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Great Expectations: Futurity in the Long Eighteenth Century

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Edited By Mascha Hansen and Jürgen Klein

What did eighteenth-century men and women think about when they contemplated the future? What was hidden in the «dark bosom of futurity», as Richardson’s Pamela calls it? Do all types of literature that supply a critique of the present conjure up an idealized past or a vision of a better future? Predictions and prophecies – not only astrological but also political ones, utopian models, theological concepts like predestination, progress in the sciences, and, last but not least, life-after-death, both in the form of secular fame and the immortal soul, are among the topics addressed by the essays collected in this volume.

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THE CRITIQUE OF UTOPIANISM: GIBBON VS. GODWIN, Michael Szczekalla

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THE CRITIQUE OF UTOPIANISM: GIBBON VS. GODWIN Michael Szczekalla, EMA Universität Greifswald/Aachen 1. Radicalism and the Rejection of History ‘If the unrestrained discussion of abstract enquiry be of the highest importance to mankind, the unrestrained investigation of character is scarcely less to be cultivat- ed. If truth were universally told of men’s dispositions and actions, gibbets and wheels might be dismissed from the face of the earth. The knave unmasked would be obliged to turn honest in his own defence.’1 This is Leslie Stephen, the great Victorian critic, biographer, and pioneer of in- tellectual history, quoting William Godwin, whose Enquiry concerning Political Justice (1793) no doubt exemplifies best what its author meant by “abstract en- quiry.” The bulky and expensive volume famously elicited William Pitt’s quip that he saw no need for censorship because the book cost three guineas.2 Had he condescended to take his antagonist seriously, Pitt might have urged in Godwin’s defence that the latter did not preach revolution. His anar- chist utopia rested on the assumption that change had to be effected by trans- forming public opinion, not by the art of the demagogue, of course, but by the ‘power of reason’ – an insight Godwin had arrived at with the help of Hume, who would have been no less amused by this pretended discovery than Adam Smith, by whom Godwin claimed to have been taught that in a well-ordered economy nobody had to work for more than one hour per day.3 Yet, to be fair, justice,...

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