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An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness: 1793, 2 vols.

William Godwin. Woodstock Books. A Woodstock Facsimile.

Two vols. 978pp. 150 [pounds]. 1 85477 115 9.

Two hundred years ago, William Godwin's magnificent theory of natural justice was seen and welcomed. It was written between 1791 and 1793 in the light and hope shed by the French Revolution.

In 1792, Burke had published Thoughts on the French Revolution, and Paine, The Rights of Man. William Blake heard of the plan to arraign Paine and warned him to flee for his life. Meanwhile, Godwin pressed on with his intention to publish his great work -- in two quarto volumes, each 275mm x 210mm, very big and heavy with candle-light sized type, weighing over 7 lbs. With his concentration of mental energy intensified it was impossible for him not to have it published, even at such a dangerous time for free expression. In 1793, on January 21st, Louis XVI was guillotined. On February 11th England went to war with France, and on February 14th Political Justice appeared in print.

Godwin himself was not carted off to the gallows because of William Pitt's assurance that |a three guinea book could never do much harm among those who had not three shillings to spare'. Three guineas, well afforded by those with vested interests and closed minds. Another reason could have been because the |revolution' proposed by Godwin was not to be an immediate and violent insurrection, but a modification of behaviour towards a harmonious and peaceful resolution. The price of these facsimile volumes today suggests the same argument, except that there is the possibility of university libraries buying them. The first edition facsimile is especially important because of what it retains; that which does not appear in the subsequent two editions. The third edition of 1798 is the one invariably referred to by scholars: the F.E.L. Priestley text. The 1793 edition has not been reprinted, until this edition.

When Political Justice was brought out in a cheaper octavo edition in 1796, Godwin said in his Preface that five of the eight books of the first edition had been rewritten. In other words, the whole of Volume I, and the last book of Volume II, |Of Property'. But in Volume I, Book I, its Chapter 4 does not appear at all in subsequent editions. it is where Godwin's |all comprehensive scheme' appears in its splendour. It is a joy to read, but saddening that its vision has never come to pass. The Introduction by Jonathan Wordsworth is a gem, and relates Godwin to his contemporary poets and other writers. In 1825, Hazlitt said of Godwin, in Spirit of the Age, that he had |blazed as a sun in the firmament of reputation', but had |sunk below the horizon'. In 1845, De Quincey was to declare the second edition to be |a travesty of the first ... all but a palinode'. (Or recantation.)

Coleridge's passionate belief, through Southey's enthusiasm, in pantisocracy (a community where all are equal and all rule; with consensus, which Godwin advocated for its inclusiveness) inspired him to contemplate writing the Book of Pantisocracy. However, on discovering Godwin's atheism, his Christian determinism (via Hartley) put him implaccably against Godwin, and made him regard the core of pantisocracy as flawed. Wordsworth, however, declared himself to be; amongst |that odious class of men called democrats', and in 1794 was planning to start a magazine to spread |the rules of political justice'. But it was just at the time when leading radicals were being sent to the Tower. The following year, Wordsworth and Godwin met on nine occasions. But the magazine did not materialise.

Finally, William Godwin. This passage does not appear in subsequent editions: |Let the true friend of man be incessant in the propagation of truth, and vigilant to counteract all the causes that might disturb the regularity of her progress, and he will have every reason to hope an early and favourable event'. A non-violent revolution. Isn't that what is needed?
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Author:Aitchtey, Rodney
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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