Sam Rowe in Full Stop:
In the early 1790s, the London intellectual scene was convulsed with the fervor of the ongoing French Revolution. Sympathizers and counter-revolutionaries engaged in a ferocious pamphlet war, initiated by the Unitarian minister Richard Price, rejoined by Edmund Burke in his masterpiece of reactionary rhetoric, Reflections on the Revolution in France, and rejoined again by such writers as Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine. Political organizations arguing for electoral reform, including the London Corresponding Society and the Society for Constitutional Information, flourished. The resulting conservative backlash culminated in government suspension of habeas corpus and suppression of the free press and free assembly. The decade following the revolution was, all told, a time of tremendous political creativity and turbulence in the Anglophone world.
Among the most influential contributions to these debates was a complex philosophical tome titled Enquiry Concerning Political Justice by a former dissenting minister named William Godwin. Godwin was as radical as Wollstonecraft (his future wife) and Paine, but less political and confrontational, and his response to the revolution therefore took a decidedly intellectualized cast. The book’s final section, “Of Property,” was particularly influential in its strict egalitarianism: It provided inspiration to the utopian socialist and Chartist movements in the early nineteenth century and was being reprinted by radicals as late as 1890. Godwin’s arguments for equality of property, however, provoked a strange set of reflections on the perfectibility of other aspects of human life, leading in the book’s final pages to a notorious conjecture: “Why may not man one day be immortal?”
Godwin’s conviction of the possibility of immortality, which only a few years ago might have seemed quixotic and a bit embarrassing, has come back into fashion.