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No Matter, No Master: Godwin’s Humean Anarchism

The following article was written by Roderick T. Long for the SEASECS conference – February 2008 and linked on his Austro-Athenian EmpireMay 10th, 2010.

William Godwin (1756-1836) is often regarded as essentially a Berkeleyan in his metaphysics and a Rousseauvian in his social philosophy. For example, Peter Marshall in his biography William Godwin describes Berkeley as “Godwin’s principal mentor in immaterialism” (p. 367); as for the Rousseau connection, Walter Bagehot described Godwin as “a disciple of Rousseau” (Economic Studies, 2nd ed., pp. 135-6), while Peter Landry more recently claims (incredibly, I should say) that Godwin “followed along in the footsteps of Rousseau in his nostalgia for the simple and the primitive.” (Biographical Sketches: The Thinkers.)

I shall argue that in both metaphysics and social philosophy the influence of David Hume (1711-1776) is far more fundamental than is ordinarily recognised, and ultimately more decisive than that of Berkeley or Rousseau – though the relation is more one of Godwin’s creative repurposing of Hume’s ideas than of his passive receptivity to them.

With regard to metaphysics, although immaterialism is a Berkeleyan rather than a Humean thesis, Godwin’s version of immaterialism, as we shall see, is flatly incompatible with Berkeley’s, and in both its epistemological foundations and its role in our reflective life owes far more to Hume than to Berkeley.

With regard to social philosophy, while Hume might seem an unlikely precursor for Godwin’s socialist anarchism, in fact Godwin, in his Enquiry (1793) and other writings, takes precisely Humean arguments for the rule of law and prevailing institutions of property and turns them in the opposite direction; and inasmuch as Hume’s account of the role of public opinion in sustaining social order inadvertently provides Godwin with grounds for the present-day feasibility of anarchism (by contrast with Rousseau’s relegation of anarchism to an irretrievable golden age), it is actually Hume, not Rousseau, who proves the most useful source for Godwin’s political program.


Godwin’s immaterialism is a skeptical thesis, in three senses. First, it is skeptical because it is based on a claim of ignorance rather than knowledge; matter is rejected, not because we have convincing evidence against it, but only because we have no good evidence for it. In another sense, it is skeptical because it refuses to postulate an alternative explanation for the order of events in the phenomenal realm. In a third sense, it is skeptical because, as Godwin sees it, it runs contrary to common sense. In all three respects Godwin’s immaterialism shares a kinship with Hume’s skeptical doubts – and in all three respects it is entirely contrary to Berkeley’s approach.

For Berkeley’s version of immaterialism is not skeptical in any of these senses; after all, the subtitle of his Dialogues describes the purpose of that work as “Plainly to Demonstrate the Reality and Perfection of Human Knowledge, the Incorporeal Nature of the Soul, and the Immediate Providence of a Deity, in Opposition to Sceptics and Atheists; Also to Open a Method for Rendering the Sciences More Easy, Useful, and Compendious.” This is evidently an anti-skeptical project. Contra Godwin, Berkeley takes himself to be offering positive evidence against the existence of matter, not merely to be citing the absence of evidence for it; likewise contra Godwin, Berkeley offers a theological explanation for the order among our perceptions; and once again contra Godwin, Berkeley takes himself to be vindicating common sense, not criticising it.

I.1 Immaterialism and Evidence

Godwin rejects the existence of material substance on the grounds that it is unknowable:

We are indeed wholly uncertain whether the causes of our sensations, heat, colour, hardness and extension … be in any respect similar to the ideas they produce. We know nothing of the substance or substratum of matter, or of that which is the recipient of thought and perception. We do not even know that the idea annexed to the word substance is correct, or has any counterpart in the reality of existence. … We cannot penetrate into the essences of things, or rather we have no sound and satisfactory knowledge of things external to ourselves, but merely of our own sensations. We cannot discover the causes of things, or ascertain that in the antecedent which connects it with the consequent, and discern nothing but their contiguity. (Godwin, Enquiry 3rd ed. I.4-5.)

All this is much closer to Hume than to Berkeley, who thinks his arguments arelaying bare the (mental) essences and (divine) causes of things.

Admittedly Godwin may have thought he was following Berkeley; for he writes:

The most strenuous Berkleian can never say, that there is any contradiction or impossibility in the existence of matter. All that he can consistently and soberly maintain is, that, if the material world exists, we can never perceive it, and that our sensations, and trains of impressions and thinking go on wholly independent of that existence. (Godwin, Thoughts on Man XII.)

Yet of course at least one “strenuous Berkleian” – namely Berkeley himself – did think he could show that the notion of material substance was not merely unverifiable but incoherent, involving as it does the (purportedly) self-defeating attempt to conceive of something existing unconceived. Godwin appears to be reading Berkeley through Humean lenses.

I.2 Immaterialism and Theism

In rejecting matter as the cause of our mental experiences, Berkeley does not propose to leave them unexplained; instead he invokes God as the cause of the order and continuity among our perceptions. Here too Godwin is closer to Hume’s theological skepticism than to Berkeley’s confident theism. Godwin of course accepts Hume’s arguments against miracles (Genius of Christianity XV), and indeed tells us that it was the inadequacy of Campbell’s reply to Hume on this subject that first made him an unbeliever (Of Religion I). With regard to Berkeley’s proposal of a divine explanation of the order of phenomena, Godwin shares Hume’s resistance to such arguments. In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume had rejected the argument from design on the grounds that the analogy between human contrivance and divine intervention was too strained:

The exact similarity of the cases gives us a perfect assurance of a similar event; and a stronger evidence is never desired nor sought after. But wherever you depart, in the least, from the similarity of the cases, you diminish proportionably the evidence; and may at last bring it to a very weak analogy …. When two species of objects have always been observed to be conjoined together, I can infer, by custom, the existence of one wherever I see the existence of the other; and this I call an argument from experience. But how this argument can have place, where the objects, as in the present case, are single, individual, without parallel, or specific resemblance, may be difficult to explain. … Now, as to the manner of thinking; how can we make any comparison between [the divine mind and human minds], or suppose them anywise resembling? Our thought is fluctuating, uncertain, fleeting, successive, and compounded; and were we to remove these circumstances, we absolutely annihilate its essence, and it would in such a case be an abuse of terms to apply to it the name of thought or reason. At least if it appear more pious and respectful … still to retain these terms, when we mention the Supreme Being, we ought to acknowledge, that their meaning, in that case, is totally incomprehensible; and that the infirmities of our nature do not permit us to reach any ideas which in the least correspond to the ineffable sublimity of the Divine attributes. (Hume, Dialogues II-III.)

Godwin gives virtually the same argument:

There is much order and system in what we see … This order it is customary … to attribute to a Creator, an intelligent, invisible being [which] conducts the vast machine without perplexity, being everywhere at once … I can only say that in all this there is so little analogy to mind, such as I have occasion clearly to remark, that I am not satisfied to reason from one to the other. … It is most essentially characteristic of mind, such as I behold it, to attend to only one thing at a time. I have no conception of a mind that at the same moment acts everywhere, and performs operations multiplied and diversified beyond the limits of any human arithmetic to enumerate. (Godwin, Genius of Christianity XIV.)

Thus, just as Hume is willing to grant the theist no more than that “the cause or causes of order in the universe probably bear some remote analogy to human intelligence” (Dialogues XII), so Godwin concedes only that “in the universe … we find a wonderful adaptation of means to ends similar to what, from the imperfect analogies we are acquainted with, we should be apt to denominate wisdom,” so that while “we have not an omniscient friend … who ‘careth for us,’ … there is nevertheless a principle in nature which in a vast sum of instances works for good and operates beneficially for us” (Genius of Christianity XIV) – though it is not a superintending entity that “sits like Jeremy Bentham, perched on the top of his Panopticon to spy into … all our most secret motions” (Of Religion II), since the supposition that “the mysterious power, the plastic nature, to which the universe is indebted for all that is admirable that we see around us” possesses an “affininty to the nature of man,” and in particular “the properties of judgment and will,” is “to say the least of it … very improbable.” (Genius of Christianity III.)

Furthermore, just as Hume in the Dialogues is willing to grant a principle of order within the physical universe, but declines to posit some ordering force beyond or behind it, so Godwin, in strikingly Humean language, takes the realm of sensory experience as it is and posits no further reality, either material or divine, as its cause:

[A]ll his inferences are formed upon this single principle; the uniformity that prevails in the circle of his experience, and in the system with which he is acquainted. Take him out of this; bid him ascertain the origin of what he sees … and he is invincibly ignorant. As he perceives the idea of causation even within the circle of his experience, to be an idea of prejudice, not of knowledge; he has no temptation to enquire after causation out of that circle; or to attempt to assign the why the whole is as it is …. (Godwin, “Of Scepticism.”)

I … do not consider my faculties adequate to the pronouncing upon the cause of all things. I am contented to take the phenomena as I behold them, without pretending to erect any hypothesis under the idea of making all things easy. I do not rest my globe of earth upon an elephant, and the elephant upon a tortoise. I am contented to take my globe of earth simply, in other words, to observe the objects which present themselves to my senses, without undertaking to find out a cause why they are as they are. (Godwin, Genius of Christianity XIV.)

In short, Godwin may be described as trying to out-Hume Hume; for while Hume declines to rest the physical universe on the tortoise of a divine creator, he at least seems willing to rest the world of sensory experience on the elephant of a physical universe. But where Hume keeps the physical elephant while dumping the divine tortoise, and Berkeley keeps the divine tortoise while dumping the physical elephant, Godwin dispenses with both elephant and tortoise, leaving the world of sensory experience to float unsupported.

I.3 Immaterialism and Common Sense

Yet another respect in which Godwin’s immaterialism more closely resembles Hume’s skepticism than Berkeley’s immaterialism is in the role it is supposed to play in our reflective life. Godwin asserts the existence of an irresolvable tension between the immaterialist conclusions to which abstract reasoning leads us and the irresistible force of natural instinct that takes over in the ordinary course of life. He writes:

How ever much the understanding may be satisfied of the truth of the proposition by the arguments of Berkeley and others, we no sooner go out into actual life, than we become convinced, in spite of our previous scepticism or unbelief, of the real existence of the table, the chair, and the objects around us …. (Godwin, Thoughts on Man XII.)

The speculator in his closet is one man: the same person, when he comes out of his retirement, and mixes in intercourse with his fellow-creatures, is another man. … Berkeley, and as many persons as are persuaded by his or similar reasonings, feel satisfied in speculation that there is no such thing as matter … and that all our notions of the external and actual existence of the table, the chair, and the other material substances with which we conceive ourselves to be surrounded, of woods, and mountains, and rivers, and seas, are mere prejudice and misconception. All this is very well in the closet, and as long as we are involved in meditation, and remain abstracted from action, business, and the exertion of our limbs and corporal faculties. But it is too fine for the realities of life. Berkeley, and the most strenuous and spiritualised of his followers, no sooner descend from the high tower of their speculations, submit to the necessities of their nature, and mix in the business of the world, than they become impelled … to act like other men …. A table then becomes absolutely a table, and a chair a chair …. Nature is too strong, to be prevailed on to retire, and give way to the authority of definitions and syllogistical deduction. (Thoughts on Man XXII.)

[The sceptic] perceives that it is not from reason and argument, that I infer, when I hear the voice of my friend, that my friend is near me; but from an impulse which I can neither account for nor resist; from a principle which associates my ideas together …. (“Of Scepticism.”)

Likewise in On Sepulchres Godwin notes that while theoretically he is “more inclined to the opinion of the immaterialists, than the materialists,” in practice he cannot bring himself to regard other people’s bodies in the manner required by immaterialism: “I cannot love my friend, without loving his person.” (I can’t help wondering whether that’s the pronoun he really has in mind.)

This way of thinking is entirely alien to Berkeley. From Berkeley’s point of view, the existence of matter is not something that we deny in our abstract theorising only to be brought back to it by the demands of common sense. On the contrary, it is only in our abstract theorising that we are led to posit something so chimerical as the existence of matter, whereas in our ordinary common life we take the phenomena of sensory experience at face value, as realities in their own right, existing in just the way they appear to exist, rather than as emissaries from an in-itself-imperceptible material reality outside the circle of experience. In short, Berkeley sees his own immaterialism as a vindication of common-sense realism against ivory-tower speculators – and as affirming, not denying, the everyday reality of tables, chairs, and other people’s bodies.

Godwin’s description of his own immaterialism as a product of reasonings in the “closet,” to be swept away by our natural impulses once we step outside it, thus owes far more to Hume than to Berkeley. For it is Hume who writes:

There is an inconvenience which attends all abstruse reasoning …. When we leave our closet, and engage in the common affairs of life, its conclusions seem to vanish, like the phantoms of the night on the appearance of the morning …. (Treatise III.1.1.)

[T]he understanding, when it acts alone, and according to its most general principles, entirely subverts itself, and leaves not the lowest degree of evidence in any proposition, either in philosophy or common life. … The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another. … Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain’d, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther. … Here then I find myself absolutely and necessarily determin’d to live, and talk, and act like other people in the common affairs of life. (Treatise I.4.7.)

Nor need we fear that this philosophy … should ever undermine the reasonings of common life, and carry its doubts so far as to destroy all action, as well as speculation. Nature will always maintain her rights, and prevail in the end over any abstract reasoning whatsoever. (Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding V.1.)

Thus while Godwin’s immaterialist thesis per se resembles Berkeley’s position more than Hume’s, in his epistemologically skeptical case on its behalf, in his rejection of a theological underpinning for it, and in his insistence on its inconsistency with a stubborn common sense, Godwin is clearly following Hume more closely than Berkeley.

I.4 Free Will and Common Sense

Godwin’s views on the related topic of free will also show signs of Humean influence, though on this topic Godwin combines Humean ideas that Hume himself keeps separate. Godwin, like Hume, rejects free will, appealing both to the general regularity of nature and to the particular regularity of human character to establish a strict causal determinism. Godwin clearly acknowledges the Humean provenance of his case against free will when he writes: “The reader will find the substance of the above arguments in a more diffusive form in Hume’s Enquiry concerning Human Understanding.” (Enquiry 3rd ed. IV.7.)

But Godwin differs with Hume over the role of the deterministic thesis in our reflective life. Hume does not regard the free will issue as one of the areas where his conclusions conflict with common sense; on the contrary, he regards the denial of free will in much the same way that Berkeley regards immaterialism – as an initially paradoxical-sounding thesis that turns out on closer inspection to be far more hospitable to ordinary thought and practice than its denial.

For Godwin, by contrast, causal determinism is as much opposed to common sense, as much a product of the “closet,” as immaterialism is:

To say that in our choice we reject the stronger motive, and that we choose a thing merely because we choose it, is sheer nonsense and absurdity …. In the mean time it is not less true, that every man, the necessarian as well as his opponent, acts on the assumption of human liberty, and can never for a moment, when he enters into the scenes of real life, divest himself of this persuasion. … And, though the philosopher in his closet will for the most part fully assent to the doctrine of the necessity of human actions, yet this indestructible feeling of liberty … accompanies us from the cradle to the grave …. But, though the language of the necessarian is at war with the indestructible feelings of the human mind, and though his demonstrations will for ever crumble into dust, when brought to the test of the activity of real life, yet … [i]n the sobriety of the closet, we inevitably assent to his conclusions …. (Thoughts on Man XII.)

In short, while embracing Hume’s position on free will, Godwin proposes to give to that thesis, not the reflective role that Hume gives to it, but the reflective role that Hume gives to his skeptical conclusions. Just as Godwin gave a Humean twist to Berkeley’s immaterialism, so he gives, one might say, a Humean twist to Hume’s determinism – once again out-Huming Hume.


Just as Godwin’s metaphysical and epistemological views owe more to Hume than to Berkeley, so I maintain that his social and political views owe more to Hume than to the thinker with whom his name is more often linked, Rousseau. This claim should initially seem surprising; Godwin and Rousseau were both radical reformers who projected anarchistic utopias and sharply criticised existing political institutions and the prevailing distribution of property, while Hume was a political moderate who mostly defended the political and economic institutions of his day, and who certainly had no sympathy for anarchism. All that is true enough; but when we turn from similarity and dissimilarity of conclusions to similarity and dissimilarity of modes of argument, I suggest that Godwin’s affinity with Hume grows more salient while his affinity with Rousseau wanes.

Godwin certainly had no exaggerated respect for Rousseau as a socio-political thinker, writing: “In his writings expressly political … the superiority of his genius seems to desert him.” (Enquiry 3rd ed. V.15.) Admittedly, his admiration for Hume in this area was likewise reserved: “The profoundness of Hume, which has never been surpassed, and which ranks him with the most illustrious and venerable of men, is for the most part the profoundness of logical distinction, rather than of moral analysis.” (Enquiry 3rd ed. VIII.7.) Still, Godwin frequently cites Hume approvingly on moral topics, ranging from the limitations of the influence of climate on character (I.6) to the reality of benevolence as opposed to self-love (IV.10). But in what sense does Godwin favour Hume over Rousseau?

II.1 Promises and Contracts

As the title of his most famous political work indicates, Rousseau bases political authority on a social contract. By contrast, Hume and Godwin both take a deflationary attitude toward contracts, and indeed toward promises generally – though here, once again, Godwin attempts to out-Hume Hume.

Hume begins by pointing out that there’s a limit to how much normative weight can rest on contract, because there has to be a normative weight on which contract itself rests:

It has been asserted by some, that justice arises from Human Conventions, and proceeds from the voluntary choice, consent, or combination of mankind. If by convention be here meant a promise (which is the most usual sense of the word) nothing can be more absurd than this position. The observance of promises is itself one of the most considerable parts of justice, and we are not surely bound to keep our word because we have given our word to keep it. (Hume, Enquiry into the Principles of Morals
And Godwin gives precisely the same argument:

[P]romises and compacts are in no sense the foundation of morality. … Why should we observe our promises? The only rational answer that can be made is because it tends to the welfare of intelligent beings. But this answer is equally cogent if applied to any other branch of morality. It is therefore absurd to rest the foundation of morality thus circuitously upon promises, when it may with equal propriety be rested upon that from which promises themselves derive their obligation. (Godwin, Enquiry 3rd ed. III.3.)

So far this represents no deep disagreement with Rousseau, who never supposes that all of morality might rest on a contract. But if, as both Hume and Godwin hold, political justice rests on social utility rather than on contract, might not the role of contract be dispensed with entirely?

Hume had argued in his essay “Of the Original Contract” that governmental authority did not need to rest on any sort of agreement or contract; for if it did, those who enter into the agreement must have some good reason for doing so – say, because “it is impossible for the human race to subsist, at least in any comfortable or secure state, without the protection of government” – and why not then ground the case for government on that fact, letting the agreement drop out as a fifth wheel?

Godwin of course disagrees with Hume as to whether it is indeed impossible to subsist in a comfortable or secure state without government. But apart from that premise he has no quarrel with Hume’s argument; indeed he not only accepts it but pushes it still farther. Whatever one promises to do is either something one already has best reason to do on independent grounds, or else it is something different from the thing one has best reason to do on independent grounds; if it is the former, the promise is superfluous, and if the latter, it is pernicious:

What I have promised is what I ought to have performed, if no promise had intervened, or it is not. It is conducive, or not conducive, to the generating of human happiness. If it be the former, then promise comes in merely as an additional inducement, in favour of that which, in the eye of morality, was already of indispensable obligation. … When it is otherwise, there is obviously a contention between what would have been obligatory, if no promise had intervened, and what the promise which has been given has a tendency to render obligatory. (Godwin, Enquiry 3rd ed. III.3.)

Thus in Godwin’s hands Hume’s argument against resting our obligation to obey the government on a promise turns into an argument against resting any obligation on a promise.

And he extends this in particular to the institution of marriage, which Godwin calls a “system of fraud,” arguing that the marriage contract gives a couple no more reason to stay together than they would have in its absence:

The habit is, for a thoughtless and romantic youth of each sex to come together, to see each other for a few times and under circumstances full of delusion, and then to vow to each other eternal attachment. … We ought to dismiss our mistake as soon as it is detected; but we are taught to cherish it. (Enquiry 1ed. VIII.6.)

Hence Hume’s conservative argument against social contract theory is transformed into a radical critique of marriage – a result that Hume, with his fairly conventional views on marriage (Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals IV; see also his rejection of divorce in “Of Polygamy and Divorces”) would hardly have welcomed. But the arguments are strictly analogous: if, as Hume argues, agreeing to obey the government gives us no more reason to obey it than we already had before, then why should vowing lifelong fidelity to one romantic partner give us any more reason to maintain the relationship than we had before?

II.2 Property and Law

Hume takes a broadly rule-utilitarian approach to justice, favouring adherence to general laws even when such adherence produces bad results in particular cases:

[T]he particular consequences of a particular act of justice may be hurtful to the public as well as to individuals; it follows that every man, in embracing that virtue, must have an eye to the whole plan or system, and must expect the concurrence of his fellows in the same conduct and behaviour. (Hume, Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Appendix 3.)

Godwin, by contrast, is suspicious of too firm an adherence to general laws, being more inclined to take particularities of circumstance into account:

General rules and theories are not infallible. It would be preposterous to suppose that, in order to judge fairly, and conduct myself properly, I ought only to look at a thing from a certain distance, and not consider it minutely. On the contrary, I ought, as far as lies in my power, to examine everything upon its own grounds, and decide concerning it upon its own merits. To rest in general rules is sometimes a necessity which our imperfection imposes upon us, and sometimes the refuge of our indolence; but the true dignity of human reason is, as much as we are able, to go beyond them, to have our faculties in act upon every occasion that occurs, and to conduct ourselves accordingly. (Godwin, Enquiry 3rd ed. IV.6, Appendix 1.)

Moreover, Hume’s general laws are largely supportive of prevailing institutions of property:

ever so equal, men’s different degrees of art, care, and industry will immediately break that equality. Or if you check these virtues, you reduce society to the most extreme indigence … We may conclude, therefore, that, in order to establish laws for the regulation of property, we must be acquainted with the nature and situation of man; must reject appearances which may be false, though specious; and must search for those rules, which are, on the whole, most useful and beneficial. … Who sees not, for instance, that whatever is produced or improved by a man’s art or industry ought, for ever, to be secured to him, in order to give encouragement to such useful habits and accomplishments? That the property ought also to descend to children and relations, for the same useful purpose? That it may be alienated by consent, in order to beget that commerce and intercourse, which is so beneficial to human society? And that all contracts and promises ought carefully to be fulfilled, in order to secure mutual trust and confidence, by which the general interest of mankind is so much promoted? (Hume, Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals III.2.)

Godwin, again by contrast, favours equality of property. Thus Hume and Godwin might seem to have little in common on these issues.

But in the first place, the differences between Hume and Godwin are less sharp than they might seem. Hume favours adherence to general laws for the most part, but is willing to depart from them in “extraordinary cases” (Hume, Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals III.2.) or a “pressing emergence” (ibid., III.1); while Godwin allows “a species of argument in favour of general rules” based on the fact that actions must be assessed in light of both their “direct, and … remote consequences,” and the latter “depend chiefly on general circumstances, and not upon particulars” (Godwin, Enquiry 3rd ed. IV.6, Appendix 1) – the very point on which Hume insists. In his Thoughts on Parr Godwin also moderates the extreme particularism of the Enquiry by drawing a rule-utilitarian-style distinction “between the motive from which a virtuous action is to arise, and the criterion by which it is to be determined to be virtuous.”

Moreover, while Hume does not favour complete economic equality, he also opposes extremes of inequality, since a “too great disproportion among the citizens weakens any state.” (Hume, “Of Commerce.”) Godwin, for his part, while favouring economic equality, insists that it should be achieved by voluntary efforts such as moral suasion, rather than by compulsion, and insists that so long as a given inequality has arisen from consensual market transactions rather than from outright plunder, then despite being morally illegitimate it is ordinarily “not of a sort that it would be just or wise to undertake to repress by means of coercion.” (Enquiry 3rd ed. VIII.2; cf. Enquirer II.2.) Hence the disagreements between Hume and Godwin are more nuanced than they might initially appear.

In the second place, though, Godwin typically uses one of Hume’s own arguments for general laws against him. Hume had emphasised the importance of predictability, and the attendant security of property titles, in the application of general laws:

When a man of merit, of a beneficentdisposition, restores a great fortune to a miser, or a seditious bigot, he has acted justly and laudably, but the public is a real sufferer. … But however single acts of justice may be contrary, either to public or private interest, ’tis certain, that the whole plan or scheme is highly conducive, or indeed absolutely requisite, both to the support of society, and the well-being of every individual. … Property must be stable, and must be fix’d by general rules. Tho’ in one instance the public be a sufferer, this momentary ill is amply compensated by the steady prosecution of the rule, and by the peace and order, which it establishes in society. … When therefore men have had experience enough to observe, that whatever may be the consequence of any single act of justice, perform’d by a single person, yet the whole system of actions, concurr’d in by the whole society, is infinitely advantageous to the whole, and to every part; it is not long before justice and property take place.(Hume, Treatise III.2.)

Rather than downplaying the importance of predictability and title security, Godwin responds by embracing it:

A condition indispensably necessary to every species of excellence is security. Unless I can foresee, in a considerable degree, the treatment I shall receive from my species, and am able to predict, to a certain extent, what will be the limits of their irregularity and caprice, I can engage in no valuable undertaking. (Godwin, Enquiry 3rd ed. VIII.2.)

But Godwin argues that allowing assemblies of ordinary people to decide such issues on a case-by-case basis (cf. Spooner, Essay on the Trial by Jury) would actually provide more predictability and security than reliance on general laws:

There is no maxim more clear than this, ‘Every case is a rule to itself.’ … As new cases occur, the law is perpetually found deficient. How should it be otherwise? Lawgivers have not the faculty of unlimited prescience, and cannot define that which is boundless. … It is therefore perpetually necessary to make new laws. … The consequence of the infinitude of law is its uncertainty. … Laws were made to put an end to ambiguity, and that each man might know what he had to expect. How well have they answered this purpose? … Two men go to law for a certain estate. They would not go to law if they had not both of them an opinion of the success. … They would not continue to go to law if they were not both promised success by their lawyers. Law was made that a plain man might know what he had to expect; and yet the most skilful practitioners differ about the event of my suit. … Would the issue have been equally uncertain if I had had nothing to trust to but the plain unperverted sense of a jury of my neighbours, founded in the ideas they entertained of general justice? … Nothing can be more worthy of regret than the manner in which property is at present administered, so far as relates to courts of justice. The doubtfulness of titles, the different measures of legislation as they relate to different classes of property, the tediousness of suits, and the removal of causes by appeal from court to court, are a perpetual round of artifice and chicane to one part of the community, and of anguish and misery to another. … Property could not be thus disputable were the persons who are called upon to decide concerning it left to the direction of their own understanding. … The intention of a testator is much more easily settled than the quibbles to which the expression of that intention may be subjected. (Godwin, Enquiry 3rd ed. VII.8.)

Thus Godwin turns Hume’s case for the rule of law against itself, by invoking in opposition to the rule of law the very considerations that Hume had invoked on its behalf.

II.3 Anarchism and Government by Opinion

Godwin and Rousseau both sing the praises of stateless society. But for Rousseau the ideal condition of statelessness belongs to an unrecoverable primitive past: “men like myself, whose passions have forever destroyed their original simplicity … can no longer subsist on grass or acorns, or live without laws and magistrates.” (Rousseau, Second Discourse, Appendix.) Hence Rousseau’s positive political project consists not in striking off our chains but in legitimating them, by setting up not an anarchistic society but a fairly intrusive, albeit contractually grounded, state. (“Man was born free; and everywhere he is in chains. … How did this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer.” – Social Contract I.1; emphasis added.)

Godwin, by contrast, is less enamoured of a primitive past, and more optimistic about the prospects of an anarchist future. He dismisses “romantic notions of pastoral life and the golden age,” and describes the tendency to recur “to the forests of Norway or the bleak and uncomfortable Highlands of Scotland in search of a purer race of mankind” as “the offspring of disappointment, not the dictate of reason and philosophy.” “Innocence,” declares Godwin, “is not virtue,” and “the slothful habits and limited views of uncultivated life, have not in them more of true virtue, though they may be more harmless, than luxury, vanity and extravagance.” (Godwin, Enquiry 3rd ed. I.7.) From Godwin’s point of view the transition from primitive to civilised society has been on the whole one of progress:

Civil society maintains a greater proportion of security among men than can be found in the savage state: this is one of the reasons why, under the shade of civil society, arts have been invented, sciences perfected and the nature of man, in his individual and relative capacity, gradually developed. (Godwin, Enquiry 3rd ed. VIII.2.)

But why does Godwin differ from Rousseau in thinking that an anarchist future is possible? Godwin makes much of the fact that the power of government rests on public opinion. As he puts it:

There is no such disparity among the human race as to enable one man to hold several other men in subjection, except so far as they are willing to be subject. All government is founded in opinion. Men at present live under any particular form, because they conceive it their interest to do so. One part indeed of a community or empire may be held in subjection by force; but this cannot be the personal force of their despot; it must be the force of another part of the community, who are of opinion that it is their interest to support his authority. Destroy this opinion, and the fabric which is built upon it falls to the ground. (Godwin, Enquiry 3rd ed. II.3.)

Yet this argument is borrowed, as Godwin acknowledges in a footnote (Enquiry 3rd ed. I.6), from Hume’s essay “Of the First Principles of Government,” which begins:

Nothing appears more surprizing to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find, that, as force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular. The soldan of Egypt, or the emperor of Rome, might drive his harmless subjects, like brute beasts, against their sentiments and inclination: But he must, at least, have led his mamalukes, or prætorian bands, like men, by their opinion.

Hume certainly intended no politically radical moral in making this point. On the contrary, his purpose in pointing out that all governments in some sense rest on consent was to rebuke those republican agitators who insisted that monarchical government was illegitimate for not so resting.

But Godwin turns Hume’s argument to anarchistic ends; for if governmental force is impotent except insofar as it accords with public opinion, then, Godwin concludes, it is public opinion, not governmental force, that actually maintains social order, in which case we can safely dispense with governmental force and rest social order on public opinion alone. And as progress and enlightenment (in which Hume and Godwin both believe in a way that Rousseau arguably does not) continue, people will gradually come, indeed are already coming, to recognise these facts, in the wake of which recognition the state will ultimately wither away:

Now it is sufficiently known that the empire of government is built in opinion; nor is it enough for this purpose that we refuse to contribute to overturn it by violence, the opinion must go to the extent of prompting us to actual support. No government can subsist in a nation the individuals of which shall merely abstain from tumultuous resistance, while in their genuine sentiments they censure and despise its institution. In other words, government cannot proceed but upon confidence, as confidence on the other hand cannot exist without ignorance. The true supporters of government are the weak and uninformed, and not the wise. In proportion as weakness and ignorance shall diminish, the basis of government will also decay. (Godwin, Enquiry 3rd ed. III.6.)

Godwin goes on to describe this result as “the true euthanasia of government.”

While Hume’s taste for anarchism might be considerably weaker than Rousseau’s, a view like Hume’s, according to which social order ultimately rests on popular opinion rather than governmental force, is nevertheless more congenial to anarchism than a view like Rousseau’s that treats the irretrievable loss of anarchy as the price we must pay for civilisation. Thus even in what might seem his least Humean moment – his anarchism – Godwin draws more decisively on Hume than on Rousseau.


In conclusion, then, Godwin’s immaterialism resembles Humean skepticism rather than Berkeleyan immaterialism in its epistemological foundations, its repudiation of theological support, and its role in common life; and Godwin seeks to out-Hume Hume in making the world of experience even more independent of external metaphysical support than Hume does, as well as in assigning to Hume’s own determinism the role in our reflective life that Hume assigns to skepticism but not to determinism. Moreover, Godwin’s anarchism resembles Humean social utilitarianism rather than Rousseauvian primitivism and contractarianism in its progressivism, its reliance on public opinion, and its repudiation of the social contract; and Godwin again seeks to out-Hume Hume by turning Hume’s case for the rule of law against itself, and by pushing Hume’s criticism of the social contract into a criticism of the institution of promising generally and marriage vows in particular. Godwin’s creative appropriation of Humean ideas is thus no passive reception of “influence”; nevertheless, Hume turns out in many ways to loom larger in Godwin’s thought than either Berkeley or Rousseau.