The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Two Objects of the Good Life: Mary Shelley’s Father on the Relationship Between Personal Happiness, Imagination, and Social Harmony

The Two Objects of the Good Life: Mary Shelley’s Father on the Relationship Between Personal Happiness, Imagination, and Social Harmony

“The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge,” the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote as he reflected on how to stop limiting your happiness. “Neither love without knowledge, nor knowledge without love can produce a good life.”

A century and a half before him, the radical and far-seeing political philosopher and novelist William Godwin (March 3, 1756–April 7, 1836) — father of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley — examined the building blocks of the good life in The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature (public library) — the book he began writing when his wife, the radical and far-seeing political philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, was pregnant with the daughter whose birth would kill her.

William Godwin. Portrait by James Northcote. (National Portrait Gallery, London.)

In a sentiment David Foster Wallace would echo in his own radical reflection on the true value of education, Godwin writes:

The true object of education, like that of every other moral process, is the generation of happiness. Happiness to the individual in the first place. If individuals were universally happy, the species would be happy.

A century and a half before Martin Luther King, Jr. incited us to see our “inescapable network of mutuality,” Godwin insists:

In society the interests of individuals are intertwisted with each other, and cannot be separated. Men should be taught to assist each other. The first object should be to train a man* to be happy; the second to train him to be useful, that is, to be virtuous.

But he also acknowledges the inescapable contradictions of human nature and considers the soundest strategy for their reconciliation:

All virtue is a compromise between opposite motives and inducements. The man of genuine virtue, is a man of vigorous comprehension and long views. He who would be eminently useful, must be eminently instructed. He must be endowed with a sagacious judgement, and an ardent zeal.

One of artist Margaret C. Cook’s illustrations for a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

In Bible Stories — a series for children he wrote under a pseudonym when his radical philosophy rendered him a pariah — Godwin considered the common variable beneath the twin pillars of the good life, central to both morality and love:

Imagination is the ground-plot upon which the edifice of a sound morality must be erected. Without imagination we may have a certain cold and arid circle of principles, but we cannot have sentiments: we may learn by rote a catalogue of rules, and repeat our lessons with the exactness of a parrot, or play over our tricks with the docility of a monkey; but we can neither ourselves love, nor be fitted to excite the love of others.

Pair with Nietzsche on how to find yourself and the true value of education, then revisit Godwin on how to raise an intelligent child and his advice to activists.

Published January 30, 2023




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