The story begins with William Godwin, who published an influential book, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, in 1793. In this work he attacks marriage on the following grounds:
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.
There is a political philosophy underpinning this argument. Godwin believed that we start out as blank slates and that it is therefore possible to improve human nature via the gradual extension of knowledge. Knowledge would advance only to the extent that people could follow their own individual judgement - the "dictates of their own mind".
I find it interesting that this is similar to the approach of what we now call classical liberals. They had attempted to resolve the problem of how to fit together the liberated individual and the common good by asserting that if individuals acted freely for their own profit that the hidden hand of the market would deliver a benefit to society as a whole.
Godwin resolves the same problem by claiming that if individuals act freely according to the dictates of their own mind, without the influence of social institutions, traditions or conventions, that knowledge would increase, and therefore there would be a progress in moral virtue, with people choosing to act selflessly and benevolently to maximise the happiness of the community.
The problem is that in both cases there is now a deep divide between the understanding of man and the common good that has to be bridged. In the older understanding, it was essential to our nature as men that we were fathers, sons, brothers, husbands and Englishmen. Our commitment to the common good was written into our natures. Yes, there could be a tension between the duties to family, community and nation springing from this aspect of our inborn natures and our more purely individual existence. But in general we expressed our own natures via our participation in stable forms of community.
In the newer Godwinian view, we do not have a given nature. And the emphasis is on ourselves as wholly independent minds, developing without the corrupting influence of "artificial" communal entities such as family. What is "natural" is to develop alone as a thinking, rational mind. Our "being" therefore is highly individualistic and atomised, so the leap to a common good is a difficult one. It relies on the assumption that as knowledge and education progressively develop, we will reason our way to a belief that the moral purpose in life is to maximise the happiness of the general population, leading individuals via "pure reason" to act selflessly and benevolently.
Note that this new common good is an abstract one. We are not acting selflessly to uphold particular forms of community, such as our own family, but a "general happiness of mankind".
For Godwin, the important thing was that we were free to follow the "dictates" of our own mind; it was therefore an irrational, selfish and despotic act to hold someone to a marriage vow. If we allowed individuals to follow their minds freely, the result would ultimately be an extension of knowledge, of moral virtue and of human happiness.
But things did not turn out happily for those who followed Godwin's philosophy of free love.
(In the next post I'll look at the story of Mary Wollstonecraft, a feminist of the era, who became Godwin's wife.)