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Robert Owen and New Lanark
Robert Owen and New Lanark

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5.3 Further enlightened influences: Godwin, Place and Mill

What transpired during the first of many visits to London helps to explain the background to Owen's writing of the essays and shows how he set the concept of character formation into a larger frame, drawing extensively on the ideas and help of others. Ostensibly seeking new partners, he naturally sought out those likely to be sympathetic and rich enough to invest in New Lanark when it came on the market. Quite whom he contacted initially we do not know, but Lancaster and his rich Quaker supporters were prominent. At a dinner given for him in January 1813 by Daniel Stuart, a newspaper proprietor, Owen met William Godwin, the famous social philosopher and author of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, which had been published in 1793. Godwin's work was a skilful summary of ideas generated during the Enlightenment and argued for a new social order stressing justice, freedom and equality for the individual. Education, private and public, figured prominently in Godwin's thinking, as did character formation and happiness. As Owen worked on the Second, Third and Fourth Essays, he was frequently at Godwin's house for breakfast, tea or dinner. Between January and May Owen met Godwin at least twice a week. Godwin later recorded that on one occasion he converted Owen from ‘self-love’ to ‘benevolence’, although the next time they met Owen claimed that he had been too hasty in altering his opinion. However, Owen's attempt to derive benevolence from a desire for happiness was not very different from Godwin's. Of course this does not prove that Owen's work owed much to Godwin's, but it probably exercised a great deal of influence, especially when allied to the ideas Owen himself had gleaned from his reading, through his association with enlightened thinkers in Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh, and from discussions with visiting reformers at New Lanark.

Owen was to list Godwin among his main literary companions, and some of the early socialist writers described the philosopher as his master. He certainly never acknowledged a direct debt to Political Justice, perhaps because he never properly read it. Yet many of the fundamental ideas and sometimes the actual phrasing of Owen's works resemble the doctrines of Political Justice. Like Godwin, Owen constructed his theory of progress on the Enlightenment premises that characters are formed by their circumstances, that vice is ignorance and that truth will ultimately prevail over error. Both individuals equated happiness with knowledge and spoke in the language of utility (meaning the capacity to satisfy human wants). Other features in common were the moral regeneration of humankind and the importance of economic reform in advance of political reform. They argued that the best way of eradicating the evils that beset society at the time was not the system of punishments and rewards advocated by the philosopher and reformer Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), Owen's future partner, but by rational education and universal enlightenment. Both condemned political agitation, but favoured instead a voluntary redistribution of wealth, which Owen later hoped would be achieved through cooperation. Their ultimate social ideal was that of a decentralised society of small self-governing communities of the kind that Owen was to propose in his village scheme (Marshall, 1984, pp. 310–11). Since Godwin had fallen out of fashion Owen could be seen as his replacement for the new century (Locke, 1980, p. 262).

Moreover, Godwin introduced Owen to Francis Place (1751–1854), one of the most influential of the philosophic Radicals. Owen, Place recalled, was ‘a man of kind manners and good intentions, of an imperturbable temper, and an enthusiastic desire to promote the happiness of mankind’. ‘A few interviews made us friends’, said Place, ‘and he told me he possessed the means, and was resolved to produce a great change in the manners and habits of the whole of the people, from the exalted to the most depressed’. (Owen often spoke about ‘possessing the means’ or ‘holding a secret’, possibly allusions to birth control.) He also told Place that most of the existing institutions prejudiced welfare and happiness, but that his proposals were so simple and so obviously beneficial that any thinking person could understand them. Owen evidently presented Place with a manuscript, asking if he would read and correct it for him, but whether this consisted of the first two essays or all four is unclear. Friendship apart, Place was incredulous that Owen believed he was the first to observe that ‘man was a creature of circumstances’ and that ‘on this supposed discovery he founded his system’ (quoted in Donnachie, 2000, p. 116).

Place was another early advocate of birth control, which he linked to the ideas of the demographer and economist the Reverend Thomas Malthus (1763–1834). Malthus's pessimistic predictions of over-population (also noted in Owen's essays) helped fuel the debate about the future of the Poor Law. This traditional system of parish relief, Malthus thought, misguidedly increased the misery of the poor by providing doles which encouraged procreation, larger families, and hence still more pressure on food and subsistence goods that were already in short supply. Malthus's economic thinking may also have had some impact on Owen. Unlike the followers of the economist David Ricardo (1772–1823), Malthus saw agriculture as intrinsically more productive than manufactures, and Owen's later community plan placed great emphasis on intensive farming as a means of self-sufficiency.

Among other intellectuals with whom Owen associated during 1813–14 was James Mill (1773–1836), economist, philosopher and close associate of Owen's prospective partner, Bentham. Although Owen never acknowledged the fact, it was probably Place and Mill who edited A New View of Society and gave the essays the clarity that is missing from some of his later works. Even his supporters thought much of his writing was very woolly. Place was greatly offended not only by the second comprehensive edition of the essays, published in 1816, which contained material he had earlier read and rejected, but also by Owen's apparent arrogance in the face of reasoned criticism. Moreover, as far as Place was concerned, practical politics were clearly not Owen's strong point. Owen steered well clear of suggesting, far less articulating, any agenda for political as opposed to social reform. Perhaps he did not want to prejudice his immediate plans, realising that the authorities were unlikely to look with much favour on anything that remotely whiffed of Radicalism. Pragmatism, as in his financial and business affairs, was the watchword.