William Godwin

Euthanasia of Government

"The greatest liberty of subjects, dependeth on the silence of the law"[1], proclaims Hobbes. The English liberals took care not to push this idea towards what they would have considered its anarchistic extreme. They conceived of the state as a necessary organization, guarantying law and order from within, defense against hostile forces from without, and the safety of property – the three principles that Locke summarizes as "Life, liberty, and property". They also held to the idea that the law serves to supplement the subject's rights, by limiting the activity of the executive authority. Their economic conception went hand in hand with the Laissez-faire. Another school, that of John Stewart Mill, promoted utilitarianism and the exemption of man from suffering and ignorance by the state, giving it thus a position of great importance[2].

In France, we find the Lockean school of Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Benjamin Constant, promoting the liberalism of the minimalist state, individualism, and the socio-economical perception of laissez-faire. The other school in France is Rousseauan, more democratic and favorable toward the state. While Locke's liberalism does not see liberty as directly connected to the state, the others see it as controlling itself by means of the state, which became to be its own.

Germany had two liberalist schools as well – the earlier one, based mostly on the Althusian[3] view that sovereignty emanates from the people, and the Naturrechts school, which supplied the bridge between the stoic term of jus naturale and Locke's human rights doctrine. Locke also influenced German 18th century liberals such as Wilhelm von Humboldt, who claimed that the role of the state is not to do the good, but to ward off the bad, originating from men's disregard to their fellowmen's rights.

The word anarchy has its etymological and conceptual origin in the two ancient Greek words αν αρχη (an archéi), which mean lack of authority or government. Since the commonly accepted view, for centuries and millenniums, was that human beings are not capable of living together without that authority, which determines their way of life, the word has absorbed a negative meaning and became a synonym to chaos, lack of order and organization, nihilism, and terrorism. In fact, anarchism, based on the belief in natural law and justice, stands in absolute contrast to nihilism, which renounces any moral law. Moreover, there is no built-in association between anarchism – a social philosophy rejecting all kinds of authoritative governments and claiming that voluntary institutions, based on good-will and agreement, are the most pertinent to express man's social tendencies – and terror, sometimes serving individuals or groups of any political affiliation as an extreme and violent means to achieve some kind of political objective or another. Anarchism aspires to maximal possible liberty, compatible with social life, based on the belief that voluntary cooperation among responsible individuals is not only more just and fair, but, in the long-run, more harmonious, and immanently orderly in its consequences, than the rule of a government thus canceling the value of the democratic procedure because of its being grounded on majority rule and delegation of authority to the sovereign, which, in anarchistic view, should be held by the individual himself.  Anarchism also criticizes utopian philosophies because they seek to attain an ideal society, which is essentially static, while anarchistic society is dynamic and not fixated in a framework of laws, imposed on it by the government.

Some locate the roots of anarchism in the query of Lao-tze[4], one of the founding fathers of Taoism, "Why are the people so restless? Because there is so much government", together with Chuang-tze, who had doubts about any form of government. According to Chuang-tze, governments are an obstruction to human happiness, which depends on the individual's personal freedom to express spontaneously his inherent nature[5]. Some find its sprouts in the works and deeds of personalities such as Zeno, Spartacus, Rabelais, and Jonathan Swift, or in religious groups who supported the idea of small communities; but actually, the first forms of anarchism, as a social philosophy, appeared only in the new post-reformation era, together with the emergence of the modern state and of capitalism, and as an antithesis to both.

In the development process of the political idea, anarchism can be conceived as the ultimate and simultaneous projection of liberalism and socialism. Historically, anarchism is firmly bound to the obvious question "What went wrong?" that followed the French revolution, given that the revolution had ended not only with the Jacobin rule of terror and with the establishment of a new affluent estate, but also with the rise of a new formidable tyrant – Napoleon Bonaparte.

The Grand Master

Indeed, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was the first to identify himself openly as an anarchist, but the first detailed outline of anarchism was given by the novelist and philosopher, commonly believed to be the founding father of anarchism (although he himself would never have accepted it), William Godwin, who in 1793 published his work "Enquiry Concerning Political Justice"[6].

"With what delight must every informed friend of mankind look forward to the auspicious period, the dissolution of political government, of that brute engine, which has been the only perennial cause of the vices of mankind, and which, as has abundantly appeared in the progress of the present work, has mischiefs of various sorts incorporated with its substance, and no otherwise removable than by its utter annihilation"[7].

Godwin's Euthanasia of Government is presented by way of a dialectic-like argumentation[8]. First, he launches an assault on liberal tradition, carried out by invoking Rousseau. Then he uses the liberal values of private judgement and individuality to assail the law and political authority. At the last stage, he resolves the tension between the first two, by way of the principle of sincerity, the synthesizing agent, which brings these two negative aspects together, to the positive vision of anarchistic society.

Godwin starts with an all-around attack on the Lockean natural rights tradition, which he finds too egotistical, and overwhelmingly concerned with the individual's right to do as he wills, sacrificing duty, justice, and concern for the common good. Locke and his likes have failed, indulging in "unprofitable disquisitions" into the probable origins of government and natural rights, instead of enquiring what form of government would be the most conducive to public welfare[9], and "Hence men have been prompted to look back to the folly of their ancestors, rather than forward to the benefits derivable from the improvements of human knowledge".[10] Using Hume's arguments, he unconditionally rejects the notion of any kind of contract, based on an original promise, since "the whole principle of an original contract rests upon the obligation under which we are conceived to be placed to observe our promises"[11], but "promises and compacts are in no sense the foundation of morality… promises, in the same sense as has already been observed of government, are an evil, though, it may be, in some cases a necessary evil"[12]. The foundation of morality is justice, and the superior demands of justice defeat any natural rights and annul them:

"So much for the active rights of man, which, if there be any cogency in the preceding arguments, are all of them superseded and rendered null by the superior claims of justice"[13].

Man does not have a carte blanche to do as he pleases, based on some hypothetic morality of self-justification. He is bound by justice to do his duty, to employ his talents, his understanding, his strength, and his time, for the production of the greatest quantity of general good[14]. Man has a duty to fulfill, and duty is that mode of action, which constitutes the best application of the capacity of the individual to the general advantage[15]. Moreover, Godwin is perfectly willing to dispense with the most fundamental of liberal rights, man's right to life:

"He has no right to his life when his duty calls him to resign it. Other men are bound to deprive him of life or liberty, if that should appear in any case to be indispensably necessary to prevent a greater evil"[16].

Although in his criticism of liberalism and human rights and in the preeminence he bestows on reason, truth, and justice, Godwin goes a long way following Rousseau and Helvetius, he does not share their vision about the democratic sovereign, which finds its necessity and justification by way of the law of the general will:

"Government is, in all cases an evil; it ought to be introduced as sparingly as possible. Man is a species of being whose excellence depends on his individuality; and who can be neither great nor wise, but in proportion as he is independent"[17].

At this point, Godwin, the anti-liberal, makes extensive use of liberal values, to establish the necessity of replacing the uncompromising, forceful apparatus of government. Self-determination and independence are basic characteristics of human nature. That is why it is necessary that every man should stand by himself, and rest upon his own understanding[18]. Anything that incites man to action other than his own private judgement is by definition force or coercion. Godwin differentiates between three kinds of authority. The first kind is the authority of reason, under which the individual obeys mostly himself; in fact, reason represents in a way the absence of authority and obedience[19]. The second kind of authority is the one where the individual, who has not acquired the knowledge to enable him to form a judicious opinion, yields to the known sentiment and decision of another. This is the strictest and most precise meaning of the word authority, as obedience denotes that compliance which is the offspring of respect[20]. The third kind, government, is when a man neglecting to perform his precepts, is liable to penalty. This kind of authority is purely political and extremely unnatural. It is the exclusive determinant for most people, and as such is nothing but an external directive power. Governmental authority is not grounded in respect and esteem, but on force and coercion, and nothing can justify it. When a man surrenders his understanding, and commits his conscience to another, he annihilates his individuality as a man, and disposes of his animal force to him among his neighbours who happens to excel in imposture and artifice, and who is least under restraint from the scruples of integrity and justice[21]. To surrender one's private judgement, and yield to that kind of authority, is totally contrary to reason and justice. Nevertheless, men should not resort to violence to overthrow the brute engine of government, since with the gradual retreat of ignorance before enlightenment, it is doomed anyway, and all governments will ultimately wither away[22].

Having disposed of governmental authority, Godwin turns next on law. His main argument is that generalization is impossible because of the diversity of human experience, and abstract law is just such a generalization. No individual action can be identical to the action of another. The fable of Procrustes' bed, says Godwin, presents us with a faint shadow of the perpetual effort of the law; it endeavours to reduce all men to the same stature, so that either men should be violently stretched or their legs chopped off to fit this non-existent standard, or a new law must be invented for each particular case. Instead of getting rid of ambiguity, the law wraps itself in a cloak of uncertainty, and thus no one can anticipate what is waiting for him in the arms of the law. Moreover, the law inhibits human spirit, and swaps progress for stagnation[23]. This is why law must cease to exist, and be replaced by what Godwin denominates as 'Situational Wisdom' – reason must be reapplied to each contingency, and the multiple factors of each instance must be taken into consideration and be adequately comprehended before any action is taken.

This also leads to Godwin's criticism of the legitimacy and usefulness of the penal system, since the most important justification for any government is its ability to actuate sanctions against any individual, whose activity towards any other individual in society is hostile. Punishment, according to Godwin, is clearly unjust because it presupposes free will, while in fact need and circumstances are the forthright causes of criminal behaviour[24]. Besides, punishment is useless because, as any other political coercion, it is nothing but refuge and disguise to violence, which does not have an inherent persuasive ability. Thus, in Godwin's anarchistic individualism, government, law, and compulsion are pushed aside, and in their place, we are presented with the ideal of the independent and determined man, who uses his understanding properly, and relies on his judgement alone.

Here Godwin arrives at the positive phase of his analysis, the basic assumption of an anarchistic utopia, founded on 'political simplicity', 'public inspection', and 'positive sincerity'. Since the multitudes of the human race were led astray by the mysterious complex nature of the social system, the social framework has to be simplified:

"As the restlessness of public commotion subsided, and as the political machine became simple, the voice of reason would be secure to be heard"[25].

The simplicity of the political machine, attained by way of localism and federalism, will set people free. Nations in smaller autonomous units, and regional communities regulating their own affairs, will cease to be despotic:

"The ideas of a great empire, and legislative unity, are plainly the barbarous remains of the days of military heroism. In proportion as political power is brought home to the citizens, and simplified into something of the nature of parish regulation, the danger of misunderstanding and rivalship will be nearly annihilated. In proportion as the science of government is divested of its present mysterious appearances, social truth will become obvious, and the districts pliant and flexible to the dictates of reason"[26].

While delegates of these parishes will assemble once a year, to settle their few disagreements, a general assembly will be summoned only in very rare and exceptional cases. This will not be a legislative assembly, it will not take votes which are "the deciding upon truth by the casting up of numbers"[27], and its main function would be "to hear the complaints and representations of their constituents"[28]. Within the parishes themselves, there will be no need for any political institutions. Juries will assemble every once in a while to resolve conflicts, but they will not have a compulsory authority. Their role would be to summon the disputing parties and perform some kind of non-binding arbitration, to convince but not to dictate. Political authority will be replaced by public inducement. The whole system will function by way of public inspection, and the observant eye of public judgement would stimulate each individual to seek the common good. Law and government are here replaced by the observant eye of public opinion, and the potential felon will be deterred by the unequivocal disapprobation of public judgement.

However, public inspection could be effective only if sincerity prevailed among all members of the community, "regardless of the dictates of worldly prudence and custom". Everyone should be his neighbour's "ingenuous censor, who would tell him in person, and publish to the world, his virtues, his good deeds, his meannesses and his follies"[29]. In order that each individual sees to it that his neighbour lives up to the moral code of generosity and public spirit, it is essential that people talk to each other openly and sincerely: "It follows that promoting the best interests of mankind eminently depends upon the freedom of social communication"[30]. "Sincerity therefore, once introduced into the manners of mankind, would necessarily bring every other virtue in its train"[31]. This kind of society will have no need of the written law, since they will judge each case by its circumstances, and according to the spontaneous justice of the community. In time crime would be completely eliminated, not only because of public disapproval, but because the transition to a thrift agrarian economy will deprive it of its most important motivation[32].

Unlike the conventional image of the bomb carrying anarchist, about to change world order by means of a bloody revolution, Godwin is a scathing opponent to all those who preach the immediate dissolution of any government. He even attacks Locke's liberal argument, and claims that nations do not have the right to usurp their government just because it has supposedly violated the social contract or jeopardized customary rights – As long as a nation is not mature enough for life in a state of liberation, all resistance is unjustified. Moreover, even though in his introduction to Political Justice he gives much credit to the French Revolution, admitting that it had been the primal incentive for writing his book, he also contends that turmoil and violence will never bring about ideal order. Only when the majority of society is convinced, the chains will break and fall off by themselves:

"Revolutions are the produce of passion, not of sober and tranquil reason"[33].

It is also worth noticing that Godwin speaks about "the dissolution of political government" and not about the dissolution of the state in general. There are many possibilities to define 'state' (e.g., Godwin's own federation of parishes), and a definition that does not include political government is not only possible but may be very probable as well.

There are of course other prominent anarchists, whose views differ in various aspects and degrees from those of Godwin, some of which will be alluded to further on in the relevant context. A proper disclosure at this point will reveal that Godwin has been chosen as a model representative of anarchism for the purpose of this paper due to two main reasons: The first is that Godwin and Hegel were contemporaries – they were both ardent readers of Rousseau, were both well acquainted with the writings of Enlightenment philosophers and the Scottish school of historians and political economists such as Adam Smith, and most important of all, they both lived at the time of the French Revolution and were profoundly influenced by it. We do not have any written proof that Hegel was acquainted with Godwin's writings, but it is a possibility that cannot be altogether ruled out. The Enquiry Concerning Political Justice was published in 1793, and Godwin was quite a prominent figure on the philosophical scene at that time[34]. The second reason is the writer's contention that although anarchism has customarily been tied with destructive, chaotic, left-wing politics, it should rather be comprehended as a Hegelian sublation of any autocratic government, which is replaced, in a higher phase of social development, by a non-coercive, non-authoritarian mutual co-operation. Moreover, it is our belief that anarchism is more closely affiliated with the liberalist Laissez-faire worldview than with any Despotism of the Masses, which would keep government at its position of exerting absolute power and control:

"It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority. For there is a reserve of latent power in the masses, which, if it is called into play, the minority can seldom resist. But from the absolute will of an entire people there is no appeal, no refuge but treason"[35].

As Richard Day argues, most contemporary radical social movements[36] do not strive to take control of the state; instead, they attempt to develop new forms of self-organization that can run in parallel with – or as alternatives to – existing forms of social, political, and economic organization. This is to say that they follow a logic of affinity rather than one of hegemony[37]. Therefore, to make the all-important distinction, we shall henceforth use "Insurrectionism" to refer to the first type, often brought about by the exertion of absolute freedom in the early stages of revolutions, and "Anarchism" for the latter, when the reconciliation of negations have come into effect.

[1] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 165.

[2] The dispute between the different liberal schools as to the role and importance of the state eventually caused the disintegration and disappearance of the liberal party in England at the end of the 19th century.

[3] Johannes Althusius, 1557-1638

[4] Lao-tze, Tao Te Ching, Seventy-five:

            Why are the people starving?

            Because the rulers eat up the money in taxes…

            Why are the people rebellious?

            Because the rulers interfere too much…

            Why do the people think so little of death?

            Because the rulers demand too much of life…

[5] Chuang Tzu, Basic Writings, translated by Burton Watson, Columbia University Press, 1964.

[6] Godwin's fame blew sky-high all at once, and he became one of the most esteemed figures of the period. He was referred to as 'the Philosopher' or 'the Grand Master', and people called themselves 'Godwinites'; his impact on young radical intellectuals such as Wordsworth, Southey, Coleridge and Shelley, was tremendous. But his decline came as fast as his rise. Within two years the public mood had changed, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey, turned against him, and he became the scapegoat for the loyalist reaction under Pitt's repression, which saw in him the disciple of Rousseau and Helvétius, the forerunners of terror. Godwin was married to the radical feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and his daughter Mary (author of "Frankenstein") became the second wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

[7] William Godwin, Inquiry Concerning Political Justice, V, XXIV, p. 554.

[8] Hegel is still preparing for his Konsistorialexam in Stuttgart at that time.

[9] Political Justice, II, I, p. 167.

[10] Ibid, II, I, p. 167 ff.

[11] Ibid, III, III, p. 216.

[12] Ibid, p. 217, ff.

[13] Ibid, II, V, p. 197.

[14] Ibid, II, II, p. 175.

[15] Ibid, Summary of Principles, V, p. 77.

[16] Ibid, II, V, pp. 197-198.

[17] Ibid, VI, I, p. 556.

[18] Ibid, II, V, p. 198.

[19] Ibid, III, VI, p. 242.

[20] Ibid, III, VI, p. 243.

[21] Ibid, III, VI, pp. 243-244 ff.

[22] Ibid, III, VI, pp. 247-248.

[23] Ibid, VII, VIII, p. 688 ff.

[24] Ibid, VII, I, p. 633.

[25] Ibid, V, XXIV, p. 553.

[26] Ibid, VI, VII, p. 610.

[27] Ibid, V, XXII, p. 549.

[28] Ibid, V, XXII, p. 551.

[29] Ibid, IV, VI, pp. 312-313.

[03] Ibid, IV, III, p. 289.

[31] Ibid, IV, VI, p.314.

[32] Ibid, VII, VIII, p. 694; VIII, II, p. 710; VIII, VI, pp. 744-747.

[33] Ibid, III, VII, p. 252.

[34] Cf. note 79 above.

[35] John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, First Baron Acton of Aldenham [Lord Acton], The History of Freedom in Antiquity, 1877.

[36] Godwinian anarchism, although not quite contemporary, would definitely be on that list.

[37] Richard J.F. Day, Gramsci is Dead, London, Pluto Press 2005.


מאת: wageslave

Old, sick, wise, and disillusioned.