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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
BENTHAM, whose name rightly stands sponsor for the utilitarian theory of morals in legislation, though not its originator, was a mighty and unique figure in many ways. His childhood reminds us of that of his disciple John Stuart Mill in its precocity; but fortunately for him, life had more juice in it for young Bentham than it had for Mill. In his maturity and old age he was widely recognized as a commanding authority, notwithstanding some startling absurdities.  1
  He was born in London, February 15th, 1747–8; the child of an attorney of ample means, who was proud of the youth, and did not hesitate to show him off. In his fourth year he began the study of Latin, and a year later was known in his father’s circle as “the philosopher.” At six or seven he began the study of French. He was then sent to Westminster school, where he must have had a rather uncomfortable time; for he was small in body, sensitive and delicate, and not fond of boyish sports. He had a much happier life at the houses of his grandmothers at Barking and at Browning Hill, where much of his childhood was spent. His reminiscences of these days, as related to his biographer, are full of charm. He was a great reader and a great student; and going to Oxford early, was only sixteen when he took his degree.  2
  It must be confessed that he did not bear away with him a high appreciation of the benefits which he owed to his alma mater. “Mendacity and insincerity—in these I found the effects, the sure and only sure effects, of an English university education.” He wrote a Latin ode on the death of George II., which was much praised. In later years he himself said of it, “It was a mediocre performance on a trumpery subject, written by a miserable child.”  3
  On taking his degree he entered at Lincoln’s Inn, but he never made a success in the practice of the law. He hated litigation, and his mind became immediately absorbed in the study and development of the principles of legislation and jurisprudence, and this became the business of his life. He had an intense antipathy to Blackstone, under whom he had sat at Oxford; and in 1776 he published anonymously a severe criticism of his work, under the title ‘Fragments on Government, or a Commentary on the Commentaries,’ which was at first attributed to Lord Mansfield, Lord Camden, and others. His identification as the author of the ‘Fragments’ brought him into relations with Lord Shelburne, who invited him to Bowood, where he made a long and happy visit, of which bright and gossipy letters tell the story. Here he worked on his ‘Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation,’ in which he developed his utilitarian theory, and here he fell in love with a young lady who failed to respond to his wishes. Writing in 1827, he says:—
          “I am alive, more than two months advanced in my eightieth year, more lively than when you presented me in ceremony with a flower in Green Lane. Since that day not a single one has passed, not to speak of nights, in which you have not engrossed more of my thoughts than I could have wished…. Embrace ——; though it is for me, as it is by you, she will not be severe, nor refuse her lips to me as she did her hand, at a time perhaps not yet forgotten by her, any more than by me.”
  4
  Bentham wrote voluminously on morals, on rewards and punishments, on the poor laws, on education, on law reform, on the codification of laws, on special legislative measures, on a vast variety of subjects. His style, at first simple and direct, became turgid, involved, and obscure. He was in the habit of beginning the same work independently many times, and usually drove several horses abreast. He was very severe in his strictures upon persons in authority, and upon current notions; and was constantly being warned that if he should publish such or such a work he would surely be prosecuted. Numerous books were therefore not published until many years after they were written. His literary style became so prolix and unintelligible that his disciples—Dumont, Mill, and others—came to his rescue, and disentangled and prepared for the press his innumerable pamphlets, full of suggestiveness and teeming with projects of reform more or less completely realized since. His publications include more than seventy titles, and he left a vast accumulation of manuscript, much of which has never been read.  5
  He had a wide circle of acquaintances, by whom he was held in high honor, and his correspondence with the leading men of his time was constant and important. In his later years he was a pugnacious writer, but he was on intimate and jovial terms with his friends. In 1814 he removed to Ford Abbey, near Chard, and there wrote ‘Chrestomathea,’ a collection of papers on the principles of education, in which he laid stress upon the value of instruction in science, as against the excessive predominance of Greek and Latin. In 1823, in conjunction with James Mill and others, he established the Westminster Review, but he did not himself contribute largely to it. He continued, however, to the end of his life to write on his favorite topics.  6
  Robert Dale Owen, in his autobiography, gives the following description of a visit to Bentham during the philosopher’s later years:—

          “I preserve a most agreeable recollection of that grand old face, beaming with benignity and intelligence, and occasionally with a touch of humor which I did not expect…. I do not remember to have met any one of his age [seventy-eight] who seemed to have more complete possession of his faculties, bodily and mental; and this surprised me the more because I knew that in his childhood he had been a feeble-limbed, frail boy…. I found him, having overpassed by nearly a decade the allotted threescore years and ten, with step as active and eye as bright and conversation as vivacious as one expects in a hale man of fifty….
  “I shall never forget my surprise when we were ushered by the venerable philosopher into his dining-room. An apartment of good size, it was occupied by a platform about two feet high, and which filled the whole room, except a passageway some three or four feet wide, which had been left so that one could pass all round it. Upon this platform stood the dinner-table and chairs, with room enough for the servants to wait upon us. Around the head of the table was a huge screen, to protect the old man, I suppose, against the draught from the doors….
  “When another half-hour had passed, he touched the bell again. This time his order to the servant startled me:—
  “‘John, my night-cap!’
  “I rose to go, and one or two others did the same; Neal sat still. ‘Ah!’ said Bentham, as he drew a black silk night-cap over his spare gray hair, ‘you think that’s a hint to go. Not a bit of it. Sit down! I’ll tell you when I am tired. I’m going to vibrate a little; that assists digestion, too.’
  “And with that he descended into the trench-like passage, of which I have spoken, and commenced walking briskly back and forth, his head nearly on a level with ours, as we sat. Of course we all turned toward him. For full half an hour, as he walked, did he continue to pour forth such a witty and eloquent invective against kings, priests, and their retainers, as I have seldom listened to. Then he returned to the head of the table and kept up the conversation, without flagging, till midnight ere he dismissed us.
  “His parting words to me were characteristic:—‘God bless you,—if there be such a being; and at all events, my young friend, take care of yourself.’”
  7
 
  His weak childhood had been followed by a healthy and robust old age. But he wore out at last, and died June 6, 1832, characteristically leaving his body to be dissected for the benefit of science. The greater part of his published writings were collected by Sir John Browning, his executor, and issued in nine large volumes in 1843.  8
 
 
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