Enquiry concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness, by William Godwin

Preface to the Second Edition.

The reception of the following work has been such as to exceed what the author dared to promise himself. Its principles and reasoning have obtained the attention of the public to a considerable extent. This circumstance he has construed as imposing upon him the duty of a severe and assiduous revisal. Every author figures to himself, while writing, a numerous and liberal attention to his lucubrations: if he did not believe that he had something to offer that was worthy of public notice, it is impossible that he should write with any degree of animation. But the most ardent imagination can scarcely be expected to come in competition with sense. In the present instance, there are many things that now appear to the author upon a review, not to have been mediated with a sufficiently profound reflection, and to have been too hastily obtruded upon the reader. These things have been pruned away with a liberal hand. The wish nearest to his heart is, that there should be nothing in the book unworthy of the cause it was intended to serve. But, though he professes to have done much, much yet remains to be done. After repeated revisals the jealous eye of a man habituated to the detection of errors, still discovers things that might be better. Some are obscure; some are doubtful. As to the last, the author did not conceive himself at liberty to retract anything without a conviction, or something near a conviction, that he was wrong. He deemed it by no means justifiable to suppress any opinion, because it was inconsistent with the prejudice or persuasion of others. A circumstance by which it was originally intended that this book should be characterised, was a perfect explicitness and unreserve; and even if this intention should at last be an improper one, it was apparently too late to reverse it. It would have been an act incompatible with every pretension to integrity, to have rescinded sentiments originally advanced as true, so long as they stood forward to the author's mind accompanied with their original evidence.

It will perhaps be asked by some persons in perusing the present edition, how it has happened that the author has varied in so many points from the propositions advanced in the former? and this variation may even be treated as a topic of censure. To this he has only to answer, in the first place, that the spirit and great outlines of the work, he believes, remain untouched, and that it is reasoned in various particulars with more accuracy from the premises aand fundamental positions, than it was before. Secondly, he presumes to ascribe the variations to an industrious and conscientious endeavour to keep his mind awake to correction and improvement. He has in several instances detected error; and so far is he from feeling mortified at the discovery, that he hopes yet, by such activity and impartiality as he shall be able to exert, to arrive at many truths, of which he has scarcely at present perhaps the slighest presentiment.

Some apology is due to the purchasers of the former edition respecting the variations that appear in this. It was extremely the wish of the author, that the variations should be printed separately for their use. But how was this possible? They grew under his hands; and at last, out of eight books of which the work consists, the four first and the last may, without impropriety, be said to be re-written. An obvious alternative unavoidably offers itself. If the work be of that useless sort with which the press is daily encumbered, these purchasers will not be very solicitous about the variations of such a performance. If on the contrary it be a production of any value, they will probably sympathise with the author. He feels himself particularly indebted to them, for having enabled him to bring the work to its present state of correction; and it is to be hoped that they will not regret the having been instrument to that purpose.

The parts of the work in which the most material variations of deduction or statement appear, will be found under the following titles, The Characters of Men Originate in the External Circumstances, The Voluntary Actions of Men Originate in their Opinions, Of Personal Virtue and Duty, Of Rights, Of Promises, Of Obedience, Of Forms of Government,3 Illustrations of Sincerity, Of Self-love and Benevolence, Of Good and Evil, Principles of Property, and Of the Supposed Advantages of Luxury. Important explanations are also subjoined on the topics of marriage and longevity, Book VIII., Appendices to Chaps. VIII., and IX. To these the author would wish particularly to call the attention of his former readers. Inferior variations are scattered everywhere, and are impossible to be enumerated.

The Enquiry concerning Political Justice has been treated by some persons as of a seditious and inflammatory nature. This is probably an aspersion. If the political principles in favour of which it is written have no solid foundation, they have little chance to obtain more than a temporary fashion; and the present work is ill calculated to answer a temporary purpose. If on the contrary they be founded in immutable truth, it is highly probably, to say the least, that they will one day gain a decisive ascendancy. In that case, the tendency of such a disquisition, will be to smooth the gradation, and to prepare the enlightened to sympathise with the just claims of the oppressed and the humble No man can more fervently deprecate scenes of commotion and tumult, than the author of this book; no man would more anxiously avoid the lending his assistance in the most distant manner to animosity and bloodshed; but he persuades himself that, whatever may be the events with which the present crisis of human history shall be distinguished, the effect of his writings, as far as they are in any degree remembered, will be found favourable to the increase and preservation of general kindness and benevolence.

October 29, 1795.

3 The principles delivered on this subject in the last chapter of Book III., are more fully developed in the three first chapters of Book IV.

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