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William Godwin is known as the ‘founder of philosophical anarchism.’ He lived from 1756-1836. In this lesson, we will get to know what he believed and taught during his lifetime.

Brief Biography

William Godwin lived from 1756-1836. He grew up in a strict Calvinistic household, but his religious teachers took Calvinism to a whole new level of austerity.

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As Godwin grew up, he gradually shifted his views from Christianity to atheism, and finally retained a mild belief in God. His wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a feminist, and his daughter was the author Mary Shelley, who married the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Early Influences

William Godwin believed in the power of human reason over all things. He truly felt that the mind could one day be controlled to the point that disease and aging could be reversed. One of his most profound influences was the French Revolution, although he did not agree with all parts of it since some aspects did not match well with reason. He studied philosophers such as Rousseau, Swift, and Locke, and believed that government should not control education. Generally, he believed that government would corrupt any organization that it controlled.

First Writings

William Godwin was brilliant, as is proven in his first and most important publication, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, which he published in 1793. This popular set of two volumes outlined how societies work, and how governments should be ordered based on past history. This book was followed by a novel, Things as They Are, or the Adventures of Caleb Williams. In this novel, Godwin portrayed the dangers of individuals who become victims of society. These two works brought Godwin much popularity.

He wrote several other books in his lifetime.

Personal Life

Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, a feminist, were lovers, and when she became pregnant, Mary asked Godwin if he would marry her. He consented, although he didn’t so much believe in the institution of marriage. Their happiness was short-lived; Mary died giving birth to Mary Shelley. He remarried, and spent his years writing not only his philosophies, but also children’s books.

His daughter, Mary, eloped at age 17 with the then-married Percy Bysshe Shelley, and no doubt that was a difficult adjustment for Godwin. Over the next several years, he lost three grandchildren and his son-in-law.

Godwin’s Philosophies

Godwin believed that government should be minimized, and even abolished — thus the term ‘philosophical anarchism.

‘ He believed that no organization should be reliant upon the government. In fact, Godwin taught that corrupt governments produced corrupt citizens. However, Godwin did not want to overthrow the government; he saw it as necessary because people failed to use their rational minds to govern themselves.He felt that people were not born good or evil, but rather, amoral, and that people could improve infinitely through the growth of their intellects. He stated that ‘(i)t is the characteristic of the mind to be capable of improvement.’ Godwin felt that each individual should be ‘guided by the laws of truth, benevolence, candor and justice.

‘Godwin also felt that education was the key to improving humanity and moving humans toward rationality; however, he did not think that government should control education, since government corrupts. Godwin believed that the teacher should follow the student’s inclination and desire to learn and not force the student to conform to a specific mold.

Lesson Summary

Godwin believed in the self-government of the rational mind. He felt that organized government institutions corrupted individuals and, thus, the society.

However, ironically, Godwin was so impoverished at the end of his life that he had to depend on the government for financial assistance.

List of Facts About William Godwin

  • Born 1756 to Calvinist household
  • Flirted with atheism
  • Married Mary Wollstonecraft who was pregnant
  • Wife died giving birth to Mary (Shelley) later wife to Percy Bysshe Shelley
  • Believed in the power of human reason over all things
  • Published Enquiry Concerning Political Justice in 1793 and a novel titled Things as They Are, or the Adventures of Caleb Williams
  • Believed that government should be minimized and even abolished (philosophical anarchism)
  • Felt that people were not born good or evil, but rather amoral and could improve infinitely through growth of intellect
  • Died in 1836

Learning Outcomes

Use this lesson to learn information about William Godwin so that you can go on to:

  • Recognize William Godwin and discuss his early influences
  • Give examples of some of his published works
  • Name his well-known wife and equally famous daughter
  • Outline Godwin’s philosophies

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