Margaret Webster – Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham: A Mind for Many Ideas
By Margaret Webster

The Ideas roamed the earth searching for fertile and receptive minds. [i]

They stalked through the halls of palaces and parliaments[ii]. They lingered in coffeehouses[iii] and ale houses[iv]. They sat sulking on the shelves of school rooms.[v]

Some Ideas had the knack of knocking on human minds. Liberty leapt from mind to mind, racing from the New World back to the Old until she circled the globe.[vi] Some did not. The Abolition of Physical Punishment for Children howled and howled that he was obviously right to little effect.[vii] Animal Rights was cold-shouldered for many millennia.[viii] One Idea dared not even speak its own name.[ix]

The Ideas first noticed Jeremy Bentham when, still in petticoats, he instructed his father’s servant to bring him a multi-volumed history.[x] They saw his love of facts over fiction.[xi]  They shared his pain[xii] at the insincerity and mendacity of Oxford.[xiii] They swelled with pleasure[xiv] when he dismissed natural law as ‘nonsense on stilts’.[xv]

Energised by his vast potential, the Ideas swarmed to Jeremy. They demanded his attention in the books of Hume and Hartley.[xvi] They courted him during conversations with Adam Smith and James Mill.[xvii] They maximised[xviii] their power as he measured their rights and wrongs[xix]. They magnified their utility[xx] through his international[xxi] correspondence.[xxii]

Today, Bentham’s Ideas rest in the pages of his many manuscripts.[xxiii] As their codification[xxiv] progresses, they are re-joining the world and bringing a greater happiness to a greater number.[xxv] But more await us, biding their time until once again they can leap from a page and race like wildfire through human minds.[xxvi]

Jeremy Bentham

Nonsense exposer
Iconoclastic thinker
Happiness lover


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[i] This piece was inspired by 26’s brief, Elizabeth Gilbert’s charming belief that ideas are disembodied energetic life-forms with wills of their own, Richard Dawkin’s concept of memes and 99% Invisible’s episode on the chain reaction of ideas behind the kidney-shaped swimming pool.

[ii] Bentham corresponded with William Pitt, the Prime Minister, about his proposal for a national penitentiary. He also hoped to interest Catherine the Great of Russia in his ideas for penal reform when he lived there with his brother.

[iii] Coffeehhouses  were places of intellectual and political debate in London during the 17th & 18th centuries.

[iv] Bloomsbury had a pub called ‘The Jeremy Bentham’ for many years.

[v] Bentham attended Westminster School.

[vi] Bentham wrote an essay titled a ‘A Short Review of the Declaration’ in response to the American Declaration of Independence.

[vii] Bentham called for the abolition of physical punishment, including that of children.

[viii] Bentham was an early advocate of animal rights on the grounds that animals can suffer. (Most earlier thinkers argued that animals did not have rights because they are not rational.)

[ix] Bentham wrote an essay arguing for the decriminalising of homosexual acts, but did not publish it for fear of offending public morality.

[x] Bentham’s father told this story repeatedly as proof of his son’s precocious intellectual talents.

[xi] Bentham was a sharp critic of legal fictions.

[xii] Bentham believed that happiness is a “matter of experiencing pleasure and a lack of pain”.

[xiii] Bentham attended The Queen’s College, Oxford. He was not impressed and said, “mendacity and insincerity [were] the only sure effects of an English university education”.

[xiv] Pleasure, like pain, was a key concept in Bentham’s thinking.

[xv] This is one of Bentham’s most famous quotes.

[xvi] Bentham’s view of human nature – especially his view that pleasure and pain are objective states and can be measured – was influenced by David Hartley and David Hume

[xvii] Adam Smith and James Mill were both Bentham’s students.

[xviii] Bentham invented the word ‘maximise’.

[xix] Bentham believed that right and wrong could be determined by measuring the pleasure and pain that an action caused.

[xx] Bentham is considered the founder of modern utilitarianism.

[xxi] Bentham invented the word ‘international’.

[xxii]  Bentham corresponded with Mirabeau and other leaders of the French Revolution and, as a result, he was declared an honorary citizen of France.

[xxiii] Bentham lefts tens of thousands of pages of manuscripts. He was an obsessive writer, but almost incapable of completing a work and publishing it. Since 1968, UCL’s Bentham Project has been creating a definitive edition of Bentham’s writings.

[xxiv] Bentham invented the word ‘codification’.

[xxv] Bentham defined the fundamental axiom of his philosophy as the principle that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”.

[xxvi] One of Jeremy Bentham’s most unusual ideas concerned the preservation of his body after his death. He instructed that it be transformed into an auto-icon so his skeleton was stuffed with hay and dressed in one his black suits. Today, it resides at UCL. His mummified head has inspired a few ideas in its own right – mostly pranks by UCL students.