Thoughts on Man, His Nature, Productions and Discoveries Interspersed With Some Particulars Respecting the Author

Author: William Godwin

Essay XVIII. Of Diffidence.

The following Essay will be to a considerable degree in the nature of confession, like the Confessions of St. Augustine or of Jean Jacques Rousseau. It may therefore at first sight appear of small intrinsic value, and scarcely worthy of a place in the present series. But, as I have had occasion more than once to remark, we are all of us framed in a great measure on the same model, and the analysis of the individual may often stand for the analysis of a species. While I describe myself therefore, I shall probably at the same time be describing no inconsiderable number of my fellow-beings.

It is true, that the duty of man under the head of Frankness, is of a very comprehensive nature. We ought all of us to tell to our neighbour whatever it may be of advantage to him to know, we ought to be the sincere and zealous advocates of absent merit and worth, and we are bound by every means in our power to contribute to the improvement of others, and to the diffusion of salutary truths through the world.

From the universality of these precepts many readers might be apt to infer, that I am in my own person the bold and unsparing preacher of truth, resolutely giving to every man his due, and, agreeably to the apostle’s direction, "instant in season, and out of season." The individual who answers to this description will often be deemed troublesome, often annoying; he will produce a considerable sensation in the circle of those who know him; and it will depend upon various collateral circumstances, whether he shall ultimately be judged a rash and intemperate disturber of the contemplations of his neighbours, or a disinterested and heroic suggester of new veins of thinking, by which his contemporaries and their posterity shall be essentially the gainers.

I have no desire to pass myself upon those who may have any curiosity respecting me for better than I am; and I will therefore here put down a few particulars, which may tend to enable them to form an equitable judgment.

One of the earliest passions of my mind was the love of truth and sound opinion. "Why should I," such was the language of my solitary meditations, "because I was born in a certain degree of latitude, in a certain century, in a country where certain institutions prevail, and of parents professing a certain faith, take it for granted that all this is right?—This is matter of accident. "Time and chance happeneth to all:" and I, the thinking principle within me, might, if such had been the order of events, have been born under circumstances the very reverse of those under which I was born. I will not, if I can help it, be the creature of accident; I will not, like a shuttle-cock, be at the disposal of every impulse that is given me." I felt a certain disdain for the being thus directed; I could not endure the idea of being made a fool of, and of taking every ignis fatuus for a guide, and every stray notion, the meteor of the day, for everlasting truth. I am the person, spoken of in a preceding Essay[38], who early said to Truth, "Go on: whithersoever thou leadest, I am prepared to follow."

[38] See above, Essay XIII.

During my college-life therefore, I read all sorts of books, on every side of any important question, that were thrown in my way, or that I could hear of. But the very passion that determined me to this mode of proceeding, made me wary and circumspect in coming to a conclusion. I knew that it would, if any thing, be a more censurable and contemptible act, to yield to every seducing novelty, than to adhere obstinately to a prejudice because it had been instilled into me in youth. I was therefore slow of conviction, and by no means "given to change." I never willingly parted with a suggestion that was unexpectedly furnished to me; but I examined it again and again, before I consented that it should enter into the set of my principles.

In proportion however as I became acquainted with truth, or what appeared to me to be truth, I was like what I have read of Melancthon, who, when he was first converted to the tenets of Luther, became eager to go into all companies, that he might make them partakers of the same inestimable treasures, and set before them evidence that was to him irresistible. It is needless to say, that he often encountered the most mortifying disappointment.

Young and eager as I was in my mission, I received in this way many a bitter lesson. But the peculiarity of my temper rendered this doubly impressive to me. I could not pass over a hint, let it come from what quarter it would, without taking it into some consideration, and endeavouring to ascertain the precise weight that was to be attributed to it. It would however often happen, particularly in the question of the claims of a given individual to honour and respect, that I could see nothing but the most glaring injustice in the opposition I experienced. In canvassing the character of an individual, it is not for the most part general, abstract or moral, principles that are called into question: I am left in possession of the premises which taught me to admire the man whose character is contested; and conformably to those premises I see that his claim to the honour I have paid him is fully made out.

In my communications with others, in the endeavour to impart what I deemed to be truth, I began with boldness: but I often found that the evidence that was to me irresistible, was made small account of by others; and it not seldom happened, as candour was my principle, and a determination to receive what could be strewn to be truth, let it come from what quarter it would, that suggestions were presented to me, materially calculated to stagger the confidence with which I had set out. If I had been divinely inspired, if I had been secured by an omniscient spirit against the danger of error, my case would have been different. But I was not inspired. I often encountered an opposition I had not anticipated, and was often presented with objections, or had pointed out to me flaws and deficiencies in my reasonings, which, till they were so pointed out, I had not apprehended. I had not lungs enabling me to drown all contradiction; and, which was still more material, I had not a frame of mind, which should determine me to regard whatever could be urged against me as of no value. I therefore became cautious. As a human creature, I did not relish the being held up to others’ or to myself, as rash, inconsiderate and headlong, unaware of difficulties the most obvious, embracing propositions the most untenable, and "against hope believing in hope." And, as an apostle of truth, I distinctly perceived that a reputation for perspicacity and sound judgment was essential to my mission. I therefore often became less a speaker, than a listener, and by no means made it a law with myself to defend principles and characters I honoured, on every occasion on which I might hear them attacked.

A new epoch occurred in my character, when I published, and at the time I was writing, my Enquiry concerning Political Justice. My mind was wrought up to a certain elevation of tone; the speculations in which I was engaged, tending to embrace all that was most important to man in society, and the frame to which I had assiduously bent myself, of giving quarter to nothing because it was old, and shrinking from nothing because it was startling and astounding, gave a new bias to my character. The habit which I thus formed put me more on the alert even in the scenes of ordinary life, and gave me a boldness and an eloquence more than was natural to me. I then reverted to the principle which I stated in the beginning, of being ready to tell my neighbour whatever it might be of advantage to him to know, to shew myself the sincere and zealous advocate of absent merit and worth, and to contribute by every means in my power to the improvement of others and to the diffusion of salutary truth through the world. I desired that every hour that I lived should be turned to the best account, and was bent each day to examine whether I had conformed myself to this rule. I held on this course with tolerable constancy for five or six years: and, even when that constancy abated, it failed not to leave a beneficial effect on my subsequent conduct.

But, in pursuing this scheme of practice, I was acting a part somewhat foreign to my constitution. I was by nature more of a speculative than an active character, more inclined to reason within myself upon what I heard and saw, than to declaim concerning it. I loved to sit by unobserved, and to meditate upon the panorama before me. At first I associated chiefly with those who were more or less admirers of my work; and, as I had risen (to speak in the slang phrase) like "a star" upon my contemporaries without being expected, I was treated generally with a certain degree of deference, or, where not with deference and submission, yet as a person whose opinions and view of things were to be taken into the account. The individuals who most strenuously opposed me, acted with a consciousness that, if they affected to despise me, they must not expect that all the bystanders would participate in that feeling.

But this was to a considerable degree the effect of novelty. My lungs, as I have already said, were not of iron; my manner was not overbearing and despotic; there was nothing in it to deter him who differed from me from entering the field in turn, and telling the tale of his views and judgments in contradiction to mine. I descended into the arena, and stood on a level with the rest. Beyond this, it occasionally happened that, if I had not the stentorian lungs, and the petty artifices of rhetoric and conciliation, that should carry a cause independently of its merits, my antagonists were not deficient in these respects. I had nothing in my favour to balance this, but a sort of constitutional equanimity and imperturbableness of temper, which, if I was at any time silenced, made me not look like a captive to be dragged at the chariot-wheels of my adversary.

All this however had a tendency to subtract from my vocation as a missionary. I was no longer a knight-errant, prepared on all occasions by dint of arms to vindicate the cause of every principle that was unjustly handled, and every character that was wrongfully assailed. Meanwhile I returned to the field, occasionally and uncertainly. It required some provocation and incitement to call me out: but there was the lion, or whatever combative animal may more justly prefigure me, sleeping, and that might be awakened.

There is another feature necessary to be mentioned, in order to make this a faithful representation. There are persons, it should seem, of whom it may be predicated, that they are semper parati. This has by no means been my case. My genius often deserted me. I was far from having the thought, the argument, or the illustration at all times ready, when it was required. I resembled to a certain degree the persons we read of, who are said to be struck as if with a divine judgment. I was for a moment changed into one of the mere herd, de grege porcus. My powers therefore were precarious, and I could not always be the intrepid and qualified advocate of truth, if I vehemently desired it. I have often, a few minutes afterwards, or on my return to my chambers, recollected the train of thinking, which world have strewn me off to advantage, and memorably done me honour, if I could have had it at my command the moment it was wanted.

And so much for confession. I am by no means vindicating myself.

I honour much more the man who is at all times ready to tell his neighbour whatever it may be of advantage to him to know, to shew himself the sincere and untemporising advocate of absent merit and worth, and to contribute by every means in his power to the improvement of others, and to the diffusion of salutary truths through the world.

This is what every man ought to be, and what the best devised scheme of republican institutions would have a tendency to make us all.

But, though the man here described is to a certain degree a deserter of his true place in society, and cannot be admitted to have played his part in all things well, we are by no means to pronounce upon him a more unfavourable judgment than he merits. Diffidence, though, where it disqualifies us in any way from doing justice to truth, either as it respects general principle or individual character, a defect, yet is on no account to be confounded in demerit with that suppression of truth, or misrepresentation, which grows out of actual craft and design.

The diffident man, in some cases seldomer, and in some oftener and in a more glaring manner, deserts the cause of truth, and by that means is the cause of misrepresentation, and indirectly the propagator of falshood. But he is constant and sincere as far as he goes; he never lends his voice to falshood, or intentionally to sophistry; he never for an instant goes over to the enemy’s standard, or disgraces his honest front by strewing it in the ranks of tyranny or imposture. He may undoubtedly be accused, to a certain degree, of dissimulation, or throwing into shade the thing that is, but never of simulation, or the pretending the thing to be that is not. He is plain and uniform in every thing that he professes, or to which he gives utterance; but, from timidity or irresolution, he keeps back in part the offering which he owes at the shrine where it is most honourable and glorious for man to worship.

And this brings me back again to the subject of the immediately preceding Essay, the propriety of voting by ballot.

The very essence of this scheme is silence. And this silence is not merely like that which is prompted by a diffident temper, which by fits is practiced by the modest and irresolute man, and by fits disappears before the sun of truth and through the energies of a temporary fortitude. It is uniform. It is not brought into act only, when the individual unhappily does not find in himself the firmness to play the adventurer. It becomes matter of system, and is felt as being recommended to us for a duty

Nor does the evil stop there. In the course of my ordinary communications with my fellow-men, I speak when I please, and I am silent when I please, and there is nothing specially to be remarked either way. If I speak, I am perhaps listened to; and, if I am silent, it is likely enough concluded that it is because I have nothing of importance to say. But in the question of ballot the case is far otherwise. There it is known that the voter has his secret. When I am silent upon a matter occurring in the usual intercourses of life where I might speak, nay, where we will suppose I ought to speak, I am at least guilty of dissimulation only. But the voter by ballot is strongly impelled to the practice of the more enormous sin of simulation. It is known, as I have said, that he has his secret. And he will often be driven to have recourse to various stratagems, that he may elude the enquirer, or that he may set at fault the sagacity of the silent observer. He has something that he might tell if he would, and he distorts himself in a thousand ways, that he may not betray the hoard which he is known to have in his custody. The institution of ballot is the fruitful parent of ambiguities, equivocations and lies without number.


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Chicago: William Godwin, "Essay XVIII. Of Diffidence.," Thoughts on Man, His Nature, Productions and Discoveries Interspersed With Some Particulars Respecting the Author, trans. Macaulay, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Baron, 1800-1859 in Thoughts on Man, His Nature, Productions and Discoveries Interspersed With Some Particulars Respecting the Author (London: Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, 1831), Original Sources, accessed May 29, 2024,

MLA: Godwin, William. "Essay XVIII. Of Diffidence." Thoughts on Man, His Nature, Productions and Discoveries Interspersed With Some Particulars Respecting the Author, translted by Macaulay, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Baron, 1800-1859, in Thoughts on Man, His Nature, Productions and Discoveries Interspersed With Some Particulars Respecting the Author, London, Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, 1831, Original Sources. 29 May. 2024.

Harvard: Godwin, W, 'Essay XVIII. Of Diffidence.' in Thoughts on Man, His Nature, Productions and Discoveries Interspersed With Some Particulars Respecting the Author, trans. . cited in 1831, Thoughts on Man, His Nature, Productions and Discoveries Interspersed With Some Particulars Respecting the Author, Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, London. Original Sources, retrieved 29 May 2024, from