By Keith Preston
Few thinkers personified the intellectual culture of the Enlightenment to a greater degree than the English political philosopher and novelist, William Godwin. In 1793, Godwin published his most influential work, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on Morals and Happiness, which at the time was considered to be one of the most significant literary responses to the events of the French Revolution, along with the works of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. True to Enlightenment ideals, Godwin suggested that human beings were born as a Lockean tabula rasa, and that education, along with improved social and political conditions, could result in significant steps toward human perfectibility. Such an evolved condition of human existence would render the state unnecessary as individuals would be inspired by reason to act on behalf of what was in the best interest of the community. Similarly, Godwin envisioned that an enlightened society would be less in thrall to vices such as greed and acquisitiveness, and a more equitable distribution of resources would result. The classical theoretician of anarchist-communism Peter Kropotkin would, more than a century later, suggest that Godwin was in fact the first modern proponent of anarchist-communism.
Family, Marriages and Children
From a historical perspective, Godwin is today recognized more for his famous family members than for his political ideas. His first wife was Mary Wollstonecraft, a pioneer feminist who produced the classic work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which was published in 1792, and argued for the extension of the Enlightenment idea of “natural rights” to include women as well as men. Wollstonecraft died in 1797 due to complications from giving birth to the couple’s daughter, Mary. However, Mary would later become famous both for her marriage to the Romance poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and for her authorship of the novel Frankenstein, widely considered to be a pioneer work in the genres of horror and science fiction. Clearly, Godwin’s family exercised considerable influence in British literary circles during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Godwin himself also produced a pioneer work in the genre of the “thriller” called Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, and the family’s literary business, known as the Juvenile Library, also published children’s books as well.