Ethic of leisure

William Godwin’s ethic of leisure and the riddle of social justice

In An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) William Godwin declared, “the object, in the present state of society, is to multiply labour; in another state, it will be to simplify it.”

In The Enquirer (1797), he affirmed, “[t]he genuine wealth of man is leisure, when it meets with a disposition to improve it. All other riches are of petty and inconsiderable value. Is there not a state of society practicable,” he asked in conclusion, “in which leisure shall be made the inheritance of every one of its members?”

In Thoughts on Man (1831), Godwin repeatedly emphasized the proposition that, “every human creature is endowed with talents, which, if rightly directed, would shew him to be apt, adroit, intelligent and acute, in the walk for which his organisation especially fitted him.” Leisure was indispensable to fulfilling that endowment in that “occupation, which arises contingently” was “often not less earnest and intent in its pursuits” than the “prescribed” occupation of a trade or profession. 

Given Godwin’s Calvinist upbringing, theological training, and self-professed lifelong “vocation as a missionary,” it is plausible to construe Godwin’s consecration of leisure as a critique and reformulation of Calvin’s doctrine of the worldly calling, the doctrine crudely handed down to posterity as the Protestant work ethic. Adding consequence and mystique to Godwin’s leisure ethic is its hitherto overlooked influence on Karl Marx’s analysis of surplus value in the Grundrisse through the intermediary of an “anonymous” 1821 pamphlet, The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties.