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William Godwin: his Friends and Contemporaries
Ch. XI. 1798
William Godwin to Harriet Lee, [June 1798]

Contents Vol. I
Ch. I. 1756-1785
Ch. II. 1785-1788
Ch. III. 1788-1792
Ch. IV. 1793
Ch. V. 1783-1794
Ch. VI. 1794-1796
Ch. VII. 1759-1791
Ch. VII. 1791-1796
Ch. IX. 1797
Ch. X. 1797
Ch. XI. 1798
Ch. XII. 1799
Ch. XIII. 1800
Contents Vol. II
Ch. I. 1800
Ch. II. 1800
Ch. III. 1800
Ch. IV. 1801-1803
Ch. V. 1802-1803
Ch. VI. 1804-1806
Ch. VII. 1806-1811
Ch. VIII. 1811-1814
Ch. IX. 1812-1819
Ch. X. 1819-1824
Ch. XI. 1824-1832
Ch. XII. 1832-1836
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Produced by CATH
[June 1798].

“I sit down as a disinterested friend to give you an opinion, the result of what has lately passed between us. It is little likely that anything of consequence to me should arise either way from what I am going to state. I give up the point I have hitherto sought to enforce. You have erected an insurmountable wall of separation between us. Henceforth we shall be no more to each other than persons that had heard of each others’ names, that remember there was a period when for a short time they had the habit of seeing each other, and who may now and then have occasion to say, ‘Dear me! no, I believe he is not dead, is he?’ It might have been otherwise. It ought to have been otherwise. But you have made your election. I have neglected nothing that became me. I have brought the whole subject laboriously before you; but you have remained pertinacious and immoveable. Certainly my opinion of you is not altered; my partiality is not diminished; if it were yet possible that you should view the question between us with fairness and liberality, it would afford me a gratification much, much beyond the power of words to express. It would
change me into a new creature, and open to me afresh the most pleasing prospects of life. I know that your heart—the bias and leaning of your heart—is on my side. But you have found the secret of suppressing the feelings of your heart, and subjecting them to the mystery and dogmas of your creed. Suppose, then, that you are reading the reflections of an impartial friend, who has the courage to communicate to you the truth; suppose that the person whose visits you have lately had occasion to receive is dead. Such a supposition may easily be made, and will cause little difference in anything to which you look forward. The friend who addresses you, as he has the courage to treat you ingenuously, so I hope will not forget what is due to your sex and your merits, or utter a word that it would misbecome you to hear.

“You tell me, that if it were not for your religion, and your ideas of a future state, you believe you should adopt a system of conduct selfish and licentious. I do not credit you when you say this; if I did, it would be impossible for me to have the smallest respect for you. I am not so unfair as to suppose that your opinion has the effect of rooting out all liberal and ingenuous sentiments from your mind, but I think it a serious misfortune that you conceive it has. Every parent and preceptor perfectly knows that a conduct adopted from the hope of reward or the fear of punishment is not virtue. If I make myself useful to my fellow-men merely because I expect to be rewarded for it, it is clear that I have no love of utility or virtue, and that if the reward were placed on the other side, I should immediately become as mischievous a creature as lives. Virtue is not a form of external conduct,—it is a sentiment of the heart. I am a base and low-minded creature, whatever be my external conduct, if I do not seek to confer happiness from a genuine principle of sympathy, and because I have a direct and heartfelt pleasure in the pleasure, the improvement, and advantage of others. If Omnipotence itself were to annex eternal torments to the practice of benignity and humanity, I know not how poor a slave I might be terrified into; but I know that I should curse the tyrant, while I obeyed the command. In reality, the virtue of every good man is built upon the stable basis
of what he sees and daily experiences, and not upon the precarious foundation of the retribution which he rather endeavours to credit than certainly believe.

“The second error I have to notice is that your creed, as you understand it, inculcates the worst part of bigotry. You look, as in fact you tell me, with suspicion and incredulity upon the virtue of almost all that was most illustrious in ancient times, and upon half the most unprejudiced and exemplary men of our own day. This is the very quintessence of bigotry, to overturn the boundaries of virtue and vice, to try men, not by what we see of their conduct and know of their feelings, but by their adherence to, or rejection of, a speculative opinion. You have a certain Shibboleth, a God and a future state, which if any man deny, you assert he can have no firm and stable integrity. And, which is most curious, you say to him, ‘If you have only the sentiment of virtue, if you only do good from a love of rectitude and benevolence, and do not feel yourself principally led to it by a foreign, an arbitrary, and a mercenary motive, I can have no opinion of you.’ I am happy to know that these errors of yours have no necessary connection with either Deism or Christianity.

“I am happy to say that I have known many Deists and many Christians, who confess that morality is an independent rule, by a comparison with which they pronounce on the goodness of providence itself, and of which the rewards of a future state are not the source, but merely an additional sanction. Thinking thus, they are not backward or timid in applauding the virtues of the patriots and sages of ancient times, or of those benefactors of mankind in their own day, who have discarded the opinions which they cherish. . I know it has been fashionable among divines to pretend that no man rejects religion but because he wishes to be profligate with impunity, but liberal-minded believers despise the shameless assertion.

“But I have done. I entertain no hopes of a good effect from what I now write, and merely give vent to the sentiments your determination was calculated to excite. I have made no progress with you. When you have dropped an objection it has been only
afterwards to revive it; when I have begun to entertain fairer prospects, you have convinced me I was deluding myself. My personal qualities, good or bad, are of no account in your eyes, you are concerned only with the articles of my creed. I am compelled to regard the affair as concluded, and the rational prospect of happiness to you and myself as superseded by something you conceive better than happiness. I have now discharged my sentiments, and here ends my censure of your mistake. If ever you be prevailed on to listen to the addresses of any other man, may his success be decided on more equitable principles than mine have been.”