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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

III. Bentham and the Early Utilitarians

§ 1. Jeremy Bentham

JEREMY BENTHAM is famous as the leader of a school of thought and practice which is known sometimes as utilitarianism, sometimes as philosophical radicalism. Before his day, the philosophical school was not a characteristic feature of English speculation. The greater writers influenced the course of ideas without transmitting a definite body of doctrines to a definite group of followers. Bacon proclaimed a philosophical revolution; but he sought in vain for assistants and collaborators, and the details of his theory were commonly ignored. Hobbes formulated a compact system, but he had no disciples. Locke struck out a new way which many followed to conclusions often very different from his own. Berkeley never lost courage, but he could not open other eyes to his own vision, and the verdict of the day upon his speculations seems to be not unfairly represented by Hume’s statement that his arguments “admit of no answer and produce no conviction.” For his own sceptical results, Hume himself seemed to desire applause rather than converts. The works of these writers never led to a combination for the defence and elucidation of a creed—to any philosophical school which can be compared with peripateticism, stoicism, or Epicureanism in ancient Greece or with the Cartesian, Kantian, or Hegelian schools in modern thought. The nearest approach to such a phenomenon was of the nature of a revival—the new Platonic movement of the seventeenth century, associated with the names of Cudworth, Henry More and other Cambridge scholars. In this way, the utilitarian group presents an appearance unknown before in English philosophy—a simple set of doctrines held in common, with various fields assigned for their application, and a band of zealous workers, labouring for the same end, and united in reverence for their master.

Jeremy Bentham was born in 1748 and died in 1832, when his fame was at its height and his party was on the eve of a great triumph. He was a prodigy from his childhood; he read history and French, Latin and Greek, when other boys of his years were feeding their imaginations with fairy tales; at the tender age of thirteen, his religious sensibilities were hurt and theological doubts raised in his mind when he was required to sign the thirty-nine articles on matriculating at Queen’s college, Oxford; he submitted, however, completed his course there and afterwards duly entered upon the study of law in London. His father had marked his abilities and expected them to raise him to the woolsack; he had several causes “at nurse” for him before he was called to the bar; and, when Jeremy neglected the practical for the theoretical side of his profession, the father said in his grief that the boy would never be anything more than “the obscure son of an obscure attorney.” But he made life easy for his son financially, and had some compensation for the disappointment of his ambition in the reputation made by Jeremy’s first book, A Fragment on Government, which was published anonymously in 1776, and which the public voice ascribed to one or another of several great men, including Burke and Mansfield.

Bentham spent almost his whole life in London or its neighbourhood; but, for over two years, 1785–88, he made an extended tour in the east of Europe and paid a long visit to his younger brother Samuel, who held an important industrial appointment at Kritchev, in Russia. There, he wrote his Defence of Usury (published 1787). There, also, from his brother’s method of inspecting his work-people, he derived the plan of his “panopticon”—a scheme for prison management, which was to dispense with Botany bay. On this scheme, he laboured for five and twenty years; the government played with it and finally rejected it, giving him a large sum by way of compensation for the still larger sums which he had expended on its advocacy; but the failure of this attempt to influence administration left its mark on his attitude to the English system of government.

After his return from Russia, Bentham published, in 1789, the work which, more than any other, gives him a place among philosophers—An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. It had been printed nine years earlier, and only the urgency of his friends induced him to make it public. As an author, Bentham was singularly careless about publication and as to the form in which his writings appeared. He worked assiduously, in accordance with a plan which he formed early in life; he passed from point to point methodically; each day he produced a number of pages of manuscript, indicated their place in his scheme and then put them aside and never looked at them again. A doubtful proposition would lead him to turn to a new line of enquiry, which might mean a new book. According to one of the friends of his early years, he was “always running from a good scheme to a better. In the meantime life passes away and nothing is completed.” This method of working had its effect upon his style. His early writings were clear and terse and pointed, though without attempt at elegance. Afterwards, he seemed to care only to avoid ambiguity, and came to imitate the formalism of a legal document. He was overfond, also, of introducing new words into the language; and few of his inventions have had the success of the term “international,” which was used for the first time in the preface to his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.