6 May 1795
Mary Hays, 2 Paragon Place, Surrey Road, to William Godwin, 25 Chalton Street, Somers Town, 6 May 1795.1
No 2. Paragon Place. Surry Road. April May 6th 1795
The last time I had the pleasure of seeing you in Paragon Place,2 I fear I was a little troublesome. I wanted, with an impatience (I was going to say natural) habitual to my temper, to gain information on every subject at once, & almost harassed you, I believe, with desultory questions: By which means I defeated by an over solicitude, as I fancy is often the case, the purpose on which I was intent. For of the multiplicity of ideas which had rapidly succeeded each other in my mind, there were but few that I could clearly retrace. A variety of circumstances have tended to ex[cite] in my mind an inexpressible ardor for the acquisition of knowledge, an ardor approaching the limits of pain; for my attainments bear no proportion to my desires: & frequently, when conceiving that I have gained an arduous height, my thoughts recoil, like the fabled stone of Sisyphus,3 and sinking back into old habits & prejudices, I perceive that I have not in reality advanced a single step. In seasons of despondency, which but too often recur, I am sometimes inclined to think that every wise man will at length conclude with Solomon – That all is vanity & vexation of spirit.4 (excuse this short quotation, I am not unmindful of your reproof!) So convinced am I, that virtue is not in itself happiness, for ah! how many painful sacrifices does it frequently require of us! that I own this life appears to me, while struggling with wayward passions & exhausted by vain pursuits, an inexplicable enigma – if I must conclude it to be the whole of our existence. How can I suppose that so fine a mind as yours, after combating a few years with the vices & follies of mankind, perhaps with but little effect – “Nothing (said a gentleman & a scholar with whom I was in company a few days since) is so weak as truth, except virtue & religion.”5 – Can I believe (I repeat) that a mind elevated & benevolent as yours, after spending itself, it may be, in vain endeavours to reform & enlighten others – its arduous efforts repelled by ignorance, by interest, by pertinacity, by gross & sordid self love – will in a few years become extinct? A sudden stop put to all its enquiries, its improvements cut short ere they arrive at maturity: the body still surviving in the various changes to which matter is subject! But the intellect, with all its sublime conceptions, its acute & comprehensive powers, annihilated – a word that conveys no idea. You will again smile & tell me to confine my researches within the sober limits of experience, & not attempt to explore what is unsearchable: but I cannot persuade myself that there may not be many analogical reasonings in favor of my hypothesis – of the existence of a Supreme Power, & the probability of a future state of being. After reading the enquiry into the principles of political justice, could [I] have admitted, for a moment, that a work so conceived & arranged [could have] been produced by a fortuitous concourse of printers types? [After] contemplating the fair characters of the universe, rising in order [of their] existence & with the expanding capacity, why should I not trace [such forms], so impressed with intelligence, to an intelligent cause? I do not contend for the God of the priest, nor of the vulgar: but every effect bespeaks an adequate cause! If matter cannot communicate motion to itself, must there not be a moving power? Infinite (as we term it) power & intelligence includes the idea of infinite justice or goodness. The views of such a Being cannot terminate on evil: & individual restoration, happiness, & perfection, if my arguments have any force, follow as a corrollary. I am aware that it is impossible to reason on such a subject without being guilty of (what shall I say?) anthropomorphism: But, addressing so acute a mind, I need not be solicitous about words, your ready apprehension will easily disentangle my meaning from any obscurity of phraseology, I have probably been only repeating what I have said before, but the subject is an interesting one to me &, not withstanding your dislike of repetition, you will perhaps excuse me!
There is another topic on which I recollect, my ideas did not quite accord with yours: which I will only just touch upon. I observed that many things that we call evil might in reality be beneficial to us: as also, on the contrary, others which we conceive to be desirable might prove ultimately pernicious & destructive. Is not this the natural consequence of ignorance? For to what, according to your own system, is owing all our vices & miseries, but to our mistakes? The wretched corruptions which deform society were originally the erring choice (from motives at that time irresistible) of man: Hence we still groan under them, & shall continue to do so, till we gain sufficient discernment & strength to perceive & dissolve the enchantment. If we were never again to desire what was prejudicial, nor reject what was really salutary, the work of reformation wou’d be accomplished. But I have perhaps misconceived you & may be combating a self created phantom! I confess I did not feel perfectly self possessed during the conversation I allude to, because, when inclined to differ, I was too conscious of inferiority.
Mr Frend, Mr Dyer & one or two more friends have engaged to drink tea with me any day after wednesday in next week (except Sunday) that may be most convenient to Mr Godwin to join our party: May I hope to be favoured with a line from Mr G, naming the day, that will best suit him (nothing more important interfering)?6
I am respectfully &c
NB a few days previous notice will be esteemed a favor.
Address: Mr Godwin | Somers Town |25 Chalton Street | post paid
Postmark: 7 May 1795, 2 o’clock afn.
1 MS MH 004, Pforzheimer Collection, NYPL; Brooks, Correspondence 390-92.
2 Possibly a reference to her having tea with Godwin on 29 January of that year, but it seems more likely Godwin visited Hays at least one more time prior to the date of this letter, an event that, for whatever reason, was not entered into his diary.
3 Sysyphus] MS
4 Ecclesiastes 1:14.
5 Most likely William Frend.
6 Godwin would have tea with Mary Hays at John Dunkin's residence at the Paragon on Thursday, 14 May 1795 (see next letter above about the reference to “thursday”).