Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 8. Natural Rights

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

§ 8. Natural Rights

His method was not that most characteristic of the revolutionary thought of the period. The ideas of the revolution centred in certain abstract conceptions. Equality and freedom were held to be natural rights of which men had been robbed by governments, and the purpose of the revolutionists was to regain and realise those rights. This mode of thought was represented in England by Richard Price; through Rouseau, it came to dominate the popular consciousness; in the American Declaration of Independence of 1776, it was made the foundation of a democratic reconstruction of government. The year 1776 is of note in literary history, also. It marks the death of Hume, and the publication of The Wealth of Nations, of the first volume of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall and of Bentham’s Fragment on Government. The last-named work preaches a radical reform, but without appealing to natural or abstract rights. Although he was an admirer of the American constitution, Bentham was never deceived by the crude “metapolitics” (to use Coleridge’s word) of the Declaration of Independence, or by the same doctrine as it was expounded at greater length, in the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen,” decreed in the French Constituent Assembly of 1791. His Anarchical Fallacies, written about this time, is a masterly exposure of the crudities and confusions of the latter document. All rights, in his view, are the creation of law; “natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense,—nonsense upon stilts.” Yet the difference between Bentham’s theory and that of continental and American revolutionists was not immediately obvious. He was in correspondence with some of the leaders of the revolution, recommended his panopticon scheme for adoption in France, and offered himself as chief gaoler; in 1792, he was made a citizen of France. Nevertheless, his Anarchical Fallacies made his position clear: and it is owing to him that philosophical radicalism in England, unlike the corresponding revolutionary doctrines in other countries, was based upon an empirical utilitarianism and not upon a priori ideas about natural rights. A comparison of his argument in Anarchical Fallacies with his criticism of our “matchless constitution” in The Book of Fallacies (1824) shows that he was a foe to all kinds of loose thinking, whether in praise of revolutionary ideals or in the interests of the established order.

The Constitutional Code, which Bentham published towards the end of his life, exhibits an endeavour to give to the people concerned the fullest possible control over the acts of government. The author had become increasingly impressed by the extent to which “sinister interests,” especially the personal and class interests of the rulers, interfered with public interest; and he seeks to check their operation at every turn. His work is intended “for the use of all nations and all governments professing liberal opinions.” Some years earlier, he had published Codification Proposals, offering his services in the matter to any nation that wanted them. Portugal had already applied to him for assistance. He had negotiations of a similar, if less official, kind, with Spain, Mexico, Venezuela, the United States, Russia, Greece and Tripoli. The world seemed to be at his feet, anxious to learn from him the arts of law and government; and he was willing to instruct all comers. But he did not disregard entirely differences of national character and historical conditions. In his essay on The Influence of Time and Place in Matters of Legislation, he attributes immutability to the grounds of law rather than to the laws themselves, and rebukes as “hot-headed innovators” those legislators who “only pay attention to abstract advantage.”

Bentham’s genius was comprehensive and tenacious rather than profound. He covered an extensive field, always following the same clue. He passed from social science to religion, and analyzed its influence “upon the temporal happiness of mankind,” part of his work being edited by a disciple, George Grote, and published under a pseudonym (1822). He wrote, also, a number of papers on education under the title Chrestomathia (1816); and he and his friends projected a chrestomathic school in which the youth of the middle and upper classes were to be trained in correct utilitarian principles. Thus, he dealt, in a way, with the deeper things of life, and yet only with the surface-aspect of these things. With forces and values that cannot be measured in terms of pleasure or pain, he had no concern; into history, art and religion he had little insight; but he was unconscious of his limitations, and he attempted to deal with these things by his own scale of values.