Jeremy Bentham was born in 1748, the son of a wealthy lawyer. He was an extraordinarily precocious child, starting to learn Latin at the age of 3, and graduating from Oxford University at 16. His father saw him as a future Lord Chancellor, but Bentham had other ideas. He became fascinated with philosophy and engaged with the latest ideas of the age of enlightenment.
Bentham’s philosophy took as its starting point the idea that mankind is faced with two driving forces: pain and pleasure. Avoiding pain and achieving pleasure is all that counts, hence the maxim ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation’. Taken simply, this idea overlooks all other principles, such as morals, ethics, equity and so on, and Bentham himself, in a prolific writing career of over 60 years, showed greater subtlety than his famous maxim taken alone suggests.
Applying this philosophy in a practical way was a radical concept, in an age where slavery was still legal and the church and the aristocracy were dominant throughout Europe. It led to Bentham writing a sixty-page argument for the legalisation of homosexuality, on the grounds that it brought pleasure to the participants and did no harm to anyone, many years before such ideas were acceptable.
Bentham tried hard to persuade politicians and statesmen to put his ideas into practice, campaigning at various stages throughout his long life for penal reform, codification of laws and reform of the electoral system. In the end, the practical results of all his efforts were few. His proposed ‘panopticon’, a new design of prison, was never built. But his ideas were influential.
Bentham ensured that not only his ideas but his physical body outlasted his natural life. He left instructions that his body be preserved. So, after his death, his skeleton and his head, preserved by pumping out the fluids, were assembled, dressed in his own clothes, seated on a chair with his walking stick. This ‘auto-icon’ can still be seen at University College London.
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