How Enlightened was the Enlightenment?


                   Links: Imagining Other Index page


                                                                                                                   week 8 political ideas (2)    


Week 9: problematic issues for the Enlightenment:


1. Exploration and cross-cultural contacts

2. American Indians (the race issue)

3. Slavery

4. Women

5. Key Female figures:

            (i) Olympe de Gouges, women and slavery:

            (ii) Mary Wollstonecraft, women and gender

6. Radicalism: William Godwin and anarchism – or next week?


Introduction – tensions, ambiguities and polarities:

There seem to me to be, in Enlightenment thinking, a number of central tensions/polarities: this was clearly a period of transition, and an important question to ask is how far these tensions were resolved?


- universal and particular/’different’

- reason and feeling (the politics of liberty and the sociology of virtue, for Hfb)

- nature and civilisation (esp. women = nature)

- public and private (esp. separate spheres for women)


1. Exploration, cross-cultural contacts, and race:

Natural man as the ‘ultimate other’ (Outram)


- Outram ch 4 is on cross-cultural contacts: exploration especially of the Pacific, was for knowledge, not primarily for conquest and trade

- extreme difficulties of cross-cultural contact, given the lack of mutual understanding, unknown languages, and different cultures



- Porter: (p 56) 1768 Louis Bougainville (French naval commander) landed on Tahiti – wrote account saying was like the Isle of the Blessed as evoked by writers of antiquity – ease, peace and plenty, no private property and no sexual taboos…

- Diderot added to text of his Voyage that here was ‘no king, no magistrate, no priest, no laws, no ‘mine’ and ‘thine’ – all held in common including

women (i.e. free love) – tried to show was not what Christian writers would have predicted, and how the lack of prohibitions produced ‘noble savages’…


- Outram: Rousseau and the argument that ‘natural man’ had qualities that had been lost in an over-artificial civilisation


Outram: - large audience for books on voyages (e.g. Cook, Bougainville), and public’s need to believe these were utopias – peaceful, natural and pure, without intrusive govt, and with no great distinctions of wealth or social status – projection space for European hopes, frustrations and desires


- Outram: conflict in France at the time between royal govt and ‘privileged law courts, widely interpreted as a struggle between royal despotism and personal liberties’ – Tahitians ‘closer to the origin of the world’ – simple natural culture like the heroic age of Greece and Rome  - ‘civic spirit, self-control, self-sacrifice and stoicism in the face of pain and danger’… (Rousseau here, rather than Condorcet who believed history showed progressive advancement of humanity)


- these societies the ‘ultimate opposite or other’ and a replication of Europe’s origins


- beauty of Pacific islands appreciated at time when beauty sought in European landscapes (next week) rfc and à travel literature, stage plays, artists traveling to Tahiti etc, images of plants, engravings… (Outram p 52)



- Outram: Cook took issue, and said it was an insult to the Tahitians to portray them as so primitive – they did, for example, have property such as trees; he also challenged the idea that Tahitians/Polynesians were sexually any different from Europeans


- but this is not just a contrast between empiricism and enlightenment ideology: Cook’s views were part of a belief (an Enlightenment belief, shared with Hume, Voltaire) that human nature and behaviour were uniform in different parts of the world – and the same for private property and social stratification, which must be (according to Scottish economists) common to and complex society


- if there were differences of culture etc this did not make them inferior (Cook would have agreed with Terence: homo sum et nihil humanum alienum a me puto) – Cook’s approach similar to Montesquieu: consider contexts…


- Outram ch 4 Cook (like Rousseau) aware of how they affected the peoples of the New World (p 53 quote): corrupting them with new wants (‘inauthentic desires’ which also propelled European economies) & causing the wish for luxury…



- all this led to debates on the nature of race: Buffon argued that the human race is a unity, and it is environment and climate that change people’s appearance

- but Linnaeus divided man into four groups – white Europeans, red American Indians, black Africans, brown Asians (1740) – and he later added other groups (pygmies and giants)

- while Lord Monboddo (Scottish jurist) argued orang-outans were human because used tools and seemed to have a language

- i.e. the Enlightenment was confused about race – consequently only some of the arguments used led to opposition to slavery



- likewise, there were arguments both ways about colonialism, with Cook saying that the natives gained little, and Rousseau opposing both slavery and colonialism, while others argued it was our duty to exploit the earth, and that commerce (including the slave trade) was beneficial


- Raynal and Diderot 1770 wrote on commerce in the West Indies (Outram p 57 quote) questioning whether change was for the better or whether it would simply lead to more and more change

- but ideas are confused: the peoples were simpler, happier and more moral etc, but European culture was beneficial to them, and justified by their innocence



- the same ambivalence existed over slavery – although by end of 18th c were organisations opposing it: French Society for the Friends of Black People, British Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade – but they still had ‘primitivist’ views of native peoples


- danger of view that all humanity same and progressing in same kind of development: not recognizing difference, legitimizing exploitation… (‘called on to solve European problems’)


(- also by end of century attitudes changed: Cook was murdered 1779 on Hawaii, French were in crisis over economic problems and South Seas no longer seen as utopia, European diseases were destroying them)




2. American Indians and the American Enlightenment

(an ‘unenlightened race’ for Washington)


The American Enlightenment – more conservative, less compassionate?

- Himmelfarb p 217… notes that American Enlightenment lacked the scepticism and anti-religious sentiment of the French (last week: ‘was more conservative’) and was more influenced by British moralists. However, because of immediate practical/political concerns, was more concerned with politics of liberty than ‘sociology of virtue.’


- also America was not a poor country, she argues, so there was not so much concern over poverty - in fact some thought luxury more of a social problem than poverty… So there wasn’t so much philanthropy etc as in Britain


- for example, John Adams disliked the call for equality and the belief in perfectibility of Rousseau and Helvetius… “I have never read reasoning more absurd, sophistry more gross… than the subtle labours of Helvetius and Rousseau to demonstrate the natural equality of mankind. Jus cuique, the golden rule, do as you would be done by, is all the equality that can be supported or defended by reason or common sense” (Hfb p 216) [actually, jus cuique means ‘to each his own’ and is not the same as ‘do as you would be done by’ – to me, at least!]


The intractable problem of the Indians:

- but (Himmelfarb argues) America did have two problems other countries did not: Indians and slavery, both ‘very nearly intractable’. ‘The displacement of the Indians was the precondition for the very existence of the settlers.’ (219)


- subsistence farming, she says, was not compatible with ‘more sophisticated agricultural economy, to say nothing of industry and commerce…’



Different attitudes to the problem:

- Americans regarded themselves as superior  the Declaration of Independence includes: “the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions”


- Jefferson blamed the British for “seducing” the Indians to massacre the whites, and for the consequent “brutalization if not extermination of this (the Indian) race in America”


- so, and because of superior agricultural techniques etc, settlers entitled to take land


- John Jay however, was concerned that the treatment of the Indians was reducing his countrymen to ‘white savages’ – and urged the more gradual extension of settlers’ land.


- Washington thought the Indians’ land should be bought from them rather than driving them off it, describing them as an ‘unenlightened race’. Later, in a speech to the Cherokees before he retired form public life, Washington said the Indians should retire as a nation and assimilate.



3. Slavery:

Freedom ‘a long time coming’:

Although attitudes changed during the Enlightenment, actual emancipation was a long time coming:

- Outram: Montesquieu attacked the institution in Esprit de Lois 1748

From 1770s Societe des Amis des Noirs – but this an elite organisation and no mass emancipation in France

- American Quakers – gradual emancipation began in Pennsylvania 1780, some other states in 1788 banned participation in slave trade.

- first large-scale liberation: St Domingue in Caribbean, 1792 – 1804. Legislation 1794 in France ending slavery was soon revoked (1803) and slavery restores in colonies e.g. Guadeloupe.

- 1807: trade legally banned in England, 1834 banned from English possessions in Caribbean

- US: 13th amendment 1865, - Brazil: 1888.


Ambivalence and tensions:

Reason or compassion?

- movement against slavery, in Britain, was based not on reason but compassion and humanitarian zeal (Hfb p 234)


- however, in France the philosophes vigorously opposed slavery and the slave trade, and most called for the immediate emancipation of slaves, others for gradual abolition of slavery (Hfb p 169)  [so does it matter what the grounds were?]


A lamentable but necessary evil:

- many believed slavery was a ‘lamentable evil’ but that it was impractical (inconvenient!) to abolish it


Racial inferiority:

- and in America [allegedly more influenced by the British moral school] there was a deeply held conviction that blacks were inferior (Hfb p223). So, in America the problem of slavery was ‘even more formidable’ than that of the Indians (Hfb p 221) – so assimilation was not seen as possible, and only other solution was abolition (which Quakers and Methodists supported). So, the new American state was founded on a contradiction which would not be removed until the civil war more than 70 years later (Outram).


Black Christians?

- Methodist congregations included many blacks (because worked with the poor). Note, as Outram points out, that this had produced an inconsistency: can Christians be held as slaves? And this led to Methodism opposing slavery. (Link with question of equality for women: if equal members of congregation…)


Christianity divided on the issue:

- Methodists in 1780: slavery is ‘contrary to the laws of God, man, and nature, and hurtful to society, contrary to the dictate of conscience and pure religion.’ (Hfb p 222) Methodist preachers freed their own slaves and called on their parishioners to do so (presumably Quakers never had any!) In 11784 they banned slave-owners form congregations.

- William Wilberforce, an Evangelical, and friend of the Wesleys, - see Himmelfarb p 129… (more here on Methodism…)


- however, when Quakers petitioned Congress after the adoption of the Constitution, didn’t have any effect, and the only name that had impact was Benjamin Franklin [then aged and ailing] and Quakers were suspect because they had not fought in the war


- also, on the ‘other side’: Old Testament had many examples of patriarchs having slaves – no discussion of the issue in the New Testament. Thus (Outram) although Methodists used Christianity to oppose slavery, the Virginia slave owners used Bible against them (p 66)

- Outram: Methodism and Quakers, and Protestant ‘witnessing’ churches (Moravians and Quakers) – but (established churches): Dutch Calvinists, French Catholics, Protestant Southern states of North America not in favour of abolition.





- Outram: difficulties of opposing because so essential to increasingly integrated world economy, and so impossible to remove slavery without (it seemed) dismantling the whole economic system, and profits enabling governments to grow (ch 3) ‘primed the economic pump’ which enabled the industrial revolution.


- Outram: peak time for slavery in Caribbean from West Africa, Brazil (Portugal), and the English colonies in North America… Sugar, tobacco, coffee, indigo all very profitable. Demand insatiable, and seemingly inexhaustible supply of cheap labour.



- no movement on slavery issue during the war of independence (would have been divisive)


-though the constitution declared all men are created equal, it also had clauses that perpetuated slavery: five slaves were counted as equivalent to three white men for the purposes of taxation (I have seen this defended as simply acknowledging that slaves were more poor…); it allowed the importation of slaves for 20 more years (defended by Madison as better than not putting a time limit); and it required the return of escaped slaves to their owners…


- note how the Constitution avoids the word ‘slave’ (rather: ‘other persons’ than free person; ‘person held in service’ for fugitive)


- how to give everyone equal and universal rights in face of institutions, economic and political forces and needs, and in face of the ‘facts’ of ‘difference’? (Outram)



- Jefferson proposed whites induced to emigrate into America to replace blacks sent away – because there were prejudices against blacks, and because of the ‘physical and moral’ qualities of blacks which would always divide the races and ‘produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race’.   Repeated this in his Autobiography 40 yrs later (p 224). Madison also supported transportation, and opposed the slave trade, without being clearly against slavery.


- opponents not using distinct enough ideas to the supporters of the trade – moral ambiguity e.g. Jefferson (quote Outram p 70) saw blacks as inferior, while trying to get slavery banished  - because of its bad effects on the owners, rather than for the sake of the slaves… Use of ‘science’ to make a case, but this can go either way (as with Bible!)… he also argued that once freed they should be deported, and not allowed to mix (whereas slaves in Roman times had not been of a different race, so could mix) – Note this means he saw blacks as same species (because can interbreed) but still doesn’t want mixing – confused?! He also continued to own slaves.


Liberty versus human rights:

- so, the ‘politics of liberty clashed with the sociology of virtue’ over this issue – (225) maybe the founders hoped that by establishing liberty the problem of slavery would eventually be solved – but it was a long time coming, and the Civil War was bloody and traumatic ‘the most cataclysmic event in American history’ – Lincoln fought to preserve the union, it might be said, in order to abolish slavery)




Race and difference:

- Outram: a central concern in the Enlightenment was the ‘meaning and manipulation of difference’ (p 74) – which was at the heart of the problem of slavery



- towards end of century race came to be used more in the argument (black slaves a different race) – see Montesquieu’s ironical comment Outram p 67. Problem of taxonomy: where to draw line between humans and animals etc?


- Descartes et al: God created (‘pre-formed’) different races – superceded by Montesquieu and Buffon who argued man had a single origin (though white!), and climate etc changed races – at end of century anatomists found differences in skeleton and cranium – this linked to women (smaller cranial cavities…)


- ‘natural’ emerged as moral category, and so easy to move from is to ought – natural (as in Aristotle) = naturally barbarian/naturally slaves


Slavery and property (Outram p 72):

- Property holding and liberty were connected in the Enlightenment. (Rousseau was an exception in his argument against property). So the attack on slavery was seen as undermining property.


- In doing this the anti-slavery stance was also consequently seen as strengthening government (which expanding and taxing more during Enl because of international competition…), also because only government can order and organise the emancipation of slaves – but increased power to government meant an attack on the rights and liberties of subjects.


The ending of slavery:

- Outram notes that the anti-slavery issue came later than other issues in the Enlightenment such as opposition to torture, tax inequality, and for civil rights for Protestants in Catholic countries, for the end of villeinage, and against the power of the Catholic Church…

- she asks: did it end because of the Enlightenment, or because slavery had become so widespread it forced intolerable paradoxes into the open?


- what were the  causes of the change in opinion that occurred: Christianity? But it was split on the issue(as above).


- were ideologies of sentiment, humanity and benevolence more important than religious or economic motives?




4. Women:



The enlightenment left an ambiguous legacy for women – it valued reason, but helped to launch a cult of idealized motherhood (private virtue, modesty, domesticity, child-rearing) à 19th c ‘separate spheres’ notion.


However, there were women who played a part in the movement:

- Outram points out that women played important roles in the Enlightenment: they were more independent as ‘free intellectuals’ (Mary Wollstonecraft), painters etc - in fact many attacks on women could be due to men fearing they were being displaced (or turned into ‘women’!) - Rousseau’s attitude was echoed by philosophes who feared women meddling in public affairs


- (Porter gives as examples): the Marquise de Chatelet, Voltaire’s companion (well versed in Newtonian science)

- Sophie Volland, Diderot’s mistress (highly intelligent, cultured and articulate)

- Mme de Charriere (Belle de Zuylen) a talented literary lady who rejected the sexual double standards of the time

- Elizabeth Montague and Mrs. Chapone ‘held court’ in London

- the grandes dames who ran the salons (see below) – salons were key sites for exchange of enlightenment views

- but no women of ‘front-rank’ emerged before Mary Wollstonecraft, and Mme de Stael (later)

- the Church had female saints and mystics

- there were prominent royal and noble women: Maria Theresa, Catherine the Great… Diderot visited her and argued that Russia needed artisans and craftsmen…


Women also ran salons:

- the origins of salons can be found in 17th c France: aristocratic women hosted gatherings, to discuss culture etc. – they met the costs, chose the participants, largely controlled the intellectual agendas – shaping an elite culture

- in the 18th c salons moved out of court society, becoming more middle class

- hostesses were e.g. Mme du Tencin, d’Alembert’s mother (novelist), and Mme du Deffand, wife of a financier. Diderot joined a salon

- salons gave writers an audience for their work, and helped them move into the social and intellectual elite

- this was a way for women to play their role as ‘agents and bearers of the civilised state’ (see below) – like the muses

- the salons also enabled more women to become writers

- Rousseau was against them! He saw feminine dominance as wrong, and saw salons as still having links with court culture which he thought was corrupting.

- Rousseau’s attitude fed into the antipathy towards Marie Antoinette…

Louis was seen as being corrupted by women…


- finally, whilst women themselves complained against prejudice and injustice, hardly any thought in terms of enfranchisement or political participation, or professional jobs for women


The philosophes (apart from Rousseau):

- on the other hand, Voltaire, Montesquieu and Diderot commented on the discrepancy between the existing legal codes (which deprived women of power) and the power women could (in practice) actually wield


- Diderot and Voltaire also played down the difference between men and women, by seeing maternity as a temporary stage rather than as marking women for life (but see next point: women rational but not equal)


- Mary Wollstonecraft challenged the role the philosophes gave themselves: what right did they have to criticise society if they did not include women in their role as social critics?


Women, science, industrialisation, and what is ‘natural’?

- Outram: Former stereotypes of women (shrews, harlots, amazons) were replaced by attempts to explain scientifically the difference between the sexes – again, to define what is ‘natural


- the word ‘natural’ means many things – not socially defined, not artificial, based on the external physical world, so women could be: closer to nature, or determined by nature (physiologically), or analogous to the external world and (?) to be manipulated by man


- so the word was used loosely to legitimise social arrangements


- so, being ‘natural’ did not bring equality, rather ‘otherness’ – something that ‘has to be defined’ because society has made everything artificial… in other words, defining femininity challenged Enlightenment assumptions about what is natural (another ambiguity/tension)… e.g. Isaac Newton (perhaps our greatest scientist) saw sexual temptation as a threat (Easlea 1981)… 


- philosophes argued women were rational (Locke, because mind is tabula rasa and hence had no sex) but did not support equality

- women were seen (especially by Rousseau) as:

by nature, because of their physical make-up: ‘emotional, credulous incapable of objective reasoning’ - almost a separate species, defined by reproduction, and their sexuality often denied or repressed.



in their family role: mothers, carriers within the family of a new morality through which the unnaturalness of civilisation could be brought back (or on) to a natural order (transcendence) – see the Magic Flute, Paul et Virginie (Outram p 81). They were custodians of morality and religion in the home.



- in her social role as consumer: this definition was (Outram argues) a result of industrialisation, which needed a sexual division of labour – women (middle-class women) to consume what men produced. Nancy Armstrong says the first truly modern economic person was a female, because first to have their role described in terms purely of economic function


- also note how working women were not seen as physically distinct (not soft, and frail!)


- in other words, the attitude to women was not new, but the means of supporting the argument that women are different was new i.e. by science.

i.e. biology medicine (rather than divinely ordained hierarchies etc) – biology seen as making woman what she is.


Enlightenment inconsistencies:


- when it came to gender: there were demands for rights and autonomy for men, but dependency for women – Wollstonecraft pointed out these inconsistencies: if reason was innate, why not in women?


- she also pointed out the different meaning of ‘virtue’ used at the time: she argued that if ‘virtue’ has a different meaning for men and for women (if you ‘give a sex to morals’) you are moving towards moral relativism: ‘virtue has one eternal standard’ and (even) if women are inferior to men their virtue should still be the same – and for both sexes derived from reason. If God is one, eternal and rational, then virtue (which grows from God) must be the same for all humans


- the Enlightenment project aimed to bring emancipation through universal value systems based on reason and virtue - but it had difficulty incorporating groups such as women, lower social classes, other races… It also created ‘fractures’ in the ‘republic of letters’ and ‘public opinion’ by problematising the position of women.





5. Key female figures (i) Olympe de Gouges and the anti-slavery movement:

- in the 17th and 18th centuries, women played important roles in revolts against slavery in Caribbean. Olympe de Gouges wrote a Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen in 1791.

- written after the revolution of 1789, it expresses the disillusion that was growing among women with the male-oriented new regime – despite its dedication to ‘liberty equality and fraternity’. The Declaration includes the view that: “ignorance, omission or scorn for the rights of woman are the only causes of public misfortunes and of the corruption of governments…”.


- Article 10 states that “woman has the right to mount the scaffold [i.e. to be guillotined!], she must equally have the right to mount the rostrum…” – women should have the same share of jobs, official positions etc as men.


- the following Article declares that women should have the right to identify the father of their child, and not be forced to hide the truth – clearly the latter must have been a common practice at the time.


- Article 17: “Property belongs to both sexes…” and no-one can be deprived of it without due legal process.


For the full text go to:


Kate Millett notes that the first female anti-slavery convention in America took place in 1837 and says that the Abolition Movement gave women their first taste of political organisation, and it provided the methods women would use for the rest of the 19th century: petitions, and agitation to educate the public ((Sexual Politics p 66, 80).


- she also notes that not all Abolitionists were in favour of women’s emancipation – and in London at the World Anti-Slavery Convention, 1840, two women were excluded, including Lucretia Mott (a Nantucket Quaker) who went on to found the first women’s Anti-Slave Society.


- but, she asks, did the fact that women first joined together to fight a cause other than their own simply indicate that they were still operating under the ‘service ethic’ of women?



5. Key female figures (ii) Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797):


- (Outram) - began as teacher and headmistress, realised girls being educated to inferior position, wrote Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, 1787 – Enlightenment ideals demanded that women be given a decent education


- became a governess to Lord Kingsborough, then went to France to observe and write about political upheaval there

- back in England joined a radical group along with Godwin, Paine, Fuseli and Priestley


- wrote Vindication of the Rights of Men, 1790, attacking Burke (wrote it in few weeks after Burke’s Reflections) – (Himmelfarb p 110) though four years later in history of the French Revn she criticised the ‘rabble’ and their ‘barbarity’ – esp. the women [quote?]  - just as Burke would have…


- wrote her Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792

- Hfb: mostly an attack on Rousseau, not systematic or cohesive, and criticised women for allowing themselves to be placed in a subservient (domestic, family) role – wanted women to become like (the best kind of) men – rational, independent, above all educated.


- she also attacked Bacon: "He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or of mischief.  Certainly the best

works, and of greatest for the public, have proceeded from the unmarried or childless men."  Bacon  - Quoted by Mary Wollstonecraft, see Ball and Dagger 1991 p 342.  Mary adds

"I say the same of women".


- argued that women (a) have the ability to reason but (b) have been prevented from developing and using it by being expected to be merely "beautiful": they are told their main value is in their beauty – they are praised for this to ‘compensate’ for their treatment as inferior beings


- "the distinction of sex (i.e. gender) [should be] confounded in society, unless where love animates the behaviour" – her perspective was a ‘liberal’ one, i.e. social attitudes needed to change (not a radical/socialist perspective), and she minimises the difference between men and women (other feminists acknowledge there are differences, but re-write them/reverse the value-judgments that go with them)


- "Pleasure is the business of woman's life, according to the present modification of society; and while it continues to be so, little can be expected from such weak beings.  Inheriting ... the sovereignty of beauty - they have, to maintain their power, resigned the natural rights which the exercise of reason might have procured them, and chosen rather to be short-lived queens than labour to obtain the sober pleasures that arise from equality. Exalted by their inferiority... they constantly demand homage as women...


Why do they not discover that they are treated like queens only to be deluded by hollow respect, till they are led to resign, or not assume, their natural prerogatives?... It is true they are provided with food and raiment, for which they neither toil nor spin; but health, liberty and virtue are given in exchange.


            I lament that women are systematically degraded by receiving the trivial attentions which men think it manly to pay the sex, when in fact, they are insultingly supporting their own superiority."


6. A radical in the Age of Enlightenment:

William Godwin and Anarchism


- (Hfb p 110): - Godwin is best known for writing a work – Political Justice 1793 – which argues:


- for the abolition of government, law, property and political economy, and for a reformed humanity… i.e. the Enlightenment idea of the perfectibility of human beings. Published at an ‘inauspicious time’ when France had just declared war on Britain, and Paine had fled to Paris after being indicted for his book


- it sold 3,000 copies at 3 guineas a time (PM Pitt thought it could do no harm to those who didn’t have enough money to buy it, and so didn’t proscribe it)


- Wordsworth, Southey and Coleridge declared their support for Godwin’s views


- Godwin was not happy with the term ‘anarchy’ though he said it had ‘the likeness, a distorted and tremendous likeness, of true liberty’ 


- what he wanted was ‘a well conceived form of society without government.’ Even anarchy was better than despotism, as at least in anarchy people can think for themselves, whilst under despotism “mind is trampled into an equality of the most odious sort”


- the following year 1794 he published Caleb Williams, portraying similar ideas – it was also enthusiastically received.


- a few years later (because of his private life as well as the situation with France) ‘the tide turned’ against him.


- as with Richard Price (1757 book…) and Joseph Priestley, Godwin was taking up an extreme position on the supremacy of reason (that was ‘far removed from’ (Hfb p 93) the Scottish writer Francis Hutcheson’s idea of a moral sense)


- Price: ‘reason alone, did we possess it in a higher degree’ was the basis for human relations. “There would be no need of the parental affection were all parents sufficiently acquainted with the reasons for taking upon them the guidance and support of those whom nature has placed under their care, and were they virtuous enough to be always determined by those reasons.”


- cf. Paine: “society is produced by our wants and government by our wickedness”


- also: that emotions and sexuality were irrational and immoral (Condorcet wrote a similar book: Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Human Mind – also advocating that men will ‘overcome their sensuality’)


[note Himmelfarb puts this account of Godwin’s ideas after the story, below, of his personal life saying it may distract attention from the true drama of Political Justice’ – but that surely was her intention!]


– but when Godwin met Mary Wollstonecraft he wrote her sentimental love letters; and he married her when she became pregnant – she died when she gave birth.


- Godwin remarried, ‘acquiring a family and considerable financial obligations that involved him in several unsuccessful publishing ventures…


- he doted on his and Mary’s daughter Mary, and was angry when she ran off with Shelley (who was an admirer of Godwin) even though the latter was acting on Godwin’s professed principles, against marriage and for freedom of the individual (Shelley left his pregnant wife for Mary)


- Shelley and Mary had three children, but Godwin refused to see his grandson (? sic, according to Himmelfarb) until Shelley married Mary


- when Shelley’s wife committed suicide he agreed to marry Mary; Godwin declared that he was happy that she was now ‘respectable, virtuous, and contented.’ 


- Godwin also wrote a four-volume history of England. Here he said that while it was easy to imagine a world where men were no longer ruled by passions and prejudices, ‘Unfortunately, men in all ages are the creatures of passion’


Godwin represents for Himmelfarb (p 114) ‘the romance of reason’ – along with Wordsworth, Southey and Coleridge who romanticized the French Revolution. For Wordsworth Reason was the “prime enchantress” liberating mankind from “the meagre, stale, forbidding ways / Of custom, law and statute.” 


For Himmelfarb the moral philosophers wanted reform, the humanising of Britain, and an age of Enlightenment that was “an age of benevolence” (M.G. Jones – The Charity School Movement – 18th c Puritanism in action) whilst the radicals wanted to transform and rationalize (an age of reason).


(Note: Himmelfaarb makes no mention of Blake…) 


O’Hara (p112):

- Godwin blends Lockean empiricism with utilitarianism – all government is bad because founded on opinion, and valued by people only in so far as they were weak and ignorant; evil is basically ignorance, caused by faulty education, perpetuated by tyranny and greed


- a moral code should be based on reason not on subjective feelings: one should save e.g. the poet and theologian Fenelon from a fire before one saved one’s own mother, because Fenelon was more use to mankind.


- Godwin didn’t accept Rousseau’s idea of the general will, or society as a moral individual. He only defended representative republican democracy in so far as it might prevent some evils – however, he said that the truth of a matter cannot be arrived at by a vote… A public vote could be subverted, and a private/secret vote facilitated hypocrisy. Communication was the essence of liberty


- a number of other commentators note that Godwin wrote against the institution of marriage, only to marry Mary Wollstonecraft, and also that he insisted that Shelley should not just cohabit with their daughter Mary but marry her (e.g. Porter p 23) – is this, though, an ad hominem argument?