Encyclopædia Britannica Article
life and works.
At the age of four, Bentham, the son of an attorney, is said to have read eagerly and to have begun the
study of Latin. Much of his childhood was spent happily at his two grandmothers' country houses. At Westminster School he
won a reputation for Greek and Latin verse writing. In 1760 he went to Queen's College, Oxford, and took his degree in 1763.
In November he entered Lincoln's Inn to study law and took his seat as a student in the King's Bench division of the High
Court, where he listened with rapture to the judgments of Chief Justice Lord Mansfield. In December 1763 he managed to hear
Sir William Blackstone lecture at Oxford but said that he immediately detected fallacies that underlay the grandiloquent language
of the future judge. He spent his time performing chemical experiments and speculating upon the more theoretical aspects of
legal abuses rather than in reading law books. On being called to the bar, he found a cause or two at nurse for him, which
he did his best to put to death, to the bitter disappointment of his father, who had confidently looked forward to seeing
him become lord chancellor.
Bentham's first book, A Fragment on Government, appeared in 1776. The subtitle, being
an examination of what is delivered, on the subject of government in general, in the introduction to Sir William Blackstone's
Commentaries, indicates the nature of the work. Bentham found the grand and fundamental fault of the Commentaries to be Blackstone's
antipathy to reform. Bentham's book, written in a clear and concise style different from that of his later works, may be said
to mark the beginning of philosophic radicalism. It is also a very good essay on sovereignty. Lord Shelburne (afterward 1st
Marquess of Lansdowne), the statesman, read the book and called upon its author in 1781. Bentham became a frequent guest at
Shelburne's home. At this period Bentham's mind was much-occupied with writing the work that was later published in French
in 1811 by his admirer Étienne Dumont and entitled Théorie des peines et des récompenses. This work eventually appeared in
English as The Rationale of Reward (1825) and The Rationale of Punishment (1830). In 1785 Bentham started, by way of Italy
and Constantinople, on a visit to his brother, Samuel Bentham, an engineer in the Russian armed forces; and it was in Russia
that he wrote his Defence of Usury (published 1787). This, his first essay in economics, presented in the form of a series
of letters from Russia, shows him as a disciple of the economist Adam Smith but one who argued that Smith did not follow the
logic of his own principles. Bentham held that every man was the best judge of his own advantage, that it was desirable from
the public point of view that he should seek it without hindrance, and that there was no reason to limit the application of
this doctrine in the matter of lending money at interest. His later works on political economy followed the laissez-faire
principle, though with modifications. In the Manual of Political Economy he gives a list of what the state should and should
not do, the second list being much longer than the first.
Disappointed, after his return to
England in 1788, in the hope of making a political career, he settled down to discovering the principles of legislation. The
great work on which he had been engaged for many years, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, was published
in 1789. In this book he defined the principle of utility as that property in any object whereby it tends to produce pleasure,
good or happiness, or to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered.
Mankind, he said, was governed by two sovereign motives, pain and pleasure; and the principle of utility recognized this state
of affairs. The object of all legislation must be the greatest happiness of the greatest number. He deduced from the principle
of utility that, since all punishment involves pain and is therefore evil, it ought only to be used so far as it promises
to exclude some greater evil.
The fame of his writings spread widely and rapidly. Bentham was made a French citizen
in 1792, and in later life his advice was respectfully received in several of the states of Europe and America. With many
of the leading men of these countries Bentham maintained an active correspondence. The codification of law was one of Bentham's
chief preoccupations, and it was his ambition to be allowed to prepare a code of laws for his own or some foreign country.
He was accused of having underestimated both the intrinsic difficulties of the task and the need for diversity of institutions
adapted to the tradition and civilization of different countries. Even so, Bentham must be reckoned among the pioneers of
prison reform. It is true that the particular scheme that he worked out was bizarre and spoiled by the elaborate detail that
he loved. Morals reformed, health preserved, industry invigorated, instruction diffused and other similar desiderata would,
he thought, be the result if his scheme for a model prison, the Panopticon, were to be adopted; and for many years he tried
to induce the government to adopt it. His endeavours, however, came to nothing; and though he received £23,000 in compensation
in 1813, he lost all faith in the reforming zeal of politicians and officials.
In 1823 he helped to found the Westminster
Review to spread the principles of philosophic radicalism. Bentham had been brought up a Tory, but the influence of the political
theory of the Enlightenment served to make a democrat of him. As far back as 1809 he had written a tract, A Catechism of Parliamentary
Reform, advocating annual elections, equal electoral districts, a wide suffrage, and the secret ballot, which was, however,
not published until 1817. He drafted a series of resolutions based on this tract that were introduced in the House of Commons
in 1818. A volume of his Constitutional Code, which he did not live to complete, was published in 1830.
death, in accordance with his directions, his body was dissected in the presence of his friends. The skeleton was then reconstructed,
supplied with a wax head to replace the original (which had been mummified), dressed in Bentham's own clothes and set upright
in a glass-fronted case. Both this effigy and the head are preserved in University College, London.
was a happy one. He gathered around him a group of congenial friends and pupils, such as the philosopher James Mill, father
of John Stuart Mill, with whom he could discuss the problems upon which he was engaged. His friends, too, practically rewrote
several of his books from the mass of rough though orderly memoranda that Bentham himself prepared. Thus the Rationale of
Judicial Evidence, 5 vol. (1827), was put in its finished state by J.S. Mill and the Book of Fallacies (1824) by Peregrine
Bingham. The services of Étienne Dumont in recasting as well as translating the works of Bentham were still more important.