Saturday, January 6, 2018

The History of Frankenstein Part II: That Time the World's First Feminist Married the World's First Libertarian

At the end of 1792, even though tensions between Britain and France were running high, Mary Wollstonecraft moved to Paris, joining a British expat community made up largely of radical philosophers who were alarmed by the growing reactionary atmosphere back home. The most prominent of these was Tom Paine, who had fled Britain after hearing a rumor he was going to be charged with treason. Paine was working with Condorcet on reforms of the French education system, and he asked Wollstonecraft to submit ideas for women's education.

But Wollstonecraft had arrived in France at the worst possible time. Only a few days after settling into Paris, she witnessed King Louis being carted through the streets for his trial. France was already at war with Austria and Prussia, which had formed a coalition to restore Louis to his full monarchical power, and the King's execution in January 1793 brought Britain, Holland and Spain into the conflict as well. In response, the French National Convention created the Committee of Public Safety to take executive control of the country. The Committee took action to stabilize the economy and establish price controls on food, and organized a massive army that repulsed the enemy invasion. But at the same time they faced the threat of counter-revolutionary forces in the form of war profiteers, fifth columnists and insurgents. The Committee resorted to mass arrests of suspected Royalists, subversives, and Catholic clergy who wouldn't forswear their loyalty to Rome. Those judged guilty of high crimes were put to death.

Wollstonecraft hadn't foreseen this turn of events. It wasn't (contrary to what British propagandists claim) that the French were behaving exceptionally badly. After all, the British government at this time was establishing a domestic spy network to keep an eye on suspected subversives, many of whom would eventually be jailed, and in 1798 they'd carry out massacres and stage mass executions to put down an uprising in Ireland. But Wollstonecraft held the Revolution to higher standards than that. This was supposed to be a rational movement to make the world a better place, and here they were behaving no better than George III.

But still, Wollstonecraft decided to stick it out, and she soon hooked up with an American smuggler named Gilbert Imlay, becoming not only his lover but an unofficial business partner. The two never married, though Imlay did claim her as his wife to the French government, which led them to treat her as an American citizen rather than an Englishwoman.

In 1794 Wollstonecraft gave birth to her first daughter, Frances or Fanny. Unfortunately for the both of them, Imlay was a fickle bastard with no desire to be a father, and he ditched them soon after Fanny's birth. At first Wollstonecraft tried to stick it out in France, but being a single mother in this period was difficult enough; being one in a foreign country was even worse, to say nothing of a country that's at war with your homeland, and in 1795 she returned to London and tried to get back with Imlay.

Imlay was still a bastard, however, and he wouldn't take her back of even give her support. With no one else to turn to, Wollstonecraft attempted suicide. Imlay saved her, and afterwards he asked her to undertake a trip to Scandinavia to sort out some business matters for him. Whether this was a genuine attempt to get Wollstonecraft's mind on other matters, or just cynical exploitation ... well, Imlay was supposed to rendezvous with her in Germany but never made it. Once she returned to London, Wollstonecraft realized the relationship was beyond salvage and tried to drown herself in the Thames, though she was saved by a passerby.

Wollstonecraft recovered slowly, and it was during this time that she encountered William Godwin again and began a relationship with him.

To call Godwin the world's first libertarian is perhaps a bit unfair -- he wrote his major political work, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, only a decade and a half after Smith published The Wealth of Nations and more than half a century before Marx and Engels began The Communist Manifesto, which makes it impossible to map him onto modern political axes that are defined by dogmatic capitalism and socialism.

Like most political thinkers of the late 18th Century, Godwin's primary concern was personal liberty, and his approach to it was utilitarian. He posited an early form of the Trolley Problem in which he imagined the French philosopher Fenelon in a burning room with his chambermaid, and concluded that any reasonable person -- even the chambermaid's husband -- should prefer to rescue Fenelon because he would make greater contributions to society. But at the same time, Godwin would reject modern Randian Libertarianism and the way its adherents assume the accumulation of wealth is an inherent good and the poor are lazy slobs who deserve their lot in life:

Justice obliges [a rich man] to regard this property as a trust, and calls upon him maturely to consider in what manner it may best be employed for the increase of liberty, knowledge and virtue. He has no right to dispose of a shilling of it at the will of his caprice. So far from being entitled to well earned applause for having employed some scanty pittance in the service of philanthropy, he is in the eye of justice a delinquent if he withhold any portion from that service. Nothing can be more incontrovertible. Could that portion have been better or more worthily employed? That it could is implied in the very terms of the proposition. Then it was just it should have been so employed. -- In the same manner as my property, I hold my person as a trust in behalf of mankind. I am bound to employ my talents, my understanding, my strength and my time for the production of the greatest quantity of general good. Such are the declarations of justice, so great is the extent of my duty.

But justice is reciprocal. If it be just that I should confer a benefit, it is just that another man should receive it, and, if I withhold from him that to which he is entitled, he must justly complain. My neighbour is in want of ten pounds that I can spare. There is no law of political institution that has been made to reach this case, and to transfer this property from me to him. But in the eye of simple justice, unless it can be shewn that the money can be more beneficently employed, his claim is as complete, as if he had my bond in his possession, or had supplied me with goods to the amount.
Both Engels and Kropotkin recognized Godwin as being part of their political lineage, though Engels felt that Godwin's emphasis on the individual and distrust of institutions made him ultimately incompatible with socialism. Ultimately it is modern Libertarians who are more direct descendants of Godwin, even if he himself would be appalled at Paul Ryan and Rand Paul using his ideas for such twisted ends.

There is one trait Godwin had that is shared by modern Libertarians, and that is a penchant for theorizing on subjects for which he had minimal experience. A case in point: For the first forty years of his life, Godwin lived as a bachelor with no signs of any romantic entanglements in his life, but that didn't stop him from writing about the subject. He began shrewdly enough:

But the evil of marriage as it is practised in European countries lies deeper than this. The habit is, for a thoughtless and romantic youth of each sex to come together, to see each other for a few times and under circumstances full of delusion, and then to vow to each other eternal attachment. What is the consequence of this? In almost every instance they find themselves deceived. They are reduced to make the best of an irretrievable mistake. They are presented with the strongest imaginable temptation to become the dupes of falshood. 
This is certainly the conclusion our society has come to, apart from a few religiously conservatives. While we might want Ron and Hermione (or Harry and Hermione, or Harry and Neville) together forever, we recognize that in real life it's best not to marry your high school sweetheart. It's best to shop around a bit, find out what your options are, and take them out for a test drive by living together for a bit. But most of us (though in declining numbers) still recognize marriage as a potential endpoint for a relationship. Not so with Godwin. He believed that marriage itself was evil:

Add to this, that marriage is an affair of property, and the worst of all properties. So long as two human beings are forbidden by positive institution to follow the dictates of their own mind, prejudice is alive and vigorous. So long as I seek to engross one woman to myself, and to prohibit my neighbour from proving his superior desert and reaping the fruits of it, I am guilty of the most odious of all monopolies. Over this imaginary prize men watch with perpetual jealousy, and one man will find his desires and his capacity to circumvent as much excited, as the other is excited to traverse his projects and frustrate his hopes
The framing of the argument is male-centric, with the woman as simply a prize to be won -- though it should be noted that this was the legal case at the time; for all intents and purposes, once a woman said, "I do," her husband owned her and all her property. And Godwin's idea of reform ignores the effects of patriarchy on the whole issue -- the fact that most men prize women when they're young and good looking, and they have less interest in taking care of a woman who has children from another man.

But one thing that separates Godwin from modern Libertarians is that he was willing to reconsider his ideas in light of new facts, and he did so on this issue after re-encountering Wollstonecraft. In the third edition of Political Justice, the above passage becomes:

Add to this, that marriage, as now understood, is a monopoly, and the worst of all monopolies. So long as two human beings are forbidden by positive institution, to follow the dictates of their own mind, prejudice will be alive and vigorous. So long as I seek, by despotic and artificial means, to maintain my possession of a woman, I am guilty of the most odious selfishness. Over this imaginary prize, men watch with perpetual jealousy and one man finds his desire, and his capacity to circumvent, as much excited, as the other is excited to traverse his projects and frustrate his hopes
Notice how in this new version, the problem with marriage isn't that one man is keeping a woman from another man, but that the act of possessing a woman is itself "despotic and artificial".

His change of thinking is more obvious when it comes to the matter of sex and love. In the first edition of Political Justice, Godwin reasoned:
The intercourse of the sexes will in such a state fail under the same system as any other species of friendship. Exclusively of all groundless and obstinate attachments, it will be impossible for me to live in the world without finding one man of a worth superior to that of any other whom I have an opportunity of observing. To this man I shall feel a kindness in exact proportion to my apprehension of his worth. The case will be precisely the same with respect to the female sex. I shall assiduously cultivate the intercourse of that woman whose accomplishments shall strike me in the most powerful manner. 'But it may happen that other men will feel for her the same preference that I do.' This will create no difficulty. We may all enjoy her conversation; and we shall all be wise enough to consider the sensual intercourse as a very trivial object. This, like every other affair in which two persons are concerned, must be regulated in each successive instance by the unforced consent of either party. It is a mark of the extreme depravity of our present habits, that we are inclined to suppose the sensual intercourse any wise material to the advantages arising from the purest affection. Reasonable men now eat and drink, not from the love of pleasure, but because eating and drinking are essential to our healthful existence. Reasonable men then will propagate their species, not because a certain sensible pleasure is annexed to this action, but because it is right the species should be propagated; and the manner in which they exercise this function will be regulated by the dictates of reason and duty.
 This is of course the sort of overly-rational thinking you expect from Libertarian sci-fi fans who think Mr. Spock is the ideal of manhood. But after his relationship with Wollstonecraft, Godwin completely changed his tune:

It is a question of some moment, whether the intercourse of the sexes, in a reasonable state of society, would be promiscuous, or whether each man would select for himself a partner, to whom he will adhere, as long as that adherence shall continue to be the choice of both parties. Probability seems to be greatly in favour of the latter. Perhaps this side of the alternative is most favourable to population. Perhaps it would suggest itself in preference, to the man who would wish to maintain the several propensities of his frame, in the order due to their relative importance, and to prevent a merely sensual appetite from engrossing excessive attention. It is scarcely to be imagined, that this commerce, in any state of society, will be stripped of its adjuncts, and that men will as willingly hold it, with a woman whose personal and mental qualities they disapprove, as with one of a different description. But it is the nature of the human mind, to persist, for a certain length of time, in its opinion or choice. The parties therefore having acted upon selection, are not likely to forget this selection when the interview is over. Friendship, if by friendship we understand that affection for an individual which is measured singly by what we know of his worth, is one of the most exquisite gratifications, perhaps one of the most improving exercises, of a rational mind. Friendship therefore may be expected to come in aid of the sexual intercourse, to refine its grossness, and increase its delight. All these arguments are calculated to determine our judgement in favour of marriage as a salutary and respectable institution, but not of that species of marriage in which there is no room for repentance and to which liberty and hope are equally strangers.
In other words, Godwin and Wollstonecraft had mindblowing sex, and all the more so because they were intellectual equals who respected each other.

But their happiness was short lived. Wollstonecraft became pregnant at the end of 1796, and she and Godwin decided, despite their mutual misgivings about marriage, to wed so their child would be legitimate. But Wollstonecraft was by now thirty-eight, an age at which child birth became dangerous. Her daughter Mary was born safely, but Wollstonecraft contracted a postpartum infection and died a mere two weeks later, leaving her two daughters in the care of a forty year old man who had spent his entire life as a bachelor.

NEXT TIME: The Godwin Bunch

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