Monday, April 02, 2007

William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft.


We are invited to dinner at the London home of radical publisher Joseph Johnson. It is a crisp and windy evening -- November 13, 1791. These are exciting times. The world is changing, yet again. Revolution is exploding everywhere. First America, now France is on fire. The "Highgate" section of London is filled with political radicals and starving artists (some things never change), as the globe spins a little faster on its axis. I wonder what that neighborhood is like now?

The guest of honor tonight is Tom Paine, best-selling author of The Rights of Man, who is scheduled to depart for Paris in the morning to take his place as delegate for the Pas de Calais in the French Revolutionary Convention.

Among Mr. Johnson's authors are the new "poetic rabble," Paine, Priestly, Coleridge, Wordsworth and Blake. The atmosphere is "electric" -- to refer to Mr. Franklin's mysterious new power -- at countless such dinners at locations all over London.

There is much talk in London and Philadelphia of revolution, reform, and of the "Golden Age of Liberty" that has dawned across the channel.

Two young writers are present at this dinner -- one (astonishingly!) a woman, a "female person"! -- earning her bread by the use of her pen, reviewing, doing what work she can, demanding a man's freedom of opinion, action and thought. Such bizarre eccentrics are rare even in that great metropolis that serves as the capitol of a new empire. We may need our smelling salts at the shock of it all.

The writers sit next to each other after being introduced by Mr. Johnson. They are Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. She is thirty-two; he is thirty-five, neither has yet published the works that will make them famous or notorious: Vindication of the Rights of Woman did not appear until 1792; Political Justice followed in 1793.

Mary Wollstonecraft was described in the London press as a "female person" rather than a "lady."

Mary is curvy, fair, strong with quick, darting eyes and witty. Godwin is more cautious, methodical in exposition, pleasant-featured but not handsome, droll and languid in his humor. Godwin is far more learned, better-read and -educated than Mary. He is a graduate of Hoxton College, created by "dissenters" denied admission to Oxford and Cambridge.

Both authors may be described as geniuses in an age of genius. Yet I think that Mary's achievement is greater than Godwin's or even, shockingly, more impressive than Edmund Burke's astonishing literary talent and works!

Burke was Mary's fearsome rival concerning the merits of the French Revolution.

Mary Wollstonecraft can only be compared with -- well, there is no comparison available. This is a tribute to her singularity and importance.

Mary Wollstonecraft is a "supernova" in the history of English letters and culture. Mary wrote several works, which are deservedly listed among the greatest books of the period, one of which is a philosophical masterpiece. However, she accomplished something even more impressive than writing great books, as did Godwin, though to a lesser extent:

Mary Wollstonecraft invented a unique character for whom there is no genuine precedent in English history, a character every bit as fascinating, quirky, intriguing, unpredictable and surprising as Don Quixote, Gulliver, Tom Jones or Moll Flanders -- or the later inventions of Miss Austen and Mr. Dickens. Mary invented "Mary Wollstonecraft" together with popularizing what is still, even today, the "bizarre" notion of political, moral and sexual EQUALITY for men and women.

Pass me the smelling salts.

Given Mary's starting point in life and the century in which she lived -- most of the men she met were assholes, in a not-so-nice sense, to say nothing of her social circumstances -- Mary's mere survival would be an achievement roughly equal to writing Hume's works.

To have done more than survive and overcome overwhelmingly adverse circumstances in order to transform herself into a leading intellectual and writer -- living on her royalties, discarding all social conventions to live with men, bear children "out of wedlock," travel to strange countries, show up in Paris for a revolution that was setting the world on fire, think and express no one's thoughts but her own -- is unprecedented even in an age of discovery and transformations.

Mary gave birth to two daughters, but also to a revolution that was unnoticed for some time -- "The Modern Feminist Revolution." ("Master and Commander.")

We fail to appreciate the social ostracism and hostility that Mary encountered because of her sexual freedom and economic as well as philosophical independence. She was vilified and insulted. The difficulties faced by Godwin and Wollstonecraft in their union were the result of more than their philosophical reservations about marriage, but were due to their revolutionary politics and questioning of gender roles that were seen as "God's law."

Godwin believed and said that sexual unions should result from consent by both parties and be terminable at will, equally, by either party. He opposed the institution of marriage. His offer of marriage was made when Mary became pregnant because: 1) She was regarded by many as already married with a daughter, when it became clear that she was not married to Mr. Imlay, her "prospects dimmed." 2) A second "bastard" child from her union with Godwin would have resulted in an Oscar Wilde-like banishment from all respectable society -- for Mary. Men would be subject to far less censure or even the occasional slap on the back for such transgressions. Both were fully aware of the insults and gossip they would face by marrying. Even among their "friends" and so-called "fellow writers" in the Anti-Jacobin Review, (1797), p. 1, comments were far from polite:

"Mary's theory, that it is the right of women to indulge their inclinations with every man they like, far from being new is as old as prostitution."

This was one of the nicer things said by her political rivals about Mary. A comparison may be made to the later experiences of Mary Ann (or "Marian") Evans, better known as "George Eliot," and G.H. Lewes. One scholar notes that among intellectual men of Godwin's aquaintance, "to be someone's mistress was to be someone's whore." (Philp, p. 186.)

Godwin's decision to marry may have cost him a great deal professionally. Yet he did not hesitate or regret that decision. William and Mary remained highly independent, while loving one another very much. It was Godwin who gave Mary strength to perserve and ignore the "bleating fools." Notice this exchange between them:

Mary to William: "I am sometimes painfully humble -- write me but a line, just to assure me, that you have been thinking of me with affection, now and then since we parted --"

This was shortly after their union became intensely sexual. Mary was shocked to discover love-making with mild-mannered Godwin superior to anything she had known before -- "more tranquil and heavenly."

It is a truth universally acknowledged that philosophically-minded men are always astonishingly talented lovers. I urge women to bear this point in mind at all times. ("Oh, to be India" and "What you will ...")

William to Mary: "Humble! For heaven's sake, be proud, be arrogant! You are -- but I cannot tell you what you are, I cannot yet find the circumstance about you that allies you to the frailty of our nature. I will hunt it out." Ibid., at p. 186.

The Feminist Revolution remains unfinished. It is a revolution in which I serve as a humble soldier in the male division. We bring up the rear, as it were. We provide medical attention to the wounded, usually the enemy.

Godwin was among the first male thinkers (and he was a great thinker, possibly the best philosopher of anarchism in the English language, despite his occasional silliness) to accept, then welcome (and admire) as well as defend new freedoms for women and men from all conventional constraints. ("A Doll's Aria.")

Years after Mary's death there was a second marriage in Godwin's life to Mary Jane Clairmont, but there was only one great passion and romance for him. As Godwin's death approached, age 80, forty years or so after Mary's death, he asked to be buried next to Mary -- as her companion.

Many feminist scholars are unfair to Godwin, who is a prominent author and thinker in his own right, still in print today. Godwin treated Mary as an equal, loved her, respected her, and described her as (in important ways) his teacher in life.

I say the same of all of the women I have loved in my life.

Godwin has been criticized for his candid memoir of Mary's life. I am sure that Godwin was aware that both of them would be subjects of scholarly attention. He knew that Mary's actions would be examined and judged by others. He wished to tell her side of the story, disclosing all aspects of her life and defending them before others would do so.

Godwin's strategy ensured that Mary would have a chance to be judged by posterity, fairly, and that her merits might be determined in a less bigoted age. Godwin defended Mary's life throughout his own life -- and he was right to do so. (See my story "Beauty and the Beast.")

Godwin raised Mary's daughters, Fanny Imlay (named for Mary's first love, probably Platonic) "Fanny Blood"; and their only child, also called Mary, eventual "authoress" of Frankenstein. Mary Godwin became the wife of the brilliant and unstable Romantic poet, Percy Blythe Shelley.

I wonder why Miss Godwin was attracted to such a man? "Frankenstein," indeed.

"Mary Shelley" remained close to her father, despite allegations that Godwin was an authoritarian figure. He certainly educated Mary and Fanny quite well, exactly as sons would have been educated at the time, making both young women "monstrous" (or formidable) to their contemporary suitors.

Fanny committed suicide in her early twenties, as a result of an unhappy love affair, for which Godwin does not seem to bear responsibility. Father and sister were devastated by this death of a member of the small family.

A fascinating aspect of both Godwin and Wollstonecraft has not been noticed by the authors who have written about them, or even by themselves, as acute as they were. Perhaps they could not appreciate this point for historical reasons:

Mary and William saw themselves as advocates of the "cause of reason" against superstition and social injustice. Their few philosophical disagreements are most interesting, as is their respectful and loving agreement to disagree when necessary. Both philosophers are listed among leading figures of the Enlightenment.

To some extent, they certainly were advocates for the Enlightenment. More curious and important, however, are the Huizinga-like (see The Waning of the Middle Ages) forward-looking tendencies in the movements of both of their minds. William and Mary were early Romantics.

Professor Huizinga was interested in historical epochs in which two intellectual "regimes" -- or Foucauldian "epistemes" -- coincide, one intellectual worldview that is disappearing as a new one is emerging.

The final years of the eighteenth century brought together the culmination of the Enlightenment's celebration of reason (Kant) with the birth of Romanticism (Rousseau). These dialectical forces can be detected in both the American and French revolutions. These entangled worldviews coincided in many of the leading thinkers of the age. They come together in Hegel, later in Marx, and were reflected in the tensions among America's Framers of the Constitution. ("Manifesto For the Unfinished American Revolution.")

Godwin's embryonic socialism ("altruism" was his word) is an admitted influence on Marx who also read and admired Mary Wollstonecraft's works.

In one of her last letters, Mary responded to the public vilification, revealing an intuition of her forward-looking intellect and role in history which is just the opposite of Edmund Burke's intellectual orientation, suggesting that she knew that her writings would last for many years and that they were important documents in women's struggle for equality.

Burke's mind was backward-looking. He made use of the rhetoric of the Enlightenment, but was really medieval in his values. For Burke, politics is the reconciliation of a "fallen humanity" with the "dangers of liberty" -- echoing Augustine and Machiavelli, not Rousseau.

Burke admired while opposing the "dangerous" Rousseau, fearing the "anarchy" celebrated by Godwin and Wollstonecraft. "Rousseau," Burke warns, "should not be read by women."

One shudders to think of what Burke would say of the Marquis de Sade. Godwin's secularized Christianity is much more optimistic about human nature:

"Those who are bold enough to advance before the age they live in," Mary writes, "and to throw off, by the force of their own minds, the prejudices which the maturing reason of the world will in time disavow, must learn to brave censure. We ought not to be too anxious respecting the opinions of others. -- I am not fond of vindications. -- Those who know me will suppose that I acted from principle -- Nay, as we say in general give credit for worth, in proportion as we possess it -- I am easy with regard to the opinions of the best [majority] of mankind -- I rest on my own." (Philp, p. 189.)

These were the words of a philosopher described by Godwin as "a free woman," one who surely "advanced before the age in which she lived.

Godwin and Wollstonecraft were deeply influenced by Rousseau, who also had an impact on Marx. Kant, also an admirer of Rousseau, took some time to cross the waters from Europe. Thanks to Coleridge, Kant and later Hegel (first translated by Ms. Helen Macfarlane), shook up the Brits.

We tend to forget that English philosophers and political libertarians led the way in Europe. There is a powerful tradition of English philosophical thought -- linked to political experimentation and struggles over the meaning of "liberty" -- that includes those feisty Americans.

Jefferson versus Hamilton has a counterpart in Wollstonecraft versus Burke.

Thomas Reid is a strong influence on Mary Wollstonecraft, both stylistically and in terms of Reid's fondness for British "common sense," so ably displayed today by Hugh Grant and Tony Blair to say nothing of Lady Gaga.

Mary was no one's disciple, offering sharp criticisms of Reid and everyone else, including the man she loved who helped her with "grammar." (I am sure he did.)

Neither of these amazing persons were much liked or understood by their contemporaries, with few exceptions, and both were said to be "unlovable."

History has acknowledged Godwin and Wollstonecraft to be among the greatest "lovers" and morally-committed "Revolutionary" figures of their age.

Is it possible that their contemporaries were mistaken about both William and Mary? I think so.

The unroyal William and Mary were embryonic Romantics, as I say, who were way ahead of their era. "Sense" and "sensibility" thrived in their hearts before these terms were in common use. Godwin's Utopianism and passions -- given expressive form in the cool philosophical prose of an "age of disputation" -- were the more feminine celebrations of "feeling" (he never realized this until his dialogue with Mary) and idealism about human nature whereas Mary displayed a more masculine and sharp-eyed wariness of human foibles, social injustices, was angrier at oppression and never "starry-eyed" about human nature.

Experiencing the terror in France may have had something to do with Mary's so-called "masculine" wariness and fear of unlimited power in any person's hands.

Yes, I am using these terms (masculine and feminine) in counterintuitive and provocative ways.

Nothing pleased William and Mary more than literary rebellion. These fascinating people were reinventing "masculine" and "feminine" roles in politics and society, also in their relationship and for their daughters as well as future generations.

Mary's reading of Dr. Thomas Reid (English "common sense" and human "goodness") was balanced by an appreciation of the warnings concerning human nature offered by both Hobbes and Hume. Godwin also admired the thinkers of the British Enlightenment. He had much in common with Jeremy Bentham's later utilitarianism. Mary preferred Dr. John Locke's defense of rights to confidence in human progress.

People who know at first hand what it feels like to be deprived of their rights are adamant about defending them.

Mary anticipated much of the best thinking of British idealism and existentialist theories of transcendence as well as the philosophers of emotion in the phenomenological tradition.

Mary Wollstonecraft would initiate the line of thinkers who are respectful of the "wisdom of emotions" that includes Simone Weil, Simone de Beauvoir, Iris Murdoch, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Paul Ricoeur, Jacques Derrida, Cornel West, Angela Davis, Martha Nussbaum and Judith Butler. ("Stuart Hampshire and Iris Murdoch On Freedom of Mind" and "David Hume's Philosophical Romance.")

Mary was the passionate lover, ruled by her emotions in a way that seems bizarre to several scholars today, who fail to note that her "Romantic extravagance" would be celebrated only a generation later in English literature.

Mary was also the philosopher of Enlightenment reason and rights. At sixteen, Mary might have been Miss Austen's later protagonist Catherine Moreland in Northanger Abbey, but at twenty-five Mary would be Byron's "Don Juan." Mary was ahead of both characters. Godwin was always "Caleb Williams:

"Tragically, [Mary] never learned to discipline her emotions as she trained her intellect. She used her mind lest it rust; but perhaps she abused her heart.

Barbarah H. Solomon and Paula S. Berggren, eds. "Introduction," in A Mary Wollstonecraft Reader (New York: Signet, 1983), p. 11.

This comment fails to appreciate that for Mary (and all Romantics) to use the heart is to abuse or subject it to pain. To feel is often to hurt. However, hurting is preferable to the avoidance of feelings. What is crucial in appreciating these two people is to realize that the divisions within their psyches mirrored the ruptures in their world that were bringing about the end of a social order (Enlightenment) as another age was born (Romanticism). The celebrated couple were witnesses to revolutions, even as they experienced psychological revolutions themselves, separately and collectively. (See "Reds" and "Jefferson in Paris.")

We are also living in a historical moment that can only be described as transitory -- more than most -- in that modernity and the Enlightenment project, including Godwin's optimism about the future and human nature, have faltered at the gates of Auschwitz.

Something new, after modernity -- a postmodernist, antihumanistic, structuralist-socialist -- ethos is being born. Time is speeding up.

It is not the Utopian, but the freedom-loving and communitarian side of Godwin, which prefers a free civil society to political order, that now resonates with readers. See Marx's essay "On the Jewish Question." (Despite the alteration in the spacing of paragraphs in "Umberto Eco and the Semiotics of Power," I refer the reader to that essay for definitions of key terms.)

Mary's concern with "zones of entitlement" (rights) privileged against any social entity -- a concern later echoed by Mill in his essay "On Liberty" -- is also highly relevant for us. Mary, unlike Godwin, favored socializing education in order to make it available to all. If Wollstonecraft were around today she would insist on the same socialized service regarding health care. I agree with those hopes.

Godwin was suspicious of government because (for him) it meant Mr. Pitt's repressions. Mary saw further than Godwin. She sensed what government might become and provide -- a responsible, democratic form of social equality where power is shared.

Wollstonecraft also recognized the cognitive power of feelings and insisted on "complicating" the Enlightenment concept of reason, though she would not have used this terminology, to account for emotive understandings in law and politics. ("Is clarity enough?")

Among late-eighteenth century London's radical intellectuals and young revolutionaries, only one woman was accepted as an equal to Godwin, Holcroft, and later Sheridan and Wordsworth -- she was known simply as "Wollstonecraft."

This "status" was a significant achievement in itself, but when combined with Mary's fearlessness in advocacy on behalf of her sex, children, and the poor, one cannot help being dazzled and charmed by this brave and brilliant woman.

Mary Wollstonecraft is a philosophical ancestor of the British idealists, especially F.H. Bradley and John McTaggart. This is entirely apart from her importance to feminist thought. This contribution to British thought is an unrecognized aspect of her legacy, not discussed or explored by her excellent biographer.

If you are a student of philosophy -- even if you have no interest in feminism -- you should read Mary Wollstonecraft. Today, Mary Wollstonecraft would be listed as a Continental thinker, like Gillian Rose or Judith Butler, Angela Davis or Assata Shakur.

Mary Wollstonecraft is one of the figures in history one comes to love. Her battles against madness, attempts at suicide, brief stay at Bedlam after one suicide attempt, constant struggle against despair and frustration, social stigma and poverty -- all of these things resulted from an unwillingness to remain within the "small territory allotted to women."

Mary Wollstonecraft refused to be a slave and insisted on an equal freedom for every woman and man. ("'The Stepford Wives': A Movie Review.")

Godwin came to agree with her view of sexual relations as expressive of freedom between equals. He was an unusual man by late eighteenth century standards, perhaps even today. Godwin is unfairly denigrated by many feminist experts on Wollstonecraft's writings and life because they require a male villain for what is a systemic problem in all Western societies. Godwin was not Ted Hughes.

Mary was a philosopher of genius. Mary was also, proudly, a free woman in marriage and motherhood. She was a devoted lover, highly sexually-charged, wife, mother, revolutionary, thinker, artist -- and refused to accept a conflict between these roles or a limitation to any one of them.

Wollstonecraft was perhaps the first woman in the modern world to live the tensions of her age intensely.

Godwin was a philosopher and novelist (more financially successful and esteemed, initially, at both genres than Mary), and perhaps the first "new man" in the struggle to LIVE feminist principles.

Mary's views might be said to form the basis of today's Democrats' policy positions in America; Godwin would probably be placed among conservative-Democrats or liberal-Republicans because he was highly liberal concerning private life since he was fearful of government action turning into oppression.

I am probably closer to Mary's politics than to William's cautious Jeffersonian-style anarchism tempered by compassion for the poor. Both British "radicals" were against slavery in all of its forms.

The men that Mary thought she wanted and pursued were, as we say in New York, "shit heads." On the other hand, the man who loved her, quietly and unknown to himself at first, whom she came to see as the great love of her life, was a surprise. Neither of them fully appreciated what they felt for some time, partly because their emotions were not yet acceptable or permissible in their culture.

How did Wollstonecraft miss Godwin's importance?

Well, Godwin did not fit the pattern of men she had known from childhood: Godwin was not loud or domineering, brash, abusive, rude, insulting or dismissive of women's intelligence, like her father had been. Godwin did not wish to command or rule over her.

Mary's father was a violent alcoholic and may have sexually molested Wollstonecraft before her thirteenth birthday.

Mary must have wondered whether Godwin was really a man or a visitor from another planet. A little of both, she decided. Once Mary understood what Godwin meant in her life, she never let him go.

Godwin, for a time, was the most important philosopher in England and -- whatever his later shifts in fortune -- was always a brilliant and original personality, a man who might have opted for a "submissive or servile female companion." So many "successful" men at the time (even today?) prefer such a woman. In 1793, William Hazlitt said of Godwin:

"Godwin blazed as a sun in the firmament of reputation: no one was more talked of, more looked up to, more sought after, and wherever liberty, truth, justice was the theme, his name was not far off; no work in our time gave such a blow to the philosophical mind of the country as the celebrated Enquiry Concerning Political Justice.

William Hazlitt, Spirit of the Age (London: Everyman, 1964), p. 202. See the discussion with analysis by Issac Krammick, in his introduction to William Godwin's, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (London: Penguin Classics, 1985).

Unlike commentators who note their mutual antagonism at the dinner for Tom Paine, I believe that they fell in love that first evening, but didn't know it. Mary alternated dominance of the conversation with a scholarly and equally opinionated Godwin leaving Paine and other guests in spellbound silence as each of them took a turn at center stage.

"Mr. Godwin" was a trifle inept with the ladies. He offered this brilliant advice, for example, on the subject of future sexual relations:

"Reasonable men now eat and drink, not from love of pleasure, but because eating and drinking are essential to our healthful existence. Reasonable men will [in the future] propagate the species, [by themselves?] not because a certain pleasure is annexed to this action, but because it is right the species should be propagated; and the manner in which they exercise this function will be regulated by the 'dictates' [no pun intended] of reason and duty.

Political Justice, VIII (6), p. 383.

What woman could resist such dazzling charm or so unusual a compliment? To be likened to a hamburger must turn a woman's head. However, it was Godwin who turned out to be Mary's burger with fries.

Verbal jousting is "sex by other means" when both persons are at a significant social distance having just met and living in an age of strict conventions. Godwin was much less experienced in such matters. He may have been close to a virgin when he met Mary. Mary was not exactly a shrewd estimator of male character, however, despite her greater worldliness:

"She would respond with strong feelings to men whose interest in her was only superficial."

The Mary Wollstonecraft Reader, p. 2

This is a problem that is not unknown, even today, among women.

Godwin and Wollstonecraft disagreed on very little, as I say. Shockingly, they even respected and admired each other when they disagreed. In their most significant philosophical disagreement, I think that Mary is right and Godwin is mistaken. However, I think Godwin is accurate in his insistence on freedom of thought in personal life and loving relations. Godwin helped to theorize and articulate for Mary her own intuitions about personal life, allowing her to understand and come to terms with her need for freedom and equality -- the two great virtues/values of Modernity and also passion as the key to the Romantic age.

Godwin's "Utopian anarchism" (there is a direct line from Godwin to Chomsky), was influential on the Utopian-socialists of a later generation (Proudhon, early Marx) -- as well as the Romantics on the Continent -- also giving Mary hope and acceptance for her own philosophy of women's liberation. She desperately needed encouragement and support, as a matter of (and this is no exaggeration) "life or death." Godwin was always available to nurse her back to health and to encourage her work, after Mary's suicide attempt following the final affair with number one "shit head," Mr. Imlay.

Mary learned her lesson after the catastrophic relation with Imlay, earning a measure of eternal feminine wisdom: "This guy Godwin is not the most exciting character, but he loves me and is good, dependable and kind-hearted." Mary decided, as they used to say on an old t.v. commercial, "I think I'll keep him." And she did.

On her deathbed, Mary's pronouncement concerning Godwin's character and love for her is definitive: "He is the kindest, best man in the world." (Mary to Eliza Fenwick, in Todd, p. 456.)

What is the crucial philosophical issue on which the two disagreed?

Rights in politics and law. I am on the side of Mary, the rights-theorist. I also think there is an important insight in Godwin's communitarian position. I cannot emphasize enough the significance of Mary's achievement. She prevailed, in my opinion, in her published exchanges with Edmund Burke. Burke was one of the foremost polemicists of the century, who had every advantage over Mary in education, opportunity, wealth and publication. Mary's only advantage was her greater genius. Mary was correct in her defense of rights and the reality of free will, within constraints, which she knew only too well from masculine attempts to deprive her of free will "for her own good."

Mary opted for freedom even against Godwin's social necessity whose previously unrecognized importance she acknowledges "readily enough." Even in disagreement, then, Mary learned from Godwin; whereas Godwin learned -- as he appreciated later in life -- that Mary was correct to insist on the importance of what Bentham described as "nonsense on stilts," inviolable rights.

Mary Wollstonecraft was a self-educated woman. She could not have attended any university in England (talk about social necessity!), she could not own property, as a married woman, and her "rights" -- even to custody of her children -- were circumscribed in English law at the time and made to depend on her husband's will.

Where did these people come from? How did Godwin have the courage to abandon a strict religious background and safe "ministry" to become an impoverished London radical in love with a woman demonized in her society as "a hyena in petticoats"? (Walpole!)

Where did Mary find models to invent herself? Like their counterparts in Boston in 1776 (my revolution was all about rights!), Paris in 1789, Vienna in 1848, Moscow in 1918, Havana in 1959 -- these eighteenth-century radicals "reinvented" the world. ("'Che': A Movie Review" and "Fidel Castro's 'History Will Absolve Me.'")


Step One of the Argument: Bishop Fenelon.

Godwin also speaks of rights mostly to the "sanctity of personal judgment." However, Godwin is primarily a social-necessitarian. He explains the disadvantages of women, for example, in terms of social obstacles and is fearful of government power, especially over private life. Godwin's sources are his early Christianity and life-long respect for deism, as symbolic of ethical truth. There is nothing vague about this belief.

For Godwin, the advantage for the group is more important than the individual's wishes, benefit or good. Individual rights must be sacrificed to social utility.

Mary disagrees while accepting the need for social reform -- especially in education. The Framers of the Bill of Rights also disagreed and privileged fundamental rights over encroaching legislative policy determinations.

Godwin develops a famous thought experiment and offers a controversial solution to argue his case. Incidentally, even utilitarians and other consequentialists argue that decisions concerning rights must be made publicly, in accordance with principles of due process. Secrecy is the enemy of freedom for rights theorists and utilitarians:

"Justice is a rule of conduct originating in the connection of one percipient being with another. A comprehensive maxim which has been laid down upon the subject is that 'we should love our neighbor as ourselves.' But this maxim, though possessing considerable merit as a popular principle, is not modelled with the strictness of philosophical accuracy."

Notice the elegance of Godwin's mind:

"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 [Fenelon] 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."

Political Justice, pp. 170-171.

One sees the influence of Godwin on Rawls who reacted against utilitarianism in the twentieth century by also defending the primacy of rights, accepting -- as did the "weird" utilitarian John Stuart Mill in defending "liberty" -- the priority of personal judgment in private matters against the pressure of the community. Love between people is not society's business. Godwin's influence on the later British Hegelians -- especially T.H. Green -- is also detectable in this passage. I can see the growing philosophical affinities between William and Mary. (Again: "Master and Commander.")

The problem not seen by Godwin is exactly who gets to be the valet and who is Fenelon? There are injustices "all the way down." Most likely, the person in the servile position, or a slave, will be of a different color and/or gender from kind-hearted Godwin who is thinking (perhaps) of himself and the other fellows at Hoxton College. To be sure, Godwin earned his "A" in social studies and, say, his classmate Booth received an "F." However, there were many clever men and ALL women who never attended -- or had a chance to attend -- prep school or college. Some persons who may have served as slaves (or servants) to keep the place going might well have earned an "A," or even "A+." Mary Wollstonecraft, for example, who responds:

"To account for, and excuse the tyranny of man, many ingenious arguments have been brought forward to prove, that the two sexes, in the acquirement of virtue, ought to aim at attaining a very different character: or to speak explicitly, women are not allowed to have sufficient strength of mind to acquire what really deserves the name of virtue. [They are determined to be valets?] Yet it should seem, allowing them to have souls, that there is but one way appointed by Providence to lead mankind [humanity] to either virtue or happiness ..."

Vindication of the Rights of Woman, p. 100.

Equality of education and opportunity, balancing of social and economic pressures in a more just society will have a lot to do with who gets to be Fenelon and who is the servant.

It is a whole lot easier to be "Edmund Burke," let us say, after life in a comfortable Manor House or a little stay at Oxford or Cambridge, even Trinity College which Burke attended, than to be Mary Wollstonecraft -- who manages to kick Burke's ass in debate -- after surviving hardship, early sexual abuse, social hostility, child care responsibility, denial of educational opportunities, poverty, while struggling to break into print and managing to feed her child.

Godwin admits this difference in "opportunity," but asks -- given the realities that we face -- what choice can we make "in reason"? Only one person can be saved. One alone provides a far greater potential benefit to humanity. Let us complicate matters further: Suppose that Fenelon is about to deliver a great work to humanity, a literary masterpiece or a cure for cancer. Let us further suppose that the person who is his valet happens to be someone you love, let us call her "Mary.

Do you save the person you love -- at the cost of this great potential benefit to humanity! -- including yourself and others that you may also love? Or do you save Fenelon and send nice flowers to the valet's funeral?

Godwin says: "You must save Fenelon." I disagree.

The social-communitarian position is never argued better than by Godwin. Yet I think it is mistaken. I will save the woman I love. The same goes for a child or anyone I love. Those I love come first, even over my own good or any "possible" future benefit to all. Now take a look at the choice between "two doors" offered to "Neo" in The Matrix: Reloaded. "But we know what you're going to do ..."

"Suppose I had been myself the valet," Godwin writes, "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."

No person's life is "preferable" to another's, William. All human beings are fundamentally morally equal. Think of your Christian learning. It is the Christian ethic that provides the basis for all theories of the dignity of humanity, prohibiting torture and enslavement, making the death penalty immoral, requiring societies to respect the creative and expressive works of persons.

No one's written work should be altered or destroyed before his or her eyes by others, with impunity, for their purposes (whatever they may be) in violation of rights of authorship, disregarding human autonomy and dignity. The violation of my Constitutional rights is the potential violation of the rights of all. ("Why I am not an ethical relativist" and "John Finnis and Ethical Cognitivism.")

In a situation of equality, Mary suggests that "affect" becomes "relevant to" the rationality of my choice and action. What do I feel for these people in danger? Is it "understanding" (reason) that perceives the truth of Godwin's choice? A "felicific calculus," perhaps? (Bentham) Like having sex only to procreate. Or eating to satisfy bodily need. Godwin says pleasure should be left out of both decisions, eating and sexual intercourse. Means and ends rationality -- as it were.

Such a policy is eminently rational, perhaps, but somewhat inhumane. It is lacking in feeling. Is "understanding" a faculty that is ever entirely without or totally distinguishable from feelings? I doubt it.

Mary did her best to teach her "better-educated" husband -- even as Godwin helped with her grammar and reading -- a deeper lesson than any Godwin taught her:

"She was reading [Godwin's] essays, especially those on education and social justice; they raised him in her esteem still further -- though she urged him to temper his severe rationalism by rereading Rousseau, who wrote about the irrational desires that had played such havoc with her life.

Janet Todd, Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life (London: Phoenix, 2000), p. 399. ("'The Prisoner': A Review of an AMC Television Series.")

Mary expresses doubts about Godwin's rationalistic objectivity in politics by suggesting that a lot depends on the kind of feelings involved in our calculations in all social choice situations. Emotions are welcome and necessary aspects of our thinking in such matters as opposed to mere brute sensations. Anticipating, directly, F.H. Bradley's logic of judgment that arises years later, Mary writes:

"We ought to beware of confounding mechanical instinctive sensations with emotions that reason deepens, and justly terms the feelings of humanity. [Compassion, care, equal respect, dignity.] This word discriminates the active exertions of virtue" -- which others have a RIGHT to receive from us -- "from the vague declamations of sensibility.

A Vindication of the Rights of Men, p. 30. See also, A.J. Ayer & Jane O'Grady, A Dictionary of Philosophical Quotations, p. 476.

A woman I love has a "right" to all of my actions on her behalf. The child we love has a right to our assistance no matter what burdens we endure to discharge this obligation. Faced with a tragic choice, where objective reason is at an impasse, I should be guided by emotion -- emotion governed by discipline and intelligence which is called "judgment."

Mary could definitely do the philosophy thing. She was about fifty years ahead of Godwin and everybody else in these opinions and in articulating her reasons for them. Mary kicked ass!

The difference between Godwin and Burke is that Godwin acknowledged Mary's help and respected her opinions, admitting publicly that they had learned from one another, saying how much she "taught" him. On the other hand, Walpole called Mary a "hyena in petticoats." To which Mary is alleged (by me) to have responded with hands on hip: "I never wear petticoats -- especially in the company of Mr. Godwin."

Burke merely described Mary, I believe, as "a philosophizing serpent." No doubt he said this as he defended the importance of chivalry:

"If chivalry had not died in France," Burke huffed, "a thousand swords would have risen to defend Marie Antoinette."

Not his sword, of course, since he was busy in Parliament and making money. Other swords might be raised on the French queen's behalf:

"What I wanted in this respect," Godwin writes of his occasional lack of feeling or emotional depth and imagination, "Mary possessed in a degree superior to any other person I ever knew. Her feelings had a character of peculiar strength and decision, and the discovery of them, whether in matters of taste or of moral virtue, she found herself unable to control.

Richard Howard, "A Philosophical Love Story: The Feminist and the Philosopher," in Sidetracks (New York: Random House, 2000), p. 231.

Why should Mary control her intuitive genius? Godwin came to see that she was right not to do so. Notice that the man who credits Mary Wollstonecraft with more intuitive genius than any other person he ever knew was friendly with the greatest intellects of the age, including Coleridge, Sheridan, Wordsworth and many others. Godwin was no slouch himself.

I am certainly not alone in my opinion concerning Mary's philosophical genius.

B. A Second Step in the Argument -- Freedom and Necessity.

Edmund Burke is usually favorably compared with Mary Wollstonecraft. Burke is falsely described as "superior," In fact, Burke was an able defender of British Conservatism in the Age of Reason. Almost everything said about Burke by one scholar is contradicted by another. Compare the entry on Burke in Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 110; with Maurice Cranston, "Edmund Burke," in Volume 1, Paul Edwards, ed., The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York: MacMillan, 1967), pp. 429-431.

Burke was a pessimist about human nature who favored the American revolution because it was concerned to defend traditional rights of Englishmen -- and I do mean "men." He made use of the buzzwords of the time "liberty," "equality," even "fraternity." This revolutionary talk might have been uttered by the brilliant writer (but boring speaker) in Parliament.

Burke really hankered for an earlier age when government was the province of the very few for the questionable benefit of the many. Most persons are "not fit to rule or decide what is best for themselves," according to Burke. The people are in need of the guidance of "wise men of property" (G.O.P.?), an inherited title is even better.

Burke's version of "Christian love" is more like the fellowship of a band of well-to-do club members and thieves. Definitely, Mr. Rubio's kind of guy. That sounds like the British aristocracy in the eighteenth century or New Jersey's Senate today.

Burke's outrage at the excesses of the French Revolution and Terror are only partly genuine revulsion for the carnage.

Burke's horror is mostly about the fear of people destroying time-tested institutions that had served to keep men -- and especially women -- in a "prison built for their minds." Among the worst mental prisons, I include Burke's brand of Christianity.

Ideally, no threat could be posed to the state by illiterate, overworked, powerless, impoverished women, obeying their equally powerless husbands -- husbands encouraged to indulge in an occasional display of violence against women in order to keep the "eternal order in place."

Burke was an empiricist and not a Romantic idealist. This was the "infamy" opposed by Voltaire and the philosophes. Me too. No wonder they censor my writings. These are radical suggestions in New Jersey -- men and women are equal and all domestic violence is criminal. Horrors! ("American Hypocrisy and Luis Posada Carriles.")

This has nothing to do with my understanding of Christianity or religion -- or with Godwin's Christian-inspired ethics -- and it was Godwin, not Burke, who served as a Christian minister early in life, retaining a respect for deity (agape) all his life.

When radicals attack Christianity, it is always wise to ask which version of Christianity is opposed?

Radicals may find some unexpected allies among genuine Christians. Godwin may have been overly idealistic at times. "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive." (Wordsworth) He was certainly Utopian about human nature in a pre-Holocaust era -- to a lesser degree, so was Mary! -- but they were both, always, morally brave, vital, creative human beings, concerned for others and passionate about one another.

No one responsible for a child should be utterly pessimistic about human nature, or without any hope for progress, especially in an age of revolution. America was founded on their sort of hope. Philosophically, Mary and William may be listed among the inventors of America. Thomas Jefferson did very well in Highgate -- among the radicals. It has been said that "revolutionaries are always young." William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft were always "young" revolutionaries. ("Manifesto for the Unfinished American Revolution" and "Fidel Castro's 'History Will Absolve Me.'")

Burke presumed to instruct a brilliant woman about a revolution that she had witnessed and lived through, being horrified at deaths of "aristocrats" in the Terror that she knew as friends, while recognizing that this was the tide of history turning and that it favored not just a collective social good, but also the rights and dignity of persons who had never before been accorded either of those things -- rights or respect.

Burke simply knew that it was his prerogative to instruct any woman concerning political or philosophical matters. After all, as a man, Burke simply assumed that he was smarter than any woman -- except that he wasn't smarter than this woman, Mary Wollstonecraft.

I have experienced this sort of disdain for my mind and opinions on the part of persons regarding themselves as "social superiors," who had read -- if they'd read at all -- only a tiny fraction of what I'd absorbed long before they lectured to me on philosophical topics. I understand Mary's intense response. Despite Mary's experiences with stupid, selfish, arrogant men (there were and are a lot more of them than the Godwins of this world), she retained her hopes for the struggle and for humanity as a revolutionary and optimist -- always an optimist about what men and women could become and achieve in politics and culture.

"Wollstonecraft came gradually to terms with her disenchantment and was able to write with qualified optimism. 'Yet I feel confident of being able to prove that the people are essentially good ... Out of this chaotic mass a fairer government is rising than has ever shed the sweets of social life on the world. But things must have time to find their level.' ..."

Miriam Brody, "Introduction," in Vindications of the Rights of Woman (London: Penguin Books, 1982), p. 19. By way of comparison, see the "natural antipathy" of minds described by Rousseau in The Confessions (London: Penguin, 1953), pp. 484-486. The Confessions appeared in 1741.

Maurice Cranston has Burke's number:

"Burke's view of the ancien regime was in many ways a romantic one; he was certainly no less a man of feeling" -- except his "feeling" was for himself and his class! -- "than was Rousseau, whom he detested. Burke was essentially a religious man living in a rationalistic age. Although he often spoke the language understood by that age -- the language of calculation, expediency, utility, and political rights -- he had a mind which his contemporaries, and many others, could not readily comprehend. Burke was conscious, above all things, of the reality and unavoidability of evil, and was thus led to claim that the only hope for mankind was to cling to safeguards that had stood the test of time. His hopes for bliss lay in heaven; on earth, his policy was to defend the tolerable, and sometimes the bad, against the immeasurably worse." (p. 430.)

This is the essence of the Aristocratic/fascist mind. American Republicans and Democrats -- in a society born out of a revolution that should be committed to progress and liberty -- are distinct from this mentality and should be opposed to it.

Burke does not provide much hope for improvement to the afflicted masses. Burke's ideology is rarely popular among the overwhelming majority of people everywhere who are screwed by the powerful. "Worse" usually means "more egalitarian," for Burke, as opposed to comfy for him, which is defined as "free and just."

Isn't that nice? Perhaps, like Senator Rubio, Edmund Burke favored haircuts costing the taxpayers $134.00.

Mary was right. Burke was wrong. The tide of history had turned. Burke's small world of happy serfs, tending fields for the likes of him, was over. Slavery was finished. It was a matter of time until even those uncouth Americans would understand as much by (reluctantly) abolishing the institution of slavery in the United States: "We have the wolf by the ears," Jefferson said, "and can neither release nor tame the creature."

If only Mary Wollstonecraft had been in Philadelphia in 1776, Senator Clinton might have been the second woman to serve as president -- or one of many women Chief Executives in our history. At Mary's death, Eliza Fenwick reported to her friend, Everina:

" ... 'No woman was ever more happy in marriage than Mrs. Godwin. Who ever endured more anguish than Mr. Godwin endures?' ..."

A month after Mary's death, Mr. Godwin wrote to Mrs Cotton:

"I partook of happiness, so much the more exquisite, as I had a short time before had no conception of it, and scarcely admitted the possibility of it.' ..." (Todd, p. 457.)

Godwin was too overcome to attend Mary's funeral. His rationalism was indeed "tempered." Godwin agreed that a tombstone be erected which preserves Mary's identity (as did Godwin's memoir and her books) as feminist and wife, philosopher, writer, intellectual and his EQUAL, also and most importantly as a "free woman":

"Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Born 27 April, 1759: Died 10 September, 1797."

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