Today, 3rd March, is the birthday of William Godwin, the foremost radical intellectual of the late 18th century. In a blog post for The Idler, the editor of the Oxford University Press edition of his letters, Professor Pamela Clemit, introduces a man whose political and philosophical vision still has relevance in 2015.
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.