The Godwin Project: Conversation first; then revolution

10 Apr|Pamela Clemit

Detail from "Conversation in a Park" by Thomas Gainsborough, 1746

In 18th and 19th century London, says Professor Pamela Clemit, there was a real belief in the transformative power of dialogue

LONDON WAS A sociable place in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Everything was within walking distance. People dropped in to see each other unannounced. It was a world of conviviality and pleasurable talk.

When, in 1782, William Godwin left his first career as a nonconformist minister to become a full-time writer, he moved from his native East Anglia to London. Over the next ten years, he became part of a community of literary and professional people of the middling sort: authors, artists, actors, musicians, and political reformers. He was a sociable person. There were almost daily visits to take tea, lots of theatre-going, and regular publishers’ dinners in St Paul’s Churchyard.

By the early 1790s, Godwin had lodgings in Chalton Street, Somers Town (between St Pancras and the Euston Road). In the mornings he wrote his masterpiece, An Enquiry concerning Political Justice, and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793). He walked and talked in the afternoons, and well into the evenings (with an occasional all-nighter). His ideas were worked out in company.

Godwin reasoned from first principles, in Enlightenment fashion, on the state of British politics in the aftermath of the French Revolution. The unwritten British constitution needed a good shake-up. But the horrors unfolding in France made him wary about proposing its sudden overthrow. He was uncomfortable, too, with the radical societies formed to press for parliamentary reform, and with public assemblies. The conviviality of large social gatherings could turn into a riot.

So what was to be done?

Godwin’s vision of a transformed society rested on the pursuit of truth. Truth was a value in itself. It was not easy to establish, but everyone had a duty to pursue it unflinchingly. Once found, the truth will be good. Godwin shared William Blake’s conviction that “Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not be believ’d”. At least, this is the best thing for us to assume.

Conversation, Godwin argued, had a special role to play in the discovery of truth: “if there be such a thing as truth, it must infallibly be struck out by the collision of mind with mind.” “Free and unrestricted discussion” was the means of social improvement. If we want to change the world, “we must write, we must argue, we must converse.”

Godwin’s belief in the reforming power of conversation grew out of his background in English Protestant Dissent. The Dissenters believed in unmediated conversation with God, and with each other. They held to an ideal of like-minded citizens assisting each other in the pursuit of truth.

Books were fine, but they had a sort of “constitutional coldness”, and so did lectures, which encouraged passivity. People had to open their hearts and minds to each other in face-to-face conversation. Independent and impartial discussion had a civic and improving dimension. It was open-ended. It had a serendipitous quality—full of surprise and stimulus.

Like all of us, Godwin could sometimes be lost for words. When a neighbour’s spirited nineteen-year-old daughter came up to the famous author in the street, he did not know what to say. He wrote to her afterwards: “I ought to have said to myself … Accident has thrown this lovely girl in my way, I ought to use the moment she affords me in encouraging her virtue, in blowing the flame of her spirit, & endeavouring to render the excellencies she now possesses, as lasting as her life.” Godwin preferred to think of it as a missed opportunity to spread knowledge and truth.

Should the truth be pursued, irrespective of consequences? Godwin was clear. Every moral being should prefer the truth even to the interests of his or her own country, family, or self: “The wise and the virtuous man ought to see things precisely as they are, and judge of the actual constitution of his country with the same impartiality, as if he had simply read of it in the remotest page of history.” The truth could never be a problem because Godwin believed in the essential goodness of humankind.

Moral philosophers today are careful to use our moral intuitions as the final arbiters. Godwin often got into trouble because he followed his principles wherever they led, disregarding intuitions and common sense. He tells the story of a political fugitive who falls in with those who are hunting him down. They ask for intelligence to guide them in their pursuit, but he does not give himself away. Had he turned himself in, Godwin postulates, “would he not have done an honour to himself, and afforded an example to the world, that would have fully compensated the calamity of his untimely death?” Godwin tests his principles to destruction—and, as Coleridge once remarked, sometimes he cannot help but make a fool of himself.

And yet—there is something for us today. Godwin regarded “the art of conversation” as “the art of arts”. The pleasures of private conversation have a civic dimension. Conversation is not a form of mutual grooming or one-upmanship. It is not small talk. It is an earnest force that can, over time, shift boulders, move continents, and transform the world.

This piece is part of The Godwin Project, designed to bring to a wider audience the life and work of William Godwin, philosophical anarchist of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. 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.