies
chooses once more to embark, he may repose in perfect quiet. No
hurricanes to dread; no tormenting claims of insolent electors to
evade; no tinkers' wives to kiss.... With this elegant contingency in
his pocket, the honours of the State await his plucking, and with its
emoluments his purse will overflow."

A reference to the elegant contingency of Gatton sufficed to deflate a
good deal of eloquence.

Burke, indeed, believed in the pre-ordained order of the world, but he
somehow omitted the rebels. When in his sublimest periods, he appealed
to "the known march of the ordinary providence of God," and saw in
revolution and change an assault on the divine order, one sees, rigid
and forbidding, the limitations of his thinking. The man who sees in
history a divine tactic must salute the regiment in its headlong charge
no less than the regiment which stands with fixed bayonets around the
ark of the covenant. Said the Hindoo saint, who saw all things in God
and God in all things, to the soldier who was slaying him, "And Thou
also art He." The march of providence embraced 1789 as well as 1688.
Paine and Godwin, Danton and Robespierre might have answered Burke with
a reminder that they also were His children.

The key to any understanding of the dialogue between Burke and the
Revolutionists is that each side was moved by a passion which meant
nothing to the other. Burke was hoarse with anger and fear at the
excesses in France. They were afire with an almost religious faith in
human perfectibility. Burke's is a great record of detailed reforms
achieved or advocated, but for organic change there was no place in his
system, and he indulged in no vision of human progress. "The only moral
trust with any certainty in our hands," he wrote, "is the care of our
own time." It was of to-morrow that the Revolution thought, and even of
the day after to-morrow. Nothing could shake its faith. Proscribed amid
the Terror for his moderation and independence, learning daily in the
garret where he hid of the violent deaths of friends and comrades,
witnessing, as it must have seemed to him, the ruin of his work and the
frustration of his brightest hopes, Condorcet, solitary and disguised,
sat down to write that sketch of human destinies which is, perhaps, the
most confident statement of a reasoned optimism in European literature.
He finished his _Sketch for an Historical Picture of the Progress of the
Human Mind_, left his garret, and went out to meet his death. A year
later, as if to show that the great prodigal hope could survive the
brain that conceived it, the representatives of the French people had
it circulated as a national document.

Its thesis is that no limit can be set to the perfection of human
faculties, that the progress and perfectibility of man are independent
of any power which can arrest them, and have no term unless it be the
duration of the globe itself. The progress might be swift or slow, but
the ultimate end was sure. Twenty years before, Turgot projecting a
system of universal education in France, had promised to transform the
nation in ten years. Condorcet was less sanguine, but his perspective
was short. The indefinite advance of mankind presupposed, he argued, the
elimination of inequality (1) among peoples, and (2) among classes, and
lastly the perfection of the individual. For all this he believed that
the Revolution had already laid the foundation. Negro slavery, for
example, would end; Africa would enter on a phase of culture dependent
on settled agriculture, and the East adopt free institutions. The time
was at hand when the sun would rise only on free men, and tyrants,
slaves, and priests would live only in history. The Revolution had
proclaimed the equality of men, and the future would proceed to realise
it. Monopolies abolished, fortunes would tend to a level of equality,
and a system of insurance (Dr. Price's specific) would mitigate or
abolish poverty. Universal education would reduce the natural inequality
of talents, and break down the barriers of class, so that men, retaining
still the desire to be instructed by others, would no longer need to be
controlled by their superiors. Science had made a dizzy progress in the
past generation, but its advance must be still more rapid when general
education enables it to be cultivated by still greater numbers, and by
women as well as men. To the fear which Malthus afterwards used as the
most formidable argument against revolutionary optimism, that a denser
population would leave the means of subsistence inadequate, he opposed
intensive cultivation, synthetic chemistry, and the progress of mankind
in self-control and virtue. Human character itself will change with the
amendment of human institutions. Passion can be dominated by reflection,
and by the deliberate encouragement of gentle and altruistic sentiments.
The business of politics is to destroy the opposition between
self-interest and altruism, and to make a world in which when a man
seeks his own good, he need no longer infringe the good of others. A
great share in this moral elevation would come from the destruction of
the inequality of the sexes, which Condorcet preached in France while
Mary Wollstonecraft was its pioneer in England. That inequality has been
ruinous even to the sex which it favoured, and rests in nothing but an
abuse of force. To remove it is not merely to raise the status of women
but to increase family happiness, and to reform morals. Wars too will
end, and with them a constant menace to liberty. The ultimate dream is a
perpetual confederation of mankind.

It would be a fascinating but too protracted study to follow this faith
in the perfectibility of mankind to its final enthusiasms of prophecy,
and to trace it to its origins in the speculations of Helvétius and
Holbach, of Priestley and Price. It was a creative impulse which made
for itself a psychology and a sociology; it rather led the thinking of
men than followed from their reasonings. They seem at every turn to
choose of two alternative views the one which would favour this
sovereign hope. Is it reason and opinion, or some innate character which
governs the actions of men? The philosophers of hope answer "opinion,"
for opinion can be indefinitely changed and led from prejudice to
science. Is it climate (as Montesquieu had urged) or political
institutions which differentiate the races of men? Clearly it is
institutions, for if it were climate there would be nothing to hope from
reform. Burke opposed to all their schemes of construction and
destruction, to their generalisations and philosophisings, the
unchangeable fact of human nature. They answered (diving into Helvétius)
that human nature is itself the product of "education" or, as we should
call it, "environment." Circumstances and above all political
institutions have made man what he is. Princes, as Holbach puts it, are
gardeners who can by varying systems of cultivation alter the character
of men as they would alter the form of trees. Change the institutions
and you will change human nature itself. There seemed no limit to the
improvement which would follow if we could but discard the fetters of
prejudice and despotism.

Wordsworth's "shades of the prison-house" which close upon the growing
boy, were an echo of this thought. Godwin's friend, Holcroft, embodied
it in a striking metaphor: "Men do not become what by nature they are
meant to be, but what society makes them. The generous feelings and
higher propensities of the soul are, as it were shrunk up, scared,
violently wrenched, and amputated, to fit us for our intercourse in the
world, something in the manner that beggars maim and mutilate their
children to make them fit for their future situation in life."

The men of the Revolution phrased that idea each in his own way,
according as they had been influenced, primarily, by Rousseau,
Helvétius, or Condorcet. It gave to their controversy with Burke the
appearance, not so much of a dispute between rival schools, as of a
dialogue between men who spoke to each other in unknown tongues.

       *       *       *       *       *

Burke condescended to reason with Dr. Price. But the main answer of
authority to the friends of the French Revolution, was the answer which
Burke prescribed for "infidels"--"a refutation by criminal justice." A
curious parallel movement towards extremes went on simultaneously in the
two camps. While Burke separated himself from Fox, split the Whig party,
and devoted his genius to the task of fanning the general English
dislike of the Revolution into a panic rage of anger and fear, the
progressive camp in its turn was gradually captured by the
"intellectuals," and passed from a humdrum demand for political reform
into a ferment of moral and social speculation. Societies grew up in
all the chief centres of population, always with the same programme. "An
honest Parliament. An annual Parliament. A Parliament wherein each
individual will have his representative." Of these the most active, the
most extreme, and the best organised was undoubtedly the London
Corresponding Society.

It was founded by a Scottish boot-maker named Thomas Hardy. The sober,
limited character of the man is plain to read in his records and
pamphlets. The son of a sea-captain, who had had his education in a
village school in Perthshire where the scholars paid a penny a week, he
was a leading member of the Scots' Kirk in Covent Garden, and had drawn
his political education not at all from godless French philosophers, but
from the Protestant fanatic, Lord George Gordon, and from Dr. Price's
book on the American War. He gathered his own friends together to found
his society, and nine of them met for the first time in the "Bell"
tavern in Exeter Street in January, 1792. "They had finished their daily
labour and met there by appointment. After having their bread and cheese
and porter for supper, as usual, and their pipes afterwards, with some
conversation, on the hardness of the times and the dearness of all the
necessaries of life, which they in common with their fellow-citizens
felt to their sorrow, the business for which they had met was brought
forward--Parliamentary Reform."

The Corresponding Society drew the bulk of its members from tradesmen,
mechanics and shopkeepers, who contributed their penny a week, and
organised itself under Hardy's methodical guidance into numerous
branches each with twenty members. It is said to have counted in the end
some 30,000 members in London alone. It was a focus of discontent and
hope which soon attracted men of more conspicuous talents and wider
experience. Horne Tooke, man about town, ex-clergyman, and philologist,
who had been at first the friend and lieutenant and then the rival and
enemy of Wilkes, was there to bridge the years between the last great
popular agitation and the new hopes of reform. He was a man cautious and
even timid in action, but there was a vanity in him which led him to say
"hanging matters" when he had an inflammable audience in front of him
within the four walls of a room. There was Tom Paine, the man who had
first dared to propose the independence of the United States, a veteran
of revolution who had served on Washington's staff, penned those
brilliant exhortations which led the American rebels to victory, and
acted as Foreign Secretary to the insurgent Congress. On the fringes of
the little inner circle of intellectuals one catches a glimpse of
William Blake the poet, and Ritson, the first teacher and theorist of
vegetarianism. Not the least interesting member of the group was Thomas
Holcroft, the inseparable friend and ally of William Godwin. Holcroft's
vivid and masterful personality stands out indeed as the most attractive
among the abler members of the circle. The son of a boot-maker, he had
earned his bread as cobbler, ostler, village schoolmaster, strolling
player and reporter. His insatiable passion for knowledge had given him
a mastery of French and German. He went in 1783 to Paris as
correspondent of the _Morning Herald_, on the modest salary of a
guinea-and-a-half a week. It was there that he acquired his familiarity
with the writings of the French political philosophers, and performed
the quaint achievement of pirating _Figaro_ for the English stage. No
printed copy was obtainable, and Holcroft contrived to commit the whole
play to memory by attending ten performances, much as Mozart had pirated
the ancient exclusive music of St. Peter's in Rome. He was at this
period a thriving literary craftsman, and the author of a series of
popular plays in which the critics of the time had just begun to note
and resent an obtrusive democratic tendency.

Under the influence of these eager speculative spirits, the
Corresponding Society must have travelled far from its original business
of Parliamentary Reform. Here is an extract from evidence given before
the Privy Council, which relates the proceedings at one of its later
meetings:

"The most gentlemanlike person took the chair and talked about an equal
representation of the people, and of putting an end to war. Holcroft
talked about the Powers of the Human Mind.... Mr. Holcroft talked a
great deal about Peace, of his being against any violent or coercive
means, that were usually resorted to against our fellow-creatures, urged
the more powerful operation of Philosophy and Reason to convince man of
his errors; that he would disarm his greatest enemy by these means and
oppose his Fury. He spoke also about Truth being powerful, and gave
advice to the above effect to the delegates present who all seemed to
agree, as no person opposed his arguments."

One may doubt, however, whether the whole society was composed of
"natural Quakers," who, like Holcroft and Godwin, preached
non-resistance before Tolstoy. The dour commonsense of Hardy maintained
the theory--he vowed that it was only theory--that every citizen should
possess arms and know their use. As the Revolution went forward in
France, the agitation in England became increasingly reckless. When the
society held its anniversary dinner after the Terror, in May, 1794, at
the "Crown and Anchor" Tavern, the band played "Ça ira," the
"Carmagnole" and the "Marseillaise." The chief toasts were "the Rights
of Man," and "the Armies contending for Liberty," which was a
sufficiently clear phrase for describing the Republican armies that were
at war with England. There followed an ode composed by Sir William
Jones, a translation of the Athenian song which celebrated the deeds of
the tyrannicides, Harmodius and Aristogeiton;

  Verdant myrtle's branchy pride
  Shall my thirsty blade entwine.


One may doubt whether Sir William Jones ever felt the smallest
inclination to satisfy the thirst of his blade, but there was provision
enough for more commonplace appetites. Two years before, Hardy's worthy
mechanics had supped on porter and cheese and talked of the hardness of
the times. Their movement had been captured by a group of eager,
sophisticated, literary persons, who went much farther than
Parliamentary Reform, and with the aid of claret and the subtler French
intoxicants, "turned indignant" as another Ode puts it:

  From Kings who seek in Gothic night
  To hide the blaze of moral light.
  Fill high the animating glass
  And let the electric ruby pass.


It was a cheerful indignation, a festive rage.

That dinner must have marked the height of the revolutionary tide in
England. The reaction was already rampant and vindictive, and before the
year 1794 was out it had crushed the progressive movement and postponed
for thirty-eight years the triumph of Parliamentary Reform. It requires
a strenuous exercise of the imagination to conceive the panic which
swept over England as the news of the French Terror circulated. It
fastened impartially on every class of the community, and destroyed the
emotional balance no less of Pitt and his colleagues than of the working
men who formed the Church and King mobs. Proclamations were issued to
quell insurrections which never had been planned, and the militia called
out when not a hand had been raised against the King throughout Great
Britain. So great was the fear, so deep the moral indignation that "even
respectable and honest men," (the phrase is Holcroft's) "turned spies
and informers on their friends from a sense of public duty." A mob
burned Dr. Priestley's house near Birmingham for no better reason than
because he was supposed to have attended a Reform dinner, which in fact,
he did not attend. Hardy's bookshop in Piccadilly was rushed by a mob,
and his wife, about to be confined, was injured in her efforts to
escape, and died a few hours afterwards. A hunt went on all over the
kingdom for booksellers and printers to prosecute, and when Thomas Paine
was prosecuted in his absence for publishing _The Rights of Man_, the
jury was so determined to find him guilty that they would not trouble to
hear the case for the Crown.

Twenty years before, the French philosopher Helvétius, after an
experience of Jesuit persecution and Court disfavour in France, made a
quaint proposal for re-organising the whole discussion of moral and
political questions. The first step, he thought, was to compile a
dictionary in which all the terms required in such debates would receive
an authoritative definition. But this dictionary, he urged, must be
composed in the English language, and published first in England, for
only there was discussion free, and the press unfettered. In the
reaction over which Pitt and Dundas presided, that envied liberty was
totally eclipsed. The _Habeas Corpus_ Act was suspended; the Privy
Council sat as a sort of Star Chamber to question political suspects,
and there was even talk of importing Hessian and Hanoverian mercenaries
to check an insurrection which nowhere showed its head. The frailest of
all human endowments is the sense of humour. The sense of proportion had
been eclipsed in the panic, and most of the cases which may be studied
to-day in the State trials impress the modern reader as tasteless and
cruel farces. Men were tried and sentenced never for deeds, but always
for words. For a sermon closely resembling Dr. Price's, a dissenting
minister named Winterbotham was tried at Exeter, and sentenced to four
years' imprisonment and a fine of £200. The attorney, John Frost,
returning from France, admitted in a chance conversation in a
coffee-house that he thought society could manage very well without
kings; he was imprisoned, set in the pillory and struck off the rolls.
One favourite expedient was to produce a spy who would swear that he had
heard some suspect Radical declare in a coach or a coffee-house, that he
would "as soon have the King's head off as he would tear a bit of paper"
(evidence against a group of Manchester prisoners), or that he "would
cut off the King's head as easily as he would shave himself" (case
against Thomas Hardy). The climax of really entertaining absurdity was
reached when two debtors imprisoned in the Fleet were tried and
sentenced for nailing a seditious libel to its doors. The libel was a
notice that "This house is to let," that "infamous bastilles are no
longer necessary in Europe," and that "peaceable possession" would be
secured "on or before the first day of January, 1793, being the
commencement of the first year of liberty in Great Britain."

The farce of this panic became a tragedy when the reformers of Scotland
ventured to summon a Convention at Edinburgh to voice the demand for
shorter Parliaments and universal male suffrage. It met in October,
1793, and was attended by delegates from the London Corresponding
Society as well as from Scottish branches. Nothing was intended beyond
the holding of what we should call to-day a conference or congress. But
the word "Convention" with its reminiscence of the French revolutionary
assembly seems to have caused the Government some particular alarm. The
Convention, after some days of orderly debate, was invaded by the
magistrates and broken up. Margarot and Sinclair (the English
delegates), Skirving, Palmer and Thomas Muir, were tried before that
notorious hanging judge, whom Stevenson portrayed as Weir of Hermiston,
and sentenced to fourteen years' deportation at Botany Bay.

Of these five, all of them young men of brilliant promise and high
courage, only one, Margarot, lived to return to England. Muir, daring,
romantic and headstrong, contributed to the history of the movement a
page of adventure which might invite the attention of a novelist. He
escaped from Botany Bay on a whaler, was wrecked on the coast of South
America, contrived to wander to the West Indies, there shipped on a
Spanish vessel for Europe, fell in with an English frigate, was wounded
in the fight that followed, and had the good fortune to find among the
officers who took him prisoner an old friend, who recognised him, and
assisted him to conceal his identity. He was landed in Spain, invited
to Paris and pensioned by the Convention, but died shortly after his
arrival. Less romantic but even finer is Sinclair's story. He obtained
bail while his comrades were tried and sentenced. He might have broken
his bail, and his friends urged him to do so, but with the certainty
that Botany Bay lay before him he none the less returned to Edinburgh,
as Horne Tooke puts it "in discharge of his faith as a private man
towards his bail, and in discharge of his duty towards an oppressed and
insulted public; he has returned not to take a fair trial, but, as he is
well persuaded, to a settled conviction and sentence." Joseph Gerrald,
another member of the same group gave the same fine example of courage,
surrendered to his bail, and was sent for fifteen years to Botany Bay.

The ferment was more than an intellectual stirring. It brought with it a
moral elevation and a great courage that did not shrink from venturing
life and fortune for a disinterested end. The modern reader is apt to
indulge a smile when he reads in the ardent declamation of this time
professions of a love of Virtue and praises of Universal Benevolence. We
are impatient of abstractions and shy of capital letters. But it was no
abstraction which carried a man with honour to the fevers and
privations of Botany Bay, when he might have sought safety and fame in
Paris. The English reformers were resolved to brave the worst that Pitt
could do to them, and challenged the fate of their Scottish comrades.
They prepared in their turn to hold a "Convention" for Parliamentary
Reform, and showed a doubtful prudence in keeping its details secret
while the intention was boldly avowed. The counter-stroke came promptly.
Twelve of the leading members of the Corresponding Society, including
Hardy, Horne Tooke and Holcroft were arrested and sent, for the most
part to the Tower, on a charge of high treason. The records of their
preliminary examination before the Privy Council go to show that Pitt
and Dundas had allowed themselves to be persuaded by their spies that
every species of treason and folly was in preparation, from an armed
insurrection down to a plan to murder the King by blowing a poisoned
arrow from an air-gun. The Government had said that there was a
treasonable conspiracy; it had to produce the traitors.

There was some delay in arresting Holcroft. His conduct is worth
recording because it is so typical of the naïve courage, the doctrinaire
hardihood of the group. These men whom the reaction accused of
subverting morality, were in fact dervishes of principle, who rushed on
the bayonets in the name of manhood and truth and sincerity. Godwin when
he came in his systematic treatise to describe how a free people would
conduct a defensive war, declared that it would scorn to resort to a
stratagem or an ambuscade. In the same spirit Holcroft hearing that a
warrant was out against him for high treason, walked boldly into the
Chief Justice's court, and announced that he came to be put upon his
trial "that if I am a guilty man, the whole extent of my guilt may
become notorious, and if innocent that the rectitude of my principles
and conduct may be no less public." When a messenger did, in fact, go to
Holcroft's house about the same hour to arrest him, his daughters,
obedient to the same ideal of sincerity, actually invited him to take
their father's papers.

One may doubt whether English liberties have ever run a graver danger in
modern times than at the trial of the twelve reformers. The Government
sought to overwhelm them with a mass of evidence which they lacked the
means to sift and confute. But no definite act was charged against them,
and the whole case turned on a monstrous attempt to give a wide
constructive interpretation to the law of high treason. High treason in
English law has the perfectly definite meaning of an attempt on the
King's life, or the levying of war against him. Chief Justice Eyre, in
his charge to the Grand Jury, sought to stretch it until it assumed a
Russian latitude, and would include any effort by agitation to alter the
form of government or the constitution of Parliament. The issue, before
a jury which probably had not escaped the general panic, seemed very
doubtful, and it was the general opinion that the decisive blow for
liberty was struck by William Godwin. Long years afterwards Horne Tooke,
in a dramatic scene, called Godwin to him in public, and kissed the hand
which had saved his life.

Godwin contributed to the _Morning Chronicle_ a long letter, or more
properly, a pamphlet, in which he analysed the Chief Justice's charge
and brought to the light what really was latent in it, a claim to treat
as high treason any effort, however peaceful and orderly, to bring about
a fundamental change in our institutions. The letter shows none of
Godwin's speculative daring, and his gift of cold and dignified
eloquence is severely repressed. He wrote to attain his immediate end,
and from that standpoint his pleading was a masterpiece. A certain
deadly courtesy, a tone of quiet reasonableness made it possible for the
most prejudiced reader to follow it with assent. The argument was
irresistible, and the single touch of emotion at the end was worthy of a
great orator. A few lines depicted these men who, moved by public
spirit, had acted in good faith within the law, as it had been
universally understood in England, overwhelmed by a sudden extension of
its most terrible articles, applied to them without precedent or
warning. Should the awful sentence be read over these men, that they
should be hanged (but not until they were dead), and then, still living,
suffer the loss of their members and see their bowels torn out? The
ghastly barbarity of the whole procedure could not have been more
effectively exposed. Looking back upon this trial there is no reason to
think that the reformers exaggerated its importance. Had the Government
won its case, it must have succeeded in destroying the very possibility
of opposition or agitation in England. It was believed that no less than
three hundred signed warrants lay ready for issue on the day that Hardy
and his friends were convicted. But the stroke was too daring, the
threat too impudent. When the trial began, the prosecution lightened
its own task by dropping the charge against Holcroft and three of his
comrades. But for nine days the charge was pressed against Thomas Hardy,
and when he was acquitted a further six days was spent in the effort to
convict Horne Tooke, and four in a last vain attempt to succeed against
Thelwall.

The popular victory checked the excesses of the reaction. As Holcroft
wrote: "The whole power of Government was directed against Thomas Hardy:
in his fate seemed involved the fate of the nation, and the verdict of
Not Guilty appeared to burst its bonds, and to have released it from
inconceivable miseries and ages of impending slavery." The reaction,
indeed, was restrained; but so also was the movement of reform. The
subsequent history of its leaders is one of unheroic failure, and of an
unpopularity which was harder to endure than danger. Windham referred to
the twelve in debate as "acquitted felons," and Holcroft was constrained
first to produce his plays under a borrowed name, and then to seek a
refuge in voluntary exile on the continent. The passions roused by the
Terror arrested the progress of the revolutionary movement in England.
The alarms and glories of the struggle with Napoleon buried it in
oblivion.

It is this complex experience which lies behind Godwin's political
writings. The French Revolution produced its simple effects in Burke and
Tom Paine--revolt and disgust in the one, enthusiasm and hope in the
other. In Godwin the reaction is more complicated. He retained to the
last his ardent faith in progress, and the perfectibility of mankind. No
events could shake that, but it was the work of experience to reinforce
all the native individualism of his confident and self-reliant temper,
to harden into an extreme dogma that general belief in _laissez faire_
which was the common property of most of the English progressives of his
day, and to beget in him not merely a doubt in the efficacy of violent
revolutions, but a dislike of all concerted political effort and the
whole collective work of political associations. He had felt the lash of
repression, saved one friend from the hangman, and seen others depart
for Botany Bay: he remained to the end, the uncompromising foe of every
species of governmental coercion. He had listened to Horne Tooke
perorating "hanging matters" at the Corresponding Society; he had seen
the "electric ruby" circulating at its dinners; he had witnessed the
collapse of Thomas Hardy's painstaking and methodical organisation. The
fruit of all these experiences was the first statement in European
literature of philosophic anarchism--a statement which hardly yields to
Tolstoy's in its trenchant and unflinching logic.

"Logic" is more often a habit of consecutive and reasoned writing than
the source of a thinker's opinion. The logical writer is the man who can
succeed in displaying plausible reasons for what he believes by
instinct, or knows by experience. There is history and temperament
behind the coldest logic. The history which set Godwin against all State
action, whether undertaken in defence of order or privilege, or on
behalf of reform, is to be read in the excesses of Pitt and the
futilities of the Corresponding Society. The question of temperament
involves a subtler psychological judgment. If you feel in yourself
something less than the heroic temper which will make a militant
agitation or a violent revolution against the monstrous ascendency of
privilege and ordered force, you are lucky if you can convince yourself
that agitation is commonly mischievous, and association but a means of
combating one evil by creating another. Godwin was certainly no coward.
But he was fortunate in evolving a theory which excused him from
attempting the more dangerous exploits of civic courage. His ideal was
the Stoic virtue, the isolated strength, which can stand firm in passive
protest against oppression and wrong. He stood firm, and Pitt was
content to leave him standing.

       *       *       *       *       *

We have seen the first bold statement of the hope which the French
Revolution kindled in Dr. Price's Old Jewry sermon. We have watched the
brave incautious effort to realise it in the plans of the Corresponding
Society. In these crowded years that began with the fall of the Bastille
and closed with the Terror, it was to enter on yet another phase, and in
this last incarnation the hope was very near despair. To men in the
early prime of life, aware of their powers and their gift of influence,
the Revolution came as a call to action. To a group of still younger
men, poets and thinkers, forming their first eager views of life in the
leisure of the Universities, it was above all a stimulus to fancy.
Godwin was their prophet, but they built upon his speculations the
superstructure of a dream that was all their own. For some years,
Coleridge, Southey, and Wordsworth were caught and held in the close web
of logic which Godwin gave to the world in 1793 in the first edition of
_Political Justice_. Wordsworth read and studied and continually
discussed it. Southey confessed that he "read and studied and all but
worshipped Godwin." Coleridge wrote a sonnet which he afterwards
suppressed in which he blesses his "holy guidance" and hymns Godwin
"with an ardent lay."

  For that thy voice in passion's stormy day
  When wild I roamed the bleak heath of distress
  Bade the bright form of Justice meet my way,
  And told me that her name was Happiness.

To us who read Godwin with many a later Utopia in our memories, his most
valuable chapters are those which give his penetrating criticisms of
existing society. To these young men the excitement was in his picture
of a free community from which laws and coercion had been eliminated,
and in which property was in a continual flux actuated by the stream of
universal benevolence. They resolved to found a community based on
Godwinian principles, and to free themselves from the cramping and
dwarfing influences of a society ruined by laws and superstitions, they
lit on the simple expedient of removing themselves beyond its reach.
They lacked the manhood and the simplicity which had turned more prosaic
natures into agitators and reformers. It is a tale which every student
of literature has delighted to read, how Coleridge and Southey, bent on
founding their Pantisocracy, on the banks of the Susquehana, came to
Bristol to charter a ship, and while they waited, dimly aware that they
lacked funds for the adventure, anchored themselves in English homes by
marrying the Fricker sisters.

As one of the comrades, Robert Lovell, quaintly puts it in a letter to
Holcroft, "Principle, not plan, is our object." Lovell had visited
Holcroft in gaol, and one can well understand how that near view of the
fate which awaited the reformer under Pitt, confirmed them in their idea
of crossing the Atlantic. "From the writings of William Godwin and
yourself," Lovell went on, "our minds have been illuminated; we wish our
actions to be guided by the same superior abilities." Holcroft, older
and more combative than his poet-disciples, advised the founding of a
model colony in this country. But the lure of a distant scene was too
attractive. Cottle, the friend and publisher of the Pantisocrats, has
left his account of their aims. Theirs was to be "a social colony in
which there was to be a community of property and where all that was
selfish was to be proscribed." It would realise "a state of society free
from the evils and turmoils that then agitated the world, and present
an example of the eminence to which men might arrive under the
unrestrained influence of sound principles." It would "regenerate the
whole complexion of society, and that not by establishing formal laws,
but by excluding all the little deteriorating passions, injustice,
wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking, and thereby setting an example
of human perfectibility."

What is left of the dream to-day? Some verses in Coleridge's earlier
poems, the address to Chatterton for instance

  O Chatterton! that thou wert yet alive,
  Sure thou wouldst spread the canvas to the gale;
  And love with us the tinkling team to drive
  O'er peaceful Freedom's undivided dale.

and those lines, half comical, half pathetic, in which the "sweet
harper" is assured as some requital for a hard life and a cruel death,
that the Pantisocrats will raise a "solemn cenotaph" to his memory
"Where Susquehana pours his untamed stream." Long afterwards, Coleridge
described Pantisocracy in _The Friend_ as "a plan as harmless as it was
extravagant," which had served a purpose by saving him from more
dangerous courses. "It was serviceable in securing myself and perhaps
some others from the paths of sedition. We were kept free from the
stains and impurities which might have remained upon us had we been
travelling with the crowd of less imaginative malcontents through the
dark lanes and foul by-roads of ordinary fanaticism."

Pantisocracy was indeed a happy episode for English literature. One may
doubt whether the "Ancient Mariner" would have been written, had
Coleridge travelled with Gerrald and Sinclair along the "dark lane" that
led to Botany Bay. Nature can work strange miracles with the instinct of
self-preservation, and even for poets she has a care. The prudence which
teaches one man to be a Whig, will make of another a Utopian.



CHAPTER II

THOMAS PAINE


"Where Liberty is, there is my country." The sentiment has a Latin ring;
one can imagine an early Stoic as its author. It was spoken by Benjamin
Franklin, and no saying better expresses the spirit of eighteenth
century humanity. "Where is not Liberty, there is mine." The answer is
Thomas Paine's. It is the watchword of the knight errant, the marching
music that sent Lafayette to America, and Byron to Greece, the motto of
every man who prizes striving above enjoyment, honours comradeship above
patriotism, and follows an idea that no frontier can arrest. Paine was
indeed of no century, and no formula of classification can confine him.
His writing is of the age of enlightenment; his actions belong to
romance. His clear, manly style, his sturdy commonsense, the rapier play
of his epigrams, the formal, logical architecture of his thoughts, his
complacent limitations, his horror of mystery and Gothic half-lights,
his harsh contempt for all the sacred muddle of priestly traditions and
aristocratic politics, his assurance, his intellectual courage, his
humanity--all that, in its best and its worst, belongs to the century of
Voltaire and the Revolution. In his spirit of adventure, in his passion
for movement and combat, there Paine is romantic. Paine thought in prose
and acted epics. He drew horizons on paper and pursued the infinite in
deeds.

Tom Paine was born, the son of a Quaker stay-maker, in 1737, at
Thetford, in the county of Norfolk. His parents were poor, but he owed
much, he tells us, to a good moral education and picked up "a tolerable
stock of useful learning," though he knew no language but his own. A
"Friend" he was to the end in his independence, his rationalism, and his
humanity, though he laughed when he thought of what a sad-coloured world
the Quakers would have made of the creation, if they had been consulted.
The boy craved adventure, and was prevented at seventeen from enlisting
in the crew of the privateer _Terrible_, Captain Death, only to sail
somewhat later in the _King of Prussia_, Captain Mendez. One cruise
under a licensed pirate was enough for him, and he soon settled in
London, making stays for a living and spending his leisure in the study
of astronomy. He qualified as an exciseman, acquiring in this employment
a grasp of finance and an interest in budgets of which he afterwards
made good use in his writings. Cashiered for negligence, he turned
schoolmaster, and even aspired to ordination in the Church of England.
Reinstated as a "gauger," he was eventually dismissed for writing a
pamphlet in defence of the excisemen's agitation for higher wages. He
was twice married, but his first wife died within a year of marriage,
and the second, with whom he had started a "tobacco-mill," agreed on its
failure, apparently for no definite fault on either side, to a mutual
separation. At thirty-seven, penniless, lonely, and stamped with
failure, yet conscious of powers which had found no scope in the Old
World, he emigrated in 1774 to America with a letter from Benjamin
Franklin as his passport to fortune.

Opportunity came promptly, and Paine was presently settled in
Philadelphia as the editor of the _Pennsylvania Magazine_. From the
pages of this periodical, his admirable biographer, Mr. Moncure D.
Conway, has unearthed a series of articles which show that Paine had
somehow brought with him from England a mental equipment which ranked
him already among the moral pioneers of his generation. He advocates
international arbitration; he attacks duelling; he suggests more
rational ideas of marriage and divorce; he pleads for mercy to animals;
he demands justice for women. Above all, he assails negro slavery, and
with such mastery and fervour, that five weeks after the appearance of
his article, the first American Anti-Slavery Society was founded at
Philadelphia. The abolition of slavery was a cause for which he never
ceased to struggle, and when in later life he became the target of
religious persecutors, it was in their dual capacity of Christians and
slave-owners that men stoned him. The American colonies were now at the
parting of the ways in the struggle with the Mother Country. The revolt
had begun with a limited object, and few if any of its leaders realised
whither they were tending. Paine it was, who after the slaughter at
Lexington, abandoned all thoughts of reconciliation and was the first to
preach independence and republicanism.

His pamphlet, _Common-Sense_ (1776), achieved a circulation which was an
event in the history of printing, and fixed in men's minds as firm
resolves what were, before he wrote, no more than fluid ideas. It spoke
to rebels and made a nation. Poor though Paine was, he poured the whole
of the immense profits which he received from the sale of his little
book into the colonial war-chest, shouldered a musket, joined
Washington's army as a private, and was soon promoted to be aide-de-camp
to General Greene. Paine's most valuable weapon, however, was still his
pen. Writing at night, after endless marches, by the light of camp fires
at a moment of general depression, when even Washington thought that the
game was "pretty well up," Paine began to write the series of pamphlets
afterwards collected under the title of _The American Crisis_. They did
for the American volunteers what Rouget de Lisle's immortal song did for
the French levies in the revolutionary wars, what Körner's martial
ballads did for the German patriots in the Napoleonic wars. These superb
pages of exhortation were read in every camp to the disheartened men;
their courage commanded victory. Burke himself wrote nothing finer than
the opening sentences of the first "crisis," a trumpet call indeed, but
phrased by an artist who knew the science of compelling music from
brass:--

"These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the
sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his
country; but he that stands it now, deserves the thanks of man and
woman. Tyranny, like Hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this
consolation with us, that the harder the conflict the more glorious the
triumph. What we obtain too cheap we esteem too lightly; it is dearness
only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper
price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an
article as freedom should not be highly rated."

"Common-sense" Paine was now the chief of the moral forces behind the
fighting Republic, and his power of thinking boldly and stating clearly
drove it forward to its destiny under the leadership of men whom Nature
had gifted with less trenchant minds. He was in succession Foreign
Secretary to Congress and clerk to the Pennsylvania Assembly, and we
find him converting despair into triumph by the magic of self-sacrifice.
He it was who in 1780 saved the finances of the war in a moment of
despair, by starting the patriotic subscription with the gift of his own
salary, and in 1781 proved his diplomatic gift in a journey to Paris by
obtaining money-aid from the French Court.

Paine might have settled down to enjoy his fame, after the war, on the
little property which the State of New York gave him. He loathed
inaction and escaped middle age. In 1787 he returned to England, partly
to carry his pen where the work of liberation called for it, partly to
forward his mechanical inventions. Paine, self-educated though he was,
was a capable mathematician, and he followed the progress of the applied
sciences with passion. His inventions include a long list of things
partly useful, partly whimsical, a planing machine, a crane, a smokeless
candle and a gunpowder motor. But his fame as an inventor rests on his
construction of the first iron bridge, made after his models and plans
at Wearmouth. He was received as a leader and teacher in the ardent
circle of reformers grouped round the Revolution Society and the
Corresponding Society. Others were the dreamers and theorists of
liberty. He had been at the making of a Republic, and his American
experience gave the stimulus to English Radicalism which events in
France were presently to repeat. His fame was already European, and at
the fall of the Bastille, it was to Paine that Lafayette confided its
key, when a free France sent that symbol of defeated despotism as a
present to a free America. He seemed the natural link between three
revolutions, the one which had succeeded in the New World, the other
which was transforming France, and the third which was yet to come in
England.

Burke's _Reflections_ rang in his ears like a challenge, and he sat
promptly down in his inn to write his reply. _The Rights of Man_ is an
answer to Burke, but it is much more. The vivid pages of history in
which he explains and defends the French Revolution which Burke had
attacked and misunderstood, are only an illustration to his main
argument. He expounds the right of revolution, and blows away the cobweb
argument of legality by which his antagonist had sought to confine
posterity within the settlement of 1688. Every age and generation must
be free to act for itself. Man has no property in man, and the claim of
one generation to govern beyond the grave is of all tyrannies the most
insolent. Burke had contended for the right of the dead to govern the
living, but that which a whole nation chooses to do, it has a right to
do. The men of 1688, who surrendered their own rights and bound
themselves to obey King William and his heirs, might indeed choose to be
slaves; but that could not lessen the right of their children to be
free. Wrongs cannot have a legal descent. Here was a bold and triumphant
answer to a sophistical argument; but it served Paine only as a preface
to his exposition of the American constitution, which was "to Liberty
what a grammar is to language," and to his plea for the adoption in
England of the French charter of the Rights of Man.

Paine felt that he had made one Republic with a pamphlet, why not
another? He had the unlimited faith of his generation in the efficacy of
argument, and experience had proved his power. As Carlyle, in his
whimsical dramatic fashion, said of him, "He can and will free all this
world; perhaps even the other." Godwin, as became the philosopher of the
movement, set his hopes on the slower working of education: to make men
wise was to make them free. Paine was the pamphleteer of the human camp.
He saw mankind as an embattled legion and believed, true man of action
that he was, that freedom could be won like victory by the impetus of a
resolute charge. He quotes the epigram of his fellow-soldier, Lafayette,
"For a nation to love liberty, it is sufficient that she knows it; and
to be free it is sufficient that she wills it." Godwin would have sent
men to school to liberty; Paine called them to her unfurled standard.
It is easy to understand the success of Paine's book, which appeared in
March, 1791. It was theory and practice in one; it was the armed logic
which had driven King George's regiments from America, the edged
argument which had razed the Bastille. It was bold reasoning, and it was
also inspired writing. Holcroft and Godwin helped to bring out _The
Rights of Man_, threatened with suppression or mutilation by the
publishers, and a panting incoherent shout of joy in a note from
Holcroft to Godwin is typical of the excitement which it caused:--

"I have got it--if this do not cure my cough it is a damned perverse
mule of a cough. The pamphlet--from the row--But mum--we don't sell
it--oh, no--ears and eggs--verbatim, except the addition of a short
preface, which as you have not seen, I send you my copy.--Not a single
castration (Laud be unto God and J. S. Jordan!) can I discover--Hey, for
the new Jerusalem! The Millennium! And peace and eternal beatitude be
unto the soul of Thomas Paine."

The usual prosecutions of booksellers followed; but everywhere the new
societies of reform were circulating the book, and if it helped to send
some good men to Botany Bay, copies enough were sold to earn a sum of a
thousand pounds for the author, which, with his usual disinterestedness,
he promptly gave to the Corresponding Society. A second part appeared in
1792; and at length Pitt adopted Burke's opinion that criminal justice
was the proper argument with which to refute Tom Paine. Acting on a hint
from William Blake, who, in a vision more prosaic and veridical than was
usual with him, had seen the constables searching for his friend, Paine
escaped to France, and was convicted in his absence of high treason.

Paine landed at Calais an outlaw, to find himself already elected its
deputy to the Convention. As in America, so in France, his was the first
voice to urge the uncompromising solution. He advocated the abolition of
the monarchy; but his was a courage that always served humanity. The
work which he did as a member, with Sieyès, Danton, Condorcet, and five
others, of the little committee named to draft the constitution, was
ephemeral. His brave pleading for the King's life was a deed that
deserves to live. He loved to think of himself as a woodman swinging an
axe against rotten institutions and dying beliefs; but he weighted no
guillotines. Paine argued against the command that we should "love our
enemies," but he would not persecute them. This knight-errant would
fling his shield over the very spies who tracked his steps. In Paris he
saved the life of one of Pitt's agents who had vilified him, and
procured the liberation of a bullying English officer who had struck him
in public. The Terror made mercy a traitor, and Paine found himself
overwhelmed in the vengeance which overtook all that was noblest in the
Revolution. He spent ten months in prison, racked with fever, and an
anecdote which seems to be authentic, tells how he escaped death by the
negligence of a jailor. This overworked official hastily chalked the
sign which meant that a prisoner was marked for next batch of the
guillotine's victims, on the inside instead of the outside of Paine's
cell-door.

Condorcet, in hiding and awaiting death, wrote in these months his
_Sketch_ of human progress. Paine, meditating on the end that seemed
near, composed the first part of his _Age of Reason_. Paine was, like
Franklin, Jefferson and Washington, a deist; and he differed from them
only in the courage which prompted him to declare his belief. He came
from gaol a broken man, hardly able to stand, while the Convention,
returned to its sound senses, welcomed him back to his place of honour
on its benches. The record of his last years in America, whither he
returned in 1802, belongs rather to the history of persecution than to
the biography of a soldier of liberty. His work was done; and, though
his pen was still active and influential, slave-owners, ex-royalists,
and the fanatics of orthodoxy combined to embitter the end of the man
who had dared to deny the inspiration of the Bible. His book was burned
in England by the hangman. Bishops in their answers mingled grudging
concessions with personal abuse. An agent of Pitt's was hired to write a
scurrilous biography of the Government's most dreaded foe. In America,
the grandsons of the Puritan colonists who had flogged Quaker women as
witches, denied him a place on the stage-coach, lest an offended God
should strike it with lightning.

Paine died, a lonely old man, in 1809. His personal character stands
written in his career; and it is unnecessary to-day even to mention the
libels which his biographer has finally refuted. In a generation of
brave men he was the boldest. He could rouse the passions of men, and he
could brave them. If the Royalist Burke was eloquent for a Queen,
Republican Paine risked his life for a King. No wrong found him
indifferent; and he used his pen not only for the democracy which might
reward him, but for animals, slaves and women. Poverty never left him,
yet he made fortunes with his pen, and gave them to the cause he served.
A naïve vanity was his only fault as a man. It was his fate to escape
the gallows in England and the guillotine in France. He deserved them
both; in that age there was no higher praise. A better democrat never
wore the armour of the knight-errant; a better Christian never assailed
Orthodoxy.

Neither by training nor by temperament was Paine a speculative thinker;
but his political writing has none the less an immense significance.
Godwin was a writer removed by his profoundly individual genius from the
average thought of his day. Paine agreed more nearly with the advanced
minds of his generation, and he taught the rest to agree with him. No
one since him or before him has stated the plain democratic case against
monarchy and aristocracy with half his spirit and force. Earlier writers
on these themes were timid; the moderns are bored. Paine is writing of
what he understands, and feels to be of the first importance. He cares
as much about abolishing titles as a modern reformer may feel about
nationalising land. His main theory in politics has a lucid simplicity.
Men are born as God created them, free and equal; that is the assumption
alike of natural and revealed religion. Burke, who "fears God," looks
with "awe to kings," with "duty to magistrates," and with "respect to
nobility," is but erecting a wilderness of turnpike gates between man
and his Maker. Natural rights inhere in man by reason of his existence;
civil rights are founded in natural rights and are designed to secure
and guarantee them. He gives an individual twist to the doctrine of the
social compact. Some governments arise out of the people, others over
the people. The latter are based on conquest or priestcraft, and the
former on reason. Government will be firmly based on the social compact
only when nations deliberately sit down as the Americans have done, and
the French are doing, to frame a constitution on the basis of the Rights
of Man.

As for the English Government, it clearly arose in conquest; and to
speak of a British Constitution is playing with words. Parliament,
imperfectly and capriciously elected, is supposed to hold the common
purse in trust; but the men who vote the supplies are also those who
receive them. The national purse is the common hack on which each party
mounts in turn, in the countryman's fashion of "ride and tie." They
order these things better in France. As for our system of conducting
wars, it is all done over the heads of the people. War is with us the
art of conquering at home. Taxes are not raised to carry on wars, but
wars raised to carry on taxes. The shrewd hard-hitting blows range over
the whole surface of existing institutions. Godwin from his intellectual
eminence saw in all the follies and crimes of mankind nothing worse than
the effects of "prejudice" and the consequences of fallacious reasoning.
Paine saw more self-interest in the world than prejudice. When he came
to preach the abolition of war, first through an alliance of Britain,
America and France, and then through "a confederation of nations" and a
European Congress, he saw the obstacle in the egoism of courts and
courtiers which appear to quarrel but agree to plunder. Another seven
years, he wrote in 1792, would see the end of monarchy and aristocracy
in Europe. While they continue, with war as their trade, peace has not
the security of a day.

Paine's writing gains rather than loses in theoretic interest, because
the warmth of his sympathies melts, as he proceeds, the icy logic of his
eighteenth century individualism. He starts where all his school
started, with a sharp antithesis between society and government.

"Society is produced by our wants and government by our wickedness; the
former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections; the
latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages
intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the
last a punisher. Society in every state is a blessing; but government
even in its best state is a necessary evil.... Government, like dress,
is the badge of our lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built on
the ruins of the bowers of paradise."

That was the familiar pessimism which led in practical politics to
_laissez faire_, and in speculation to Godwin's philosophic anarchism.
Paine himself seems for a moment to take that road. He enjoys telling us
how well the American colonies managed in the early stages of the war
without any regular form of government. He assures us that "the more
perfect civilisation is, the less occasion has it for government." But
he had served an apprenticeship to life; looking around him at the
streets filled with beggars and the jails crowded with poor men, he
suddenly forgets that the whole purpose of government is to secure the
individual against the invasion of his rights, and straightway bursts
into a new definition:--"Civil government does not consist in
executions; but in making such provision for the instruction of youth
and the support of age as to exclude as much as possible profligacy from
the one and despair from the other. Instead of this the resources of a
country are lavished upon kings ... and the poor themselves are
compelled to support the fraud that oppresses them."

It is amazing how much good Paine can extract from a necessary evil. He
has suddenly conceived of government as the instrument of the social
conscience. He means to use it as a means of securing a better
organisation of society. Paine was a man of action, and no mere logic
could hold him. He proceeds in a breathless chapter to evolve a
programme of social reform which, after the slumbers of a century, his
Radical successors have just begun to realise. Some hints came to him
from Condorcet, but most of these daringly novel ideas sprang from
Paine's own inventive brain, and all of them are presented by the
whilom exciseman, with a wealth of financial detail, as if he were a
Chancellor of the Exchequer addressing the first Republican Parliament
in the year One of Liberty. He would break up the poor laws, "these
instruments of civil torture." He has saved the major part of the cost
of defence by a naval alliance with the other Sea Powers, and the
abolition of capture at sea. Instead of poor relief he would give a
subsidy to the children of the very poor, and pensions to the aged. Four
pounds a year for every child under fourteen in every necessitous family
will ensure the health and instruction of the next generation. It will
cost two millions and a half, but it will banish ignorance. He would pay
the costs of compulsory education. Pensions are to be granted not of
grace but of right, as an aid to the infirm after fifty years, and a
subsidy to the aged after sixty. Maternity benefit is anticipated in a
donation of twenty shillings to every poor mother at the birth of a
child. Casual labour is to be cared for in some sort of
workhouse-factories in London. These reforms are to be financed partly
by economies and partly by a graduated income-tax, for which Paine
presents an elaborate schedule. When the poor are happy and the jails
empty, then at last may a nation boast of its constitution. In this
pregnant chapter Paine not only sketched the work of the future; he
exploded his own premises.

The odium that still clings to Paine's theological writings comes mainly
from those who have not read them. When Mr. Roosevelt the other day
called him "a dirty little Atheist," he exposed nothing but his own
ignorance. Paine was a deist, and he wrote _The Age of Reason_ on the
threshold of a French prison, primarily to counteract the atheism which
he thought he saw at work among the Jacobins--an odd diagnosis, for
Robespierre was at least as ardent in his deism as Paine himself. He
believed in a God, Whose bounty he saw in nature; he taught the doctrine
of conditional immortality, and his quarrel with revealed religion was
chiefly that it set up for worship a God of cruelty and injustice. From
the stories of the Jewish massacres ordained by divine command, down to
the orthodox doctrine of the scheme of redemption, he saw nothing but a
history derogatory to the wisdom and goodness of the Almighty. To
believe the Old Testament we must unbelieve our faith in the moral
justice of God. It might "hurt the stubbornness of a priest" to destroy
this fiction, but it would tranquilise the consciences of millions. From
this starting-point he proceeds in the later second and third parts to a
detailed criticism designed to show that the books of the Bible were not
written by their reputed authors, that the miracles are incredible, that
the passages claimed as prophecy have been wrested from their contexts,
and that many inconsistencies are to be found in the narrative portions
of the Gospels.

Acute and fearless though it is, this detailed argument has only an
historical interest to-day. When the violence of his persecutors had
goaded Paine into anger, he lost all sense of tact in controversy, and
lapsed occasionally into harsh vulgarities. But the anger was just, and
the zeal for mental honesty has had its reward. Paine had no sense for
the mystery and poetry of traditional religion. But what he attacked was
not presented to him as poetry. He was assailing a dogmatic orthodoxy
which had itself converted poetry into literal fact. As literal fact it
was incredible; and Paine, taking it all at the valuation of its own
professors, assailed it with a disbelief as prosaic as their belief, but
intellectually more honest. His interpretation of the Bible is
unscientific, if you will, but it is nearer to the truth of history than
the conventional belief of his day. If his polemics seem rough and
superfluous to us, it is only because his direct frontal attacks forced
on the work of Biblical criticism, and long ago compelled the
abandonment of most of the positions which he assailed. In spite of its
grave faults of taste and temper and manner, _The Age of Reason_
performed an indispensable service to honesty and morals. It was the
bravest thing he did, for it threatened his name with an immortality of
libel. His place in history is secure at last. The neglected pioneer of
one revolution, the honoured victim of another, brave to the point of
folly, and as humane as he was brave, no man in his generation preached
republican virtue in better English, nor lived it with a finer disregard
of self.



CHAPTER III

WILLIAM GODWIN AND THE REVOLUTION


Tom Paine is still reviled and still admired. The name of Mary
Wollstonecraft is honoured by the growing army of free women. Both may
be read in cheap editions. William Godwin, a more powerful intellect,
and in his day a greater influence than either, is now forgotten, or
remembered only because he was the father of Shelley's wife. Yet he
blazed in the last decade of the eighteenth century, as Hazlitt has told
us, "as a sun in the firmament of reputation." "No one was more talked
of, more looked up to, more sought after, and wherever liberty, truth,
justice was the theme, his name was not far off.... No work in our time
gave such a blow to the philosophical mind of the country as the
celebrated _Enquiry Concerning Political Justice_. Tom Paine was
considered for the time as a Tom Fool to him; Paley an old woman; Edmund
Burke a flashy sophist."

William Godwin came into the world in 1756, at Wisbech, in the Fen
country, with the moral atmosphere of a dissenting home for inheritance.
His father and grandfather were Independent ministers, who taught the
metaphysical dissent of the extreme Calvinistic tradition. The quaint
ill-spelled letters of his mother reveal a strong character, a meagre
education and rigid beliefs. William was unwholesomely precocious as a
boy, pious, studious and greedy for distinction and praise. He was
brought up on the _Account of the Pious Deaths of Many Godly Children_,
and would move his school-fellows to tears by his early sermons on the
Last Judgment. At seventeen we find him, destined for the hereditary
profession, a student in the Theological College at Hoxton. His mental
development was by no means headlong, but he was a laborious reader and
an eager disputant, endowed with all the virtues save modesty.

He emerged from College as he had entered it, a Tory in politics and a
Sandemanian in religion. The Sandemanians were super-Calvinists, and
their tenets may be summarily defined. A Calvinist held that of ten
souls nine will be damned. A Sandemanian hoped that of ten Calvinists
one may with difficulty be saved. In the Calvinist mould Godwin's mind
was formed, and if the doctrine was soon discarded, the habit of
thought characteristic of Calvinism remained with him to the end. It is
a French and not a British creed, Latin in its systematic completeness,
Latin in the logical courage with which it pursues its assumptions to
their last conclusion, Latin in its faith in deductive reasoning and its
disdain alike of experience and of sentiment. Had Godwin been bred a
Methodist or a Churchman, he could not have written _Political Justice_.
To him in these early years religion presented itself as a supernatural
despotism based on terror and coercion. Its central doctrine was eternal
punishment, and when in mature life, Godwin became a free-thinker, his
revolt was not so much the readjustment of a speculative thinker who has
reconsidered untenable dogmas, as the rebellion of a humane and liberal
mind against a system of terrorism. To some agnostics God is an
unnecessary hypothesis. To Godwin He was rather a tyrant to be deposed.
It was a view which Shelley with less provocation adopted with even
greater heat.

Godwin's firm dogmatic creed began to crumble away during his early
experiences as a dissenting minister in country towns. He published a
forgotten volume of sermons, and his development both in politics and
theology was evidently slow. At twenty-seven, as a young pastor at
Beaconsfield, we find him a Whig and a Unitarian, who looked up to Dr.
Priestley as his master. He had now begun to study the French
philosophers, whom Hoxton had doubtless refuted, but did not read. He
was not a successful pastor, and it was as much his relative failure in
the pulpit as his slowly broadening beliefs which caused him to take to
letters for a livelihood. His long literary career begins in 1783 with
some years of prentice work in Grub Street. He wrote a successful
pamphlet in defence of the Coalition, which brought him to the notice of
the Whig chiefs, worked with enthusiasm at a _Life of Chatham_ which has
the merit of a rather heavy eloquence, contributed for seven years to
the _Annual Register_ and wrote three novels which evidently enjoyed an
ephemeral success. He lived the usual nomadic life of the young man of
letters, and differed from most of his kind chiefly by his industry, his
abstinence, and his methodical habits of study, which he never relaxed
even when he was writing busily for bread.

We find him rising early, and reading some portion of a Greek or Latin
classic before breakfast. He acquired by this practice a literary
knowledge of the classics and used it in his later essays with an ease
and intimacy which many a scholar would envy. He wrote for three or four
hours in the morning, composing slowly and frequently recasting his
drafts. The afternoon and evening were devoted to eager converse and hot
debate with friends, and to the reading of modern books in English,
French and Italian, with not infrequent visits to the theatre. A brief
diary carefully kept with a system of signs and abbreviations in a queer
mixed jargon of English, French and Latin records his anxious use of his
time, and shows to the end of his eighty years few wasted days. If
industry was his most conspicuous virtue, he gave proof at the outset of
his life of an independence rare among poor men who have their career to
make. Sheridan, who acted as the literary agent of the Whigs, wished to
engage him as a professional pamphleteer and offered him a regular
salary. He refused to tie himself to a party, though his views at this
time were those of an orthodox and enthusiastic admirer of Fox.

Godwin was to become the apostle of Universal Benevolence. It was a
virtue for which in later life he gave many an opportunity to his richer
friends, but if he stimulated it in others he never refused to practise
it himself. While he was still a struggling and underpaid journeyman
author, wandering from one cheap lodging to another, he burdened himself
with the care and maintenance of a distant relative, an orphaned
second-cousin, named Thomas Cooper. Cooper came to him at the age of
twelve and remained with him till he became an actor at seventeen.
Godwin had read Rousseau's _Emile_, not seldom with dissent, and all
through his life was deeply interested in the problems of education.
They furnished him with the themes of some of the best essays in his
_Enquirer_ and his _Thoughts on Man_, and young Cooper was evidently the
subject on whom he experimented. He was a difficult, proud,
high-spirited lad, and the process of tuition was clearly not as smooth
as it was conscientious. Godwin's leading thought was that the utmost
reverence is due to boys. He cared little how much he imparted of
scholastic knowledge. He aimed at arousing the intellectual curiosity of
his charge and fostering independence and self-respect. Sincerity and
plain-speaking were to govern the relation of tutor and pupil. Corporal
punishment was of course a prohibited barbarity, but it must be admitted
that in Godwin's case a violent tongue and an impatient temper more than
supplied its place. The diary shows how pathetically the tutor exhorted
himself to avoid sternness, "which can only embitter the temper," and
not to impute dulness, stupidity or intentional error. Some letters show
how he failed. Cooper complains that Godwin had called him "a foolish
wretch," "a viper" and a "tiger." Godwin replies by complimenting him on
his "sensibility," and his "independence," asks for his "confidence" in
return, and assures him that he does not expect "gratitude" (a virtue
banned in the Godwinian ethics). This essay in education can have been
only relatively successful, for Cooper seems to have felt a quite
commonplace gratitude to Godwin, and for many a year afterwards sent him
vivacious letters, which testify to the real friendship which united
them.

Imperious and hot-tempered though he was, Godwin made friends and kept
them. Thomas Holcroft came into Godwin's life in 1786. Thanks to
Hazlitt's spirited memoir, based as it was on ample autobiographical
notes, no personality of this group stands before us so clearly limned,
and there is none more attractive. Mrs. Shelley describes him as a "man
of stern and irascible character," but he was also lovable and
affectionate. There was in his mind and will some powerful initial
force of resolve and mental independence. He thought for himself, and
yet he could assimilate the ideas of other men. He was a reasoner and a
doctrinaire; and yet he must have had in himself those untamed volcanic
emotions which we associate with the heroes of the romantic novels of
the age. He believed in the almost unlimited powers of the human mind,
and his own career, which saw his rise from stable-boy and cobbler to
dramatist, was itself a monument to the human will. Looking in their
mirrors, the progressives of that generation were tempted to think that
perfection might have been within their reach had not their youth been
stunted by the influence of Calvin and the British Constitution.
Rectitude, courage and unflinching truth were Holcroft's ideal. He
firmly believed (an idea which lay in germ in Condorcet and was for a
time adopted by Godwin) that the will guided by reason might transform
not only the human mind but the human body. Like the Christian
Scientists of to-day he asserted, as Mrs. Shelley tells us, that "death
and disease existed only through the feebleness of man's mind, that pain
also had no reality."

He was a man of fifty when he met Godwin at thirty, and he had packed
into his half century a more various experience of men and things than
the studious and sedentary Godwin could have acquired if he had lived
the life of the Wandering Jew. Theirs was a friendship of mutual
stimulation and intimate exchange which is commoner between a man and a
woman than between two men. They met almost daily, and in spite of some
violent lovers' quarrels, their affection lasted till Holcroft's death
in 1809. It is not hard to understand their quarrels. Neither of them
had natural tact, and Godwin's sensibility was morbid. Unflinching
truthfulness, even in literary criticism, must have tried their tempers,
and the single word "démêlé," best translated "row," occurs often in
Godwin's diary as his note on one of their meetings. It is not easy to
decide which influenced the other more. Godwin's was the trained,
systematic, academical mind, but Holcroft added to a rich and curious
experience of life and a vein of native originality, wide reading and
something more than a mere amateur's taste for music and art. It was
Holcroft who drove Godwin out of his compromising Unitarianism into a
view which for some years he boldly described as Atheism. His religious
opinions were afterwards modified (or so he supposed) by S. T.
Coleridge; but that influence is not conspicuous in his posthumous
essay on religion, and the best label for his attitude is perhaps
Huxley's word, "Agnostic."

As the French Revolution approached, the two friends fell under the
prevailing excitement. Godwin attended the Revolution Society's dinners,
and Holcroft was, as we have seen, a leading member of the Corresponding
Society. There is no difficulty in accounting for most of the opinions
which the two friends held in common, and which Godwin was soon to
embody in _Political Justice_. Some were common to all the group; others
lie in germ at least in the writings of the Encyclopædists. Even
communism was anticipated by Mably, and was held in some tentative form
by many of the leading men of the Revolution. (See Kropotkin: _The Great
French Revolution_.) The puzzle is rather to account for the anarchist
tendency which seems to be wholly original in Godwin. It was a revolt
not merely against all coercive action by the State, but also against
collective action by the citizens. The root of it was probably the
extreme individualism which felt that a man surrendered too much of
himself, too much of truth and manhood in any political association. The
beginnings of this line of thought may be detected in a vivid
contemptuous account of the riotous Westminster election of 1788, in
which Holcroft had worked with the Foxites: "Scandal, pitiful, mean,
mutual scandal, never was more plentifully dispersed. Electioneering is
a trade so despicably degrading, so eternally incompatible with moral
and mental dignity that I can scarcely believe a truly great mind
capable of the dirty drudgery of such vice. I am at least certain no
mind is great while thus employed. It is the periodical reign of the
evil nature or demon."

This, to be sure, is no more than a hint of a tendency, but it shows
that experience was already fermenting in the brain of one member at
least of the pair, and it took these alchemists no great while to distil
from it their theoretic spirit. The doings of the Corresponding Society
were destined to enlarge and confirm this experience. In the hopes, the
indignations, and the perils of the years of revolutionary excitement
Godwin had his intimate share. He was one of a small committee which
undertook the publication of Paine's _Rights of Man_, and when the
repression began, those who were struck down were his associates and in
some cases his intimates. Holcroft, as we have seen, was tried for high
treason, and Joseph Gerrald, who was sent to Botany Bay, was a friend
for whom he felt both admiration and affection. If the fate of these men
was a haunting pain to their friends, their high courage and idealistic
faith was a noble stimulus. "Human Perfectibility" had its martyrs, and
the words of Gerrald as he stood in the dock awaiting the sentence that
was to send him to his death among thieves and forgers, deserve a
respectful record: "Moral light is as irresistible by the mind as
physical by the eye. All attempts to impede its progress are vain. It
will roll rapidly along, and as well may tyrants imagine that by placing
their feet upon the earth they can stop its diurnal motion, as that they
shall be able by efforts the most virulent and pertinacious to
extinguish the light of reason and philosophy, which happily for mankind
is everywhere spreading around us." It was in this atmosphere of
enthusiasm and devotion that _Political Justice_ was written.

The main work of Godwin's life was begun in July, 1791. He was fortunate
in securing a contract from the publisher Robinson, on generous terms
which ultimately brought him in one thousand guineas. _Political
Justice_ has been generally classed among the answers to Burke, but
Godwin's aim was in fact something more ambitious. A note in his diary
deserves to be quoted: "My original conception proceeded on a feeling of
the imperfections and errors of Montesquieu, and a desire of supplying a
less faulty work. In the just fervour of my enthusiasm I entertained the
vain imagination of "hewing a stone from the rock," which by its
inherent energy and weight, should overbear and annihilate all
opposition and place the principles of politics on an immoveable basis."

When he came to answer his critics, he apologised for extravagances on
the plea of haste and excitement; but in fact the work was slowly and
deliberately written, and was not completed until January, 1793. Its
doctrines, since the book is not now readily accessible, will be
summarised fully and in Godwin's own phraseology in the next chapter,
but it seems proper to draw attention here to the cool yet unprovocative
courage of its writer. It is filled with "hanging matters." Pitt was,
perhaps, no more disposed to punish a man for expounding the fundamental
principles of philosophic anarchism than was the Russian autocracy in
our own day when it tolerated Tolstoy. It was not for writing _Utopia_
that Sir Thomas More lost his head. But the book is quite unflinching in
its application of principle, and its attacks on monarchy are as
uncompromising as those for which Paine was outlawed. The preface calmly
discusses the possibility of prosecution, issues what is in effect a
quiet challenge, and concludes with the consolation that "it is the
property of truth to be fearless and to prove victorious over every
adversary." The fact was that Godwin watched the dangers of his friends
"almost with envy" (letter to Gerrald). But he held that a man who
deliberately provokes martyrdom acts immorally, since he confuses the
progress of reason by exciting destructive passions, and drives his
adversaries into evil courses.

"For myself," he wrote, "I will never adopt any conduct for the express
purpose of being put upon my trial, but if I be ever so put, I will
consider that day as a day of triumph." Godwin escaped punishment for
his activity on behalf of Holcroft and the twelve reformers, because his
activity was successful. He escaped prosecution for _Political Justice_
because it was a learned book, addressed to educated readers, and issued
at the astonishing price of three guineas. The propriety of prosecuting
him was considered by the Privy Council; and Pitt is said to have
dismissed the suggestion with the remark that "a three guinea book could
never do much harm among those who had not three shillings to spare."
That this three-guinea book was bought and read to the extent of no less
than four thousand copies is a tribute not merely to its vitality, but
to the eagerness of the middle-classes during the revolutionary ferment
to drink in the last words of the new philosophy.

A new edition was soon called for, and was issued early in 1796. Much of
the book was recast and many chapters entirely rewritten, as the
consequence not so much of any material change in Godwin's views, as of
the profit he had derived from private controversies. Condorcet (though
he is never mentioned) is, if one may make a guess, the chief of the new
influences apparent in the second edition. It is more cautious, more
visibly the product of a varied experience than the first draft, but it
abandons none of his leading ideas. A third edition appeared in 1799,
toned down still further by a growing caution. These revisions
undoubtedly made the book less interesting, less vivid, less readable.
No modern edition has ever appeared, and its direct influence had become
negligible even before Godwin's death. It is harder to account for the
oblivion into which the book has fallen, than to explain its early
popularity. It is not a difficult book to read. "The young and the
fair," Godwin tells us, "did not feel deterred from consulting my
pages." His style is always clear and often eloquent. His vocabulary
seems to a modern taste overloaded with Latin words, but the
architecture of his sentences is skilful in the classical manner. He can
vary his elaborate periods with a terse, strong statement which comes
with the force of an unexpected blow. He has a knack of happy
illustration, and a way of enforcing his points by putting problems in
casuistry which have an alluring human interest. The book moved his own
generation profoundly, and even to-day his more enthusiastic passages
convey an irresistible impression of sincerity and conviction.



CHAPTER IV

"POLITICAL JUSTICE"


The controversy which produced _Political Justice_ was a dialogue
between the future and the past. The task of speculation in England had
been, through a stagnant century, to define the conditions of political
stability, and to admire the elaborate checks and balances of the
British Constitution as though change were the only evil that threatened
mankind. For Burke, change itself was but an incident in the triumph of
continuity and conservation. For Godwin the whole life of mankind is a
race through innovation to perfection, and his main concern is to exhort
the athlete to fling aside the garments of prejudice, tradition, and
constraint, until one asks at the end how much of flesh and blood has
been torn away with the garments. If one were to attempt in a phrase to
sum up his work, the best title which one could invent for it would be
Prolegomena to all Future Progress. What in a word are the conditions of
progress?

His attitude to mankind is by turns a pedagogue's disapprobation and a
patron's encouragement. The worst enemy of progress was the systematic
optimism of Leibnitz and Pope, which Voltaire had overthrown. There is
indeed enough of progress in the past to fire our courage and our hopes.
In moments of depression, he would admire the beautiful invention of
writing and the power of mind displayed in human speech. But the general
panorama of history exhorts us to fundamental change. In bold sweeping
rhetoric he assures us that history is little else than the record of
crime. War has diminished neither its horror nor its frequency, and man
is still the most formidable enemy to man. Despotism is still the fate
of the greatest part of mankind. Penal laws by the terror of punishment
hold a numerous class in abject penury. Robbery and fraud are none the
less continual, and the poor are tempted for ever to violence against
the more fortunate. One person in seven comes in England on the poor
rates. Can the poor conceive of society as a combination to protect
every man in his rights and secure him the means of existence? Is it not
rather for them a conspiracy to engross its advantages for the favoured
few? Luxury insults them; admiration is the exclusive property of the
rich, and contempt the constant lacquey of poverty. Nowhere is a man
valued for what he is. Legislation aggravates the natural inequality of
man. A house of landlords sets to work to deprive the poor of the little
commonage of nature which remained to them, and its bias stands revealed
when we recollect that in England (as Paine had pointed out) while taxes
on land produce half a million less than they did a century ago, taxes
on articles of general consumption produce thirteen millions more.
Robbery is a capital offence because the poor alone are tempted to it.
Among the poor alone is all combination forbidden. Godwin was often an
incautious rhetorician. He painted the present in colours of such
unrelieved gloom, that it is hard to see in it the possibility of a
brighter future. Mankind seems hopeless, and he has to prove it
perfectible.

Are these evils then the necessary condition of society? Godwin answers
that question as the French school, and in particular Helvétius, had
done, by a preliminary assault on the assumptions of a reactionary
philosophy. He proposes to exhort the human will to embark with a
conscious and social resolve on the adventure of perfection. He must
first demonstrate that the will is sovereign. Man is the creature of
necessity, and the nexus of cause and effect governs the moral world
like the physical. We are the product of our conditions. But among
conditions some are within the power of the will to change and others
are not. Montesquieu had insisted that it is climate which ultimately
differentiates the races of mankind. Climate is clearly a despotism
which we can never hope to reform away. Another school has taught that
men come into the world with innate ideas and a predetermined character.
Others again would dispute that man is in his actions a reasonable
being, and would represent him as the toy of passion, a creature to whom
it is useless to present an argument drawn from his own advantage. The
first task of the progressive philosopher is to clear away these
preliminary obstacles. Man is the creature of conditions, but primarily
of those conditions which he may hope to modify--education, religion,
social prejudice and above all government. He is also in the last resort
a being whose conduct is governed by his opinions. Admit these premises
and the way is clear towards perfection. It is a problem which in some
form and in some dialect confronts every generation of reformers. We are
the creatures of our own environment, but in some degree we are
ourselves a force which can modify that environment. We inherit a past
which weighs upon us and obsesses us, but in some degree each generation
is born anew. Godwin used the new psychology against the old
superstition of innate ideas. A modern thinker in his place would
advance Weissmann's biological theory that the acquired modifications of
an organism are not inherited, as an answer to the pessimism which bases
itself upon heredity.

Godwin starts boldly with the thesis that "the characters of men
originate in their external circumstances." He brushes aside innate
ideas or instincts or even ante-natal impressions. Accidents in the womb
may have a certain effect, and every man has a certain disposition at
birth. But the multiplicity of later experiences wears out these early
impressions. Godwin, in all this, reproduces the current fallacy of his
generation. Impressions and experiences were for them something
external, flung upon the surface of the mind. They were just beginning
to realise that the mind works when it perceives. Change a nobleman's
child at birth with a ploughman's, and each will grow up quite naturally
in his new circumstances. Exercise makes the muscles; education,
argument, and the exchange of opinion the mind. "It is impression that
makes the man, and compared with the empire of impression, the mere
differences of animal structure are inexpressibly unimportant and
powerless." Change continues through life; everything mental and
physical is in flux; why suppose that only in the propensities of the
new-born infant is there something permanent and inflexible? Helvétius
had been Godwin's chief precursor in this opinion. He had gone so far as
to declare that men are at birth equal, some raw human stuff which
"education," in the broad sense of the word, proceeds to modify in the
long schooling from the cradle to the grave. Men differ in genius, he
would assert, by education and experience, not by natural organisation.
The original acuteness of the senses has little to do with the
development of talent. The new psychology had swept "faculties" away.
Interest is the main factor in the development of perception and
attention. The scarcity of attention is the true cause of the scarcity
of genius, and the chief means of promoting it are emulation and the
love of glory.

Godwin is too cautious to accept this ultra-revolutionary statement of
the potential equality of men without some reserves. But the idea
inspires him as it inspired all the vital thought of his day. It set
humane physicians at the height of the Terror to work on discovering a
method by which even defective and idiot children might be raised by
"education" to the normal stature of the human mind. It fired Godwin
himself with a zeal for education. "Folly," said Helvétius, "is
factitious." "Nature," said Godwin, "never made a dunce." The failures
of education are due primarily to the teacher's error in substituting
compulsion for persuasion and despotism for encouragement. The
excellences and defects of the human character are not due to occult
causes beyond the reach of ingenuity to modify or correct, nor are false
views the offspring of an irresistible destiny. Our conventional schools
are the slaughterhouses of mind; but of all the external influences
which build up character and opinion, the chief are political. It is
Godwin's favourite theme, and he carries it even further than Holbach
and Helvétius had done. From this influence there is no escape, for it
infects the teacher no less than the taught. Equality will make men
frank, ingenuous and intrepid, but a great disparity of ranks renders
men cold, irresolute, timid and cautious. However lofty the morality of
the teacher, the mind of the child is continually corrupted by seeing,
in the society around him, wealth honoured, poverty contemned, intrepid
virtue proscribed and servility encouraged. From the influence of social
and political institutions there is no escape: "They poison our minds
before we can resist or so much as suspect their malignity. Like the
barbarous directors of Eastern seraglios they deprive us of our
virility, and fit us for their despicable employment from the cradle. So
false is the opinion that has too generally prevailed that politics is
an affair with which ordinary men have little concern."

Here Godwin is introducing into English thinking an idea originally
French. English writers from Locke to Paine had spoken of government as
something purely negative, so little important that only when a man saw
his property threatened or his shores invaded, was he forced to
recollect that he had a country. Godwin saw its influence everywhere,
insinuating itself into our personal dispositions and insensibly
communicating its spirit to our private transactions. The idea in his
hands made for hope. Reform, or better still, abolish governments, and
to what heights of virtue might not men aspire? We need not say with
Rousseau that men are naturally virtuous. The child, as Helvétius
delighted to point out, will do that for a coral or a doll which he will
do at a mature age for a title or a sceptre. Men are rather the
infinitely malleable, variable stuff on which education and persuasion
can play.

The first essential dogma of perfectibility, the first presupposition of
progress is, then, that men's characters depend on external
circumstances. The second dogma, the second condition of hope is that
the voluntary actions of men originate in their opinions. It is an
orthodox Socratic position, but Godwin was not a student of Plato. He
laid down this dogma as the necessary basis of any reform by persuasion.
There is much virtue in the word "voluntary." In so far as actions are
voluntary, the doctrine is self-evident. A voluntary action is
accompanied by foresight, and the idea of certain consequences is its
motive. A judgment "this is good" or "this is desirable," has preceded
the action, and it originates therefore in an opinion however fugitive.
In moments of passion my attention is so engrossed by a particular view
of the subject that I forget considerations by which I am commonly
guided. Even in battles between reason and sense, he holds, the
contending forces assume a rational form. It is opinion contending with
opinion and judgment with judgment. At this point the modern reader will
become sceptical. These internal struggles assume a rational form only
when self-consciousness reviews them--that is to say when they are over.
In point of fact, Godwin argues, sheer sensuality has a smaller empire
over us than we commonly suppose. Strip the feast of its social
pleasures, and the commerce of the sexes of all its intellectual and
emotional allurements, and who would be overcome?

One need not follow Godwin minutely in his handling of what is after all
a commonplace of academic philosophy. He was concerned to insist that
men's voluntary actions originate in opinion, that he might secure a
fulcrum for the leverage of argument and persuasion. Vice is error, and
error can always be corrected. "Show me in the clearest and most
unambiguous manner that a certain mode of proceeding is most reasonable
in itself, or most conducive to my interest, and I shall infallibly
pursue that mode, so long as the views you suggested to me continue
present to my mind." The practical problem is therefore to make
ourselves and our fellows perfectly conscious of our motives, and always
prepared to render a reason for our actions. The perfection of human
character is to approach as nearly as possible to the absolutely
voluntary state, to act always, in other words, from a clear and
comprehensive survey of the consequences which we desire to produce.

The incautious reader may be invited to pause at this point, for in this
premise lies already the whole of philosophic anarchism. You have
admitted that voluntary action is rational. You have conceded that all
action _ought_ to be voluntary. The silent assumption is that by
education and effort it _can_ be made so. One may doubt whether in the
sense required by Godwin's argument any human action ever is or can be
absolutely "voluntary," rational or self-conscious. To attain it, we
should have to reason naked in a desert with algebraic symbols. To use
words is to think in step, and to beg our question. But Godwin is well
aware that most men rarely reason. He is here framing an ideal, without
realising its remoteness. The mischief of his faith in logic as a force,
was that it led him to ignore the æsthetic and emotional influences, by
which the mass of men can best be led to a virtuous ideal. Shelley, who
was a thorough Platonist, supplements, as we shall see (p. 234), this
characteristic defect in his master's teaching. The main conclusions
follow rapidly. Sound reasoning and truth when adequately communicated
must always be victorious over error. Truth, then, is omnipotent, and
the vices and moral weaknesses of man are not invincible. Man, in short,
is perfectible, or in other words, susceptible of perpetual improvement.
These sentiments have to the modern ear a platitudinous ring. So far
from being platitudes, they are explosives capable of destroying the
whole fabric of government. For if truth is omnipotent, why trust to
laws? If men will obey argument, why use constraint?

But let us move slowly towards this extreme conclusion. If reason
appears to-day to play but a feeble part in society, and exerts only a
limited empire over the actions of men, it is because unlettered
ignorance, social habits and the positive institutions of government
stand in the way. Where the masses of mankind are sunk in brutal
ignorance, one need not wonder that argument and persuasion have but a
small influence with them. Truth indeed is rarely recondite or difficult
to communicate. Godwin might have quoted Helvétius: "It is with genius
as with an astronomer; he sees a new star and forthwith all can see it."
Nor need we fear the objection that by introducing an intellectual
element into virtue, we have removed it beyond the reach of simple men.
A virtuous action, indeed, must be good both in intention and in
tendency. Godwin was like Helvétius and Priestley, a Utilitarian in
ethics, and defined duty as that mode of action on the part of the
individual which constitutes the best possible application of his
capacity to the general benefit, in every situation that presents
itself. One may be mistaken as to what will contribute to the general
benefit, as Sir Everard Digby was, for example, when he thought it his
duty to blow up King James and the Parliament. But the simple man need
be at no loss. An earnest desire will in some degree generate capacity.
There Godwin opened a profoundly interesting and stimulating line of
thought. The mind is formed not by its innate powers, but by its
governing desires. As love brings eloquence to the suitor, so if I do
but ardently desire to serve my kind, I shall find out a way, and while
I study a plan shall find that my faculties have been exercised and
increased. Moreover, in the struggle after virtue I am not alone.

Burke made the first of the virtues prudence. Godwin would have given
sincerity that place. To him and his circle the chief business of
social converse was by argument and exhortation to strengthen the habit
of virtue. There was something to be said for the practice of auricular
confession; but how much better would it be if every man were to make
the world his confessional and the human species the keeper of his
conscience. The practice of sincerity would give to our conversation a
Roman boldness and fervour. The frank distribution of praise and blame
is the most potent incentive to virtue. Were we but bold and impartial
in our judgments, vice would be universally deserted and virtue
everywhere practised. Our cowardice in censure and correction is the
chief reason of the perpetuation of abuses. If every man would tell all
the truth he knew, it is impossible to predict how short would be the
reign of usurpation and folly. Let our motive be philanthropy, and we
need not fear ruggedness or brutality, disdain or superiority, since we
aim at the interest of him we correct, and not at the triumph of the
corrector. In an aside Godwin demands the abolition of social
conventions which offend sincerity. If I must deny myself to a visitor,
I should scorn the polite lie that I am "not at home."

It is a consequence also of this doctrine, that there should be no
prosecutions for libel, even in private matters. Truth depends on the
free shock of opinions, and the unrestrained discussion of private
character is almost as important as freedom in speculative enquiry. "If
the truth were universally told of men's dispositions and actions,
gibbets and wheels might be dismissed from the face of the earth. The
knave unmasked would be obliged to turn honest in his own defence. Nay,
no man would have time to turn a knave. Truth would follow him in his
first irresolute essays, and public disapprobation arrest him in the
commencement of his career." It is shameful for a good man to retort on
a slander, "I will have recourse to the only means that are congenial to
guilt: I will compel you to be silent." Freedom in this matter, as in
all others, will engender activity and fortitude; positive institution
(Godwin's term for law and constraint) makes the mind torpid and
lethargic. It is hardly necessary to reproduce Godwin's vigorous
arguments for unfettered freedom in political and speculative
discussion, against censorships and prosecutions for religious and
political opinions. Even were we secure from the possibility of mistake,
mischief and not good would accrue from the attempt to impose our
infallible opinions upon our neighbours. Men deserve approbation only in
so far as they are independent in their opinions and free in their
actions.

Equally clear is it that the establishment of religion and all systems
of tests must be abolished. They make for hypocrisy, check advance in
speculation, and teach us to estimate a disinterested sincerity at a
cheap rate. We need not fear disorder as a consequence of complete
liberty of speech. "Arguments alone will not have the power, unassisted
by the sense or the recollection of oppression or treachery to hurry the
people into excesses. Excesses are never the offspring of speculative
reason, are never the offspring of misrepresentation only, but of power
endeavouring to stifle reason, and to traverse the commonsense of
mankind."

A more original deduction from Godwin's demand for the unlimited freedom
of opinion, was that he objected vehemently to any system of national
education. Condorcet had drawn up a marvellously complete project for
universal compulsory education, with full liberty indeed for the
teachers, whose technical competence alone the State would guarantee,
and with a scheme of free scholarships, an educational "ladder" more
generous than anything which has yet been realised in fact. Godwin
objects that State-regulated institutions will stereotype knowledge and
make for an undesirable permanence and uniformity in opinion. They
diffuse what is known and forget what remains to be known. They erect a
system of authority and separate a tenet from the evidence on which it
rests, so that beliefs cease to be perceptions and become prejudices. No
Government is to be trusted with the dangerous power to create and
regulate opinions through its schools. Such a power is, indeed, more
dangerous than that of an Established Church, and would be used to
strengthen tyranny and perpetuate faulty institutions.

Godwin, needless to say, takes, as did Condorcet, the side of frankness
in the controversy which was a test of democratic faith in this
generation--whether "political imposture" is allowable, and whether a
statesman should encourage the diffusion of "salutary prejudices" among
the unlearned, the poor and women. This was indeed the main eighteenth
century defence for monarchy and aristocracy. Kings and governors are
not wiser than other men, but it is useful that they should be thought
so. Such imposture, Godwin argued, is as futile as the parallel use by
religion of the pains and penalties of the afterworld. It is the sober
who are demoralised by it, and not the lawless who are deterred. To
terrify men is a strange way of rendering them judicious, fearless and
happy. It is to leave men indolent and unbraced by truth. He objects
even to the trappings and ceremonies which are used to render
magistrates outwardly venerable and awe-inspiring, so that they may
impress the irrational imagination. These means may be used as easily to
support injustice as to render justice acceptable. They divide men into
two classes; those who may reason, and those who must take everything on
trust. This is to degrade them both. The masses are kept in perpetual
vibration between rebellious discontent and infatuated credulity. And
can we suppose that the practice of concealment and hypocrisy will make
no breaches in the character of the governing class?

The general effect of any meddling of authority with opinion is that the
mind is robbed of its genuine employment. Such a system produces beings
wanting in independence, and in that intrepid perseverance and calm
self-approbation which grow from independence. Such beings are the mere
dwarfs and mockeries of men.

Godwin was at issue here as much with Rousseau as with Burke, but his
trust in the people, it should be explained, was based rather on faith
in what they might become, than on admiration for what they were.

That all government is an evil, though doubtless a necessary evil, was
the typical opinion of the individualistic eighteenth century. It would
not long have survived such proposals as Paine's scheme of old age
pensions and Condorcet's project of national education. When men have
perceived that an evil can be turned to good account, they are already
on the road which will lead them to discard their premises. But Godwin
was quite unaffected by this new Liberalism. No positive good was to be
hoped from government, and much positive evil would flow from it at the
best. In his absolute individualism he went further. The whole idea of
government was radically wrong. For him the individual was tightly
enclosed in his own skin, and any constraint was an infringement of his
personality. He would have poured scorn on the half-mystical conception
of a social organism. Nor did it occur to him that a man might
voluntarily subject himself to government, losing none of his own
autonomy in the act, from a persuasion that government is on the whole
a benefit, and that submission, even when his own views are thwarted, is
a free man's duty within certain limits, accepted gladly for the sake of
preserving an institution which commonly works well. He did not see the
institution working well; he did not believe in the benefits; he was
convinced that more than all the advantages of the best of governments
could be obtained from the free operation of opinion in an unorganised
community.

His main point is lucidly simple. It was an application of the Whig and
Protestant doctrine of the right of private judgment. "If in any
instance I am made the mechanical instrument of absolute violence, in
that instance I fall under a pure state of external slavery." Nor is the
case much better, if instead of waiting for the actual application of
coercion, I act in obedience to authority from the hope and fear of the
State's rewards and punishments. For virtue has ceased, and I am acting
from self-interest. It is a triviality to distinguish, as Whig thinkers
do, between matters of conscience (in which the State should not meddle)
and my conduct in the civil concerns of daily life (which the State
should regulate). What sort of moralist can he be, who makes no
conscience of what he does in his daily intercourse with other men? "I
have deeply reflected upon the nature of virtue, and am convinced that a
certain proceeding is incumbent on me. But the hangman supported by an
Act of Parliament assures me that I am mistaken. If I yield my opinion
to his dictum, my action becomes modified, and my character also....
Countries exposed to the perpetual interference of decrees instead of
arguments, exhibit within their boundaries the mere phantoms of men."

The root of the whole matter is that brute force is an offence against
reason, and an unnecessary offence, if in fact men are guided by opinion
and will yield to argument. "The case of punishment is the case of you
and me differing in opinion, and your telling me that you must be right
since you have a more brawny arm."

If I must obey, it is better and less demoralising to yield an external
submission so as to escape penalty or constraint, than to yield to
authority from a general confidence which enslaves the mind. Comply but
criticise. Obey but beware of reverence. If I surrender my conscience to
another man's keeping, I annihilate my individuality as a man, and
become the ready tool of him among my neighbours who shall excel in
imposture and artifice. I put an end moreover to the happy collision of
understandings upon which the hopes of human improvement depend.
Governments depend upon the unlimited confidence of their subjects, and
confidence rests upon ignorance.

Government (has not Burke said so?) is the perpetual enemy of change,
and prompts us to seek the public welfare not in alteration and
improvement, but in a timid reverence for the decisions of our
ancestors, as if it were the nature of the human mind always to
degenerate and never to advance. Godwin thought with John Bright, "We
stand on the shoulders of our forefathers--and see further."

In proportion as weakness and ignorance shall diminish, the basis of
government will also decay. That will be its true euthanasia.

There is indeed nothing to be said for government save that for a time,
and within jealously drawn limits, it may be a fatal and indispensable
necessity. A just government cannot be founded on force: for force has
no affinity with justice. It cannot be based upon the will of God; we
have no revelation that recommends one form of government rather than
another. As little can it be based upon contract. Who were the parties
to the pretended social contract? For whom did they consent, for
themselves or for their descendants, and to how great a variety of
propositions? Have I assented or my ancestors for me, to the laws of
England in fifty volumes folio, and to all that shall hereafter be added
to them? In a few contemptuous pages Godwin buries the social contract.
Men when they digest the articles of a contract are not empowered to
create rights, but only to declare what was previously right. But the
doctrine of the natural rights of man fares no better at his hands.
There is no such thing as a positive right to do as we list. One way of
acting in every emergency is reasonable, and the other is not. One way
will benefit mankind, and the other will not. It is a pestilent doctrine
and a denial of all virtue, to say that we have a right to do what we
will with our own. Everything we possess has a destination prescribed to
it by the immutable voice of reason and justice.

Duties and rights are correlative. As it cannot be the duty of men or
societies to do anything to the detriment of human happiness, so it
appears with equal evidence that they cannot have the right to do so.
There cannot be a more absurd proposition than that which affirms the
right of doing wrong. The voice of the people is not the voice of God,
nor does universal consent or a majority vote convert wrong into right.
It is absurd to say that any set of people has a right to set up any
form of government it chooses, or any sect to establish any superstition
however detestable. All this would have delighted Burke, but Godwin
stands firmly in his path by asserting what he calls the one negative
right of man. It is in a word, the right to exercise virtue, the right
to a region of choice, a sphere of discretion, which his neighbours must
not infringe save by censure and remonstrance. When I am constrained, I
cease to be a person, and become a thing. "I ought to exercise my
talents for the benefit of others, but the exercise must be the fruit of
my own conviction; no man must attempt to press me into the service."

Government is an evil, and the business of human advancement is to
dispense with it as rapidly as may be. In the period of transition
Godwin had but a secondary interest, and his sketch of it is slight. He
dismisses in turn despotism, aristocracy, the "mixed monarchy" of the
Whigs, and the president with kingly powers of some American thinkers.
His pages on these subjects are vigorous, well-reasoned, and pointed in
their satire. It required much courage to write them, but they do not
contain his original contribution to political theory. What is most
characteristic in his line of argument is his insistence on the moral
corruption that monarchy and aristocracy involve. The whole standard of
moral values is subverted. To achieve ostentation becomes the first
object of desire. Disinterested virtue is first suspected and then
viewed with incredulity. Luxury meanwhile distorts our whole attitude to
our fellows, and in every effort to excel and shine we wrong the
labouring millions. Aristocracy involves general degradation, and can
survive only amid general ignorance. "To make men serfs and villeins it
is indispensably necessary to make them brutes.... A servant who has
been taught to write and read, ceases to be any longer a passive
machine."

From the abolition of monarchy and aristocracy Godwin, and indeed the
whole revolutionary school, expected the cessation of war. War and
conquest elevate the few at the expense of the rest, and cannot benefit
the whole community. Democracies have no business with war save to repel
an invasion of their territory. He thought of patriotism and love of
country much as did Dr. Price. They are (as Hervé has argued in our own
day) specious illusions invented to render the multitude the blind
instruments of crooked designs. We must not be lured into pursuing the
general wealth, prosperity or glory of the society to which we belong.
Society is an abstraction, an "ideal existence," and is not on its own
account entitled to the smallest regard. Let us not be led away into
rendering services to society for which no individual man is the better.
Godwin is scornful of wars to maintain the balance of power, or to
protect our fellow-countrymen abroad. Some proportion must be observed
between the evil of which we complain and the evil which the proposed
remedy inevitably includes. War may be defensible in support of the
liberty of an oppressed people, but let us wait (here he is clearly
censuring the practice of the French Republic) until the oppressed
people rises. Do not interfere to force it to be free, and do not forget
the resources of pacific persuasion. As to foreign possessions there is
little to be said. Do without them. Let colonies attend to their own
defence; no State would wish to have colonies if free trade were
universal. Liberty is equally good for every race of men, and democracy,
since it is founded on reason, a universal form of government. There
follow some naïve prescriptions for conducting democratic wars.
Sincerity forbids ambuscades and secresy. Never invade, nor assume the
offensive. A citizen militia must replace standing armies. Training and
discipline are of little value; the ardour of a free people will supply
their place.

Godwin's leading idea when he comes to sketch a shadowy constitution is
an extreme dislike of overgrown national States. Political speculation
in his day idealised the city republic of antiquity. Helvétius, hoping
to get rid as far as possible of government, had advocated a system of
federated commonwealths, each so small that public opinion and the fear
of shame would act powerfully within it. He would have divided France
into thirty republics, each returning four deputies to a federal
council. The Girondins cherished the same idea, and lost their heads for
it. Tolstoy, going back to the village community as the only possible
scene of a natural and virtuous life, exhibits the same tendency.

For Godwin the true unit of society is the parish. Neighbours best
understand each others' concerns, and in a limited area there is no room
for ambition to unfold itself. Great talents will have their sphere
outside this little circle in the work of moulding opinion. Within the
parish public opinion is supreme, and acts through juries, which may at
first be obliged to exert some degree of violence in dealing with
offenders:--"But this necessity does not arise out of the nature of man,
but out of the institutions by which he has already been corrupted. Man
is not originally vicious. He would not ... refuse to be convinced by
the expostulations that are addressed to him, had he not been accustomed
to regard them as hypocritical, and to conceive that while his
neighbour, his parent and his political governor pretended to be
actuated by a pure regard to his interest or pleasure, they were in
reality, at the expense of his, promoting their own.... Render the plain
dictates of justice level to every capacity ... and the whole species
will become reasonable and virtuous. It will then be sufficient for
juries to recommend a certain mode of adjusting controversies, without
assuming the prerogative of dictating that adjustment. It will then be
sufficient for them to invite offenders to forsake their errors....
Where the empire of reason was so universally acknowledged, the offender
would either readily yield to the expostulations of authority, or if he
resisted, though suffering no personal molestation, he would feel so
weary under the unequivocal disapprobation and the observant eye of
public judgment as willingly to remove to a society more congenial to
his errors." The picture is not so Utopian as it sounds. It is a very
fair sketch of the social structure of a Macedonian village community
under Turkish rule, with the massacres left out.

For the rest Godwin was reluctantly prepared to admit the wisdom of
instituting a single chamber National Assembly, to manage the common
affairs of the parishes, to arrange their disputes and to provide for
national defence. But it should suffice for it to meet for one day
annually or thereabouts. Like the juries it would at first issue
commands, but would in time find it sufficient to publish invitations
backed by arguments. Godwin, who is quite prepared to idealise his
district juries, pours forth an unstinted contempt upon Parliaments and
their procedure. They make a show of unanimity where none exists. The
prospect of a vote destroys the intellectual value of debate; the will
of one man really dominates, and the existence of party frustrates
persuasion. The whole is based upon "that intolerable insult upon all
reason and justice, the deciding upon truth by the casting up of
numbers." He omits to tell us whether he would allow his juries to
vote. Fortunately legislation is unnecessary: "The inhabitants of a
small parish living with some degree of that simplicity which best
corresponds with the real nature and wants of a human being, would soon
be led to suspect that general laws were unnecessary and would adjudge
the causes that came before them not according to certain axioms
previously written, but according to the circumstances and demand of
each particular cause."

Godwin had a clear mental picture of the gradual decay of authority
towards the close of the period of transition; his vision of the earlier
stages is less definite. He set his faith on the rapid working of
enquiry and persuasion, but he does not explain in detail how, for
example, we are to rid ourselves of kings. He once met the Prince
Regent, but it is not recorded that he talked to him of virtue and
equality, as the early Quakers talked to the man Charles Stuart. He is
chiefly concerned to warn his revolutionary friends against abrupt
changes. There must be a general desire for change, a conviction of the
understanding among the masses, before any change is wise. When a whole
nation, or even an unquestionable majority of a nation, is resolved on
change, no government, even with a standing army behind it, can stand
against it. Every reformer imagines that the country is with him. What
folly! Even when the majority seems resolved, what is the quality of
their resolution? They do, perhaps, sincerely dislike some specific tax.
But do they dislike the vice and meanness that grow out of tyranny, and
pant for the liberal and ingenuous virtue that would be fostered in
their own minds by better conditions? It is a disaster when the
unillumined masses are instigated to violent revolution. Revolutions are
always crude, bloody, uncertain and inimical to tolerance, independence,
and intellectual inquiry. They are a detestable persecution when a
minority promotes them. If they must occur, at least postpone them as
long as possible. External freedom is worthless without the magnanimity,
firmness and energy that should attend it. But if a man have these
things, there is little left for him to desire. He cannot be degraded,
nor become useless and unhappy. Let us not be in haste to overthrow the
usurped powers of the world. Make men wise, and by that very operation
you make them free. It is unfortunate that men are so eager to strike
and have so little constancy to reason. We should desire neither violent
change nor the stagnation that inflames and produces revolutions. Our
prayer to governments should be, "Do not give us too soon; do not give
us too much; but act under the incessant influence of a disposition to
give us something."

These are the reflections of a man who wrote amid the Terror. He had
seen the Corresponding Society at work, and the experience made him more
than sceptical of any form of association in politics, and led him into
a curiously biassed argument, rhetorical in form, forensic in substance.
Temporary combinations may be necessary in a time of turmoil, or to
secure some single limited end, such as the redress of a wrong done to
an individual. Where their scope is general and their duration long
continued, they foster declamation, cabal, party spirit and tumult. They
are frequented by the artful, the intemperate, the acrimonious, and
avoided by the sober, the sceptical, the contemplative citizen. They
foster a fallacious uniformity of opinion and render the mind quiescent
and stationary. Truth disclaims the alliance of marshalled numbers. The
conditions most favourable to reasoned enquiry and calm persuasion are
to be found in small and friendly circles. The moral beauty of the
spectacle offered by these groups of friends united to pursue truth and
foster virtue, will render it contagious. So the craggy steep of science
will be levelled and knowledge rendered accessible to all.

The conception of the State which Godwin sought to supplant was itself
limited and negative. Government was little else in his day than a means
for internal defence against criminals and for external defence against
aggression. For the rest, it helped landlords to enclose commons, kept
down wages by poor relief and in a muddle-headed way interfered with the
freedom of trade. But its central activity was the repression of crime,
and for Godwin's system the test question was his handling of the
problem of crime and punishment. He was no Platonist, but not for the
first time we discover him in a familiar Socratic position. "Do you
punish a man," asked Socrates, "to make him better or to make him
worse?" Godwin starts by rejecting the traditional conception of
punishment. The word means the infliction of evil upon a vicious being,
not merely because the public advantage demands it, but because there is
a certain fitness and propriety in making suffering the accompaniment of
vice, quite apart from any benefit that may be in the result. No
adherent of the doctrine of necessity in morals can justify that
attitude. The assassin could no more avoid the murder he committed than
could the dagger. Justice opposes any suffering, which is not attended
by benefit. Resentment against vice will not excuse useless torture. We
must banish the conception of desert. To punish for what is past and
irrecoverable must be ranked among the most baleful conceptions of
barbarism. Xerxes was not more unreasonable when he lashed the waves of
the sea, than that man would be who inflicted suffering on his fellow
from a view to the past and not from a view to the future.

Excluding all idea of punishment in the proper sense of the word, it
remains only to consider such coercion as is used against persons
convicted of injurious action in the past, for the purpose of preventing
future mischief. Godwin now invites us to consider the futility of
coercion as a means of reforming, or as he would say, "enlightening the
understanding" of a man who has erred. Our aim is to bring him to the
acceptance of our conception of duty. Assuming that we possess more of
eternal justice than he, do we shrink from setting our wit against his?
Instead of acting as his preceptor we become his tyrant. Coercion first
annihilates the understanding of its victim, and then of him who adopts
it. Dressed in the supine prerogatives of a master, he is excused from
cultivating the faculties of a man. Coercion begins by producing pain,
by violently alienating the mind from the truth with which we wish it to
be impressed. It includes a tacit confession of imbecility.

With some hesitation Godwin allows the use of force to restrain a man
found in actual violence. We may not have time to reason with him. But
even for self-defence there are other resources. "The powers of the mind
are yet unfathomed." He tells the story of Marius, who overawed the
soldier sent into his cell to execute him, with the words, "Wretch, have
you the temerity to kill Marius?" Were we all accustomed to place an
intrepid confidence in the unaided energy of the intellect, to despise
force in others and to refuse to employ it ourselves, who shall say how
far the species might be improved? But punitive coercion deals only with
a man whose violence is over. The only rational excuse for it is to
restrain a man from further violence which he will presumably commit.
Godwin condemns capital punishment as excessive, since restraint can be
attained without it, and corporal chastisement as an offence against the
dignity of the human mind. Let there be nothing in the state of
transition worse than simple imprisonment. Godwin, however, dissents
vehemently from Howard's invention of solitary confinement, designed to
shield the prisoner from the contamination of his fellow criminals. Man
is a social animal and virtue depends on social relations. As a
preliminary to acquiring it is he to be shut out from the society of his
fellows? How shall he exercise benevolence or justice in his cell? Will
his heart become softened or expand who breathes the atmosphere of a
dungeon? Solitary confinement is the bitterest torment that human
ingenuity can inflict. The least objectionable method of depriving a
criminal of the power to harm society is banishment or transportation.
Expose him to the stimulus of necessity in an unsettled country. New
conditions make new minds. But the whole attempt to apply law breaks
down. You must heap edict on edict, and to make your laws fit your
cases, must either for ever wrest them or make new ones. Law does not
end uncertainty, and it debilitates the mind. So long as men are
habituated to look to foreign guidance and external rules for
direction, so long the vigour of their minds will sleep.

If Fénelon, saint and philosopher, with an incompleted masterpiece in
his pocket, and Fénelon's chambermaid, were both in danger of burning to
death in the archiepiscopal palace at Cambrai, and if I could save only
one of them, which ought I to save? It is a fascinating problem in
casuistry, and Godwin with his usual decision of mind, has no doubt
about the solution. He would save Fénelon as the more valuable life, and
above all Fénelon's manuscript, and the maid, he is quite sure, would
wish to give her life for his. Something (the modern reader will object)
might be urged on the other side. Just because he was a saint, it might
be argued that he was the fitter of the two to face the great adventure,
and one may be sure that he himself would have thought so. A philosopher
who gives his life for a kitten will have advanced the Kingdom of
Heaven. The chambermaid, moreover, may have in her a potentiality of
love and happiness which are worth many a masterpiece of French prose.
But Godwin has not yet exhausted his moral problem. How, if the maid
were my mother, wife or benefactress? Once more he gives his unflinching
answer. Justice still requires of me in the interests of mankind to
save the more valuable life. "What magic is there in the pronoun 'my' to
overturn the decisions of everlasting truth?" My mother may be a fool, a
liar, or a thief. Of what consequence then, is it that she is "mine"?
Gratitude ought not to blind me to my duty, though she have suckled me
and nursed me. The benevolence of a benefactor ought indeed to be
esteemed, but not because it benefited me. A benefactor ought to be
esteemed as much by another as by me, solely because he benefited a
human being. Gratitude, in short, has no place in justice or virtue, and
reason declines to recognise the private affections.

Such, crudely stated, is Godwin's famous doctrine of "universal
benevolence." The virtuous man is like Swift's Houyhnhnms, noble
quadrupeds, wholly governed by reason, who cared for strangers as well
as for the nearest neighbour, and showed the same affection for their
neighbour's offspring as for their own. The centre of Godwin's moral
teaching was yet another Socratic thought. Politics are "the proper
vehicle of a liberal morality," and morals concern our relation to the
whole body of mankind. To realise justice is our prime concern as
rational beings, and society is nothing but embodied justice. Justice
deals with beings capable of pleasure and pain. Here we are partakers of
a common nature with like faculties for suffering or enjoyment.
"Justice," then, "is that impartial treatment of every man in matters
that relate to his happiness, which is measured solely by a
consideration of the properties of the receiver and the capacity of him
who gives." Every man with whom I am in contact is a sentient being, and
one should be as much to me as another, save indeed where equity
corrects equality, by suggesting to me that one individual may be of
more value than another, because of his greater power to benefit
mankind. Justice exacts from us the application of our talents, time,
and resources with the single object of producing the greatest sum of
benefit to sentient beings. There is no limit to what I am bound to do
for the general weal. I hold my person and property both in trust on
behalf of mankind. A man who needs £10 has an absolute claim on me, if I
have it, unless it can be shown that the money could be more
beneficially applied. Every shilling I possess is irrevocably assigned
by some claim of eternal justice. Every article of property, it follows,
should belong to him in whose hands it will be of most benefit, and the
instrument of the greatest happiness.

It is the love of distinction which attends wealth in corrupt societies
that explains the desire for luxury. We desire not the direct pleasure
to be derived from excessive possessions, but the consideration which is
attached to it. Our very clothes are an appeal to the goodwill of our
neighbours, and a refuge from their contempt. Society would be
transformed if the distinction were reversed, if admiration were no
longer rendered to the luxurious and avaricious and were accorded only
to talent and virtue. Let not the necessity of rewarding virtue be
suggested as a justification for the inequalities of fortune. Shall we
say, to a virtuous man: "If you show yourself deserving, you shall have
the essence of a hundred times more food than you can eat, and a hundred
times more clothes than you can wear. You shall have a patent for taking
away from others the means of a happy and respectable existence, and for
consuming them in riotous and unmeaning extravagance." Is this the
reward that ought to be offered to virtue, or that virtue should stoop
to take? Godwin is at his best on this theme of luxury: "Every man may
calculate in every glass of wine he drinks, and every ornament he
annexes to his person, how many individuals have been condemned to
slavery and sweat, incessant drudgery, unwholesome food, continual
hardships, deplorable ignorance and brutal insensibility, that he may be
supplied with these luxuries. It is a gross imposition that men are
accustomed to put upon themselves, when they talk of the property
bequeathed to them by their ancestors. The property is produced by the
daily labour of men who are now in existence. All that the ancestors
bequeathed to them was a mouldy patent which they show as a title to
extort from their neighbours what the labour of those neighbours has
produced."

It is a flagrant immorality that one man should have the power to
dispose of the produce of another man's toil, yet to maintain this power
is the main concern of police and legislation. Morality recognises two
degrees of property, (1) things which will produce the greatest benefit,
if attributed to me, in brief the necessities of life, my food, clothes,
furniture and apartment; (2) the empire which every man may claim over
the produce of his own industry, even over that part of it which ought
not to be used and appropriated by himself. Every man is a steward. But
subject to censure and remonstrance, he must be free to dispose of his
property as his own understanding shall dictate. The ideal is equality,
and all society should be what Coleridge called a Pantisocracy. It is
wrong for any one to enjoy anything, unless something similar is
accessible to all, and wrong to produce luxuries until the elementary
wants of all are satisfied. But it would be futile and wrong to attempt
to equalise property by positive enactment. It would be useless until
men are virtuous, and unnecessary when they are so. The moment
accumulation and monopoly are regarded by any society as dishonourable
and mischievous, the revolution in opinion will ensure that comforts
shall tend to a level.

Godwin objects to the plans put forward in France during the Revolution
for interfering with bequests and inheritance. He would, however, check
the incentives to accumulation by abolishing the feudal system,
primogeniture, titles and entail. Property is sacred--that good men may
be free to give it away. Reform public opinion, and a man engaged in
amassing wealth would soon hide his treasures as carefully as he now
displays them. The first step is to rob wealth of its distinction.
Wealth is acquired to-day in over-reaching our neighbours, and spent in
insulting them. Establish equality on a firm basis of rational opinion,
and you cut off for ever the great occasion of crime, remove the
constant spectacle of injustice with all its attendant demoralisation,
and liberate genius now immersed in sordid cares.

"In a state of society where men lived in the midst of plenty, and where
all shared alike the bounties of nature, the sentiments of oppression,
servility and fraud would inevitably expire. The narrow principle of
selfishness would vanish. No man being obliged to guard his little
store, or provide with anxiety and pain for his restless wants, each
would lose his individual existence in the thought of the general good.
No man would be an enemy to his neighbour, for they would have no
subject of contention, and of consequence philanthropy would resume the
empire which reason assigns her. Mind would be delivered from her
perpetual anxiety about corporal support, and freed to expatiate in the
field of thought, which is congenial to her. Each would assist the
enquiries of all."

Unnecessary tasks absorb most of our labour to-day. In the ideal
community, Godwin reckons that half an hour's toil from every man daily
will suffice to produce the necessities of life. He modified this
sanguine estimate in a later essay (_The Enquirer_) to two hours. He
dismisses all objections based on the sloth or selfishness of human
nature, by the simple answer that this happy state of things will not be
realised until human nature has been reformed. Need individuality
suffer? It need fear only the restraint imposed by candid public
opinion. That will not be irksome, because it will be frank. We shrink
from it to-day, only because it takes the form of clandestine scandal
and backbiting. Godwin contemplates no Spartan plan of common labour or
common meals. "Everything understood by the term co-operation is in some
sense an evil." To be sure, it may be indispensable in order to cut a
canal or navigate a ship. But mechanical invention will gradually make
it unnecessary. The Spartans used slaves. We shall make machines our
helots. Indeed, so odious is co-operation to a free mind, that Godwin
marvels that men can consent to play music in concert, or can demean
themselves to execute another man's compositions, while to act a part in
a play amounts almost to an offence against sincerity. Such
extravagances as this passage are amongst the most precious things in
_Political Justice_. Godwin was a fanatic of logic who warns us against
his individualist premises by pressing them to a fantastic conclusion.

The sketch of the ideal community concludes with a demolition of the
family. Cohabitation, he argued, is in itself an evil. It melts opinions
to a common mould, and destroys the fortitude of the individual. The
wishes of two people who live together can never wholly coincide. Hence
follow thwartings of the will, bickering and misery. No man is always
cheerful and kind. We manage to correct a stranger with urbanity and
good humour. Only when the intercourse is too close and unremitted do we
degenerate into surliness and invective. In an earlier chapter Godwin
had formulated a general objection to all promises, which reminds us of
Tolstoy's sermons from the same individualistic standpoint on the text,
"Swear not at all." Every conceivable mode of action has its tendency to
benefit or injure mankind. I am bound in duty to one course of action in
every emergency--the course most conducive to the general welfare. Why,
then, should I bind myself by a promise? If my promise contradicts my
duty it is immoral, if it agrees with it, it teaches me to do that from
a precarious and temporary motive which ought to be done from its
intrinsic recommendations. By promising we bind ourselves to learn
nothing from time, to make no use of knowledge to be acquired. Promises
depose us from a full use of our understanding, and are to be tolerated
only in the trivial engagements of our day-to-day existence. It follows
that marriage is an evil, for it is at once the closest form of
cohabitation, and the rashest of all promises. Two thoughtless and
romantic people, met in youth under circumstances full of delusion, have
bound themselves, not by reason but by contract, to make the best, when
they discover their deception, of an irretrievable mistake. Its maxim
is, "If you have made a mistake, cherish it." So long as this
institution survives, "philanthropy will be crossed in a thousand ways,
and the still augmenting stream of abuse continue to flow."

Godwin has little fear of lust or license. Men will, on the whole,
continue to prefer one partner, and friendship will refine the grossness
of sense. There are worse evils than open and avowed inconstancy--the
loathsome combination of deceitful intrigue with the selfish monopoly
of property. That a child should know its father is no great matter, for
I ought not in reason to prefer one human being to another because he is
"mine." The mother will care for the child with the spontaneous help of
her neighbours. As to the business of supplying children with food and
clothing, "these would easily find their true level and spontaneously
flow from the quarter in which they abounded to the quarter that was
deficient." There must be no barter or exchange, but only giving from
pure benevolence without the prospect of reciprocal advantage.

The picture of this easy-going Utopia, in which something will always
turn up for nobody's child, concludes with two sections which exhibit in
nice juxtaposition the extravagance and the prudence of Godwin. We may
look forward to great physical changes. We shall acquire an empire over
our bodies, and may succeed in making even our reflex notions conscious.
We must get rid of sleep, one of the most conspicuous infirmities of the
human frame. Life can be prolonged by intellect. We are sick and we die
because in a certain sense we consent to suffer these accidents. When
the limit of population is reached, men will refuse to propagate
themselves further. Society will be a people of men, and not of
children, adult, veteran, experienced; and truth will no longer have to
recommence her career at the end of thirty years. Meanwhile let the
friends of justice avoid violence, eschew massacres, and remember that
prudent handling will win even rich men for the cause of human
perfection.

So ends _Political Justice_, the strangest amalgam in our literature of
caution with enthusiasm, of visions with experience, of French logic
with English tactlessness, a book which only genius could have made so
foolish and so wise.



CHAPTER V

GODWIN AND THE REACTION


_Political Justice_ brought its author instant fame. Society was for a
moment intimidated by the boldness of the attack. The world was in a
generous mood, and men did not yet resent Godwin's flattering suggestion
that they were demigods who disguised their own greatness. He had
assailed all the accepted dogmas and venerable institutions of
contemporary civilisation, from monarchy to marriage, but it was only
after several years that society recovered its breath, and turned to
rend him. He became an oracle in an ever-widening circle of friends, and
was naïvely pleased to find, when he went into the country, that even in
remote villages his name was known. He was everywhere received as a
sage, and some years passed before he discovered how much of this
deference was a polite disguise for the vulgar curiosity that attends a
sudden celebrity. Prosperity was a wholesome stimulus. He was "exalted
in spirits," and became for a time (he tells us) "more of a talker than
I was before, or have been since."

In this mood he wrote the one book which has lived as a popular
possession, and held its place among the classics which are frequently
reprinted. _Caleb Williams_ (published in 1794) is incomparably the best
of his novels, and the one great work of fiction in our language which
owes its existence to the fruitful union of the revolutionary and
romantic movements. It spoke to its own day as Hugo's _Les Misérables_
and Tolstoy's _Resurrection_ spoke to later generations. It is as its
preface tells us, "a general review of the modes of domestic and
unrecorded despotism by which man becomes the destroyer of man." It
conveys in the form of an eventful personal history the essence of the
criticism against society, which had inspired _Political Justice_.
Godwin's imagination was haunted by a persistent nightmare, in which a
lonely individual finds arrayed against him all the prejudices of
society, all the forms of convention, all the forces of law. They hurl
themselves upon him in a pitiless pursuit, and wherever he flees, the
pervading corruptions, the ingrained cowardices of over-governed mankind
beset his feet like gins and pitfalls. It was a hereditary nightmare,
and with a less pedestrian imagination, his daughter, Mary Shelley, used
the same theme of a remorseless pursuit in _Frankenstein_.

Caleb Williams, a promising lad of humble birth but good parts, is
broken at the outset of his career, in the tremendous clash between two
formidable characters, who represent, each in his own way, the
corruptions of aristocracy. Mr. Tyrrel is a brutal English squire, a
coarse and domineering bully, whom birth and wealth arm with the power
to crush his dependents. Mr. Falkland personifies the spirit of chivalry
at its best and its worst. All his native humanity and acquired polish
is in the end turned to cruelty by the influence of a worship of honour
and reputation which make him "the fool of fame." As the absorbing story
unfolds itself, we realise (if indeed we are not too much enthralled by
the plot to notice the moral) that all the institutions of society and
law are nicely adjusted to give the moral errors of the great their
utmost scope. Society is a vast sounding-board which echoes the first
whispers of their private folly, until it swells into a deafening chorus
of cruelty and wrong. There are vivid scenes in a prison which give life
to Godwin's reasoned criticisms of our penal methods. There is a band
of outlaws whose rude natural virtues remind us, by contrast with the
corruption of all the officers of the law, how much less demoralising it
is to revolt against a crazy system of coercion than to become its tool.
To describe the book in greater detail would be to destroy the pleasure
of the reader. It is a forensic novel. It sets out to frame an
indictment of society, and a novelist who imposes this task on himself
must in the end create an impression of improbability by the partiality
with which he selects his material. But there is fire enough in the
telling, and interest enough in the plot to silence our criticisms while
we read. _Caleb Williams_ is a capital story; it is also a living and
humane book, which conveys with rare power and reasoned emotion the
revolt of a generous mind against the oppressions of feudalism and the
stupidities of the criminal law.

Three years later (1797) Godwin once more restated the main positions of
_Political Justice_. _The Enquirer_ is a volume of essays, which range
easily over a great variety of subjects from education to English style.
His opinions have neither advanced nor receded, and the mood is still
one of assurance, enthusiasm, and hope. The only noteworthy change is in
the style. _Political Justice_ belongs to the generation of Gibbon,
eloquent, elaborate and periodic at its best; heavy and slightly verbose
at its worst. With _The Enquirer_ we are just entering the generation of
Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt. The language is simpler and more flexible, the
construction of the sentences more varied, the mood more vivacious, and
the tone more conversational. The best things in the book belong to that
social psychology, the observation of men in classes and professions, in
which this age excelled. There is an outspoken attack on the clergy, as
a class of men who have vowed themselves to study without enquiry, who
must reason for ever towards a conclusion fixed by authority, whose very
survival depends on the perennial stationariness of their understanding.
Another essay attempts a vivacious criticism of "common honesty," the
moral standard of the average decent citizen, a code of negative virtues
and moral mediocrity which is content to avoid the obvious unsocial sins
and concerns itself but little to enforce positive benevolence. The
reader who would meet Godwin at his best should turn to the essay _On
Servants_. Starting from the universal reluctance of the upper and
middle classes to allow their children to associate closely with
servants, he enlarges the confession of the systematic degradation of a
class which this separation involves, into a condemnation of our whole
social structure.

       *       *       *       *       *

The year 1797 marks the culmination of Godwin's career, and it would
have been well for his fame if it had been its end. He had just passed
his fortieth year; he had made the most notable contribution to English
political thought since the appearance of the _Wealth of Nations_; he
had won the gratitude and respect of his friends by his intervention in
the trial of the Twelve Reformers. He was famous, prosperous, popular,
and his good fortune brought to his calm temperament the stimulus of
excitement and high spirits which it needed. There came to him in this
year the crown of a noble love. It was in the winter of 1791 that he
first met Mary Wollstonecraft, the one woman of genius who belonged to
the English revolutionary circle. He was not impressed, thought that she
talked too much, and in his diary spelled her name incorrectly.

In the interval between 1791 and 1797 Mary Wollstonecraft was to write
one of the books which belong to the spiritual foundations of the next
century, to taste fame and detraction, to know the joys of love and
maternity, and to experience a misery and wrong which made life itself
an unendurable shame. A later chapter will attempt an estimate of the
ideas and personality of this brilliant and courageous woman. A few
sentences must suffice here to recall the bare facts of her life
history. Born in 1759, the child of a drunken and disreputable father,
she had struggled with indomitable energy, first as a teacher and then
as a translator and literary "hack," to keep herself and help her still
more unfortunate sisters. In 1792 she published _A Vindication of the
Rights of Woman_, a plea for the human dignity of her sex and for its
claim to education. At the end of this year she went to Paris as much to
see the Revolution as to perfect herself in French. She there met a
clever and interesting American, one Gilbert Imlay, a traveller of some
little note, a soldier in the War of Independence, and now a speculative
merchant. He lived with her, and in documents acknowledged her as his
wife, though neither felt the need of a binding ceremony. A baby, Fanny,
was born, but Imlay's business imposed long separations. He gradually
tired of the woman who had honoured him too highly, and entered on more
than one intrigue. Mary Wollstonecraft attempted in despair to drown
herself in the Thames, was saved and nursed back to life and courage by
devoted friends. She again took up her pen to gain a livelihood, and for
the sake of her child's future, gradually returned to the literary
circle which valued her, not merely for her genius and originality, but
also for her beauty, her vivacity, and her charm, for her daring and
independence, and her warm, impulsive, affectionate heart.

Godwin met her again while she was bruised and lonely and
disillusionised with mankind. Her charming volume of travel sketches
(_Letters from Norway, 1796_) had made, as it well might, a deep
impression on his taste. He was, what Imlay was not, her intellectual
equal, and his character deserved her respect. He has left in the little
book which he published to vindicate her memory, a delicate sketch of
their mutual love: "The partiality we conceived for each other was in
that mode which I have always considered as the purest and most refined
style of love. It grew with equal advances in the mind of each. It would
have been impossible for the most minute observer to have said who was
before and who was after. One sex did not take the priority which
long-established custom has awarded it, nor the other overstep that
delicacy which is so severely imposed. I am not conscious that either
party can assume to have been the agent or the patient, the toil
spreader or the prey in the affair. When in the course of things, the
disclosure came, there was nothing in a manner for either party to
disclose to the other.... There was no period of throes and resolute
explanation attendant on the tale. It was friendship melting into love."

The two lovers, in strict obedience to the principles of _Political
Justice_, made their home, at first with no legal union, in a little
house in the Polygon, Somers Town, then the extreme limit of London,
separated from the suburban village of Camden Town by open fields and
green pastures. A few doors away Godwin had his study, where he spent
most of his industrious day, often breakfasted and sometimes slept. Both
partners of this daringly unconventional union had their own particular
friends and retained their separate places in society. Some quaint notes
have survived, which passed between them, borrowing books or making
appointments. "Did I not see you, friend Godwin," runs one of these, "at
the theatre last night? I thought I met a smile, but you went out
without looking round. We expect you at half-past four." It was the
coming of a child which induced them to waive their theories and face
for its sake a repugnant compliance with custom. They were married in
Old St. Pancras Church on March 29, 1797, and the insignificant fact was
communicated only gradually, and with laboured apologies for the
inconsistency, to their friends.

Southey, who met them in this month, has left a lively portrait: "Of all
the lions or literati I have seen here, Mary Imlay's countenance is the
best, infinitely the best: the only fault in it is an expression
somewhat similar to what the prints of Horne Tooke display--an
expression indicating superiority; not haughtiness, not sarcasm in Mary
Imlay, but still it is unpleasant. Her eyes are light brown, and ...
they are the most meaning I ever saw.... As for Godwin himself he has
large noble eyes and a _nose_--oh, most abominable nose. Language is not
vituperatious enough to describe the effect of its downward elongation."
Godwin, if one may trust the portrait by Northcote, had impressive if
not exactly handsome features. The head is shapely, the brow ample, the
nose decidedly too long, the shaven lips and chin finely chiselled. The
whole suggestion is of a character self-absorbed and contemplative. He
was short and sturdy in build, and in his sober dress and grave
deportments, suggested rather the dissenting preacher than the prophet
of philosophic anarchism. He was not a ready debater or a fluent talker.
His genius was not spontaneous or intuitive. It was rather an elaborate
effort of the will, which deliberately used the fruits of his
accumulative study and incessant activity of mind. He resembled, says
Hazlitt, who admired and liked him, "an eight-day clock that must be
wound up long before it can strike. He is ready only on reflection:
dangerous only at the rebound. He gathers himself up, and strains every
nerve and faculty with deliberate aim to some heroic and dazzling
achievement of intellect; but he must make a career before he flings
himself armed upon the enemy, or he is sure to be unhorsed."

No two minds could have presented a greater contrast. Had Mary
Wollstonecraft lived they must have moulded each other into something
finer than Nature had made of either. The year of married life was
ideally happy, and the strange experiment in reconciling individualism
with love apparently succeeded. Mrs. Godwin, for all her revolutionary
independence, leaned affectionately on her husband, and he, in spite of
his rather overgrown self-esteem, regarded her with reverence and pride.
She was quick in her affections and resentments, but looking back many
years later Godwin declares that they were "as happy as is permitted to
human beings." "It must be remembered, however, that I honoured her
intellectual powers and the nobleness and generosity of her
propensities; mere tenderness would not have been adequate to produce
the happiness we experienced."

Godwin's novels suggest that, on the whole, he shared her views about
women, though in a later essay (on "Friendship," in _Thoughts on Man_),
there are some passages which suggest a less perfect understanding. But
he never used his pen to carry on her work, and the emancipation of
women had to await its philosopher in John Stuart Mill. The happy
marriage ended abruptly and tragically. On August 30, 1797, was born the
child Mary, who was to become Shelley's wife, and carry on in a second
generation her parents' tradition of fearless love and revolutionary
hope. Ten days after the birth, the mother died in spite of all that the
devotion of her husband and the skill of his medical friends could do
to save her. A few broken-hearted letters are left to record Godwin's
agony of mind.

       *       *       *       *       *

With the death of Mary Wollstonecraft in 1797, ended all that was happy
and stimulating in Godwin's career. It was for him the year of private
disaster, and from it he dated also the triumph of the reaction in
England. The stimulus of the revolutionary period was withdrawn. He
lived no longer among ardent spirits who would brave everything and do
anything for human perfectibility. Some were in Botany Bay, and others,
like the indomitable Holcroft, were absorbed in the struggle to live,
with the handicap of political persecution against them. Godwin, indeed,
never fell into despair over the ruin of his political hopes. Like
Beethoven he revered Napoleon, at all events until he assumed the title
of Emperor, and would console himself with the conviction that this
"auspicious and beneficent genius" had "without violence to the
principles of the French Revolution ... suspended their morbid
activity," while preserving "all the great points" of its doctrine. But
while all England hung on the event of the titanic struggle against
this "beneficent genius," what was a philanthropist to do? The world was
rattling back into barbarism, and the generation which emerged from the
long nightmare of war, famine, and repression, was incomparably less
advanced in its thinking, narrower and timider in its whole habit of
mind than the men who were young in 1789. There was nothing to do, and a
philosopher whose only weapon was argument, kept silence when none would
listen. Of what use to talk of "peace and the powers of the human mind,"
while all England was gloating over the brutal cartoons of Gillray, and
trying on the volunteer uniforms, in which it hoped to repel Napoleon's
invasion? We need not wonder that Godwin's output of philosophic writing
practically ceased with the eighteenth century. He was henceforth a man
without a purpose, who wrote for bread and renounced the exercise of his
greater powers.

The end of Godwin's active apostolic life is clearly marked in a
pamphlet which he issued in 1801 ("Thoughts occasioned by the Perusal of
Dr. Parr's Spital Sermon, preached at Christ Church, April 15, 1800,
being a reply to the attacks of Dr. Parr, Mr. Mackintosh, the author
[Malthus] of the _Essay on Population_ and others"). It is a masterly
piece of writing. Coleridge scribbled in the copy that now lies on the
shelves of the British Museum this tribute to its author: "I remember
few passages in ancient or modern authors that contain more just
philosophy in appropriate, chaste or beautiful diction than the fine
following pages. They reflect equal honour on Godwin's head and heart.
Though I did it in the zenith of his reputation, yet I feel remorse even
to have only spoken unkindly of such a man.--S. T. C."

Godwin tells how the reaction burst over him, and he dates it from 1797:
"After having for four years heard little else than the voice of
commendation, I was at length attacked from every side, and in a style
which defied all moderation and decency.... The cry spread like a
general infection, and I have been told that not even a petty novel for
boarding-school misses now ventures to aspire to favour unless it
contains some expression of dislike or abhorrence to the new
philosophy." Some of the attacks were scurrilous and all of them
proceeded on the common assumption of the defenders of authority in all
ages and nations, that the man who would innovate in morals is himself
immoral.

He goes on to sketch the present case of the revolutionary party: "The
societies have perished, or where they have not, have shrunk to a
skeleton; the days of democratical declamation are no more; even the
starving labourer in the alehouse is become the champion of
aristocracy.... Jacobinism was destroyed; its party as a party was
extinguished; its tenets were involved in almost universal unpopularity
and odium; they were deserted by almost every man high or low in the
island of Great Britain." Even the young Pantisocrats had gone over to
the enemy, and Wordsworth, grave and disillusionised, tried to forget
that he had ever exhorted his fellow-students to burn their books and
"read Godwin on Necessity." The defection of Dr. Parr and Mackintosh was
symptomatic. Both had been Godwin's personal friends, and both of them
had hailed the new philosophy. No one remembers them to-day, but they
were in their time intellectual oracles. The scholar Parr was called by
flatterers the Whig Johnson, and Mackintosh enjoyed in Whig society a
reputation as a brilliant talker, and an encyclopædic mind which reminds
us of Macaulay's later fame. They had both to make their peace with the
world and to bury their compromised past; the easiest way was to fall
upon Godwin.

Malthus was a more worthy antagonist, though Godwin did not yet perceive
how formidable his attack in reality was. To the picture of human
perfection he opposed the nightmare of an over-populated planet, and
combated universal benevolence by teaching that even charity is an
economic sin. English society cares little either for Utopias or for
science. But it welcomes science with rapture when it destroys Utopias.
If Godwin had pricked men's consciences, Malthus brought the balm.
Altruism was exposed at length for the thing it was, an error in the
last degree unscientific and uneconomic. The rickety arithmetic of
Malthusianism was used against the revolutionary hope, exactly as a
travestied version of Darwinianism was used in our own day against
Socialism. Godwin preserved his dignity in this controversy and made
concessions to his critics with a rare candour. But while he abandons
none of his fundamental doctrines, one feels that he will never fight
again.

Only once in later years did Godwin the philosopher break his silence,
and then it was to attempt in 1820 an elaborate but far from impressive
answer to Malthus. The history of that controversy has been brilliantly
told by Hazlitt. It seems to-day too distant to be worth reviving. Our
modern pessimists write their jeremiads not about the future
over-population of the planet, but about the declining birth-rate. That
elaborate civilisations shows a decline in fertility is a fact now so
well recognised, that we feel no difficulty in conceding to Godwin that
the reasonable beings of his ideal community might be trusted to show
some degree of self-control.

Godwin possessed two of the cardinal virtues of a thinker, courage and
candour. No fear of ridicule deterred him from pushing his premises to
their last conclusion; no false shame restrained him in a controversy
from recanting an error. He discarded the wilder developments of his
theory of "universal benevolence," and gave it in the end a form which
has ceased to be paradoxical. When he wrote _Political Justice_ he was a
celibate student who had escaped much of the formative experience of a
normal life. As a husband and a father he revised his creed, and devoted
no small part of his later literary activity to the work of preaching
the claims of those "private affections" which he had scouted as an
elderly youth of forty. The re-adjustment in his theory was so simple,
that only a great philosopher could have failed to make it sooner.
Justice requires me to use all my powers to contribute to the sum of
human benefit. But as regards opportunity, I am not equally situated
towards all my fellows. By devoting myself more particularly to wife or
child with an exclusive affection which is not in the abstract
altogether reasonable, I may do more for the general good than I could
achieve by a severely impartial benevolence.

He developed this view first in his _Memoir of Mary Wollstonecraft_,
then in the preface to _St. Leon_, and finally in the pamphlet which
answered Mackintosh and Dr. Parr. The man who would be "the best moral
economist of his time" will use much of it to seek "the advantage and
content of those with whom he has most frequent intercourse," and this
not merely from calculation, but from affection. "I ought not only in
ordinary cases to provide for my wife and children, my brothers and
relations before I provide for strangers, but it would be well that my
doing so should arise from the operation of those private and domestic
affections by which through all ages of the world the conduct of mankind
has been excited and directed."

The recantation is sufficiently frank. The family, dissipated in
_Political Justice_ by the explosive charities of "universal
benevolence," is now happily re-united. Godwin maintains, however, that
his moral theory and his political superstructure stands intact, and the
claim is not unreasonable. He retains his criterion of justice and
utility, though he has seen better how to apply it. The duty of
universal benevolence is still paramount; the end of contributing to the
general good still sovereign, and a reasoned virtue is still to be
recommended in preference to instinctive goodness, even where their
results are commonly the same. "The crown of a virtuous character
consists in a very frequent and very energetic recollection of the
criterion by which all his actions are to be tried.... The person who
has been well instructed and accomplished in the great schools of human
experience has passions and affections like other men. But he is aware
that all these affections tend to excess, and must be taught each to
know its order and its sphere. He therefore continually holds in mind
the principles by which their boundaries are fixed."

What Godwin means is something elementary, and for that reason of the
first importance. Let a man love his wife above other women, but
"universal benevolence" will forbid him to exploit other women in order
to surround her with luxury. Let him love his sons, but virtue will
forbid him to accumulate a fortune for them by the sweated labour of
poor men's children. Let him love his fellow-countrymen, but reason
forbids him to seek their good by enslaving other races and waging
aggressive wars. Godwin, in short, no longer denies the beauty and duty
(to use Burke's phrase) of loving "the little platoon to which I
belong," but he urges that these domestic affections are in little
danger of neglect. Men learned to love kith and kin, neighbours and
comrades, while still in the savage state. The characteristic of a
civilised morality, the necessary accompaniment of all the varied and
extended relationships which modern existence has brought with it, must
be a new and emphatic stress on my duty to the stranger, to the unknown
producer with whom I stand in an economic relationship, and to the
foreigner beyond my shores. "Let us endeavour to elevate philanthropy
into a passion, secure that occasions enough will arise to drag us down
from an enthusiastic eminence. A virtuous man will teach himself to
recollect the principle of universal benevolence as often as pious men
repeat their prayers."

If the central tendencies of Godwin's teaching survive these later
modifications, it is none the less true that some of his theoretic
foundations have been shaken in the work of reconstruction. The isolated
individual shut up in his own animal skin and communicating with his
fellows through the antennæ of his logical processes, has vanished away.
Allow him to extend his personality through the private affections, and
he has ceased to be the abstract unit of individualism. Godwin should
have revised not only his doctrine of the family, but his hatred of
co-operation. There is still something to be learned from the view of
his school that the human mind, as it begins to absorb the collective
experience of the race, is an infinitely variable spiritual stuff, an
intellectual protoplasm. They stated the view with a rash emphasis,
until one is forced to ask whether a mind which is originally nothing at
all, can absorb, or as psychologists say, "apperceive" anything
whatever. Nothing comes out of nothing, and nothing can be added to
nothing.

Godwin and his school set out to show that the human mind is not
necessarily fettered for all time by the prejudices and institutions in
which it has clothed itself. When he had done stripping us, it was a
nice question whether even our nakedness remained. He treated our
prejudices and our effete institutions as though they were something
external to us, which had come out of nowhere and could be flung into
the void from whence they came. When you have called opinion a
prejudice, or traced an institution to false reasoning, you have, after
all, only exhibited an interesting zoological fact about human beings.
We are exactly the sort of creature which evolves such prejudices.
Godwin in unwary moments would talk as though aristocracy and positive
law had come to us from without, by a sort of diabolic revelation. This,
however, is not a criticism which destroys the value of his thinking.
His positions required restatement in terms of the idea of development.
If he did not anticipate the notion of evolution, he was the apostle of
the idea of progress. We may still retain from his reasonings the
hopeful conclusion that the human mind is a raw material capable of
almost unlimited variation, and, therefore, of some advance towards
"perfection." We owe an inestimable debt to the school which proclaimed
this belief in enthusiastic paradoxes.

Godwin's influence as a thinker permeated the older generation of
"philosophic radicals" in England. The oddest fact about it is that it
had apparently no part in founding the later philosophic anarchism of
the Continent. None of its leaders seem to have read him; and _Political
Justice_ was not translated into German until long after it had ceased
to be read in England. Its really astonishing blindness to the
importance of the economic factor in social changes must have hastened
its decline. Godwin writes as though he had never seen a factory nor
heard of capital. In all his writing about crime and punishment, full as
it is of insight, sympathy and good sense, it is odd that a mind so
fertile nowhere anticipated the modern doctrine of the connection
between moral and physical degeneracy. He saw in crime only error, where
we see anæmia: he would have cured it with syllogisms, where we should
administer proteids. His entire psychology, both social and individual,
is vitiated by a naïve and headstrong intellectualism. Life is rather a
battle between narrow interests and the social affections than a debate
between sound and fallacious reasoning. He saw among mankind only
sophists and philosophers, where we see predatory egoists and their
starved and stunted victims. But we have advanced far enough on our own
lines of thinking to derive a new stimulus from Godwin's one-sided
intellectualism. Our danger to-day is that we may succumb to an economic
and physiological determinism. We are obsessed by financiers and
bacilli; it is salutary that our attention should be directed from time
to time to the older bogeys of the revolution, to kings and priests,
authority and superstition, to prejudice and political subjection. "The
greatest part of the people of Europe," wrote Helvétius, "honour virtue
in speculation; this is an effect of their education. They despise it in
practice; that is an effect of the form of their governments." We think
that we have got beyond that epigram to-day. But have we quite exhausted
its meaning?

Precisely because of its revolutionary _naïveté_, its unscientific
innocence, there is in Godwin's democratic anarchism a stimulus
peculiarly tonic to the modern mind. No man has developed more firmly
the ideal of universal enlightenment, which has escaped feudalism, only
to be threatened by the sociological expert. No writer is better fitted
to remind us that society and government are not the same thing, and
that the State must not be confounded with the social organism. No
moralist has written a more eloquent page on the evil of coercion and
the unreason of force. _Political Justice_ is often an imposing system.
It is sometimes an instructive fallacy. It is always an inspiring
sermon. Godwin hoped to "make it a work from the perusal of which no man
should rise without being strengthened in habits of sincerity, fortitude
and justice." There he succeeded.



CHAPTER VI

GODWIN AND SHELLEY


In a letter written in 1811 Shelley records how he suddenly heard with
"inconceivable emotion" that Godwin was still alive. He "had enrolled
his name on the list of the honourable dead." Godwin, to quote Hazlitt's
rather cruel phrase, had "sunk below the horizon," in his later years,
and enjoyed "the serene twilight of a doubtful immortality." Serene
unfortunately it was not. With a lonely home and two little girls to
care for, Godwin thought once more of marriage. Twice his wooing was
unsuccessful, and the philosopher who believed that reason was
omnipotent, tried in vain in long, elaborate letters to argue two ladies
into love. His second wife came unsought. As he sat one day at his
window in the Polygon, a handsome widow spoke to him from the
neighbouring balcony, with these arresting words, "Is it possible that I
behold the immortal Godwin?" They were married before the close of the
year (1801).

Mrs. Clairmont was a strange successor to Mary Wollstonecraft. She was a
vulgar and worldly woman, thoroughly feminine, and rather inclined to
boast of her total ignorance of philosophy. A kindly and loyal wife she
may have been, but she was jealous of Godwin's friends, and would tell
petty lies to keep them apart from him. She brought with her two
children of a former marriage--Charles (who was unhappy in this strange
home and went early abroad) and Jane. On this clever, pretty and
mercurial daughter all her partiality was lavished; and the unhappy
girl, pampered by a philistine mother in a revolutionary atmosphere, was
at the age of seventeen seduced by Byron, and became the mother of the
fairy child, Allegra. The second Mrs. Godwin was the stepmother of
convention, and treated both Fanny Imlay and Mary Godwin with consistent
unkindness. It was the fate of the gentle, melancholy and lovable Fanny
to take her own life at the age of twenty-two (1816). The destiny of
these children, all gifted with what the age called sensibility, has
served as the text of many a sermon against "the new philosophy." No
one, however, can read the documents which this strange household left
behind, without feeling that the parent of the disaster in their lives
was not their philosophic father, but this commonplace "womanly woman,"
who flattered, intrigued, and lied. In 1803, there was born of this
second marriage, a son, William, who inherited something of his father's
ability. He became a journalist, and died at the early age of
twenty-nine, after publishing a novel of some promise, _Transfusion_,
steeped in the same romantic fancies which colour Mary Shelley's more
famous _Frankenstein_.

With the cares of this family on his shoulders Godwin began to form the
habit of applying to his wealthy friends for aid. In judging this part
of his conduct, one must bear in mind both his own doctrine about
property, and the practice of the age. Godwin was a communist, and so,
in some degree, were most of his friends. When he applied to Wedgwood,
the philosophic potter of Etruria, or to Ritson, the vegetarian, or in
later years to Shelley for money, he was simply giving virtue its
occasion, and assisting property to find its level. He practised what he
preached, and he would himself give with a generosity which seemed
prodigal, to his own relatives, to promising young men, and even to
total strangers. He supported one disciple at Cambridge, as he had
educated Cooper in his younger days. It was the prevailing theory of
the age that men of genius have the right to call on society in the
persons of its wealthier members for support. Helvétius, himself a rich
man, had maintained this view. Southey and Coleridge acted on it. Dr.
Priestley, universally respected both for his character and his talents,
received large gifts from friends, admirers, members of his congregation
and aristocratic patrons. To Godwin, profoundly individualistic as he
was, a post in the civil service, or even a professorship, would have
seemed a more degrading form of charity than this private benevolence.

Partly to mend his fortunes, partly to furnish himself with an
occupation when his mind refused original work, Godwin in 1805 turned
publisher. It was a disastrous inspiration, due apparently to his wife,
who believed herself to possess a talent for business. The firm was
established in Skinner Street, Holborn, and specialised in school books
and children's tales. They were well-printed, and well-illustrated, and
Godwin, writing under the pseudonym of Edward Baldwin, to avoid the
odium which had now overtaken his own name, compiled a series of
histories with his usual industry and conscientious finish. Through
years darkened with misfortune and clouded by failing health, he worked
hard at the business of publishing. His capital was never adequate,
though his friends and admirers twice came to his aid with public
subscriptions. In 1822 he was evicted for arrears of rent, and in 1825
the unlucky venture came to an end.

These years were crowded with literary work, for neither "Baldwin" nor
Godwin allowed their common pen to idle. Two elaborate historical works
enjoyed and deserved a great reputation in their day, though subsequent
research has rendered them obsolete--a _Life of Geoffrey Chaucer_ (1803)
and a _History of the Commonwealth of England from its Commencement to
the Restoration of Charles II._ (1824-8). It is not easy for modern
taste to do justice to Godwin's novels; but on them his contemporary
fame chiefly rested, and publishers paid for them high though
diminishing prices. They all belong to the romantic movement; some have
a supernatural basis, and most of them discover a too obvious didactic
purpose. _St. Leon_ (1799), almost as popular in its day as _Caleb
Williams_, mingles a romance of the elixir of life and the philosopher's
stone with an ardent recommendation of those family affections which
_Political Justice_ had depreciated. _Fleetwood_ (1805) makes war on
debauchery with sincere and impressive dulness. _Mandeville_ (1817),
_Cloudesley_ (1830) and _Deloraine_ (1833) are dead beyond the reach of
curiosity, yet the Radical critics of his day, including Hazlitt, tried
hard to convince themselves that Godwin was a greater novelist than the
Tory, Scott. It remains to mention Godwin's two attempts to conquer the
theatre with _Antonio_ (1800) and _Faulkener_ (1807). Neither play
lived, and _Antonio_, written in a sort of journalese, cut up into blank
verse lines, was too frigid to survive the first night. Godwin's
disappointment would be comical if it were not painful. He regarded
these deplorable tragedies as the flower of his genius.

Through these years of misfortune and eclipse, the friendships which
Godwin could still retain were his chief consolation. The published
letters of Coleridge and Lamb make a charming record of their intimacy.
Whimsical and affectionate in their tone, they are an unconscious
tribute as much to the man who received them as to the men who wrote
them. Conservative critics have talked of Godwin's "coldness" because he
could reason. But the abiding and generous regard of such a nature as
Charles Lamb's is answer enough to these summary valuations. But
Godwin's most characteristic relationship was with the young men who
sought him out as an inspiration. He would write them long letters of
advice, encouragement, and criticism, and despite his own poverty, would
often relieve their distresses. The most interesting of them was an
adventurous young Scot named Arnot who travelled on foot through the
greater part of Europe during the Napoleonic wars. The tragedy which
seemed always to pursue Godwin's intimates drove another of them,
Patrickson, to suicide while an undergraduate at Cambridge. Bulwer
Lytton, the last of these admiring young men, left a note on Godwin's
conversational powers in his extreme old age, which assures us that he
was "well worth hearing," even amid the brilliance of Lamb, Hunt, and
Hazlitt, and could display "a grim jocularity of sarcasm."

One of these relationships has become historical, and has coloured the
whole modern judgment of Godwin. It would be no exaggeration to say that
Godwin formed Shelley's mind, and that _Prometheus Unbound_ and _Hellas_
were the greatest of Godwin's works. That debt is too often forgotten,
while literary gossip loves to remind us that it was repaid in cheques
and _post-obits_. The intellectual relationship will be discussed in a
later chapter; the bare facts of the personal connection must be told
here. _Political Justice_ took Shelley's mind captive while he was still
at Eton, much as it had obsessed Coleridge, Southey, and Wordsworth. The
influence with him was permanent; and _Queen Mab_ is nothing but Godwin
in verse, with prose notes which quote or summarise him. A
correspondence began in 1811, and the pupil met the master late in 1812,
and again in 1813. They talked as usual of virtue and human
perfectibility; and as the intimacy grew, Shelley, whose chief
employment at this time was to discover and relieve genius in distress,
began to place his present resources and future prospects at Godwin's
disposal. It was not an unnatural relationship to arise between a
grateful disciple, heir to a great fortune, and a philosopher, aged,
neglected, and sinking under the burden of debt.

Shelley's romantic runaway match with Harriet Westbrook had meanwhile
entered on the period of misery and disillusion. She had lost her early
love of books and ideas, had taken to hats and ostentation, and had
become so harsh to him that he welcomed absence. It is certain that he
believed her to be also in the vulgar sense of the word unfaithful. At
this crisis, when the separation seemed already morally complete, he met
Mary Godwin, who had been absent from home during most of his earlier
visits. She was a young girl of seventeen, eager for knowledge and
experience, and as her father described her, "singularly bold, somewhat
imperious and active of mind," and "very pretty." They rapidly fell in
love. Godwin's conduct was all that the most conventional morality could
have required of him. His theoretical views of marriage were still
unorthodox; he held at least that "the institution might with advantage
admit of certain modifications." But nine years before in the preface to
_Fleetwood_ he had protested that he was "the last man to recommend a
pitiful attempt by scattered examples to renovate the face of society."
He seems, indeed, to have forgotten his own happy experiment with Mary
Wollstonecraft, and protests with a vigour hardly to be expected from so
stout an individualist against the idea, that "each man for himself
should supersede and trample upon the institutions of the country in
which he lives. A thousand things might be found excellent and salutary
if brought into general practice, which would in some cases appear
ridiculous and in others attended with tragical consequences if
prematurely acted upon by a solitary individual."

On this view he acted. He forbade Shelley his house, and tried to make a
reconciliation between him and Harriet. On July 28, 1814, Mary secretly
left her father's house, joined her lover, and began with him her life
of ideal intimacy and devotion. Godwin felt and expressed the utmost
disapproval, and for two years refused to meet Shelley, until at the
close of 1816, after the suicide of the unhappy Harriet, he stood at his
daughter's side as a witness to her marriage. His public conduct was
correct. In private he continued to accept money from the erring
disciple whom he refused to meet, and salved his elderly conscience by
insisting that the cheques should be drawn in another name. There Godwin
touched the lowest depths of his moral degeneration. Let us remember,
however, that even Shelley, who saw the worst of Godwin, would never
speak of him with total condemnation. "Added years," he wrote near the
end of his life, "only add to my admiration of his intellectual powers,
and even the moral resources of his character." In the poetical epistle
to Maria Gisborne, he wrote of

  "That which was Godwin--greater none than he
  Though fallen, and fallen on evil times, to stand
  Among the spirits of our age and land
  Before the dread tribunal of To-come
  The foremost, while Rebuke cowers pale and dumb."


The end came to the old man amid comparative peace and serenity. He
accepted a sinecure from the Whigs, and became a Yeoman Usher of the
Exchequer, with a small stipend and chambers in New Palace Yard. It was
a tribute as much to his harmlessness as to his merit. The work of his
last years shows little decay in his intellectual powers. _His Thoughts
on Man_ (1831) collects his fugitive essays. They are varied in subject,
suave, easy and conversational in manner, more polished in style than
those of the _Enquirer_, if a good deal thinner in matter. They avoid
political themes, but the idea of human perfectibility none the less
pervades the book with an unaggressive presence, a cold and wintry sun.
One curious trait of his more cautious and conservative later mind is
worth noting. When he wrote _Political Justice_, the horizons of science
were unlimited, the vistas of discovery endless. Now he questions even
the mathematical data of astronomy, talks of the limitations of our
faculties, and applauds a positive attitude that refrains from
conjecture. His last years were spent in writing a book in which he
ventured at length to state his views upon religion. Like Helvétius he
perceived the advantages which an unpopular philosopher may derive from
posthumous publication. Freed at last from the vulgar worries of debt
and the tragical burden of personal ties, the fighting ended which had
never brought him the joy of combat, the material struggle over which
had issued in defeat, he became again the thing that was himself, a
luminous intelligence, a humane thinker.

With eighty years of life behind him, and doubting whether the curtain
of death concealed a secret, Godwin tranquilly faced extinction in
April, 1836.

       *       *       *       *       *

"To do my part to free the human mind from slavery," that in his own
words was the main object of Godwin's life. The task was not fully
discharged with the writing of _Political Justice_. He could never
forget the terror and gloom of his own early years, and, like all the
thinkers of the revolution, he coupled superstition with despotism and
priests with kings as the arch-enemies of human liberty. The terrors of
eternal punishment, the firmly riveted chains of Calvinistic logic, had
fettered his own growing mind in youth; and to the end he thought of
traditional religion as the chief of those factitious things which
prevent mankind from reaching the full stature to which nature destined
it. Paine had attempted this work from a similar standpoint, but Godwin,
with his trained speculative mind, and his ideal of courtesy and
persuasiveness in argument, thought meanly (as a private letter shows)
of his friend's polemics. It was an unlucky timidity which caused Mrs.
Shelley to suppress her father's religious essays when the manuscript
was bequeathed to her for publication on his death. When, at length,
they appeared in 1873 (_Essays never before Published_), the work which
they sought to accomplish had been done by other pens. They possess none
the less an historical interest; some fine pages will always be worth
reading for their humane impulse and their manly eloquence; they help us
to understand the influence which Godwin's ideas, conveyed in personal
intercourse, exerted on the author of _Prometheus Unbound_. There is
little in them which a candid believer would resent to-day. Most of the
dogmas which Godwin assailed have long since crumbled away through the
sapping of a humaner morality and a more historical interpretation of
the Bible.

The book opens with a protest against the theory and practice of
salutary delusions; and Godwin once more pours his scorn upon those who
would cherish their own private freedom, while preserving popular
superstitions, "that the lower ranks may be kept in order." The
foundation of all improvement is that "the whole community should run
the generous race for intellectual and moral superiority." Godwin would
preserve some portion of the religious sense, for we can reach sobriety
and humility only by realising "how frail and insignificant a part we
constitute of the great whole." But the fundamental tenets of dogmatic
Christianity are far, he argues, from being salutary delusions. At the
basis alike of Protestantism and Catholicism, he sees the doctrine of
eternal punishment; and with an iteration that was not superfluous in
his own day, he denounces its cruel and demoralising effects. It saps
the character where it is really believed, and renders the mind which
receives it servile and pusillanimous. The case is no better when it is
neither sincerely believed nor boldly rejected. Such an attitude, which
is, he thinks, that of most professing believers, makes for
insincerity, and for an indifference to all honest thought and
speculation. The man who dare neither believe nor disbelieve is debarred
from thinking at all.

Worst of all, this doctrine of endless torment and arbitrary election
involves a blasphemous denial of the goodness of God. "To say all, then,
in a word, since it must finally be told, the God of the Christians is a
tyrant." He quotes the delightfully naïve reflection of Plutarch, who
held that it was better to deny God than to calumniate Him, "for I had
rather it should be said of me, that there was never such a man as
Plutarch, than that it should be said that Plutarch was ill-natured,
arbitrary, capricious, cruel, and inexorable." A survey of Church
History brings out what Godwin calls "the mixed character of
Christianity, its horrors and its graces." In much of what has come down
to us from the Old Testament he sees the inevitable effects of
anthropomorphism, when the religion of a barbarous age is reduced to
writing, and handed down as the effect of inspiration. He cannot
sufficiently admire the beauty of Christ's teaching of a perfect
disinterestedness and self-denial--a doctrine in his own terminology of
"universal benevolence." But the disciples lived in a preternatural
atmosphere, continually busied with the four Last Things, death,
judgment, heaven, and hell; and they distorted the beauty of the
Christian morality by introducing an other-worldliness, to which the
ancients had been strangers. From this came the despotism of the Church
based on the everlasting burnings and the keys, and something of the
spirit of St. Dominic and the Inquisition can be traced, he thinks, even
to the earliest period of Christianity. The Gospel sermons do not always
realise the Godwinian ideal of rational persuasion.

Godwin's own view is in the main what we should call agnostic: "I do not
consider my faculties adequate to pronouncing upon the cause of all
things. I am contented to take the phenomena as I behold them, without
pretending to erect an hypothesis under the idea of making all things
easy. I do not rest my globe of earth upon an elephant [a reference to
the Indian myth], and the elephant upon a tortoise. I am content to take
my globe of earth simply, in other words to observe the objects which
present themselves to my senses, without undertaking to find out a cause
why they are what they are."

With cautious steps, he will, however, go a little further than this.
He regards with reverence and awe "that principle, whatever it is, which
acts everywhere around me." But he will not slide into anthropomorphism,
nor give to this Supreme Thing, which recalls Shelley's Demogorgon, the
shape of a man. "The principle is not intellect; its ways are not our
ways." If there is no particular Providence, there is none the less a
tendency in nature which seconds our strivings, guarantees the work of
reason, and "in the vast sum of instances, works for good, and operates
beneficially for us." The position reminds us of Matthew Arnold's
definition of God as "the stream of tendency by which all things strive
to fulfil the law of their being." "We have here," writes Godwin, "a
secure alliance, a friend that so far as the system of things extends
will never desert us, unhearing, inaccessible to importunity,
uncapricious, without passions, without favour, affection, or
partiality, that maketh its sun to rise on the evil and the good, and
its rain to descend on the just and the unjust."

Amid the dim but rosy mist of this vague faith the old man went out to
explore the unknown. A bolder and more rebellious thought was his real
legacy to his age. It is the central impulse of the whole revolutionary
school: "We know what we are: we know not what we might have been. But
surely we should have been greater than we are but for this disadvantage
[dogmatic religion, and particularly the doctrine of eternal
punishment]. It is as if we took some minute poison with everything that
was intended to nourish us. It is, we will suppose, of so mitigated a
quality as never to have had the power to kill. But it may nevertheless
stunt our growth, infuse a palsy into every one of our articulations,
and insensibly change us from giants of mind which we might have been
into a people of dwarfs."

Let us write Godwin's epitaph in his own Roman language. He stood erect
and independent. He spoke what he deemed to be truth. He did his part to
purge the veins of men of the subtle poisons which dwarf them.



CHAPTER VII

MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT


When women, standing at length beyond the last of the gates and walls
that have barred their road to freedom, measure their debt to history,
there will be little to claim their gratitude before the close of the
eighteenth century. The Protestant Reformation on the whole depressed
their status, and even among its more speculative sects the Quakers
stood alone in preaching the equality of the sexes. The English Whigs
ignored the existence of women. It was left for the French thinkers who
laid the foundations of the Revolution to formulate a view of society
and human nature which, as it were, insisted on its own application to
women. The idea of women's emancipation was alive among their
principles. One can name its parents, and one marvels not at all that it
seized this mind and the other, but that any mind among the professors
of the "new philosophy" contrived to escape it. The central thought,
which inspired the gospel of perfectibility has a meaning for men which
an enlightened mind can grasp, but it tells the plain obvious fact about
women.

When Holcroft compares the influence of laws and institutions upon men
to the action of beggars who mutilate their children, when Godwin talks
of the subtle poisons of dogma and custom, which cause mankind to grow
up a race of dwarfs when they should be giants, they seem to be using
metaphors which describe nothing so well as the effect of an artificial
education and a tradition of subjection upon women. One by one the
thinkers of this generation were unconsciously laying down the premises
which the women's movement needed. At the end of all their arguments for
liberty and perfectibility, we seem to hear to-day a chorus of women's
voices which points the application to themselves. There was little hope
for women while the opinion prevailed that minds come into the world
with their qualities innate and their limitations fixed by nature. If
that were the case, then the undeniable fact that women were
intellectually and morally dependent and inferior must be accepted as
their inevitable destiny. Helvétius, all unconscious of what he did, was
the hope-bringer, when he insisted that mind is the creation of
education and experience. When he urged that the very inequality of
men's talents is itself factitious and the result of more or less good
fortune in the occasions which provoke a mind to activity, who could
fail to enquire whether the accepted inferiority of women were so
natural and so necessary as the whole world assumed?

This school of thought revelled in social psychology. It studied in turn
the soldier, the priest and the courtier, and shewed how each of these
has a secondary character, a professional mind, a class morality
impressed and imposed upon him by his education and employment. Looking
down from the vantage ground of their philosophic salon upon their
contemporaries in French society who owed their fortunes and reputations
to the favour of an absolute court, Helvétius and his friends framed
their general theory of the demoralisation which despotism brings about
in the human character. They studied the natural history of the human
parasite who flourished under the Bourbons. They need not have travelled
to Versailles to find him. The domestic subjection of wives to husbands,
the education of girls in a specialised morality, the fetters of custom
and fashion, the experience of economic dependence, the denial of every
noble stimulus to thought and action--these causes, more potent and more
universal than any which work at Court, were making a sex condemned to
an artificial inferiority, an induced parasitism. Thinkers who had
discarded the notion that human minds come into the world with an innate
character and with their limitations already predestined, were ripe to
draw the conclusion. The Revolution believed that men by taking thought
might add many cubits to their mental stature. To think in these terms
was to prepare oneself to see that the "lovely follies" the "amiable
weaknesses" of the "fair sex" were in their turn nothing innate, but the
fostered characteristics of a class bred in subjection, the trading
habits of a profession which had bent all its faculties to the art of
pleasing. Reformers who sought to raise the peasant, the negro, and even
the courtier to his full stature as a man, were inevitably led to
consider the case of their own wives and daughters. They were not the
men to be arrested by the distinction which has been recently invented.
Democracy, we are told, is concerned with the removal not of natural,
but of artificial inequalities. Their bias was to regard all
inequalities as artificial. Looking forward to the goal of human
perfection, they were prompt to realise that every advance would be
insecure, and the final hope a delusion, if on their road they should
leave half mankind behind them.

It requires a vigorous exercise of the historical imagination to realise
the conditions which society imposed upon women in the eighteenth
century. If Godwin and Paine had reflected closely on the position of
women, they might have been led to modify their exaggerated antithesis
between society and government. Government, indeed, imposed a barbarous
code of laws upon women. It was a trifle that they were excluded from
political power. The law treated a wife as the chattel of her husband,
denied her the disposal of her own property, even when it was the
produce of her own labour, sanctioned his use of violence to her person,
and refused (as indeed it still in part does) to recognise her rights as
a parent. But the state of the law reflected only too faithfully the
opinions of society, and these opinions in their turn formed the minds
of women. Civilised people amuse themselves to-day by detecting how much
of the old prejudices still lurk in a shamefaced half-consciousness in
the minds of modern men. There was no need in the eighteenth century for
any fine analysis to detect the naïve belief that women exist only as
auxiliary beings to contribute to the comfort and to flatter the
self-esteem of men. The belief was avowed and accepted as the
unquestioned basis of human society. Good men proclaimed it, and the
cleverest women dared not question it.

For the crudest statement of it we need not go to men who defended
despotism and convention in other departments of life. The most
repulsive of all definitions of the principle of sex-subjection is to be
found in Rousseau:--"The education of women should always be relative to
that of men. To please, to be useful to us, to make us love and esteem
them, to educate us when young, to take care of us when grown up, to
advise, to console us, to render our lives easy and agreeable; these are
the duties of women at all times, and what they should be taught in
their infancy." When the men of the eighteenth century said this, they
meant it, and they accepted not only its plain meaning, but its remotest
logical consequences. It was a denial of the humanity and personality of
women. A slave is a human being, whom the law deprives of his right to
sell his labour. A woman had to learn that her subjection affected not
only her relations to men, but her attitude to nature and to God. The
subtle poison ran in her veins when she prayed and when she studied.
Subject in her body, she was enslaved in mind and soul as well. Milton
saw the husband as a priest intervening between a woman and her God:--

  He for God only, she for God in him.

Even on her knees a woman did not escape the consciousness of sex, and a
manual of morality written by a learned divine (Dr. Fordyce) assured her
that a "fine woman" never "strikes so deeply" as when a man sees her
bent in prayer. She was encouraged to pray that she might be seen of
men--men who scrutinised her with the eyes of desire. It is a woman,
herself something of a "blue-stocking," who has left us the most
pathetic statement of the intellectual fetters which her sex accepted.
Women, says Mrs. Barbauld, "must often be content to know that a thing
is so, without understanding the proof." They "cannot investigate; they
may remember." She warns the girls whom she is addressing that if they
will steal knowledge, they must learn, like the Spartan youths, to hide
their furtive gains. "The thefts of knowledge in our sex are only
connived at while carefully concealed, and if displayed punished with
disgrace."

Religion was sullied; knowledge was closed; but above all the sentiment
of the day perverted morals. Here, too, everything was relative to men,
and men demanded a sensitive weakness, a shrinking timidity. Courage,
honour, truth, sincerity, independence--these were items in a male
ideal. They were to a woman as unnecessary, nay, as harmful in the
marriage market as a sturdy frame and well-knit muscles. Dean Swift, a
sharp satirist, but a good friend of women, comments on the prevailing
view. "There is one infirmity," he writes in his illuminating _Letter to
a very young lady on her marriage_, "which is generally allowed you, I
mean that of cowardice," and he goes on to express what was in his day
the wholly unorthodox view that "the same virtues equally become both
sexes." There he was singular. The business of a woman was to cultivate
those virtues most conducive to her prosperity in the one avocation open
to her. That avocation was marriage, and the virtues were those which
her prospective employer, the average over-sexed male, anxious at all
points to feel his superiority, would desire in a subject wife.
Submission was the first of them, and submission became the foundation
of female virtue. Lord Kames, a forgotten but once popular Scottish
philosopher, put the point quite fairly (the quotation, together with
that from Mrs. Barbauld, is to be found in Mr. Lyon Blease's valuable
book on _The Emancipation of Englishwomen_): "Women, destined by nature
to be obedient, ought to be disciplined early to bear wrongs without
murmuring.... This is essential to the female sex, for ever subjected to
the authority of a single person."

The rest of morality was summed up in the precepts of the art of
pleasing. Chastity had, of course, its incidental place; it enhances the
pride of possession. The art of pleasing was in practice a kind of
furtive conquest by stratagems and wiles, by tears and blushes, in which
the woman, by an assumed passivity, learned to excite the passions of
the male. Rousseau owed much of his popularity to his artistic statement
of this position:--"If woman be formed to please and to be subjected to
man, it is her place, doubtless, to render herself agreeable to him....
The violence of his desires depends on her charms; it is by means of
these that she should urge him to the exertion of those powers which
nature hath given him. The most successful method of exciting them is to
render such exertion necessary by resistance; as in that case self-love
is added to desire, and the one triumphs in the victory which the other
is obliged to acquire. Hence arise the various modes of attack and
defence between the sexes; the boldness of one sex and the timidity of
the other; and in a word, that bashfulness and modesty, with which
nature hath armed the weak in order to subdue the strong."

The "soft," the "fair," the "gentle sex" learned its lesson with only
too much docility. It grew up stunted to meet the prevailing demand. It
acquired weakness, feigned ignorance, and emulated folly as sedulously
as men will labour to make at least a show of strength, good sense, and
knowledge. It adapted itself only too successfully to the economic
conditions in which it found itself. Men accepted its flatteries and
returned them with contempt. "Women," wrote that dictator of morals and
manners, Lord Chesterfield, "are only children of a larger growth.... A
man of sense only trifles with them, plays with them, humours and
flatters them, as he does a sprightly, forward child." The men of that
century valued women only as playthings. They forgot that he is the
child who wants the toy.

The first protests against this morality of degradation came, as one
would expect, from men. Demoralising as it was for men, it did at least
leave them the free use of their minds. Enquiry, reflection, scepticism,
unsuitable if not immodest in a woman, were the rights of a manly
intellect. Defoe and Swift uttered an unheeded protest in England, but
neither of them carried the subject far. There are some good critical
remarks in Helvétius about women's education; but the first man in that
century who seemed to realise the importance and scope of what several
dimly felt, was Baron Holbach, whose materialism was so peculiarly
shocking to our forefathers. A chapter "On Women" in his _Système
Social_ (1774) opens thus: "In all the countries of the world the lot of
women is to submit to tyranny. The savage makes a slave of his mate, and
carries his contempt for her to the point of cruelty. For the jealous
and voluptuous Asiatic, women are but the sensual instruments of his
secret pleasures.... Does the European, in spite of the apparent
deference which he affects towards women, really treat them with more
respect? While we refuse them a sensible education, while we feed their
minds with tedium and trifles, while we allow them to busy themselves
only with playthings and fashions and adornments, while we seek to
inspire them only with the taste for frivolous accomplishments, do we
not show our real contempt, while we mask it with a show of deference
and respect?"

Holbach was a rash and rather superficial metaphysician, but the
warm-hearted and honest pages which follow this opening inspire a deep
respect for the man. He talks of the absurdities of women's education;
draws a bitter picture of a woman's fate in a loveless marriage of
convenience; remarks that esteem is necessary for a happy marriage, but
asks sadly how one is to esteem a mind which has emerged from a
schooling in folly; assails the practice of gallantry, and the
fashionable conjugal infidelities of his day; writes with real
indignation of the dangers to which working-class girls are exposed;
proposes to punish seduction as a crime no less cruel than murder, and
concludes by confessing that he would like to adopt Plato's opinion that
women should share with men in the tasks of government, but dreads the
effects which would flow from the admission of the corrupt ladies of his
day to power.

Twenty years later this promising beginning bore fruit in the mature and
reasoned pleading of Condorcet for the reform of women's education.
There was no subject on which this noble constructive mind insisted with
such continual emphasis. His feminism (to use an ugly modern word), was
an integral part of his thinking. He remembered women when he wrote of
public affairs as naturally as most men forget them. He deserves in the
gratitude of women a place at least as distinguished as John Stuart
Mill's. The best and fullest statement of his position is to be found in
the report and draft Bill on national education (Sur l'Instruction
Publique), which he prepared for the Revolutionary Convention in 1792
(see also p. 109). He maintains boldly that the system of national
education should be the same for women as for men. He specially insists
that they should be admitted to the study of the natural sciences (these
were days when it was held that a woman would lose her modesty if she
studied botany), and thinks that they would render useful services to
science, even if they did not attain the first rank. They ought to be
educated for many reasons. They must be able to teach their children. If
they remain ignorant, the curse of inequality will be introduced into
the family, and mothers will be regarded by their sons with contempt.
Nor will men retain their intellectual interests, unless they can share
them with women. Lastly, women have the same natural right to knowledge
and enlightenment as men. The education should be given in common, and
this will powerfully further the interests of morality. The separation
of the sexes in youth really proceeds from the fear of unequal
marriages, in other words, from avarice and pride. It would be dangerous
for a democratic community to allow the spirit of social inequality to
survive among women, with the consequence that it could never be
extirpated among men. Condorcet was not a brilliant writer, but the
humanity and generosity of his thought finds a powerful and reasoned
expression in his sober and somewhat laboured sentences.

So far a good and enlightened man might go. The substance of all that
need be said against the harem with the door ajar, in which the
eighteenth century had confined the mind if not the body, of women, is
to be found in Holbach and Condorcet. But they wrote from outside. They
were the wise spectators who saw the consequences of the degradation of
women, but did not intimately know its cause. Mary Wollstonecraft's
_Vindication of the Rights of Woman_ (1792) is perhaps the most original
book of its century, not because its daring ideas were altogether new,
but because in its pages for the first time a woman was attempting to
use her own mind. Her ideas, as we have seen, were not absolutely new.
They were latent in all the thinking of the revolutionary period. They
had been foreshadowed by Holbach (whom she may have read), by Paine
(whom she had occasionally met), and by Condorcet (whose chief
contribution to the question, written in the same year as her
_Vindication_, she obviously had not read). What was absolutely new in
the world's history was that for the first time a woman dared to sit
down to write a book which was not an echo of men's thinking, nor an
attempt to do rather well what some man had done a little better, but a
first exploration of the problems of society and morals from a
standpoint which recognised humanity without ignoring sex. She showed
her genius not so much in writing the book, which is, indeed, a faulty
though an intensely vital performance, as in thinking out its position
for herself.

She had her predecessors, but she owed to them little, if anything.
There was not enough in them to have formed her mind, if she had come to
their pages unemancipated. She freed herself from mental slavery, and
the utmost which she can have derived from the two or three men who
professed the same generous opinions, was the satisfaction of
encouragement or confirmation. She owed to others only the powerful
stimulus which the Revolution gave to all bold and progressive thought.
The vitality of her ideas sprang from her own experience. She had
received rather less than was customary of the slipshod superficial
education permitted to girls of the middle classes in her day. With this
nearly useless equipment, she had found herself compelled to struggle
with the world not merely to gain a living, but to rescue a luckless
family from a load of embarrassments and misfortunes. Her father was a
drunkard, idle, improvident, moody and brutal, and as a girl she had
often protected her mother from his violence. A sister had married a
profligate husband, and Mary rescued her from a miserable home, in which
she had been driven to temporary insanity. The sisters had attempted to
live by conducting a suburban school for girls; a brief experience as a
governess in a fashionable family had been even more formative.

When at length she took to writing and translating educational books,
with the encouragement of a kindly publisher, she was practising under
the stimulus of necessity the doctrine of economic independence, which
became one of the foundations of her teaching. It is the pressure of
economic necessity which in this generation and the last has forced
women into a campaign for freedom and opportunity. What the growth of
the industrial system has done for women in the mass, a hard experience
did for Mary Wollstonecraft. In her own person or through her sisters
she had felt in an aggravated form most of the wrongs to which women
were peculiarly exposed. She had seen the reverse of the shield of
chivalry, and known the domestic tyrannies of a sheltered home.

The miracle was that Mary Wollstonecraft's mind was never distorted by
bitterness, nor her faith in mankind destroyed by cynicism. Her
personality lives for us still in her own books and in the records of
her friends. Opie's vivid painting hangs in the National Portrait
Gallery to confirm what Godwin tells us of her beauty in his pathetic
_Memoir_ and to remind us of Southey's admiration for her eyes. Godwin
writes of "that smile of bewitching tenderness ... which won, both heart
and soul, the affection of almost every one that beheld it." She was, he
tells us, "in the best and most engaging sense, feminine in her
manners"; and indeed her letters and her books present her to us as a
woman who had courage and independence precisely because she was so
normal, so healthy in mind and body, so richly endowed with a generous
vitality. If she won the hearts of all who knew her, it was because her
own affections were warm and true. She was a good sister, a good
daughter, a passionate lover, an affectionate friend, a devoted and
tender mother.

She was too real a human being to be misled by the impartialities of
universal benevolence. "Few," she wrote, "have had much affection for
mankind, who did not first love their parents, their brothers, sisters,
and even the domestic brutes whom they first played with." That eloquent
trait, her love of animals and her hatred of cruelty, helps to define
her character. She was, says Godwin, "a worshipper of domestic life,"
and, for all her proud independence, in love with love. In Godwin's prim
phraseology, she "set a great value on a mutual affection between
persons of an opposite sex, and regarded it as the principal solace of
human life." Indeed, in the _Letters to Imlay_, which appeared after her
death, it is not so much the strength and independence of her final
attitude which impresses us, as her readiness to forgive, her
reluctance to resent his neglect, her affection which could survive so
many proofs of the man's unworthiness. The strongest passion in her
generous nature was maternal tenderness. It won her the enduring love of
the children whom she taught as a governess. It caused her mind to be
busied with the problem of education as its chief preoccupation. It
informs her whole view of the rights and duties of women in her
_Vindication_. It inspired the charming fragment entitled _Lessons for
Little Fanny_, which is one of the most graceful expressions in English
prose of the physical tenderness of a mother's love. If she despised the
artificial sensibility which in her day was admired and cultivated by
women, it was because her own emotions were natural and strong. Her
intellect, which no regular discipline had formed, impressed the
laborious and studious Godwin by its quickness and its flashes of sudden
insight--its "intuitive perception of intellectual beauty."

The _Vindication_ is certainly among the most remarkable books that have
come down to us from that opulent age. It has in abundance most of the
faults that a book can have. It was hastily written in six weeks. It is
ill-arranged, full of repetitions, full of digressions, and almost
without a regular plan. Its style is unformed, sometimes rhetorical,
sometimes familiar. But with all these faults, it teems with apt
phrases, telling passages, vigorous sentences which sum up in a few
convincing lines the substance of its message. It lacks the neatness,
the athletic movement of Paine's English. It has nothing of the
learning, the formidable argumentative compulsion of Godwin's writing.
But it is sold to-day in cheap editions, while Godwin survives only on
the dustier shelves of old libraries. Its passion and sincerity have
kept it alive. It is the cry of an experience too real, too authentic,
to allow of any meandering down the by-ways of fanciful speculation. It
said with its solitary voice the thing which the main army of thinking
women is saying to-day. There is scarcely a passage of its central
doctrine which the modern leaders of the women's movement would
repudiate or qualify; and there is little if anything which they would
wish to add to it. Writers like Olive Schreiner, Miss Cicely Hamilton,
and Mrs. Gilman have, indeed, a background of historical knowledge, an
evolutionary view of society, a sense of the working of economic causes
which Mary Wollstonecraft did not possess and could not in her age have
acquired, even if she had been what she was not, a woman of learning.
But she has anticipated all their main positions, and formulated the
ideal which the modern movement is struggling to complete. Her book is
dated in every chapter. It is as much a page torn from the journals of
the French Revolution as Paine's _Rights of Man_ or Condorcet's
_Sketch_. And yet it seems, as they do not, a modern book.

The chief merit of the _Vindication_ is its clear perception that
everything in the future of women depends on the revision of the
attitude of men towards women and of women towards themselves. The rare
men who saw this, from Holbach and Condorcet to Mill, were philosophers.
Mary Wollstonecraft had no pretensions to philosophy. A brilliant
courage gave her in its stead her range and breadth of vision. It would
have been so much easier to write a treatise on education, a plea for
the reform of marriage, or even an argument for the admission of women
to political rights. To the last of these themes she alludes only in a
single sentence: "I may excite laughter, by dropping a hint, which I
mean to pursue, some future time, for I really think that women ought
to have representatives, instead of being arbitrarily governed without
having any direct share allowed them in the deliberations of
government." She had the insight to perceive that the first task of the
pioneer was to raise the whole broad issue of the subjection of her sex.
She begins by linking her argument with a splendid imprudence to the
revolutionary movement. It had proclaimed the supremacy of reason, and
based freedom on natural right. Why was it that the new Constitution
ignored women? With a fresh simplicity, she appeals to the French
Convention in the name of its own abstract principles, as modern women
appeal (with more experience of the limitations of male logic) to
English Liberalism. But she knew very well what was the enormous
despotism of interest and prejudice that she was attacking. The
sensualist and the tyrant were for her interchangeable terms, and with
great skill she enlists on her side the new passion for liberty. "All
tyrants want to crush reason, from the weak king to the weak father."
She demands the enlightenment of women, as the reformers demanded that
of the masses: "Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there
will be an end to blind obedience; but as blind obedience is ever
sought for by power, tyrants and sensualists are in the right when they
endeavour to keep women in the dark, because the former only want
slaves, and the latter a plaything."

With a shrewd if instinctive insight into social psychology, she traces
to the unenlightened self-interest of the dominant sex the code of
morals which has been imposed upon women. Rousseau supplies her with the
perfect and finished statement of all that she opposed. He and his like
had given a sex to virtue. She takes her stand on a broad human
morality. "Freedom must strengthen the reason of woman until she
comprehend her duty." Against the perverted sex-morality which treated
woman in religion, in ethics, in manners as a being relative only to
men, she directs the whole of her argument. It is "vain to expect virtue
from women, till they are in some degree independent of men."

"Females have been insulated, as it were, and while they have been
stripped of the virtue that should clothe humanity, they have been
decked with artificial graces that enable them to exercise a short-lived
tyranny.... Their sole ambition is to be fair, to raise emotion instead
of inspiring respect; and this ignoble desire, like the servility in
absolute monarchies, destroys all strength of character. Liberty is the
mother of virtue, and if women be, by their very constitution, slaves,
and not allowed to breathe the sharp invigorating air of freedom, they
must ever languish like exotics, and be reckoned beautiful flaws in
nature.... Women, I allow, may have different duties to fulfil; but they
are human duties.... If marriage be the cement of society, mankind
should all be educated after the same model, or the intercourse of the
sexes will never deserve the name of fellowship, nor will women ever
fulfil the peculiar duties of their sex, till they become enlightened
citizens, till they become free by being enabled to earn their own
subsistence, independent of men; in the same manner, I mean, to prevent
misconstruction, as one man is independent of another. Nay, marriage
will never be held sacred till women, by being brought up with men, are
prepared to be their companions rather than their mistresses."

It is a brave but singularly balanced view of human life and society.
There is in it no trace of the dogmatic individualism that distorts the
speculations of Godwin and clogs the more practical thinking of Paine.
It is, indeed, a protest against the exaggeration of sex, which
instilled in women "the desire of being always women." It flouts that
external morality of reputation, which would have a woman always "seem
to be this and that," because her whole status in the world depended on
the opinion which men held of her. It demands in words which anticipate
Ibsen's _Doll's House_, that a woman shall be herself and lead her own
life. But "her own life" was for Mary Wollstonecraft a social life. The
ideal is the perfect companionship of men and women, and the preparation
of men and women, by an equal practice of modesty and chastity, and an
equal advance in education, to be the parents of their children. She is
ready indeed to rest her whole case for the education of women upon the
duties of maternity. "Whatever tends to incapacitate the maternal
character takes woman out of her sphere." The education which she
demanded was the co-education of men and women in common schools. She
attacked the dual standard of sexual morality with a brave plainness of
speech. She demanded the opening of suitable trades and professions to
women. She exposed the whole system which compels women to "live by
their charm." But a less destructive reformer never set out to
overthrow conventions. For her the duty always underlies the right, and
the development of the self-reliant individual is a preparation for the
life of fellowship.



CHAPTER VIII

SHELLEY


If it were possible to blot out from our mind its memory of the Bible
and of Protestant theology, and with that mind of artificial vacancy to
read _Paradise Lost_ and _Samson Agonistes_, how strange and great and
mad would the genius of Milton appear. We should wonder at his creative
mythological imagination, but we should marvel past all comprehending at
his conceptions of the divine order, and the destiny of man. To attempt
to understand Shelley without the aid of Godwin is a task hardly more
promising than it would be to read Milton without the Bible.

The parallel is so close that one is tempted to pursue it further, for
there is between these two poets a close sympathy amid glaring
contrasts. Each admitted in spite of his passion for an ideal world an
absorbing concern in human affairs, and a vehement interest in the
contemporary struggle for liberty. If the one was a Republican Puritan
and the other an anarchical atheist, the dress which their passion for
liberty assumed was the uniform of the day. Neither was an original
thinker. Each steeped himself in the classics. But more important even
than the classics in the influences which moulded their minds, were the
dogmatic systems to which they attached themselves. It is not the power
of novel and pioneer thought which distinguishes a philosophical from a
purely sensuous mind. Shelley no more innovated or created in
metaphysics or politics than did Milton. But each had, with his gift of
imagery, and his power of musical speech, an intellectual view of the
universe. The name of Milton suggests to us eloquent rhythms and images
which pose like Grecian sculpture. But Milton's world was the world as
the grave, gowned men saw it who composed the Westminster Confession.
The name of Shelley rings like the dying fall of a song, or floats
before our eyes amid the faery shapes of wind-tossed clouds. But
Shelley's world was the world of the utilitarian Godwin and the
mathematical Condorcet. The supremacy of an intellectual vision is not a
common characteristic among poets, but it raises Milton and Shelley to
the choir in which Dante and Goethe are leaders. For Keats beauty was
truth, and that was all he cared to know. Coleridge, indeed, was a
metaphysician of some pretensions, but the "honey dew" on which he fed
when he wrote _Christabel_ and _Kubla Khan_ was not the _Critique of
Pure Reason_. But to Shelley _Political Justice_ was the veritable "milk
of paradise." We must drink of it ourselves if we would share his
banquet. Godwin in short explains Shelley, and it is equally true that
Shelley is the indispensable commentary to Godwin. For all that was
living and human in the philosopher he finds imaginative expression. His
mind was a selective soil, in which only good seed could germinate. The
flowers wear the colour of life and emotion. In the clear light of his
verse, gleaming in their passionate hues, they display for us their
values. Some of them, the bees of a working hive will consent to
fertilise; from others they will turn decidedly away. Shelley is
Godwin's fertile garden. From another standpoint he is the desert which
Godwin laid waste.

It is, indeed, the commonplace of criticism to insist on the reality
which the ideal world possessed for Shelley. Other poets have
illustrated thought by sensuous imagery. To Shelley, thought alone was
the essential thing. A good impulse, a dream, an idea, were for him
what a Centaur or a Pegasus were for common fancy. He sees in
_Prometheus Unbound_ a spirit who

        Speeded hither on the sigh
  Of one who gave an enemy
  His plank, then plunged aside to die.

Another spirit rides on a sage's "dream with plumes of flame"; and a
third tells how a poet

        Will watch from dawn to gloom
  The lake-reflected sun illume,
  The yellow bees in the ivy-bloom,
  Nor heed, nor see, what things they be;
  But from these create he can
  Forms more real than living man,
  Nurslings of immortality.

How naturally from Shelley's imagination flowed the lines about Keats:--

  All he had loved and moulded into thought
  From shape and hue and odour and sweet sound
  Lamented Adonais.


This was no rhetoric, no affectation of fancy. Shelley saw the immortal
shapes of "Desires and Adorations" lamenting over the bier of the mortal
Keats, because for him an idea or a passion was incomparably more real
and more comprehensible than the things of flesh and earth, of whose
existence the senses persuade us. To such a mind philosophy was not a
distant world to be entered with diffident and halting feet, ever ready
to retreat at the first alarm of commonsense. It was his daily
habitation. He lived in it, and guided himself by its intellectual
compass among the perils and wonders of life, as naturally as other men
feel their way by touch. This ardent, sensitive, emotional nature, with
all its gift of lyrical speech and passionate feeling, was in fact the
ideal man of the Godwinian conception, who lives by reason and obeys
principles. Three men in modern times have achieved a certain fame by
their rigid obedience to "rational" conceptions of conduct--Thomas Day,
who wrote _Sandford and Merton_, Bentham, and Herbert Spencer. But the
erratic, fanciful Shelley was as much the enthusiastic slave of reason,
as any of these three; and he seemed erratic only because to be
perfectly rational is in this world the wildest form of eccentricity. He
came upon _Political Justice_ while he was still a school-boy at Eton;
and his diaries show that there hardly passed a year of his life in
which he omitted to re-read it. Its phraseology colours his prose; his
mind was built upon it, as Milton's was upon the Bible. We hardly
require his own confession to assure us of the debt. "The name of
Godwin," he wrote in 1812, "has been used to excite in me feelings of
reverence and admiration. I have been accustomed to consider him a
luminary too dazzling for the darkness which surrounds him. From the
earliest period of my knowledge of his principles, I have ardently
desired to share on the footing of intimacy that intellect which I have
delighted to contemplate in its emanations. Considering then, these
feelings, you will not be surprised at the inconceivable emotions with
which I learnt your existence and your dwelling. I had enrolled your
name in the list of the honourable dead. I had felt regret that the
glory of your being had passed from this earth of ours. It is not so.
You still live, and I firmly believe are still planning the welfare of
human kind."

The enthusiastic youth was to learn that his master's preoccupation was
with concerns more sordid and more pressing than the welfare of human
kind; but if close personal intercourse brought some disillusionment
regarding Godwin's private character, it only deepened his intellectual
influence, and confirmed Shelley's lifelong adhesion to his system. No
contemporary thinker ever contested Godwin's empire over Shelley's
mind; and if in later years Plato claimed an ever-growing share in his
thoughts, we must remember that in several of his fundamental tenets
Godwin was a Platonist without knowing it. It is only in his purely
personal utterances, in the lyrics which rendered a mood or an
impression, or in such fancies as the _Witch of Atlas_, that Shelley can
escape from the obsession of _Political Justice_. The voice of Godwin
does not disturb us in _The Skylark_, and it is silenced by the violent
passions of _The Cenci_. But in all the more formal and graver
utterances of Shelley's genius, from _Queen Mab_ to _Hellas_, it
supplies the theme and Shelley writes the variations. _Queen Mab_,
indeed, is nothing but a fervent lad's attempt to state in verse the
burden of Godwin's prose. Some passages in it (notably the lines about
commerce) are a mere paraphrase or summary of pages from _The Enquirer_
or _Political Justice_. In the _Revolt of Islam_, and still more in
_Prometheus Unbound_, Shelley's imagination is becoming its own master.
The variations are more important, more subtle, more beautiful than the
theme; but still the theme is there, a precise and definite dogma for
fancy to embroider. It is only in _Hellas_ that Shelley's power of
narrative (in Hassan's story), his irrepressible lyrical gift, and his
passion which at length could speak in its own idiom, combine to make a
masterpiece which owes to Godwin only some general ideas. If the
transcript became less literal, it was not that the influence had waned.
It was rather that Shelley was gaining the full mastery of his own
native powers of expression. In these poems he assumes or preaches all
Godwin's characteristic doctrines, perfectibility, non-resistance,
anarchism, communism, the power of reason and the superiority of
persuasion over force, universal benevolence, and the ascription of
moral evil to the desolating influence of "positive institution."

The general agreement is so obvious that one need hardly illustrate it.
What is more curious is the habit which Shelley acquired of reproducing
even the minor opinions or illustrations which had struck him in his
continual reading of Godwin. When Mammon advises Swellfoot the Tyrant to
refresh himself with

  A simple kickshaw by your Persian cook
  Such as is served at the Great King's second table.
  The price and pains which its ingredients cost
  Might have maintained some dozen families
  A winter or two--not more.

he is simply making an ironical paraphrase from Godwin. The fine scene
in Canto XI. of the _Revolt of Islam_, in which Laon, confronting the
tyrant on his throne, quells by a look and a word a henchman who was
about to stab him, is a too brief rendering of Godwin's reflections on
the story of Marius and the Executioner (see p. 128).

     And one more daring, raised his steel anew
  To pierce the stranger: "What hast thou to do
  With me, poor wretch?"--calm, solemn and severe
  That voice unstrung his sinews, and he threw
  His dagger on the ground, and pale with fear,
  Sate silently.


The pages of Shelley are littered with such reminiscences.

Matthew Arnold said of Shelley that he was "a beautiful and ineffectual
angel beating in the void his luminous wings in vain." One is tempted to
retort that to be beautiful is in itself to escape futility, and to
people a void with angels is to be far from ineffectual. But the
metaphor is more striking as phrase-making than as criticism. The world
into which the angel fell, wide-eyed, indignant, and surprised, was not
a void. It was a nightmare composed of all the things which to common
mortals are usual, normal, inevitable--oppressions and wars, follies and
crimes, kings and priests, hangmen and inquisitors, poverty and luxury.
If he beat his wings in this cage of horrors, it was with the rage and
terror of a bird which belongs to the free air. Shelley, Matthew Arnold
held, was not quite sane. Sanity is a capacity for becoming accustomed
to the monstrous. Not time nor grey hairs could bring that kind of
sanity to Shelley's clear-sighted madness. If he must be compared to an
angel, Mr. Wells has drawn him for us. He was the angel whom a country
clergyman shot in mistake for a buzzard, in that graceful satire, _The
Wonderful Visit_. Brought to earth by this mischance, he saw our follies
and our crimes without the dulling influence of custom. Satirists have
loved to imagine such a being. Voltaire drew him with as much wit as
insight in _L'Ingénu_--the American savage who landed in France, and
made the amazing discovery of civilisation. Shelley had not dropped from
the clouds nor voyaged from the backwoods, but he seems always to be
discovering civilisation with a fresh wonder and an insatiable
indignation.

One may doubt whether a saint has ever lived more selfless, more devoted
to the beauty of virtue; but one quality Shelley lacked which is
commonly counted a virtue. He had none of that imaginative sympathy
which can make its own the motives and desires of other men.
Self-interest, intolerance and greed he understood as little as common
men understand heroism and devotion. He had no mean powers of
observation. He saw the world as it was, and perhaps he rather
exaggerated than minimised its ugliness. But it never struck him that
its follies and crimes were human failings and the outcome of anything
that is natural in the species. The doctrines of perfectibility and
universal benevolence clothed themselves for him in the Godwinian
phraseology, but they were the instinctive beliefs of his temperament.
So sure was he of his own goodness, so natural was it with him to love
and to be brave, that he unhesitatingly ascribed all the evil of the
world to the working of some force which was unnatural, accidental,
anti-human. If he had grown up a mediæval Christian, he would have found
no difficulty in blaming the Devil. The belief was in his heart; the
formula was Godwin's. For the wonder, the miracle of all this unnatural,
incomprehensible evil in the world, he found a complete explanation in
the doctrine that "positive institutions" have poisoned and distorted
the natural good in man. After a gloomy picture in _Queen Mab_ of all
the oppressions which are done under the sun, he suddenly breaks away to
absolve nature:

               Nature!--No!
  Kings, priests and statesmen blast the human flower
  Even in its tender bud; their influence darts
  Like subtle poison through the bloodless veins
  Of desolate society....
  Let priest-led slaves cease to proclaim that man
  Inherits vice and misery, when force
  And falsehood hang even o'er the cradled babe
  Stifling with rudest grasp all natural good.


It is a stimulating doctrine, for if humanity had only to rid itself of
kings and priests, the journey to perfection would be at once brief and
eventful. As a sociological theory it is unluckily unsatisfying. There
is, after all, nothing more natural than a king. He is a zoological
fact, with his parallel in every herd of prairie dogs. Nor is there
anything much more human than the tendency to convention which gives to
institutions their rigidity. If force and imposture have had a share in
the making of kings and priests, it is equally true that they are the
creation of the servility and superstition of the mass of men. The
eighteenth century chose to forget that man is a gregarious animal.
Oppression and priestcraft are the transitory forms in which the flock
has sought to cement its union. But the modern world is steeped in the
lore of anthropology; there is little need to bring its heavy guns to
bear upon the slender fabric of Shelley's dream. _Queen Mab_ was a
boy's precocious effort, and in later verses Shelley put the case for
his view of evil in a more persuasive form. He is now less concerned to
declare that it is unnatural, than to insist that it flows from defects
in men which are not inherent or irremovable. The view is stated with
pessimistic malice by a Fury in _Prometheus Unbound_ after a vision of
slaughter.

  FURY.

  Blood thou can'st see, and fire; and can'st hear groans.
  Worse things unheard, unseen, remain behind.


  PROMETHEUS.

  Worse?


  FURY.

         In each human heart terror survives
  The ravin it has gorged: the loftiest fear,
  All that they would disdain to think were true:
  Hypocrisy and custom make their minds
  The fanes of many a worship, now outworn.
  They dare not devise good for man's estate,
  And yet they know not that they do not dare.
  The good want power, but to weep barren tears.
  The powerful goodness want--worse need for them.
  The wise want love; and those who love want wisdom.
  And all best things are thus confused to ill.
  Many are strong and rich, and would be just,
  But live among their suffering fellow-men
  As if none felt; they know not what they do.


Shelley so separated the good and evil in the world, that he was
presently vexed as acutely as any theist with the problem of accounting
for evil. Paine felt no difficulty in his sharp, positive mind. He
traced all the wrongs of society to the egoism of priests and kings;
and, since he did not assume the fundamental goodness of human nature,
it troubled none of his theories to accept the crude primitive fact of
self-interest. What Shelley would really have said in answer to a
question about the origin of evil, if we had found him in a prosaic
mood, it is hard to guess, and the speculation does not interest us.
Shelley's prose opinions were of no importance. What we do trace in his
poetry is a tendency, half conscious, uttering itself only in figures
and parables, to read the riddle of the universe as a struggle between
two hostile principles. In the world of prose he called himself an
atheist. He rejoiced in the name, and used it primarily as a challenge
to intolerance. "It is a good word of abuse to stop discussion," he said
once to his friend Trelawny, "a painted devil to frighten the foolish, a
threat to intimidate the wise and good. I used it to express my
abhorrence of superstition. I took up the word as a knight takes up a
gauntlet in defiance of injustice."

Shelley was an atheist because Christians used the name of God to
sanctify persecution. That was really his ultimate emotional reason. His
mythology, when he came to paint the world in myths, was Manichean. His
creed was an ardent dualism, in which a God and an anti-God contend and
make history. But in his mood of revolt it suited him to confuse the
names and the symbols. The snake is everywhere in his poems the
incarnation of good, and if we ask why, there is probably no other
reason than that the Hebrew mythology against which he revolted, had
taken it as the symbol of evil. The legitimate Gods in his Pantheon are
always in the wrong. He belongs to the cosmic party of opposition, and
the Jupiter of his _Prometheus_ is morally a temporarily omnipotent
devil. Like Godwin he felt that the God of orthodoxy was a "tyrant," and
he revolted against Him, because he condemned the world which He had
made.

The whole point of view, as it concerns Christian theology, is stated
with a bitter clearness, in the speech of Ahasuerus in _Queen Mab_. The
first Canto of the _Revolt of Islam_ puts the position of dualism
without reserve:

  Know, then, that from the depths of ages old
  Two Powers o'er mortal things dominion hold,
  Ruling the world with a divided lot,
  Immortal, all-pervading, manifold,
  Twin Genii, equal Gods--when life and thought
  Sprang forth, they burst the womb of inessential Nought.

The good principle was the Morning Star (as though to remind us of
Lucifer) until his enemy changed him to the form of a snake. The
anti-God, whom men worship blindly as God, holds sway over our world.
Terror, madness, crime, and pain are his creation, and Asia in
_Prometheus_ cries aloud--

    Utter his name: a world pining in pain
  Asks but his name: curses shall drag him down.


In the sublime mythology of _Prometheus_ the war of God and anti-God is
seen visibly, making the horrors of history. As Jupiter's Furies rend
the heart of the merciful Titan chained to his rock on Caucasus, murders
and crucifixions are enacted in the world below. The mythical cruelties
in the clouds are the shadows of man's sufferings below; and they are
also the cause. A mystical parallelism links the drama in Heaven with
the tragedy on earth; we suffer from the malignity of the World's Ruler,
and triumph by the endurance of Man's Saviour.

Nothing could be more absurd than to call Shelley a Pantheist. Pantheism
is the creed of conservatism and resignation. Shelley felt the world as
struggle and revolt, and like all the poets, he used Heaven as the vast
canvas on which to paint with a demonic brush an heroic idealisation of
what he saw below. It would be interesting to know whether any human
heart, however stout and rebellious, when once it saw the cosmic process
as struggle, has ever been able to think of the issue as uncertain.
Certainly for Shelley there was never a doubt about the final triumph of
good. Godwin qualified his agnosticism by supposing that there was a
tendency in things (he would not call it spiritual, or endow it with
mind) which somehow cooperates with us and assures the victory of life
(see p. 184). One seems to meet this vague principle, this reverend
Thing, in Shelley's Demogorgon, the shapeless, awful negation which
overthrows the maleficent Jupiter, and with his fall inaugurates the
golden age. The strange name of Demogorgon has probably its origin in
the clerical error of some mediæval copyist, fumbling with the scholia
of an anonymous grammarian. One can conceive that it appealed to
Shelley's wayward fancy because it suggested none of the traditional
theologies; and certainly it has a mysterious and venerable sound.
Shelley can describe It only as Godwin describes his principle by a
series of negatives.

        I see a mighty darkness
  Filling the seat of power, and rays of gloom
  Dart round, as light from the meridian sun,
  Ungazed upon and shapeless; neither limb,
  Nor form, nor outline; yet we feel it is
  A living spirit.


It is the eternal =X= which the human spirit always assumes when it is at
a loss to balance its equations. Demogorgon is, because if It were not,
our strivings would be a battle in the mist, with no clear trumpet-note
that promised triumph. Shelley, turning amid his singing to the
supremest of all creative work, the making of a mythology, invents his
God very much as those detested impostors, the primitive priests, had
done. He gives Humanity a friendly Power as they had endowed their tribe
with a god of battles. Humanity at grips with chaos is curiously like a
nigger clan in the bush. It needs a fetish of victory. But a poet's
mythology is to be judged by its fruits. A faith is worth the cathedral
it builds. A myth is worth the poem it inspires.

If Shelley's ultimate view of reality is vague, a thing to be shadowed
in myths and hinted in symbols, there is nothing indefinite in his view
of the destinies of mankind. Here he marched behind Godwin, and Godwin
hated vagueness. His intellect had assimilated all the steps in the
argument for perfectibility. It emerges in places in its most dogmatic
form. Institutions make us what we are, and to free us from their
shackles is to liberate virtue and unleash genius. He pauses midway in
the preface to _Prometheus_ to assure us that, if England were divided
into forty republics, each would produce philosophers and poets as great
and numerous as those of Athens. The road to perfection, however, is not
through revolution, but by the gradual extirpation of error. When he
writes in prose, he expresses himself with all the rather affected
intellectualism of the Godwinian psychology. "Revenge and retaliation,"
he remarks in the preface to _The Cenci_ "are pernicious _mistakes_."
But temperament counts for something even in a disciple so devout as
Shelley. He had an intellectual view of the world; but, when once the
rhythm of his musical verse had excited his mind to be itself, the force
and simplicity of his emotion transfuse and transform these
abstractions. Godwin's "universal benevolence" was with him an ardent
affectionate love for his kind. Godwin's cold precept that it was the
duty of an illuminated understanding to contribute towards the progress
of enquiry, by arguing about perfection and the powers of the mind in
select circles of friends who meet for debate, but never (virtue
forbids) for action, became for him a zealous missionary call.

One smiles, with his irreverent yet admiring biographers, at the early
escapades of the married boy--the visit to Dublin at the height of the
agitation for Catholic emancipation, the printing of his Address to the
Irish Nation, and his trick of scattering it by flinging copies from his
balcony at passers-by, his quaint attempts to persuade grave Catholic
noblemen that what they ought really to desire was a total and rapid
transformation of the whole fabric of society, his efforts to found an
association for the moral regeneration of mankind, and his elfish
amusement of launching the truth upon the waters in the form of
pamphlets sealed up in bottles. Shelley at this age perpetrated "rags"
upon the universe, much as commonplace youths make hay of their fellows'
rooms. It is amusing to read the solemn letters in which Godwin,
complacently accepting the post of mentor, tells Shelley that he is
much too young to reform the world, urges him to acquire a vicarious
maturity by reading history, and refers him to _Political Justice
passim_ for the arguments which demonstrate the error of any attempt to
improve mankind by forming political associations.

It is questionable how far the world has to thank Godwin for dissuading
ardent young men from any practical effort to realise their ideals. It
is just conceivable that, if the generation which hailed him as prophet
had been stimulated by him to do something more than fold its hands in
an almost superstitious veneration for the Slow Approach of Truth, there
might have arisen under educated leaders some movement less class-bound
than Whig Reform, less limited than the Corn Law agitation, and more
intelligent than Chartism. But, if politics lost by Godwin's quietism,
literature gained. It was Godwin's mission in life to save poets from
Botany Bay; he rescued Shelley, as he had rescued Southey and Coleridge.
It was by scattering his pity and his sympathy on every living creature
around him, and squandering his fortune and his expectations in charity,
while he dodged the duns and lived on bread and tea, that Shelley
followed in action the principles of universal benevolence. Godwin
omitted the beasts; but Shelley, practising vegetarianism and buying
crayfish in order to return them to the river, realised the "boast" of
the poet in _Alastor_:--

  If no bright bird, insect, or gentle beast
  I consciously have injured, but still loved
  And cherished these my kindred--


We hear of his gifts of blankets to the poor lace-makers at Marlow, and
meet him stumbling home barefoot in mid-winter because he had given his
boots to a poor woman.

Perhaps the most characteristic picture of this aspect of Shelley is
Leigh Hunt's anecdote of a scene on Hampstead Heath. Finding a poor
woman in a fit on the top of the Heath, Shelley carries her in his arms
to the lighted door of the nearest house, and begs for shelter. The
householder slams it in his face, with an "impostors swarm everywhere,"
and a "Sir, your conduct is extraordinary."

"Sir," cried Shelley, "I am sorry to say that _your_ conduct is not
extraordinary.... It is such men as you who madden the spirits and the
patience of the poor and wretched; and if ever a convulsion comes in
this country (which is very probable), recollect what I tell you. You
will have your house, that you refuse to put this miserable woman into,
burnt over your head."

It must have been about this very time that the law of England (quite
content to regard the owner of the closed door as a virtuous citizen)
decided that the Shelley who carried this poor stranger into shelter,
fetched a doctor, and out of his own poverty relieved her direr need,
was unfit to bring up his own children.

If Shelley allowed himself to be persuaded by Godwin to abandon his
missionary adventures, he pursued the ideal in his poems. Whether by
Platonic influence, or by the instinct of his own temperament, he moves
half-consciously from the Godwinian notion that mankind are to be
reasoned into perfection. The contemplation of beauty is with him the
first stage in the progress towards reasoned virtue. "My purpose," he
writes in the preface to _Prometheus_, "has been ... to familiarise ...
poetical readers with beautiful idealisms of moral excellence; aware
that, until the mind can love, and admire, and trust, and hope, and
endure, reasoned principles of moral conduct are seeds cast upon the
highway of life, which the unconscious passenger tramples into dust,
although they would bear the harvest of his happiness." It was for want
of virtue, as Mary Wollstonecraft reflected, writing sadly after the
Terror, that the French Revolution had failed. The lesson of all the
horrors of oppression and reaction which Shelley described, the comfort
of all the listening spirits who watch from their mental eyries the slow
progress of mankind to perfection, the example of martyred
patriots--these tend always to the moral which Demogorgon sums up at the
end of the unflagging, unearthly beauties of the last triumphant act of
_Prometheus Unbound_:

  To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
  To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
  To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
  To love and bear; to hope till Hope creates
  From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
  Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
  This like thy glory, Titan! is to be
  Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
  This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.


To suffer, to forgive, to love, but above all, to defy--that was for
Shelley the whole duty of man.

In two peculiarities, which he constantly emphasised, Shelley's view of
progress differed at once from Godwin's conception, and from the notion
of a slow evolutionary growth which the men of to-day consider
historical he traced the impulse which is to lead mankind to perfection,
to the magnetic leading of chosen and consecrated spirits. He saw the
process of change not as a slow evolution (as moderns do), nor yet as
the deliberate discarding of error at the bidding of rational argument
(as Godwin did), but rather as a sudden emotional conversion. The
missionary is always the light-bringer. "Some eminent in virtue shall
start up," he prophesies in _Queen Mab_. The _Revolt of Islam_, so
puzzling to the uninitiated reader by the wilful inversions of its
mythology, and its history which seems to belong to no conceivable race
of men, becomes, when one grasps its underlying ideas, a luminous epic
of revolutionary faith, precious if only because it is told in that
elaborately musical Spenserian stanza which no poet before or after
Shelley has handled with such easy mastery. Their mission to free their
countrymen comes to Laon and Cythna while they are still children,
brooding over the slavery of modern Greece amid the ruins of a free
past. They dream neither of teaching nor of fighting. They are the
winged children of Justice and Truth, whose mere words can scatter the
thrones of the oppressor, and trample the last altar in the dust. It is
enough to speak the name of Liberty in a ship at sea, and all the coasts
around it will thrill with the rumour of her name. In one moving,
eloquent harangue, Cythna converts the sailors of the ship, laden with
slaves and the gains of commerce, into the pioneers of her army. She
paints to them the misery of their own lot, and then appeals to the
central article of revolutionary faith:

  This need not be; ye might arise and will
  That gold should lose its power and thrones their glory.
  That love which none may bind be free to fill
  The world like light; and evil faith, grown hoary
  With crime, be quenched and die.


"Ye might arise and will"--it was the inevitable corollary of the facile
analysis which traced all the woes of mankind not to "nature," but to
kings, priests, and institutions. Shelley's missionaries of liberty
preach to a nation of slaves, as the apostles of the Salvation Army
preach in the slums to creatures reared in degradation, the same
mesmeric appeal. Conversion is a psychological possibility, and the
history of revolutions teaches its limitations and its power as
instructively as the history of religion. It breaks down not because men
are incapable of the sudden effort that can "arise and will," but
rather because to render its effects permanent, it must proceed to
regiment the converts in organised associations, which speedily develop
all the evils that have ruined the despotism it set out to overthrow.

The interest of this revolutionary epic lies largely in the marriage of
Godwin's ideas with Mary Wollstonecraft's, which in the second
generation bears its full imaginative fruit. The most eloquent verses
are those which describe Cythna's leadership of the women in the
national revolt, and enforce the theme "Can man be free, if woman be a
slave?" Not less characteristic is the Godwinian abhorrence of violence,
and the Godwinian trust in the magic of courageous passivity. Laon finds
the revolutionary hosts about to slaughter their vanquished oppressors,
and persuades them to mercy and fraternity with the appeal.

  O wherefore should ill ever flow from ill
  And pain still keener pain for ever breed.


He pardons and spares the tyrant himself; and Cythna shames the slaves
who are sent to bind her, until they weep in a sudden perception of the
beauty of virtue and courage. When the reaction breaks at length upon
the victorious liberators, they stand passive to be hewn down, as
Shelley, in the _Masque of Anarchy_, written after Peterloo, advised
the English reformers to do.

  With folded arms and steady eyes,
  And little fear and less surprise,
  Look upon them as they slay,
  Till their rage has died away.

  Then they will return with shame
  To the place from which they came,
  And the blood thus shed will speak
  In hot blushes on their cheek.


The simple stanzas might have been written by Blake. There is something
in the primitive Christianity of this aggressive Atheist which breathes
the childlike innocence of the Kingdom of Heaven. Shelley dreamed of "a
nation made free by love." With a strange mystical insight, he stepped
beyond the range of the Godwinian ethics, when he conceived of his
humane missionaries as victims who offer themselves a living sacrifice
for the redemption of mankind. Prometheus chained to his rock, because
he loved and defied, by some inscrutable magic of destiny, brings at
last by his calm endurance the consummation of the Golden Age. Laon
walks voluntarily on to the pile which the Spanish inquisitor had heaped
for him; and Cythna flings herself upon the flames in a last
affirmation of the power of self-sacrifice and the beauty of
comradeship.

Thrice Shelley essayed to paint the state of perfection which mankind
might attain, when once it should "arise and will." The first of the
three pictures is the most literally Godwinian. It is the boyish sketch
of _Queen Mab_, with pantisocracy faithfully touched in, and Godwin's
speculations on the improvement of the human frame suggested in a few
pregnant lines. One does not feel that Shelley's mind is even yet its
own master in the firmer and maturer picture which concludes the third
act of _Prometheus Unbound_. He is still repeating a lesson, and it
calls forth less than the full powers of his imagination. The picture of
perfection itself is cold, negative, and mediocre. The real genius of
the poet breaks forth only when he allows himself in the fourth act to
sing the rapture of the happy spirits who "bear Time to his tomb in
eternity," while they circle in lyrical joy around the liberated earth.
There sings Shelley. The picture itself is a faithful illustration
etched with a skilful needle to adorn the last chapter of _Political
Justice_. Evil is once more and always something factitious and
unessential. The Spirit of the Earth sees the "ugly human shapes and
visages" which men had worn in the old bad days float away through the
air like chaff on the wind. They were no more than masks. Thrones are
kingless, and forthwith men walk in upright equality, neither fawning
nor trembling. Republican sincerity informs their speech:

  None talked that common false cold hollow talk
  Which makes the heart deny the yes it breathes.

Women are "changed to all they dared not be," and "speak the wisdom once
they could not think." "Thrones, altars, judgment-seats and prisons,"
and all the "tomes of reasoned wrong, glozed on by ignorance" cumber the
ground like the unnoticed ruins of a barbaric past.

  The loathsome mask has fallen, the man remains
  Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, but man
  Equal, unclassed, tribeless and nationless
  Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the king
  Over himself; just, gentle, wise: but man
  Passionless.


The story ends there, and if we do not so much as wait for the assurance
that man passionless, tribeless, and nationless lived happily ever
afterwards, it is because we are unable to feel even this faint interest
in his destiny. There is something amiss with an ideal which is
constrained to express itself in negatives. What should be the climax of
a triumphant argument becomes its refutation. To reduce ourselves to
this abstract quintessential man might be euthanasia. It would not be
paradise.

The third of Shelley's visions of perfection is the climax of _Hellas_.
One feels in attempting to make about _Hellas_ any statement in bald
prose, the same sense of baffled incompetence that a modest mind
experiences in attempting to describe music. One reads what the critics
have written about Beethoven's Heroic Symphony, to close the page
wondering that men with ears should have dared to write it. The
insistent rhythm beats in your blood, the absorbing melodies obsess your
brain, and you turn away realising that emotion, when it can find a
channel of sense, has a power which defies the analytic understanding.
_Hellas_, in a sense, is absolute poetry, as the "Eroica" is absolute
music. Ponder a few lines in one of the choruses which seem to convey a
definite idea, and against your will the elaborate rhythms and rhymes
will carry you along, until thought ceases and only the music and the
picture hold your imagination.

And yet Shelley meant something as certainly as Beethoven did. Nowhere
is his genius so realistic, so closely in touch with contemporary fact,
yet nowhere does he soar so easily into his own ideal world. He
conceived it while Mavrocordato, about to start to fight for the
liberation of Greece, was paying daily visits to Shelley's circle at
Pisa. The events in Turkey, now awful, now hopeful, were before him as
crude facts in the newspaper. The historians of classical Greece were
his continual study. As he steeped himself in Plato, a world of ideal
forms opened before him in a timeless heaven as real as history, as
actual as the newspapers. _Hellas_ is the vision of a mind which touches
fact through sense, but makes of sense the gate and avenue into an
immortal world of thought. Past and present and future are fused in one
glowing symphony. The Sultan is no more real than Xerxes, and the golden
consummation glitters with a splendour as dazzling and as present as the
Age of Pericles. For Shelley, this denial of time had become a conscious
doctrine. Berkeley and Plato had become for him in his later years
influences as intimate as Godwin. Again and again in his later poems, he
turns from the cruelties and disappointments of the world, from death
and decay and failure, no longer with revolt and anger, but with a
serene contempt. Thought is the only reality; time with its appearance
of mortality is the dream and the illusion. Says Ahasuerus in _Hellas_:

  The future and the past are idle shadows
  Of thought's eternal flight.

The moral rings out at the end of "The Sensitive Plant" with an almost
conversational simplicity;

  Death itself must be,
  Like all the rest, a mockery.

Most eloquent of all are the familiar lines in _Adonais_:

   'Tis we who lost in stormy visions keep
  With phantoms an unprofitable strife,

and again:

  The One remains, the many change and pass.
  Heaven's light for ever shines, earth's shadows fly;
  Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
  Stains the white radiance of eternity.


In all the musical and visionary glory of _Hellas_ we seem to hear a
subtle dialogue. It never reaches a conclusion. It never issues in a
dogma. The oracle is dumb, and the end of it all is rather like a
prayer. At one moment Shelley toys with the dreary sublimity of the
Stoic notion of world-cycles. The world in the Stoic cosmogony followed
its destined course, until at last the elemental fire consumed it in the
secular blaze, which became for mediæval Christianity the _Dies irae_.
And then once more it rose from the conflagration to repeat its own
history again, and yet again, and for ever with an ineluctable fidelity.
That nightmare haunts Shelley in _Hellas_:

  Worlds on worlds are rolling ever
    From creation to decay,
  Like the bubbles on a river,
    Sparkling, bursting, borne away.

The thought returns to him in the final chorus like the "motto" of a
symphony; and he sings it in a triumphant major key:

  The world's great age begins anew,
    The golden years return,
  The earth doth like a snake renew
    Her winter weeds outworn.
  Heaven smiles, and faiths and empires gleam
  Like wrecks of a dissolving dream.


He is filled with the afflatus of prophecy, and there flow from his
lips, as if in improvisation, surely the most limpid, the most
spontaneous stanzas in our language:

  A brighter Hellas rears its mountains
  From waves serener far.

He sings happily and, as it were, incautiously of Tempe and Argo, of
Orpheus and Ulysses, and then the jarring note of fear is heard:

  O write no more the tale of Troy
    If earth Death's scroll must be,
  Nor mix with Laian rage the joy
    Which dawns upon the free.


He has turned from the empty abstraction of the Godwinian vision of
perfection. He dissolves empires and faiths, it is true. But his
imagination calls for action and movement. The New Philosophy had driven
history out of the picture. This lyrical vision restores it, whole,
complete, and literal. The wealth of the concrete takes its revenge upon
the victim of abstraction. The men of his golden age are no longer
tribeless and nationless. They are Greeks. He has peopled his future;
but, as the picture hardens into detail, he seems to shrink from it.
That other earlier theme of his symphony recurs. His chorus had sung:

  Revenge and wrong bring forth their kind.
    The foul cubs like their parents are,
  Their den is in their guilty mind,
    And conscience feeds them with despair.

Some end there must be to the _perpetuum mobile_ of wrong and revenge.
And yet it seems to be in human affairs the very principle of motion.
He ends with a cry and a prayer, and a clouded vision. The infinity of
evil must be stayed, but what if its cessation means extinction?

  O cease! must hate and death return?
    Cease! must men kill and die?
  Cease! Drain not to its dregs the urn
    Of bitter prophecy.
  The world is weary of the past
  O might it die, or rest at last.


Never were there simpler verses in a great song. But he were a bold man
who would pretend to know quite certainly what they mean. Shelley is not
sure whether his vision of perfection will be embodied in the earth. For
a moment he seems to hope that Greece will renew her glories. For one
fleeting instant--how ironical the vision seems to us--he conceives that
she may be re-incarnated in America. But there is a deeper doubt than
this in the prophet's mind. He is not sure that he wants to see the
Golden Age founded anew in the perilous world of fact. There is a
pattern of the perfect society laid up in Heaven, or if that phrase by
familiarity has lost its meaning, let us say rather that the Republic
exists firmly founded in the human mind itself:

  But Greece and her foundations are
  Built below the tide of war,
  Based on the crystalline sea
  Of thought and its eternity.

Again, and yet again, he tells us that the heavenly city, the New
Athens, "the kingless continents, sinless as Eden" shine in no common
day, beside no earthly sea:

         If Greece must be
  A wreck, yet shall its fragments reassemble,
  And build themselves impregnably
        In a diviner clime,
  To Amphionic music on some cape sublime
  Which frowns above the idle foam of Time.

Is it only an eloquent phrase, which satisfies us, by its beautiful
words, we know not why, as the chords that make the "full close" in
music content us? Or shall we re-interpret it in our own prose? Where
any mind strives after justice, where any soul suffers and loves and
defies, there is the ideal Republic.

       *       *       *       *       *

We have moved from Dr. Price's sermon to Shelley's chorus. The eloquent
old man, preaching in the first flush of hope that came with the new
time, conceived that his eyes had seen the great salvation. The day of
tyrants and priests was already over, and before the earth closed on his
grave, a free Europe would be linked in a confederacy that had abolished
war. A generation passed, and the winged victory is now a struggling
hope, her pinions singed with the heat of battle, her song mingled with
the rumour of massacre, speeding, a fugitive from fact, to the diviner
climes of an ideal world. The logic of the revolution has worked to its
predestined conclusion. It dreamed too eagerly of the end. It thought in
indictments. It packed the present on its tumbrils, and cleared away the
past with its dialectical guillotine. When the present was condemned and
the past buried, the future had somehow eluded it. It executed the
mother, and marvelled that the child should die.

The human mind can never be satisfied with the mere assurance that
sooner or later the golden years will come. The mere lapse of time is in
itself intolerable. If our waking life and our years of action are to
regain a meaning, we must perceive that the process of evolution is
itself significant and interesting. We are to-day so penetrated with
that thought, that the notion of a state of perfection in the future
seems to us as inconceivable and as little interesting as Rousseau's
myth of a state of innocence in the past. We know very well that our
ideal, whether we see it in the colours of Plato or Godwin or William
Morris, does but measure the present development of our faculties. Long
before the dream is realised in fact, a new horizon will have been
unfolded before the imagination of mankind.

What is of value in this endless process is precisely the unfolding of
ideals which record themselves, however imperfectly, in institutions,
and still more the developing sense of comradeship and sympathy which
links us in relations of justice and love with every creature that
feels. We are old enough to pass lightly over the enthusiastic paradoxes
that intoxicated the youth of the progressive idea. It is a truth that
outworn institutions fetter and dwarf the mind of man. It is also a
truth that institutions have moulded and formed that mind. To condemn
the past is in the same breath to blast the future. The true basis for
that piety towards our venerable inheritance which Burke preached, is
that it has made for us the possibility of advance.

But our strivings would be languid, our march would be slow, were it not
for the revolutionary leaven which Godwin's generation set fermenting.
They taught how malleable and plastic is the human mind. They saw that
by a resolute effort to change the environment of institutions and
customs which educate us, we can change ourselves. They liberated us not
so much from "priests and kings" as from the deadlier tyranny of the
belief that human nature, with all its imperfections, is an innate
character which it were vain to hope to reform. Their teaching is a
tonic to the will, a reminder still eloquent, still bracing, that among
the forces which make history the chief is the persuasion of the
understanding, the conscious following of a rational ideal. From much
that is iconoclastic and destructive in their ideal we may turn away
unconvinced. There remain its ardent statement of the duty of humanity,
which shames our practice after a century of progress, and its faith in
the efficacy of unregimented opinion to supersede brute force. They
taught a lesson which posterity has but half learned. We shall be the
richer for returning to them, as much by what we reject as by what we
embrace.



BIBLIOGRAPHY


GENERAL

LECKY. _History of England in the 18th Century._

LESLIE STEPHEN.--_History of English Thought in the 18th Century._

OLIVER ELTON..--_A Survey of English Literature._

EDWARD DOWDEN--_The French Revolution and English Literature._

The most vivid impression of the period from the standpoint of Godwin's
Circle is conveyed in the _Memoirs_ of Thomas Holcroft edited by
Hazlitt, and in Hazlitt's portraits of Godwin, Malthus and Mackintosh in
_The Spirit of the Age_ (Everyman's Library).

Of the opposite way of thinking the one immortal record is Burke's
_Reflections on the French Revolution_. Lord Morley's _Burke_ (English
Men of Letters) should be read, and the eloquent exposition by Lord Hugh
Cecil (_Conservatism_) in this (H.U.L.) series.

The main works of the French revolutionary thinkers have been issued in
Dent's series of French classics. For study and pleasure consult Lord
Morley's books on Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot.

The details given in the first chapter concerning the London
Corresponding Society are based on its pamphlets in the British Museum.


THOMAS PAINE

Paine's writings are published in cheap editions by the Rationalist
Press, and may be had bound in one volume. The same press issues a cheap
edition of the admirable _Life_ by Dr. Moncure D. Conway.


WILLIAM GODWIN

Godwin's works are now procurable only in old libraries, with the
exception of _Caleb Williams_. _Political Justice_ should be read in the
second edition (1796), which is maturer than the first and more lively
than the third. A modern summary of it by Mr. Salt, with the full text
of the last section "On Property," was published by Swan, Sonnenschein &
Co. This selection emphasises his communism, but hardly does full
justice to the novelty of his anarchist opinions. Full biographical data
are to be found in _William Godwin: His Friends and Contemporaries_, by
Mr. Kegan Paul, which contains a readable collection of letters. There
is a painstaking and elaborate study in French by Raymond Gourg (Félix
Alcan, 1908) and a stimulating little essay in German from the anarchist
standpoint (_William Godwin, der Theoretiker des Kommunistischen
Anarchismus._ Von Pierre Ramus. Leipzig. Dietrich).

For a modern statement of Anarchist Communism read Kropotkin's _The
Conquest of Bread_ (Chapman and Hall).


MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT

_The Rights of Woman_ has been reissued in Everyman's Library. The
volume of _Selections_ in the Regent Library (Herbert and Daniel) was
well edited by Miss Jebb, and may be recommended, for Mary
Wollstonecraft rather gains than loses by compression. For her life Mr.
Kegan Paul's _William Godwin_ should be consulted. The edition of the
_Rights_, published by T. Fisher Unwin, contains an admirable critical
study of Mrs. Fawcett. There is no general history of the so-called
"feminist" movement, and in English books the French pioneers are
ignored. Mr. Lyon Blease has some good historical chapters in _The
Emancipation of English Women_.


SHELLEY

Shelley literature is a library in itself. The standard edition is
Forman's; the standard biography is the tolerant, human, gossipy _Life_
by Professor Dowden. The general reader can use no better edition than
Mrs. Shelley's. Of critical essays the most notable are Matthew Arnold's
oddly unsympathetic essay, and Sir Leslie Stephen's informing but
hostile study on _Godwin and Shelley_ ("Hours in a Library"). Professor
Santayana may be mentioned among the few critics who have realised that
Shelley thought before he sang (_Winds of Doctrine_). Incomparably the
best of all the critical essays is the little monograph by Francis
Thompson (Burns and Oates).



_POSTSCRIPT_, 1942

Since this book was written two indispensable aids to the study of
Godwin and his Circle have been published. (1) An adequate modern life
of Godwin is now available: _The Life of William Godwin_ by Ford K.
Brown (J. M. Dent & Sons). The work could hardly have been better done.
(2) Mr. Elbridge Colby has given us in two volumes a modern edition of
_The Life of Thomas Holcroft_ (Constable & Co.) by himself with
Hazlitt's continuation. Mr. Colby's scholarly notes and introduction add
greatly to its value.

A modern edition of Godwin's _Political Justice_ (Knopf, Political
Science Classics) is now available, but cannot be recommended. The
editor has abbreviated it by capricious omissions.

_The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers_ by Carl L.
Becker (Oxford University Press, also Yale) is a most readable study of
the political thought of the period. See also Professor H. J. Laski's
_The Rise of European Liberalism_ (Allen & Unwin) and _Voltaire_ by H.
N. Brailsford in this series.



INDEX


  _Age of Reason_, 75

  Arnold, Matthew, 184, 220

  Arnot, 174


  Baldwin, Edward, 172

  Barbauld, Mrs., 192

  Blake, Wm., 35, 66

  Bright, John, 115

  Burke, 15-26, 63

  Burney, Fanny, 18


  _Caleb Williams_, 143

  Calvinism, 79

  Chesterfield, Lord, 195

  Clairmont, Mrs. (afterwards Godwin), 169-70

  Clairmont, Jane, 169

  Coleridge, S. T., 51-55, 86, 156, 173

  Condorcet, 22, 23, 27, 92, 109, 110, 197

  Convention, English, 44
  ---- Scottish, 41-43

  Cooper, Thomas, 83, 84

  Corresponding Society (see London)


  Dundas, 40, 44


  _Enquirer, The_, 145

  _Essays_ (on Religion) by Wm. Godwin, 180


  Fénelon, 130

  _Fleetwood_, 176


  Gatton, Borough of, 25

  Gerrald, Joseph, 43, 88, 89

  Gillray, 155

  Godwin, William: as historian 22;
    letter on trial of twelve Reformers, 46;
    experience during Revolution, 49-51;
    influence on Coleridge and Southey, 51-55;
    relation to Paine, 64, 65, 71;
    relation to Holcroft, 84-88;
    early life, 78;
    _Political Justice_, 89-141;
    Marriage to Mary Wollstonecraft, 149;
    _Caleb Williams_, 143;
    controversies, 155;
    estimate of his work, 163;
    second marriage and later life, 163;
    later works, 172;
    relations with Shelley, 174;
    death, 178;
    religious views, 179;
    intellectual influence on Shelley, 216 _seq._

  Godwin, William (junior), 170

  Godwin, Mrs. (_see_ Wollstonecraft and Clairmont)


  Hardy, Thomas, 33, 37, 39, 41, 44

  Hazlitt, 9, 78, 152, 159, 168, 173

  Helvétius, 31, 39, 96, 99, 100, 102, 105, 120, 166, 171, 179, 187

  Hervé, 119

  Holbach, Baron d', 31, 196

  Holcroft, Thomas, quoted, 31;
    early life of, 35, 36;
    trial of, 44, 45, 48;
    association with Paine, 65;
    Influence on Godwin, 84-88


  Imlay, Fanny, 148, 169

  Imlay, Gilbert, 148


  Jones, Sir Wm., 37


  Kames, Lord, 193

  Kant, 11


  Lafayette, 62, 64

  Lamb, Charles, 173

  Leibnitz, 11, 95

  London Corresponding Society, 33-48, 66

  Lovell, R., 53

  Lytton, Bulwer, 174


  Mably, 87

  Mackintosh, Sir James, 16, 157

  Malthus, 29, 158

  Margarot, 42

  Marius, 128, 220

  Milton, 192, 212

  Montesquieu, 31, 90, 97

  Muir, 42


  Napoleon, 154


  Paine, Thomas, 16, 34, 39, 56;
    biographical sketch, 57-68;
    political views 69-75;
    religious views, 75-77

  Palmer, 42

  Pantisocracy, 51-55

  Parr, Rev. Dr., 157

  Patrickson, 174

  Pitt, 40, 44, 66, 91

  Plato, Platonism, 102, 104, 126, 131, 197, 218, 234, 243

  Plutarch, 182

  _Political Justice_, 89-141

  Price, Rev. Dr., 10-15, 248

  Priestley, 11, 39, 81, 171


  _Rights of Man_, Paine's, 63, 69

  _Rights of Woman--a Vindication of the_, 148 _seq._

  Ritson, 35, 170

  Roosevelt, Theodore, 75

  Rousseau, 21, 101, 191, 194


  Sandemanians, 79

  _Sepulchres, Godwin's Essay on_, 22

  Shelley, 9, 104, 168;
    personal relations with Godwin, 174;
    intellectual outlook, 212;
    debt to Godwin, 216;
    his mythology, 225;
    his view of human perfectibility, 230

  Shelley, Mary, née Godwin, 144, 153, 169, 176, 180

  Sheridan, 82

  Sinclair, 42

  Skirving, 42

  Socrates, Socratic (_see_ Plato)

  Southey, 51-55, 151

  _St. Leon_, 160, 172

  Stanhope, Earl, 12

  Swift, 131, 193


  Tolstoy, 120, 138

  Tooke, Horne, 34, 43, 44, 46

  Turgot, 28


  _Vindication of the Rights of Women_ (_see Rights_)

  Voltaire, 95, 221


  Wedgwood, 170

  Weissmann, 98

  Wells, H. G., 221

  Westbrook, Harriet, 175

  Windham, 48

  Wollstonecraft, Mary, 16;
    early life, 147;
    marriage and death, 149-154;
    her personality, 202;
    her originality, 199;
    summary of "Rights," 204;
    relation to French Revolution, 186-199;
    reflection in Shelley, 238

  Wordsworth, 8, 51, 157



Transcriber's Note:

Passages in italics are indicated by _underscore_.

Passages in bold font are indicated by =bold=.

The following misprint has been corrected:
  "magnaminity" corrected to "magnanimity" (page 124)
  "subjecttion" corrected to "subjection" (page 187)
  "Gilray" corrected to "Gillray" (page 255)

All other spelling and punctuation is presented as in the original.

Additional spacing after some of the quotes is intentional to indicate
both the end of a quotation and the beginning of a new paragraph as
presented in the original text.





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