2 September 1795
William Godwin to Mary Hays, 2 Paragon Place, Surrey Road, Southwark, 2 September 1795.1
A few lines! For once then take them as follows.
First, for your judgment of authors. Rousseau, Voltaire, Smollet, Fielding!2 what an insatiable & merciless deity is yours, who requires that I should sacrifice at his shrine all those persons whom I have been accustomed to preserve nearest to my heart! If I were to undertake to calculate the benefits which they, or any one of them, have conferred on mankind, my powers of calculation would soon sink under the attempt. Honoured & adorable champions of human nature, human virtue & human happiness! who have extended the land marks of
human science, awakened the best feelings of the heart, humanized the savage natr nature of your species, given a mortal shock to the edifices of superstition, & abridged the term of all our worst vices, the vices of ignorance, of contracted sentiment & of bigotry! Ye have doubled the consciousness of all that is valuable in existence to every one of your admirers!
But you object, & say, “They have not done all this in the exact form & manner that you would have prescribed:” you assure me that “you can spy some spots in the ermine of their honour.”3 Why, so can I. But I will never forget that their merits towards mankind swallow up their errors a thousand times told. Generous & exalted spirits! though your “sins were as scarlet,”4 never, never would I cease to laud & adore you.
Thus far I can almost forget my scepticism & turn dogmatist; I proceed with some assurance. But I recollect my scepticism, when I add: First, that perhaps some of their supposed vices are virtues, & that they did well to free us from the chains of a monastic celibacy: & Secondly, that there is probably some error in the vulgar notion respecting these authors, that they greatly excite our looser passions. Something of that sort perhaps for a moment; but it is
some soon gone; lost in the nobler lessons that they write on our hearts with a pen of iron. No man is seduced, but by the unbridled play of his own imagination, little assisted from this side, or by the immoral & licentious companions he frequents. This at least seems to be pretty universally true of my own sex.
The second point of your letter turns, I believe, upon Epicureanism.5 If by Epicureanism is meant the grand principle that pleasure is the supreme & only good, the only thing worthy to be pursued, I have
little no objection to it. But, if we restrain our Epicureanism, as you do, to self-pleasure, there I beg leave to demur. Rousseau, Voltaire, Smollet & Fielding, I suspect, never made so pernicious a mistake as this. First, I can never consent coolly in my own mind to count my interest as of greater value than that of the whole universe. I cannot consent to be so egregious a dupe, or so unfeeling & ungenerous a spirit. Secondly, if I could, I suspect that the man who sits down methodically to the exclusive pursuit of his own happiness, never succeeds; while the man who practises self-denial & self-oblivion in his zeal for the good of others, always obtains the sublimest consolations, if not, which I think more frequently happens, the most enviable felicity.
Sep. 2. 1795
I believe I ought to have mentioned distinctly that I consider the Yahoo story, alias the Voyage to the Hoynhnms,6 as one of the most virtuous, liberal & enlightened examples of human genius that has yet been produced.
Address: Miss Hayes | No 2 | Paragon Place | Surrey Road
Postmark: 4 September 1795.
1 MS G 0314, Pforzheimer Collection, NYPL; Brooks, Correspondence 396-97; Clemit, Letters 1.121-23; Wedd, Love Letters 229-31.
2 The Frenchmen Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) and François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778) (best known by his nom de plume Voltaire), and two British novelists, Tobias Smollett (1721-71) and Henry Fielding (1707-54).
3 Quotations appear to be from a Hays letter to Godwin, now untraced.
4 Isaiah 1:18.
5 Epicureanism was derived from the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 B.C.) who posited the belief (as did John Locke centuries later) that knowledge was derived from the senses, with the corollary thesis that pleasure is the ultimate good of human activity.
6 Reference is to Jonathan Swift's "A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms," Book IV of Gulliver's Travels (1726).