Godwin's Moral Philosophy: An Interpretation of William Godwin

By D. H. Monro | Go to book overview

immensely popular during the honeymoon period of the French Revolution. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive; but dawns do not last. In full daylight Godwinism came to look less attractive; and in the popular mind (still more in the pulpit mind and the press mind) he stood for all the worst excesses of Jacobinism. Pure defecated Atheism', said Burke, 'the brood of that putrid carcase the French Revolution.'1 As de Quincey noted, 'most people felt of Mr. Godwin with the same alienation and horror as of a ghoul, or a bloodless vampyre, or the monster created by Frankenstein'.2 And anyway, he was unsound on marriage.

None of this is really surprising. In any age denunciations of 'the new morality' (still more, the new politics) are likely to be more colourful than accurate. But what is perhaps surprising is that so much of the mud should have stuck, after a century and a half. In 1920 it was still possible to write of Godwin: '. . . with all his writings he has not left one single phrase with which his name can be associated, or one thought worth thinking. . . . He was a cold, hard, self-centred man who did good to none and harm to many. . . . It is his fate to be remembered chiefly as the husband of the first suffragette.'3 And the judgement of history (or at least of historians) is delivered in the same tone: ' Godwin is one of those philosophical gas-bags who has been so long pricked and deflated that it is extremely difficult to reconstruct him in the dimensions he assumed in the eyes of his contemporaries.'4

Yet one would have thought that much that Godwin stood for would be generally accepted today. Of all the insults

____________________
1
Quoted by Ford K. Brown, Life of William Godwin ( London, 1926), p. 155.
2
London reminiscences, in Collected Writings, ed. D. Masson ( London, 1897), iii, 25.
3
A. E. Newton, Amenities of Book-collecting (Lane, 1920), pp. 246 and 248.
4
D. C. Somervell, English Thought in the Nineteenth Century, 6th ed. ( Methuen, 1950), p. 32.

-4-

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Godwin's Moral Philosophy: An Interpretation of William Godwin
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page i
  • Acknowledgements iii
  • Contents v
  • Introduction The Godwin Legend 1
  • 1- Archbishop Fénelon Versus My Mother 9
  • 2- Reason and Feeling 36
  • 3- Godwin and Montesquieu 57
  • 4- The Insufficiency of Honour 86
  • 5- The Depravity of Virtue 109
  • 6- The Empire of Prejudice 133
  • 7- Criticism 172
  • Index 203
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