William Godwin


English Social Reformer, Philosopher, Journalist and Novelist

Author Quotes

Government was intended to suppress injustice, but it offers new occasions and temptations for the commission of it.

In proportion as men are made to understand their true interests, they will conduct themselves wisely.

Nor is it a valid objection to say "that, by such a rule, we are making every man a judge in his own case." In the courts of morality it cannot be otherwise; a pure and just system of thinking admits not of the existence of any infallible judge to whom we can appeal. It might indeed be further objected "that, by this rule, men will be called upon to judge in the moment of passion and partiality, instead of being referred to the past decisions of their cooler reason." But this also is an inconvenience inseparable from human affairs. We must and ought to keep our selves open, to the last moment, to the influence of such considerations as may appear worthy to influence us. To teach men that they must not trust their own understandings is not the best scheme for rendering them virtuous and consistent. On the contrary, to inure them to consult their understanding is the way to render it worthy of becoming their director and guide.

Strange that men, from age to age, should consent to hold their lives at the breath of another, merely that each in his turn may have a power of acting the tyrant according to the law! Oh, God! give me poverty! Shower upon me all the imaginary hardships of human life! I will receive them with all thankfulness. Turn me a prey to the wild beasts of the desert, so I be never again the victim of man, dressed in the gore-dripping robes of authority! Suffer me at least to call life, the pursuits of life, my own! Let me hold it at the mercy of the elements, of the hunger of the beasts, or the revenge of barbarians, but not of the cold-blooded prudence of monopolists and kings!

The primary, or earliest class of human pleasures, is the pleasures of the external senses.

We find the thinking principle within us to be uniform and simple; in consequence of which we are entitled to conclude, that it is in every respect the proper subject of education and persuasion, and is susceptible of unlimited improvement. There is no conduct, in itself reasonable, which the refutation of error, and dissipating of uncertainty, will not make appear to be such. There is no conduct which can be shown to be reasonable, the reasons of which may not sooner or later be made impressive, irresistible and matter of habitual recollection. Lastly, there is no conduct, the reasons of which are thus conclusive and thus communicated, which will not infallibly and uniformly be adopted by the man to whom they are communicated.

Government will not fail to employ education to strengthen its hands and perpetuate its institutions.

It has an unhappy effect upon the human understanding and temper, for a man to be compelled in his gravest investigation of an argument, to consider, not what is true, but what is convenient. The lawyer never yet existed who has not boldly urged an objection which he knew to be fallacious, or endeavored to pass off a weak reason for a strong one. Intellect is the greatest and most sacred of all endowments; and no man ever trifled with it, defending an action to-day which he had arraigned yesterday, or extenuating an offence on one occasion, which, soon after, he painted in the most atrocious colors, with absolute impunity. Above all, the poet, whose judgment should be clear, whose feelings should be uniform and sound, whose sense should be alive to every impression and hardened to none, who is the legislator of generations and the moral instructor of the world, ought never to have been a practicing lawyer, or ought speedily to have quitted so dangerous an engagement.

Nor is there any reason to believe that sound conviction will be less permanent in its influence than sophistry and error.

Study with desire is real activity; without desire it is but the semblance and mockery of activity.

The proper method for hastening the decay of error is not by brute force, or by regulation which is one of the classes of force, to endeavor to reduce men to intellectual uniformity; but on the contrary by teaching every man to think for himself.

What... can be more shameless than for society to make an example of those whom she has goaded to the breach of order, instead of amending her own institutions which, by straining order into tyranny, produced the mischief?

Government, as it was forced upon mankind by their vices, so has it commonly been the creature of their ignorance and mistake.

It is absurd to expect the inclinations and wishes of two human beings to coincide, through any long period of time. To oblige them to act and live together is to subject them to some inevitable potion of thwarting, bickering, and unhappiness.

Obey this may be right but beware of reverence. Government is nothing but regulated force force is its appropriate claim upon your attention. It is the business of individuals to persuade the tendency of concentrated strength, is only to give consistency and permanence to an influence more compendious than persuasion.

Sure I arn't a cabbage, that if you pull it out of the ground it must die.

The real or supposed rights of man are of two kinds, active and passive; the right in certain cases to do as we list; and the right we possess to the forbearance or assistance of other men.

What can be more clear and sound in explanation, than the love of a parent to his child?

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.

It is probable that there is no one thing that it is of eminent importance for a child to learn. The true object of juvenile education, is to provide, against the age of five and twenty, a mind well regulated, active, and prepared to learn. Whatever will inspire habits of industry and observation, will sufficiently answer this purpose.

Of Justice: In a loose and general view I and my neighbor are both of us men; and of consequence entitled to equal attention. But, in reality, it is probable that one of us is a being of more worth and importance than the other. A man is of more worth than a beast; because, being possessed of higher faculties, he is capable of a more refined and genuine happiness. In the same manner the illustrious archbishop of Cambray was of more worth than his valet, and there are few of us that would hesitate to pronounce, if his palace were in flames, and the life of only one of them could be preserved, which of the two ought to be preferred. But there is another ground of preference, beside the private consideration of one of them being further removed from the state of a mere animal. We are not connected with one or two percipient beings, but with a society, a nation, and in some sense with the whole family of mankind. Of consequence that life ought to be preferred which will be most conducive to the general good. In saving the life of Fenelon, suppose at the moment he conceived the project of his immortal Telemachus, should have been promoting the benefit of thousands, who have been cured by the perusal of that work of some error, vice and consequent unhappiness. Nay, my benefit would extend further than this; for every individual, thus cured, has become a better member of society, and has contributed in his turn to the happiness, information, and improvement of others. Suppose I had been myself the valet; I ought to have chosen to die, rather than Fenelon should have died. The life of Fenelon was really preferable to that of the valet. But understanding is the faculty that perceives the truth of this and similar propositions; and justice is the principle that regulates my conduct accordingly. It would have been just in the valet to have preferred the archbishop to himself. To have done otherwise would have been a breach of justice. Suppose the valet had been my brother, my father, or my benefactor. This would not alter the truth of the proposition. The life of Fenelon would still be more valuable than that of the valet; and justice, pure, unadulterated justice, would still have preferred that which was most valuable. Justice would have taught me to save the life of Fenelon at the expense of the other. What magic is there in the pronoun my, that should justify us in overturning the decisions of impartial truth? My brother or my father may be a fool or a profligate, malicious, lying or dishonest. If they be, of what consequence is it that they are mine? [on Fenelon and his Valet]

The adherents of the old systems of government [aristocracy] affirm "that the imbecility of the human mind is such as to make it unadvisable that man should be trusted with himself; that his genuine condition is that of perpetual pupillage that he is regulated by passions and partial views, and cannot be governed by pure reason and truth; that it is the business of a wise man not to subvert, either in himself or others, delusions which are useful, and prejudices which are salutary; and that he is the worst enemy of his species who attempts, in whatever mode, to introduce a form of society where no advantage is taken to restrain us from vices by illusion, from which we cannot be restrained by reason."

The true standard of the conduct of one man towards another is justice.

What indeed is life, unless so far as it is enjoyed It does not merit the name.

He that loves reading has everything within his reach. He has but to desire, and he may possess himself of every species of wisdom to judge and power to perform.

Author Picture
First Name
Last Name
Birth Date
Death Date

English Social Reformer, Philosopher, Journalist and Novelist