2 February 1796
William Godwin, [25 Chalton Street, Somers Town], to Mary Hays, [30 Kirby Street, Hatton Garden], [2 February 1796].1
Your narrative leaves me full of admiration of your qualities, & compassion for your insanity.
The letter, in particular, in which you divide your subject into five heads, is altogether a wonderful composition.2
I intreat however your attention to the following passage from it. “After considering all I have urged, you may perhaps reply, that the subject is too nice & too subtle for reasoning, & that the heart is not to be compelled. This, I think, is a mistake. There is no subject, in fact, that may not be subjected to the laws of investigation & reasoning. What is it that we desire? Pleasure? Happiness. What! the pleasure of an instant only, or that which is more solid & permanent? I allow, Pleasure is the supreme good! but it may be analysed. To this analysis I now call you!”
Could I, if I studied for years, invent a comment on your story more salutary to your sorrows, more immoveable in its foundation, more clearly expressed, or more irresistibly convincing to every rational mind?
How few real, substantial misfortunes there are in the world! How few calamities, the sting of which does not depend upon our cherishing the viper in our bosom, & applying the aspic to our veins! The general pursuit of all men, we are frequently told, is happiness. I have frequently been tempted to think, on the contrary, that the general pursuit is misery. It is true men do not recognise it by its genuine appellation; they content themselves with the pitiful expedient of assigning it a new denomination. But, if their professed purpose were misery, could they be more skilful & ingenious in the pursuit?
Look through your whole life. To speak from your own description, was there ever a life less chequered with substantial, bona fide misfortune? The only thing that looks like a misfortune is the death of Mr C;3 & the whole force of that misfortune was assiduously, unintermittedly provided by yourself. You nursed in yourself a passion, which, taken in the degree in which you experienced it, is the unnatural & odious invention of a distempered civilisation, & which in all instances, except perhaps in such as Thomson represents in Celadon & Amelia,4 generates an immense over balance of excrutiating misery. Your last story will scarcely admit of any other denomination than moon-struck madness hunting after torture. You address a man impenetrable as a rock, & the smallest glimpse of sober reflection & common sense would teach you instantly to have given up the pursuit.
I know you will tell me, & you will tell yourself, a great deal about constitution, early associations, & the indissoluble chain of habits & sentiments. But I answer with small fear of being erroneous, “It is a mistake to suppose that the heart is not to be compelled. There is no topic, in fact, that may not be subjected to the laws of investigation & reasoning. Pleasure, happiness, is the supreme good; & happiness is susceptible of being analysed.” I grant, that the state of a human mind cannot be changed at once: but, had you worshipped at the altar of reason but half as assiduously as you have sacrificed at the shrine of illusion, your present happiness would have been as enviable, as your present distress is worthy of compassion. If men would but take the trouble to ask themselves once every day, Why should I be miserable? how many to whom life is a burthen, would become chearful & contented?
Make a catalogue of all the real evils of human life: bodily pain, compulsory solitude, severe corporal labour, in a word, all those causes which deprive us of health, or the means of spending our time in animated, various & rational pursuits. Aye, these are real evils! I made a catalogue of such in my chapter “Of Good & Evil,”5 but I should have been ashamed of putting disappointed love into my enumeration. Evils of this sort are the brood of folly, begotten upon fastidious indolence. They shrink into nonentity, when touched by the wand of truth.
The first lesson of enlightened reason, the great fountain of heroism & virtue, the principle by which alone man can become what man is capable of being, is Independence. May every power that is favourable to integrity & honour, defend me from leaning upon another for support! I will use the world, I will use my fellow men, but I will not abuse these invaluable benefits of the system of nature. I will not be weak & criminal enough to make my peace depend upon the precarious thread of another’s life or another’s pleasure. I will judge for myself; I will draw my support from myself – the support of my existence & the support of my happiness. The system of nature had perhaps made me dependent for the means of existence & happiness upon my fellow-men taken collectively; but nothing but my own folly can make me dependent upon individuals. Will these principles prevent me from admiring, esteeming & loving such as are worthy to excite these emotions? Can I not have a mind to understand, & a heart to feel excellence, without first parting with the fairest attributes of our nature?
You boast of your sincerity & frankness. You have doubtless some reason for your boast: yet all your misfortunes seem to have arisen from concealment. You brooded over your
misfortunes emotions, & considered them as a sacred deposit. I have myself received twenty letters from you, & seen you almost as often, during the pendency of this whole transaction, without your having ever given me the slightest hint. Yet, if I be a fit counsellor now, I was a fit counsellor then. Your folly was so gross, that, if it had been exposed to the light of day, it could not have subsisted for a moment. Even now you suppress the name of your hero: yet, unless I know how much of a hero & a model of excellence he would appear in my eyes, I can be but a very imperfect judge of the business. There is another omission, inadvertent probably, but material. How many confidents, in the unreserved sense of the word, have you now, or have you had in the course of the affair? How many confidents, in the imperfect way in which you have not made me a confident? A great deal of the sense & spirit of your story depends upon this circumstance.
1 MS. Abinger c. 22, fols 18-21. Not in Brooks, Correspondence; Clemit, Letters 1.153-56. This letter was reproduced by Hays in Vol. 2, Ch. XI of Emma Courtney.
2 The passage Godwin cites is in Vol. 2, Ch. VII of Emma Courtney.
3 Possibly Mr. Collier, husband of the Mrs. Collier who is a close friend and confidant of Hays and, as she notes in her letters, a surrogate mother to her. It is likely Mrs. Collier who transcribed the Eccles-Hays letters into bound volumes, one of which remains extant in the Pforzheimer Collection.
4 Two lovers in James Thomson's The Seasons, "Summer," ll. 1171-1222.
5 This chapter appeared in the 2nd ed. of Godwin's Political Justice.