Biography of Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham was an eighteenth century political philosopher.

When and Where was he Born?

15th February 1748, Hounsditch, London, England.

Family Background:

Jeremy Bentham was the son of a Tory Barrister.

Education:

Westminster School. Queens College, Oxford. Studied Law but did not practice.

Timeline of Jeremy Bentham:

Bentham was so shy that he didn’t relish the public speaking that the law would entail so his father gave him an allowance of £90 per year so that he could set about writing books on philosophy, economics and politics.

1768: Although originally a Tory in outlook he was profoundly affected by the work of Joseph Priestley who stated that the good and happiness of the majority of the members of the State is the standard by which everything in the State must be driven.

1776: Another major influence on his work was David Hume. This is reflected in “A Fragment on Government” where he states that the proper objective of all conduct and legislation is “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” (later to be termed Utilitarianism).

1789: Bentham argued that pain and pleasure are “the sovereign masters of a man’s conduct” and man will always act with self-interest. Therefore sanctions, which were sufficiently painful, should be introduced to persuade the individual to subordinate his own happiness to that of the whole community. He used what he termed the Hedonic Calculus to estimate the overall effects of different actions.

1792: He was always an avid traveller and was made an honorary Citizen of the New French Republic.

1809: Bentham argued that the law of libel and the contemporary practice of “Jury Packing” were wrong as they could be used to punish any Radical because it hurt the feelings of the ruling classes. He stated that laws should be socially useful and were not there merely to uphold the status quo.

Bust of Jeremy Bentham
Bust of Jeremy Bentham on the rear facade of the 
Royal Academy of Arts in London (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1818: In July Sir Francis Burdett introduced a series of resolutions into the House of Commons demanding universal suffrage (votes for all people over 21), annual parliaments and voting by secret ballot. He quoted Bentham extensively in support of his case.

1824: Bentham joined with James Mill to found the “Westminster Quarterly Review”. This radical philosophical journal attracted many notable contributors including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron and Thomas Carlyle.

1830: He laid out his most detailed account of political democracy in the “Constitutional Code” again arguing for universal suffrage (notably including women), secret ballots and also advocating the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords. He also suggested that government officials should be selected by rigorous examination and that the work of politicians and government officials should be constantly inspected. He was adamant that they should be continuously reminded that they were the servants of the public not their masters.

When and Where did he Die?

6th June 1832, London, England.

Age at Death:

84.

Written Works:

1776: “A Fragment on Government”.
1789: “An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation”.
1791: “Panopticon”.
1809: “Catechism of Reformers”.
1822: “The Influence of Natural Religion upon Temporal Happiness”.
1824: “The Book of Fallacies”.
1830: “Constitutional Code”.
(1838): “Collected Works”.

Marriage:

Never married.

Site of Grave:

Bentham left his body to Science. It was dissected and afterwards the skeleton was dressed in his clothes and was given a wax head. His embalmed real head sits at his feet. This macabre spectacle is kept in a cupboard and is only on show when he sits as “Chair” of meetings of the Council of the University College of London. See picture.

Places of Interest:

LONDON:

University College.