Jeremy Bentham 1748-1832

jbI first came across Jeremy Bentham during fresher’s week at University College. His auto icon sat in a large wooden case at the end of the cloisters. Bentham had made an unusual request regarding the disposal of his body. He requested that he was dissected by his friend Dr Thomas Southwood and that his head was mummified. His skeleton was to be dressed in his own clothes and seated. Public display of the mummified head was a little too grizzly and the head on show is made of wax. Prior to 1975 his mummified head was kept in a box on top of the cabinet. Kidnapping Jeremy Bentham’s head had been a student prank on several occasions, the last time was in 1975 when some students from king’s college captured the head demanding al ransom of £100 to be paid to the charity Shelter. UCL settled for £10. The head is now cared for far from public view in the conservation department.

Jeremy Bentham was born in Spitalfields on 15th of February 1748. He was a child prodigy, described as reading books at two and a half before starting Latin aged three. He attended Westminster school and then Queen’s college Oxford aged 12 where he studied law. He never practised law but spent a lifetime trying to codify the common law of England. Bentham wrote prodigiously but rarely finished or published in his lifetime. Much of his work was edited by others and published posthumously.

His most important work was “The Principles of Morals and Legislation” of 1780, in which his formulation of Utilitarianism was first expounded.

Bentham proposed an underlying moral principle on which his legal and social reforms should be based, which he called Utilitarianism. This philosophy evaluates actions based upon their consequences and holds that the right act or policy is that which would cause “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”, a phrase which he attributed to Joseph Priestley (1733 – 1804). He also suggested a “felicific calculus” for estimating the moral status (or “happiness factor”) of any action, using a classification of 12 pains and 14 pleasures. His initial theory (often referred to as the principle of utility or the greatest happiness principle) was further developed by his students, particularly by John Stuart Mill, to incorporate more of a principle of fairness and justice, the lack of which was criticised in Bentham’s original formulation.

His opinions on monetary economics (as opposed to those of his contemporaries Adam Smith and David Ricardo) focused on monetary expansion as a means of helping to create full employment. He can be considered as both a classical, and a market, Liberal, and tried to convince Smith that his “Wealth of Nations” called for too much regulation.

Bentham’s political position included arguments in favour of individual and economic freedom, the separation of church and state, freedom of expression, equal rights for women, and the abolition of slavery and of physical punishment (including that of children), the recognition of animal rights, the right to divorce, the promotion of free trade and usury and the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

Among his many proposals for legal and social reform was a design for a prison building he called the Panopticon, which had an important influence upon later generations of thinkers. As early as 1798, he wrote that universal peace could only be obtained by first achieving European unity.

He was one of the original shareholders and invested £100 along with over 1000 others to found the University of London in 1826, in 1836 this became University College London. This was run on what are now called ‘Benthamite principles’ meaning that education should be available irrespective of religion, race, political belief and as far as possible wealth. A large painting by Tonks showing Jeremy Bentham surveying plans for the building of the University of London hangs in the South Cloister of UCL. Tonks painted the picture in 1922 and Bentham did not have an active role in the building of UCL. But UCL like to build on their links to Bentham. In 1849 they purchased his papers and in 1850 his auto icon. Many myths surround the influence of Jeremy Bentham and UCL today. He was reputed to attend college meetings and to hold the casting vote when there is no majority. Apparently he always votes for the motion. The Bentham institute continues to research and curate Bentham’s papers.


submitted by Dilys Cowan



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