The 'uneventful life' that embraced philosophy and science as well as penal reform and fridges

September 9, 2005

Jeremy Bentham would readily have admitted to being a man of words rather than action. John Stuart Mill described him as "secluded in a peculiar degree, by circumstance and character, from the business and intercourse of the world". Historian G. M. Trevelyan regarded him as the supreme proof that the pen is mightier than the sword but still considered his an "uneventful life".

Reclusive and uneventful need not, however, mean dull. If chiefly remembered today for the eventual bequest to University College London, once described as "172 boxes full of Bentham's writing, and one box full of Bentham", his long life (1748-1832) also incorporated honorary citizenship of revolutionary France, a Russian interlude with troilist milkmaids and being banned in Colombia.

Like Mill he was a child prodigy, discovered at the age of three reading a bulky history of England, by five known to his family as "the philosopher".

He was sent to Westminster School at the age of seven and Queen's College, Oxford, at 12. He liked neither, describing each as a "poison-instilling seminary" and complaining that "mendacity and insincerity" were "the only sure effects of an English university education". Oxford students were required to sign up to the 39 Articles of the Church of England, a formality most fulfilled with offhand acquiescence. Bentham insisted on examining them one by one for their congruence with his own views, concluded that many were wrong or meaningless and he signed with extreme reluctance. Once enrolled, he observed with horror the expulsion of five early Methodists for heresy and formed a rooted dislike for both the ideas and lecturing performances of Sir William Blackstone, the leading legal thinker of the time.

Still, he graduated at 16, moving on to Lincoln's Inn in pursuit of a career in law ordained by his father Jeremiah Bentham, an attorney-turned-property developer who believed that "pushing was the one thing needful" in life. Jeremy, though, was more interested in thinking and writing about the law than practising it. In particular he was a ruthless analyst and critic of conventional wisdom. His lifelong distaste for organised religion - which he called "The Jug", short for juggernaut - was rapidly supplemented by a contempt for the British common law tradition espoused by Blackstone. He saw both as the product of superstition, deference and ancestor-worship, rather than logic and real human needs.

Bentham's philosophical bent was accompanied by an interest in science and he was strongly influenced by the systems of classification devised by Carl Linnaeus. The Archbishop of York, calling to canvass his vote in a parliamentary election, was a disconcerted witness to this combination of interests, finding him "reading Montesquieu and evaporating urine to obtain phosphorous".

Bentham and Peter Roget - later to find success with his Thesaurus - tried to devise a "Frigidarium", an ice-house for preserving perishable foods; while in 1793 Bentham suggested that government departments should be linked by a system of "conversation tubes".

Something of the sort was later incorporated in Bentham's home in Queen Square, London. The device for which he is best remembered, the Panopticon model for a prison, was the product of his visit to Russia. He went in 1785, accompanied by the troilist milkmaids and some Newcastle artisans, to join his younger brother Samuel in helping Prince Potemkin - the inventor of "Potemkin villages" - to develop modern industry and agriculture on his Byelorusian estates. Samuel, a naval architect, came up with the idea of constructing a building from which a supervisor could see everyone as a means of controlling an unruly workforce. Jeremy recognised that it could be adapted as a prison building. Although it was never built, it secured his reputation as a penal reformer.

Bentham's real monument, though, was in words. Underpinning all his ideas was utilitarianism, demanding that laws and government should serve "the greatest good of the greatest number". Instead of the English common law tradition, laws should be based upon a code, although certainly not on any abstract concept of inalienable human rights, an idea he described as "nonsense on stilts". His Constitutional Code proposed ministries including health, education and indigence, universal suffrage, the secret ballot and a single-chamber legislature. Frustrated in love (his father vetoed his choice of wife), Bentham believed that sex was almost always beneficial for the pleasure it brought, advocating legalised prostitution and acquiring a posthumous status as a gay icon and as an extremely early advocate of legalising homosexuality.

His life, particularly once he had inherited Queen Square and an assured income from his father in 1792, followed a fixed pattern, rising at 6am to walk for two or three hours followed by breakfast and work until 4pm. He was hugely industrious, though much of his work was published late in life, or even posthumously. Much appeared in translation, allowing William Hazlitt to cast him among the prophets who have most honour outside their own country. Colombian revolutionary Simon Bolivar was an admirer, until he blamed followers of Bentham's ideas for planning an assassination attempt in 1828. The ban on Bentham's work lasted until 2002.

Legal theorist H. L. A. Hart, who called Bentham "a cost-benefit expert on a grand scale", noted that his writing mixed "diverting wit and splendid invective" with "much eccentric and exasperating pedantry". Political expert S. E. Finer observed: "The only cure for an admiration of Bentham's Constitutional Code is to try to read it."

Bentham's influence lived on through disciples such as Edwin Chadwick, his private secretary late in life, who was one of Victorian England's most assiduous advocates of public health reform and whose half-brother, Henry, took a Benthamite taste for logic and classification to the US, where he invented the baseball box score.

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