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William Godwin: his Friends and Contemporaries
Ch. VIII. 1811-1814
William Godwin to Percy Bysshe Shelley, 4 March 1812

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
March 4, 1812.

My good Friend,—I have read all your letters (the first perhaps excepted) with peculiar interest, and I wish it to be understood by you unequivocally that, as far as I can yet penetrate into your character, I conceive it to exhibit an extraordinary assemblage of lovely qualities not without considerable defects. The defects do, and always have arisen chiefly from this source, that you are still very young, and that in certain essential respects you do not sufficiently perceive that you are so.

“In your last letter you say, ‘I publish because I will publish
nothing that shall not conduce to virtue, and therefore my publications, as far as they do influence, shall influence for good.’

“Oh, my friend, how short-sighted are the views that dictated this sentence! Every man, in every deliberate action of his life, imagines he sees a preponderance of good likely to result. This is the law of our nature, from which none of us can escape. You do not in this point generically differ from the human beings about you. Mr Burke and Tom Paine, when they wrote on the French Revolution, perhaps equally believed that the sentiments they supported were essentially conducive to the welfare of man. When Mr Walsh resolved to purloin to his own use a few thousand pounds, with which to settle himself and his family and children in America, he tells us that he was for some time anxious that the effects of his fraud should fall upon Mr. Oldham rather than upon Sir Thomas Plumer, because, in his opinion, Sir Thomas was the better man. And I have no doubt that he was fully persuaded that a greater sum of happiness would result from these thousand pounds being employed in settling his innocent and lovely family in America, than in securing to his employer the possession of a large landed estate. . . .

“In the pamphlet you have just sent me, your views and mine as to the improvement of mankind are decisively at issue. You profess the immediate objects of your efforts to be ‘the organization of a society whose institution shall serve as a bond to its members.’ If I may be allowed to understand my book on Political Justice, it’s pervading principle is, that association is a most ill-chosen and ill-qualified mode of endeavouring to promote the political happiness of mankind. And I think of your pamphlet, however commendable and lovely are many of its sentiments, that it will either be ineffective to its immediate object, or that it has no very remote tendency to light again the flames of rebellion and war. . . . .

“Discussion, reading, enquiry, perpetual communication: these are my favourite methods for the improvement of mankind, but associations, organized societies, I firmly condemn. You may as well tell the adder not to sting:
‘You may as well use question with the wolf:
You may as well forbid the mountain pines
To wag their high tops, and to make no noise
When they are fretted with the gusts of heaven,’
as tell organized societies of men, associated to obtain their rights and to extinguish oppression,—prompted by a deep aversion to inequality, luxury, enormous taxes, and the evils of war,—to be innocent, to employ no violence, and calmly to await the progress of truth. I never was at a public political dinner, a scene that I have now not witnessed for many years, that I did not see how the enthusiasm was lighted up, how the flame caught from man to man, how fast the dictates of sober reason were obliterated by the gusts of passion, and how near the assembly was, like
Alexander’s compotatores at Persepolis, to go forth and fire the city, or, like the auditors of Anthony’s oration over the body of Cæsar, to apply a flaming brand to the mansion of each several conspirator.

“Discussion and conversation on the best interests of society are excellent as long as they are unfettered, and each man talks to his neighbour in the freedom of congenial intercourse as he happens to meet with him in the customary haunts of men, or in the quiet and beneficent intercourse of each other’s fireside. But they become unwholesome and poisonous when men shape themselves into societies, and become distorted with the artifices of organization. It will not then long be possible to reason calmly and dispassionately: men will heat each other into impatience and indignation against their oppressors; they will become tired of talking for ever, and will be in a hurry to act. If this view of things is true, applied to any country whatever, it is peculiarly and fearfully so when applied to the fervent and impetuous character of the Irish. . . . .

“One principle that I believe is wanting in you, and in all our too fervent and impetuous reformers, is the thought that almost every institution and form of society is good in its place and in the period of time to which it belongs. How many beautiful and admirable effects grew out of Popery and the monastic institutions
in the period when they were in their genuine health and vigour. To them we owe almost all our logic and our literature. What excellent effects do we reap, even at this day, from the feudal system and from chivalry! In this point of view nothing perhaps can be more worthy of our applause than the English Constitution. Excellent to this purpose are the words of
Daniel in his Apology for Rhyme: ‘Nor can it touch but of arrogant ignorance, to hold this or that nation barbarous, these or those times gross, considering how this manifold creature man, wheresoever he stand in the world, hath always some disposition of worth, entertains and affects that order of society which is best for his use, and is eminent for some one thing or other that fits his humour and the times.’ This is the truest and most sublime toleration. There is a period, indeed, when each institution is obsolete, and should be laid aside; but it is of much importance that we should not proceed too rapidly in this, or introduce any change before its due and proper season. . . . .

“You say that you count but on a short life. In that too you are erroneous. I shall not live to see you fourscore, but it is not improbable that my son will. I was myself in early life of a remarkably puny constitution. Pope, who was at all times kept alive only by art, reached his fifty-seventh year. The constitution of man is a theatre of change, and I think it not improbable that at thirty or forty you will be a robust man. . . . .

“To descend from great things to small, I can perceive that you are already infected with the air of the country [Ireland]. Your letter with its enclosures cost me by post 1s. 8d., and you say in it that you ‘send it in this way to save expense.’ The post always charges parcels that exceed a sheet or two by weight, and they should therefore always be forwarded by some other conveyance. . . . .