[16] December 1795

Mary Hays, 30 Kirby Street, Hatton Garden, to William Godwin, 25 Chalton Street, Somers Town, Wednesday morning, [16] December 1795.1


No 30 – Kirby St – Hatton Garden – Decbr 1795

     My philosophy will, I doubt, become sadly deranged if I must banish the terms & the ideas of cause & effect: my whole system of necessity, which I conceived to be founded upon a rock, begins to totter. If there be no necessary connection between circumstance & impression where is the basis for the efforts of your magician? his disciple may start in a moment from him, like a lawless planet, & baffle his most strenuous exertions. I seem afloat, without rudder or ballast, in the wide sea of scepticism, & begin to fear that my little bark has escaped the hidden shoals of the narrow straits, only to founder in the unfathomable ocean.  

      I must write to you, though my ideas are, <-> at present, involved in no little confusion, but, while my letters appear to be the antecedent to which your visits are the consequent, I can never want a motive to take up my pen. – I have been referring to my Euclid for this same antecedent & consequent, but it has not afforded me much illustration: before I proceed, I think I had better attempt a definition of the terms, or, rather, to state the ideas they convey to me. Had I seen you for an indefinite number of times, follow’d by Mr Holcroft, I might have call’d you the antecedent, but, at the same time, this notion wou’d have been very distinct ^different^ from what (by way of distinction) we call a physical cause & effect. (I shall get bewildered, you admit of no system of physics, I believe, you will make me, ere long, like the ancient pyrr^h^on’ics,2 doubt of the reality of my own existence, of matter & motion – I do not perceive the utility of refining so much.) I confess (I may be wrong) that there is a something which appears to me distinguishable from this accidental, or moral, antecedent & consequent – If I, with design, stretch out my hand a thousand times a day, & repeat the experiment every day of my life, to grasp an unresisting object – this design, this invariable motion, & invariable consequence, seems to bespeak a real & necessary connexion, subject to fix’d laws, & which, however ignorant I may be of the nature of those laws or the generating substance, I think may, without impropriety be denominated cause & effect & afford [a]certain criterion for our enquiries, & experiments, & conclusions, without this, the truth in natural philosophy, even the deductions from lines & figures wou’d be vague or utterly fail. Moral causes & effects are, I shou’d ^also^ suspect, to the full as certain, & the distinctions we make between them merely the consequence of our ignorance, the time may arrive when they will admit of similar demonstration, but till that time, for the sake of perspicuity, we are obliged to vary our terms. I fear I do not myself with sufficient precision, but when I am told, that the three internal angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles, I yield to the proposition without hesitation, because I have examined the premises & can trace them to their original, simple, principles – but was a person to say to me, in the course of the next six months a pure republic will be establish’d in this country, erected upon the overthrow of the present constitution, I shou’d suspend my assent, not that it may not be altogether as certain, but because I am not equally capable of tracing the complicated movements on which it depends – so that after all, cause & effect, antecedent & consequent, mean exactly the same thing, & we distinguish between them (as I before observed[)] only from our own ignorance: yet, perhaps to make ourselves intelli^gi^ble, till the world gets more enlighten’d, we must continue, in popular language, this distinction. Conceiving thus (however absurdly I may have express’d myself) of ^our^ designs & their effects or consequences, I cannot get rid of the notion, which appears to me the result of fair analogical reasoning, that the order of the universe bespeaks similar design – I am even inclined to adopt the ardent language of Rousseau, & say ‘Being of beings, I am because thou art.’3 And tho’ I will relinquish to you every idea I have hitherto formed of such a designer, the sentiment, whether from habit, association, or conviction, obstinately adheres.

     I must suspect you gentlemen of some assumption, when you decidedly class on the side of your opinions the balance of intellect, such a calculation is, I conceive, difficult to make, nor do I think the progress of reason so very rapid, as to be certain, that modern discoverers (and yet I rate them very high) have already superceded the enquiries & labours of a Newton, Locke, Hartley, with a long etcetera of respectable names – The Universe, I think your friend4 asserted, bespoke not the first & wisest of all possible designs, in reply to this, may I not ask – how little of nature do we yet know? future investigators may, it is not improbable, discover admirable adaptation in what now appears, to us, distorted & deformed. I will not apologize for what I have written, however trite or confused; it may have been my lot, as heretofore, to have misconceived you; I am less modest than my sister,5 & will never decline a subject through the mere apprehension of incompetence; how are our faculties to be improved if we do not exercise them? it is by first hazarding wrong judgements, that we, at length, acquire the capacity of forming right ones.

       You may, if you please, read to your friend what I have written, & tell him, I shall be glad to converse with him, in future on this, or on any other subject but, tho’ I like his frankness & energy, he must not make use of exclamations, nor speak in tones quite so high, or he will frighten the arguments out of my head. Instruction shou’d fall softly, like a gentle, insinuating, shower of dews: the free mind revolts at the slightest coercive symptoms, on such occasions one is apt pertinaciously to reply – ‘Am not I also, a painter?’6 I thank you, very sincerely, for your introduction to Mr Holcroft, & shall feel myself mortified if our conversation afforded him no degree of incitement to repeat his visit. – I love mental stimulus, & I seek a commerce with those who are capable of affording it: The want of impression is, to me, the most intolerable of all wants. I did not recollect till after you left us, that Mr H had studied & translated Lavater,7 this accounts to me for his physiognomonical observations, now, wou’d I give something for his judgement on the groupe assembled, tho’, perhaps the knowledge wou’d sufficiently punish me for the vain curiosity! This is, also, a subject on which my mind is by no means made up – I only know that the handsomest people of my acquaintance are neither the best nor the wisest, & I am inclined to believe that all our ideas respecting personal beauty are generated, arbitrary, & uncertain – I confess, I never see beauty in the countenance that is not irradiated with intelligence or impressed by feeling.

       I shall not be unmindful of your reproof respecting my desultory habits of study, which I find not always avoidable – Continue to be my good genius, you have already made me wiser & happier, yes! you have benefitted me in various ways – yet, some powerful spells still remain to be dissolved, some dangerous relapses to be averted – I claim, now your assistance & friendship, & claim them with more [paper torn] nor do I, like Mr Thelwall,8 wish you to be [paper torn] of my errors.

       I do not want to learn to moderate my pleasurable sensations, those which friendly & intellectual intercourse never fail to afford me, but I shou’d be glad to get ^rid^ of certain exquisitely painful & poignant emotions, that are but too apt to recur to minds of a certain texture.

       I reserve the second perusal of the political justice for a period of more leisure & quietness of spirit, for my feelings have been again, I cannot help it, sadly harrow’d up – these exquisite sensibilities, however generated, have tortured me thro’ life, & I sometimes, even still, forbode they will terminate fatally – you, will do me good, if any body can – oh! how agonizing & incessant are the struggles between truth & error in a mind of ardor! I have been endeavouring cooly to philosophize, I cou’d, had I follow’d the bent of my inclinations, rather have dissolved my womanish fears – I thought my mind my mind had acquired more strength, bur some circumstance, not altogether concerning myself, have brought on a relapse of this morbid depression – but for this, you wou’d probably have heard sooner from me – yet, I again repeat, I know no one so capable of preserving me from my self – but you will have your labours so often to renew, that I fear you will at length conclude me not worth the effort. – I have done with this – curiosity prompted me to peep into the advanced parts of your system, in this new edition, which I found far less objectionable – I have ever been an advocate for individual attachments from conceiving, that they may be the source of our greatest improvements & most delicious pleasures, the first advant^a^ge I have experienced – the last, from untoward circumstances, never – tho’ this perhaps is saying too much!

      I have lately seen you only in company, when you have leisure, may I expect a more disengaged, uninterrupted, conversation – We can speak, with certainty, only of what we have experienced, I therefore will say, that Mr Godwins gentle, courteous, patient, yet impressive, method of investigation has, while awakening my faculties, banished my timidity, & excited my grateful respect & esteem!

                                                 Mary Hays.

One word more respecting individual affections, I suspect, that were we too rigorously to strip them of their illusions & banish all the partialities that cling to them, those ardent incitements & exquisite gratifications which I hinted at, wou’d lose their energy, for what character will bear to be view’d with a microscopic eye? & without a degree of enthusiasm every effort will be languid – I am aware of the fatal extreme to which this may be carried, & of the agonizing reluctance with which we admit, in some cases a retraction of judgement.

NB I have been occupied with the concerns of a friend,9 who is unwell & unhappy, or you wou’d have ^heard^ from me earlier. Thursday & Saturday I shall be, also, engaged – but let it not be long before I see you.10

Wednesday morng – 8 oclock


Address: Wm Godwin | Somers Town | Charlton Street

Postmark: 16 December 1795, 12 o’clock Noon

post paid 2d


1 MS MH 0010, Pforzheimer Collection, NYPL; Brooks, Correspondence 413-17.

2 Pyrrho of Elis (370-272 BC) was a leading Greek sceptic. His writings were preserved by Sextus Empiricus and became influential in 17th century European philosophy and the resurgence of scepticism. He posited the notion of accepting phenomena as it is without particular analysis, suspending judgment, and resisting the possibility of certain knowledge.

3 From Rousseau's Emile, 3.74. 

4 Thomas Holcroft. 

5 Sarah Hays Hills, Mary's orthodox sister who was in attendance with her and Elizabeth Hays when Godwin called for tea on 10 November.

6 A famous anecdote, attributed to the Italian painter Corregio (1494-1534) when he first saw Raphael's "St. Cecilia" at Bologna. 

7 Holcroft's Essays on Physiognomy, a translation of Johann Caspar Lavater's Essaies sur Physiognomie, appeared in 1789, published by the Robinsons. 

8 John Thelwall (1764-1834) was a popular figure among the proponents of constitutional reform in the early and mid-1790s.  He began working in London in the late 1780s and quickly became an outspoken supporter of the French Revolution.  He joined the Society of the Friends of the People in 1791 and the London Corresponding Society in 1792, becoming known thereafter as “Citizen Thelwall.” His radical views caused the followers of Pitt to label him a Jacobin, eventually charging him, along with Thomas Hardy, Horn Tooke, and several others, with treason in May 1794.    He was acquitted in December 1794, much to the applause of reformers like Flower.  Forced to curtail his political activities as a result of the Pitt and Grenville Acts in December 1795, he turned to lecturing in the provinces, eventually retiring to a farm in Brecon, Wales, in 1798.  He resumed lecturing in 1800 and became an early innovator in the field of speech elocution.  

9 Wollstonecraft was still recovering from her second suicide attempt in October and the aftermath of her affair with Imlay. 

10 Godwin will not wait long, for, as his diary notes, he spends that evening with Hays.