Jeremy Bentham Biography


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Author Profile

An influential critic of the English legal system, society, and government, Bentham founded the Utilitarian school of philosophy, which sought to place social theory and reform on a commonsense basis and to extend the benefits of an organized political community to all classes of society. Bentham was also a lifelong supporter of freedom of the press as a check on governmental abuse of power, and as an indispensable link between people and government. In his first published work, A Fragment on Government (1776), he wrote of the free press that through it “every man, be he of one class or the other, may make known his complaints and remonstrances to the whole community.” Bentham was also the intellectual—and formally designated—godfather of John Stuart Mill, whose On Liberty (1859) included an impassioned case against stifling free expression through censorship or other means.

The full significance of Bentham’s attacks on censorship was only apparent, however, after the close of the struggle with France in 1815. Thereafter the democratic implications became manifest of Bentham’s belief that the welfare of the lowest pauper should count as much to society as the happiness of the highest prince. As a full-blown democrat, Bentham set to work out reform proposals and policies that would put into practice his view that “the more closely we are watched, the better we behave.” Bentham had already put that philosophy to practice in his plans for a new kind of prison architecture and management in which inmates could be constantly watched. In the new democratic world of democracy that he envisaged, the “watchdog” function took a new form. Since governments tend constantly to abuse their power, the democratic public must have the means to expose government’s misdeeds. That means was a free and active press, which could inform an equally active and censorious public opinion.

The ultimate sanction against a corrupt or abusive government was elections that removed wrongdoers from office. However, as Bentham suggested in his pamphlet On the Liberty of the Press (1823), a free press is an essential tool for a democratic citizenry. Press freedom is not just a question of what Bentham called “securities against misrule.” Democratic liberty exists in part when government has sufficient power to carry out the popular will; but democratic government is also to be responsive to public demands and complaints. An unfettered press is a principal means of transmitting public sentiment between elections as well as informing an...

(The entire section is 1069 words.)

Jeremy Bentham Biography

(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)

Article abstract: Bentham’s lifelong analysis of English law laid the foundations for the early nineteenth century political reforms which saved England from violent social revolution.

Early Life

Jeremy Bentham was born in London on February 15, 1748, the son of a prosperous English lawyer named Jeremiah Bentham. The elder Bentham wanted his son to have advantages which he had missed, so the father was delighted at his precocious son’s ability to read at the age of three. Young Bentham accordingly was packed off to the Westminster School and then on to Oxford University by the time he was twelve. Because of his youth and small stature, this “dwarfish phenomenon,” as Bentham called himself, never engaged in the normal activities of the boys his age. While his peers may have played cricket, he contented himself with badminton. His world was contained within the boundaries of books and ideas.

At Westminster School, Bentham encountered his first acknowledged intellectual battle with the English law. All the students at the school were required to sign an oath supporting the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion of the Church of England. Already an advocate of logical thinking, the young prodigy privately believed that the Articles were so irrational and contrary to the Scriptures that the Church was forcing perjury on those required to sign them. In this instance, and throughout his entire life, however, Bentham obeyed the law and did the expected but privately agonized over what he had done, vowing silently to battle for the reform of the English legal system, not to mention the Church of England.

Perhaps no other scholar in English history spent so much time studying and writing about the law and the legal system but practically no time practicing it. Once the brilliant youngster finished his course of study at Westminster, he entered Oxford University. Toward the middle of his third year at Oxford, he attended a lecture by the most famous English legal scholar of his day, William Blackstone, the first of whose Commentaries on the Laws of England would be published beginning in 1765. The fifteen-year-old student eagerly attended the presentation given by the forty-year-old jurist, the first professor of English law at Oxford. Diligently, Bentham attempted to follow the lecture by recording its essentials in notes, but he could not. There were so many internal fallacies and illogical premises in what Blackstone pronounced that Bentham gave up his attempts at note taking.

In this incident may be seen the beginnings of Bentham’s lifelong battle against English law and the legal system which supported it. While Blackstone might marvel at the “glorious inconsistency” of the English law, Bentham denounced it as an abhorrent mass of confusion, designed to be manipulated by those with the money and patience sufficient to retain the proper attorneys.

Most repugnant to Bentham throughout his lifetime of intellectual jousting was falsehood. At Westminster School, he had despised being forced to sign the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion; he believed not only that the statements were lies but also that his signature compounded the prevarication. Subsequently, in his attendance at Blackstone’s lecture, he encountered English law as an even greater fabric of falsification. Especially frustrating to him was the notion of fiction in law, a method by which legal entities might be created or destroyed at the whim of the court and its attorneys. Appalled at this practice, Bentham declared that “in English law, fiction is a syphilis, which runs in every vein, and carries into every part of the system the principle of rottenness.”

Life’s Work

Although Bentham read law at Lincoln’s Inn after he took his M.A. from Oxford in 1766 and was called to the bar in the following year, he was never a successful practicing lawyer. Instead, he spent each day in his rooms reading and writing about the law or conversing with the other law students who came to call. He set himself the daily task of writing more than fifteen folio practice pages of commentary on English law or society. These trial pages, or drafts, dealt with numerous subjects of interest to him. The dedication and intensity with which Bentham labored were so consuming that he suffered bouts of psychosomatic blindness. Only the loving attendance of his friends brought him through these extremely depressing periods.

In the course of his long life, many thousands of pages were written, many on subjects he never fully developed and many of which were never published. His first publication was a critique of Blackstone, printed anonymously in 1776 under the title A Fragment on Government. So brilliant and masterful was this work that it was attributed to many great minds of the time. Ironically, when his proud father accidentally revealed the true authorship of the essay, the headline-hungry public no longer was interested.

Bentham’s accomplishment did, however, bring him to the attention of William Petty, Lord Shelburne, who introduced him to the world of the nobility by extending his patronage to the young intellectual. Perhaps most important, Shelburne helped broaden Jeremy Bentham’s criticisms of English law to include constitutional law along with his ongoing considerations of civil and penal law. Although Shelburne could never provide Bentham an office of political power, he did afford him an insight into the functions of the enlightened minority within the English political establishment.

In what Bentham thought, said, and wrote for the next seventy years, he did what few Englishmen had ever dared, and did so successfully. As his intellectual godson, John Stuart Mill, explained: “Bentham broke the spell. . . . Who, before Bentham, dared to speak disrespectfully in express terms, of the British Constitution, or the English Law?” He was not, however, merely a “negative philosopher,” wrote Mill, but a person of questioning spirit who demanded the “why” of everything and then applied his “essentially...

(The entire section is 2507 words.)

Jeremy Bentham Biography

(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Bentham’s lifelong philosophical analysis of English law laid the foundations for early nineteenth century political reforms that saved England from violent social revolution.

Early Life

Jeremy Bentham was born in London on February 15, 1748, the son of a prosperous English lawyer named Jeremiah Bentham. The elder Bentham wanted his son to have advantages that he had missed, so the father was delighted at his precocious son’s ability to read at the age of three. Young Bentham accordingly was sent to the Westminster School and then on to Oxford University by the time he was twelve. Because of his youth and small stature, this “dwarfish phenomenon,” as Bentham...

(The entire section is 2513 words.)

Jeremy Bentham Biography

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Author Profile

Frustrated by his inability to pursue a career in politics and law, Bentham developed a radical philosophy based upon the notion of the “greatest happiness principle.” He argued that humankind by nature seeks pleasure and the avoidance of pain and that this principle should be the dominant value in society. Society should seek to promote the “greatest happiness for the greatest number.” Furthermore, Bentham contended that the law should be based upon this ethical principle. The level of “evil” that results from a crime should be the basis for appropriate punishment; the motivation for the crime is fundamentally insignificant. Bentham maintained that some alleged crimes, such as...

(The entire section is 666 words.)