On William Godwin and the “leisure of a cultivated understanding”

3 Mar|Pamela Clemit

William Godwin by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1795 (copyright Trustees of the British Museum)

He was the foremost radical intellectual of the late 18th century, was married to Mary Wollstonecraft and was Mary Shelley’s father. And we’re going to celebrate his life and work all year. The editor of the OUP edition of his letters, Professor Pamela Clemit, introduces The Godwin Project

THE LAST DECADE of the eighteenth century in Britain was in some respects a time like our own: riches and poverty; ostentation and indigence; meaningless violence, cruelty, and heartlessness.

But in one respect it was different. Across the Channel, in France, the people had risen, and had overthrown the monarchy and the aristocracy. It was possible, briefly, to envisage a better future.

William Godwin, a London journalist in his mid-thirties, imagined how that future life should be. In 1793 he published a massive book, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness. Despite its high price, it was an enormous success. Godwin became the most celebrated public intellectual of the 1790s. He married Mary Wollstonecraft, the early advocate of women’s rights, but lost her shortly after the birth of their daughter Mary (who grew up to marry Percy Bysshe Shelley, and to write Frankenstein). Godwin’s heyday was brief, but his reputation revived from the 1880s onwards, and is now surging again.

We read him today for his sense that things might be different from how they are. Godwin refused to be bound by immediate considerations and took the long view. In a society that was one tenth as wealthy as our own, he was disdainful of too much stuff. What was the use of striving for possessions? There had to be another purpose, and that purpose had to accord with the best in our natures.

At the heart of his vision was leisure, but not the mindless leisure that follows from overwork. It was a state of heightened awareness, the “leisure of a cultivated understanding”, which would foster creativity, sociability, and work for the public good.

How did Godwin arrive at this arresting vision? As an Enlightenment thinker, he started from first principles, and followed a chain of reasoned deduction. One argument seemed to him to follow seamlessly from another, until it reached an inevitable conclusion. He began with Tom Paine’s view that government was a necessary evil, but ended up arguing for its “utter annihilation”. He rejected all forms of political authority in favour of a society based on justice, equality, and mutual moral accountability. The rule of law would be replaced by the rule of reason.

It was self-evident to Godwin that as human beings we all share the same need for subsistence and dignity. Until everyone’s needs are met, no-one has a claim for anything above these basic needs. That is simple justice. This bedrock of human dignity requires the equalisation of property.

Must we sacrifice all that is colourful, pleasurable, and enjoyable in life to satisfy some abstract notion of justice? Not at all, says Godwin. Equality is going to be fun. Intellectual improvement comes first. Imagine what opportunities for creativity will open up once everybody is educated. People will be naturally far-sighted, and will crave lives of experiential fulfilment, not the baubles of the marketplace. Less is more.

A great deal of effort is wasted in meeting superfluous wants, in leap-frogging for status. The rich spend ten-fold, a hundred-fold, more than the rest, without any visible increase in satisfaction over a middle-class person like Godwin himself. If wants were reduced to what is really satisfying, much less would be required. If less were required, less effort would be needed to produce it. Godwin estimated (quite wrongly) that the work of one man in twenty would be sufficient to feed, clothe, and house everyone. From this it followed that, if everyone worked, they would need to work only one-twentieth of the day. Say, half-an-hour a day. The rest of the time could be devoted to cultivated leisure.

Outside radical circles, few people took Godwin’s vision seriously. Thomas Robert Malthus, for example, said that people would use their spare time to have sex. They would multiply sufficiently to require so much food that everyone would have to work harder, and all this leisure time would quickly disappear.

But Godwin had a point. Already in that society there was a wealthy stratum living in just the way he imagined, cultivating their minds in their town and country mansions, and doing very little by way of useful toil. Even middle-class people like William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Godwin himself, lived rich (though financially precarious) mental lives with little by way of material consumption. If wealth were spread equally, how many more people would have the chance to engage in creative discoveries and improvements for the benefit of all, rather than merely scrabbling for a living wage.

More than two hundred years later, we are ten times wealthier, but not much idler. Godwin himself was tireless in communicating his vision of cultivated leisure. After Political Justice, he wrote six full-length novels, works of educational theory, biographies, histories, political pamphlets, plays, and children’s books. When he was not writing books, he was writing letters; when he was not writing letters, he was socialising. He was the friend or acquaintance of almost everybody of note on the political left from the era of the French Revolution to the Great Reform Bill. In partnership with his second wife, Mary Jane Godwin, he ran a children’s book-selling and publishing business for twenty years, ‘the inglorious transactions of the shop below-stairs’ furnishing him with ‘food, clothing & habitation’, so he could continue to write.

From philosophical anarchist to small businessman: Godwin reminds us of the unattainable balance between competing impulses which we continue to strive for — between love of personal distinction and social justice, between craving and contentment, between effort and repose, between gratification and prudence. Happy birthday, William!


Professor Pamela Clemit is the editor of The Letters of William Godwin, 6 vols. (OUP, 2011-), among other things.  Follow her on Twitter @Godwin_lives

This piece is the first in our new series, The Godwin Project. Across 2015, we will be publishing extracts from Godwin’s letters, as edited by Pamela Clemit, occasional extracts from his writings, and short pieces on his anarchistic philosophy and its relevance to today.