William Godwin: World’s First Anarchist


William Godwin writes in An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice that there are two kinds of Authority… 1) the Authority Of “reverence and esteem,” and 2) the Authority of Force. The confusion of the two kinds of Authority, says Godwin, has caused a great “debasement of the human character.”   This is because “Force corrupts the man who employs it and the man upon whom it is employed.”

Typically, when Force is used to coerce behavior, it comes with pain or the threat of pain. And for Godwin, “where pain exists, there is Evil.”  In fact, he says, “nothing is Evil in the fullest sense but pain.”

For Godwin, even making a promise is Evil, for a promise implies a coercion.  At best, promises may be a necessary evil.   One type of promise he especially singles out is marriage; he considers marriage an enforced binding which would be better replaced by a companionship which either side could quit at any time.

Godwin also feels that punishment is often wrong.  He contends that Punishment occurs when the stronger party uses violence to settle a difference of opinion concerning allowable behavior. We punish not because our argument is strong, but because it is weak– or at least fails to convince.  And since “coercion cannot convince,” punishment is worthless when it comes to attempts to reform people’s characters.

We should never punish for the past, says Godwin.  We should only punish in order to prevent some future mischief. “It cannot be just that we should inflict suffering on any man except so far as it leads to the good.”

And Godwin goes still farther.  He considers that even an innocent man can be the proper subject of punishment, as long as his punishment “tends to the good.”

Godwin looks askance at inequality in a society since it historically tends toward the oppression, directly or indirectly, of the lower class. The members of the upper class, knowing they can buy justice, will frequently assume “a temper overbearing, dictatorial, and tyrannical.” Furthermore, the upper class invariably becomes the real legislators of a country, no matter the facades behind which they may operate, and they will use their control of society’s levers for the purpose of “perpetually reducing oppression into a system.”  The Authority of a “superior station” is, for Godwin, merely camouflaged Force.

Government, itself, is an Authority based upon Force, which makes it necessarily Evil– though Godwin admits that it is an Evil which Man– in his present state of development– has to come to terms with.  Government’s main utility, says Godwin, is “the suppression of Force by Force.”  This use of Force can only have two legitimate purposes… “the suppression of injustice against individuals within the community, and the common defense against external invasion.”  In other words, “the immediate object of government is security.”

“Government is in its nature an expedient,” writes Godwin, “a recourse to something ill to prevent an impending mischief.”   Most “grand Evils” can be traced back to political institutions.

Government can have subtly pernicious effects, too. Through the institutions it perpetuates, Government “insinuates itself into our personal dispositions and insensibly communicates its own spirit to our private transactions.” In the modern world, we are all “inculcated” by Institutions. And it is clear, says Godwin, “that politics and modes of government will educate and infect us all.” Alarming as it is to consider, modern institutions have the early access and power to “poison our minds before we can resist.”

The best most of us can hope to do is to reduce government’s violent drive for security to the least possible presence in our lives. “The most desirable state of mankind,” writes Godwin, “is that which maintains general security with the smallest encroachment upon individual independence.”

The only thing we must be completely loyal to is our own conscience. If certain laws operate against our deepest held convictions, then we would not be morally at fault for noncompliance with such a law. However, we should NOT disobey laws by being deceitful, but always act with forthrightness, being sincere and frank in all our endeavors. If it is against our conscience to obey a certain law, Godwin tells us we must say to Government… “Announce your penalties. And we will make our election of submission or suffering. But do not seek to enslave our minds. Exhibit your Force in its plainest form, for that is your province. But do not seek to inveigle or mislead us. Obedience and external submission is all you are entitled to claim.”

If, on the other hand, you feel yourself in a state of subjection and unable to disobey, that is okay too, says Godwin. Go ahead… “Obey. This may be right. But beware of Reverence.”  Unlike the Authority that accrues naturally to those held in high regard for their talents or wisdom, the Authority of Force deserves no reverence.

Of course, I come away from reading Godwin with the feeling that he would feel that the BEST MAN would obey his conscious before Government, damn the consequences.  After all, no one can REALLY force us to do anything.  Even if we give into tortures or threats of death, it is still OUR choice to behave in the way that brings an end to our sufferings.  But here I am merely conjecturing as to Godwin’s unstated opinion. What he DOES write is that it may be okay to disobey the law– and it may be okay to follow the law. What is NOT okay is to lie or cheat in your resistance to a law you do not agree with.  

What the friction between Government and Man boils down to for Godwin is this… Man should follow his own conscience, but never coerce others to behave in a certain way. None of us actually have the wisdom to legislate for others.

To illustrate his point, Godwin gives the example of two men gazing at the same painting. Since both of them are looking at the work from a different point of view, they are not, in a sense, seeing the same picture. Thus, what looks okay to one, may look differently to the other.  

Legislating for others is not the proper pursuit for Man; instead, it is only within our power to interpret the laws the best we can. And the laws Godwin has in mind are not merely the laws passed by legislators, but the laws of Reason. Reason, he says, is the TRUE legislator.



“Man is in the state of perpetual mutation,” writes Godwin. “Incessant change, everlasting innovation… seem to be dictated by the true interests of Mankind.”

But the raison d’etre of Government is Security. And there is more Security in Order than in Chaos. The price we pay for Order is a certain rigidness, a clearness and hardness that stands in contrast to the liquidy instability of Chaos. Thus, Government, by its very nature, stands ever-opposed to change and innovation, and it eternally maintains “a tendency to suspend the elasticity and progress of mind.”

“Government is the perpetual enemy of change,” writes Godwon. “Whatever was ONCE thought right and useful, they undertake to entail to the latest posterity.”

The solution, warns Godwin, is not Revolution… but gradual Reform. He advises us that it is far better to have many Reforms in succession, than to have a one big Revolution.

“Revolutions are the produce of passion, not of sober and tranquil Reason,” he writes. In fact, he states, Society has two, equally dangerous classes of enemies… 1) those who cling to the past, and   2) those who demand Revolution.

“The most dreadful tragedies will infallibly result from an attempt to goad Mankind prematurely into a position, however ABSTRACTLY excellent, for which they are in no degree prepared.” The ultimate result will always be “Disorder and Injustice.”  Humanity does not benefit from reform via concussion.  Attempts at Great Leaps Forward can “sweep generations of men from the state of existence.”

Establishing that a series of Reforms is many times better than a single Revolution, Godwin goes on to state that the best generator for Reform is Education. Truth can conquer Error as long as it is adequately communicated. As long as Truth is on the march, “advocates of falsehood and mistake must continually diminish.”

Those who want to impose a Revolution upon the Society, “begin at the wrong end,” says Godwin.  The place to begin is Education. “Make men wise,” says Godwin, “and by that very operation you make them Free.”

Godwin contends that the Government and Institutions of our Society will advance “in a just proportion to the illumination of the public understanding.”  In other words, he’s basically telling us that we get the government we deserve. When we are mentally prepared for the challenges, benefits, and freedoms of a better government, our shackles will disappear, and “not a sword will need be drawn.” We need only bring to sufficient enlightenment the average man, and then not a government in the world can stand against us, for “when a great majority of any society are persuaded to secure any benefit for themselves, there is no need of tumult of violence to effect it.” 

I think Godwin assumes here, not just a majority of number, the a majority of POWER-HOLDERS.

Not just government, but Society in general will be raised by the implementation of a widespread, proper education of the general public. Criminality will begin to disappear, since almost no one performs an act unless he feels his actions are justified, and a properly educated populace will begin to realize that certain acts are not truly justifiable, no matter our personal history or situation. “The most efficacious instrument I can posses for changing a man’s habits,” writes Godwin, “is to change his judgments.” When people learn to truly evaluate conditions and options, they will behave morally; “Morality itself is nothing but a calculation of consequences,” states Godwin.

Morality, then, is in a sense good judgment. On the other hand, a man without sound judgment will become “the ready tool of injustice, cruelty, and profligacy.” Godwin believes that “Man is an ornament of the Universe”-– but “only in proportion as he consults his judgment.”  A man without good judgment– that is, without morality– is an ugly thing.

Because Godwin has faith that all humanity’s problems can be solved through improved education, he naturally is inclined to discount any notions that some human traits– good or bad– or inborn. In fact, Godwin refuses to believe in ANY innate traits or tendencies, including any natural fears, sympathies, or instincts toward self-preservation. According to Godwin, “all minds that exist, set out from absolute ignorance.” It is environment and experience which “makes the man”— not the “animal structure.” Godwin even goes so far as to claim that cranial capacity is a product of usage, not heredity. He also insists that a child’s character begins to be formed while still in the womb.

Because Man is “susceptible of perpetual improvement,” there will come a time in his existence when the need for government– a necessary evil for an underdeveloped humanity– will melt away. “In proportion as weakness and ignorance shall diminish,” writes Godwin, “the basis of government will also decay.”  Mankind will one day perform “a euthanasia of government.”

Lastly, Godwin has a message (more like a warning) for all those who are content to live-out their lives in a confined ignorance…

You are satisfied with an oblivion of all that is eminent in man; but we will awake you. You are contented with ignorance; but we will enlighten you. You are not brutes; you are not stones. You sleep away existence in a miserable neglect of your most valuable privileges; but you are capable of exquisite delights. You are formed to glow with benevolence, to expatiate the fields of knowledge, to thrill with disinterested transport, to enlarge your thoughts, so as to take in the wonders of the material universe and the principles that bound and ascertain the general happiness.”


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