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Bentham By John Stuart Mill Essay, Research Paper


by John Stuart Mill

London and Westminster Review, Aug. 1838, revised in 1859 in

Dissertations and Discussion, vol. 1.

There are two men, recently deceased, to whom their country

is indebted not only for the greater part of the important ideas

which have been thrown into circulation among its thinking men in

their time, but for a revolution in its general modes of thought

and investigation. These men, dissimilar in almost all else,

agreed in being closet-students — secluded in a peculiar degree,

by circumstances and character, from the business and intercourse

of the world: and both were, through a large portion of their

lives, regarded by those who took the lead in opinion (when they

happened to hear of them) with feelings akin to contempt. But

they were destined to renew a lesson given to mankind by every

age, and always disregarded — to show that speculative

philosophy, which to the superficial appears a thing so remote

from the business of life and the outward interests of men, is in

reality the thing on earth which most influences them, and in the

long run overbears every other influence save those which it must

itself obey. The writers of whom we speak have never been read by

the multitude; except for the more slight of their works, their

readers have been few.. but they have been the teachers of the

teachers; there is hardly to be found in England an individual of

any importance in the world of mind, who (whatever opinions he

may have afterwards adopted) did not first learn to think from

one of these two; and though their influences have but begun to

diffuse themselves through these intermediate channels over

society at large, there is already scarcely a publication of any

consequence addressed to the educated classes, which, if these

persons had not existed, would not have been different from what

it is. These men are, Jeremy Bentham and Samuel Taylor Coleridge

– the two great seminal minds of England in their age.

No comparison is intended here between the minds or

influences of these remarkable men: this was impossible unless

there were first formed a complete judgment of each, considered

apart. It is our intention to attempt, on the present occasion,

an estimate of one of them; the only one, a complete edition of

whose works is yet in progress, and who, in the classification

which may be made of all writers into Progressive and

Conservative, belongs to the same division with ourselves. For

although they were far too great men to be correctly designated

by either appellation exclusively, yet in the main, Bentham was a

Progressive philosopher, Coleridge a Conservative one. The

influence of the former has made itself felt chiefly on minds of

the Progressive class; of the latter, on those of the

Conservative: and the two systems of concentric circles which the

shock given by them is spreading over the ocean of mind, have

only just begun to meet and intersect. The writings of both

contain severe lessons to their own side, on many of the errors

and faults they are addicted to: but to Bentham it was given to

discern more particularly those truths with which existing

doctrines and institutions were at variance; to Coleridge, the

neglected truths which lay in them.

A man of great knowledge of the world, and of the highest

reputation for practical talent and sagacity among the official

men of his time (himself no follower of Bentham, nor of any

partial or exclusive school whatever) once said to us, as the

result of his observation, that to Bentham more than to any other

source might be traced the questioning spirit, the disposition to

demand the why of everything, which had gained so much ground and

was producing such important consequences in these times. The

more this assertion is examined, the more true it will be found.

Bentham has been in this age and country the great questioner of

things established. It is by the influence of the modes of

thought with which his writings inoculated a considerable number

of thinking men, that the yoke of authority has been broken, and

innumerable opinions, formerly received on tradition as

incontestable, are put upon their defence, and required to give

an account of themselves. Who, before Bentham (whatever

controversies might exist on points of detail) dared to speak

disrespectfully, in express terms, of the British Constitution,

or the English Law? He did so; and his arguments and his example

together encouraged others. We do not mean that his writings

caused the Reform Bill, or that the Appropriation Clause owns him

as its parent: the changes which have been made, and the greater

changes which will be made, in our institutions, are not the work

of philosophers, but of the interests and instincts of large

portions of society recently grown into strength. But Bentham

gave voice to those interests and instincts: until he spoke out,

those who found our institutions unsuited to them did not dare to

say so, did not dare consciously to think so; they had never

heard the excellence of those institutions questioned by

cultivated men, by men of acknowledged intellect; and it is not

in the nature of uninstructed minds to resist the united

authority of the instructed. Bentham broke the spell. It was not

Bentham by his own writings; it was Bentham through the minds and

pens which those writings fed — through the men in more direct

contact with the world, into whom his spirit passed. If the

superstition about ancestorial wisdom has fallen into decay; if

the public are grown familiar with the idea that their laws and

institutions are in great part not the product of intellect and

virtue, but of modern corruption grafted upon ancient barbarism;

if the hardiest innovation is no longer scouted because it is an

innovation — establishments no longer considered sacred because

they are establishments — it will be found that those who have

accustomed the public mind to these ideas have learnt them in

Bentham’s school, and that the assault on ancient institutions

has been, and is, carried on for the most part with his weapons.

It matters not although these thinkers, or indeed thinkers of any

description, have been but scantily found among the persons

prominently and ostensibly at the head of the Reform movement.

All movements, except directly revolutionary ones, are headed,

not by those who originate them, but by those who know best how

to compromise between the old opinions and the new. The father of

English innovation both in doctrines and in institutions, is

Bentham: he is the great subversive, or, in the language of

continental philosophers, the great critical, thinker of his age

and country.

We consider this, however, to be not his highest title to

fame. Were this all, he were only to be ranked among the lowest

order of the potentates of mind — the negative, or destructive

philosophers; those who can perceive what is false, but not what

is true; who awaken the human mind to the inconsistencies and

absurdities of time-sanctioned opinions and institutions, but

substitute nothing in the place of what they take away. We have

no desire to undervalue the services of such persons: mankind

have been deeply indebted to them; nor will there ever be a lack

of work for them, in a world in which so many false things are

believed, in which so many which have been true, are believed

long after they have ceased to be true. The qualities, however,

which fit men for perceiving anomalies, without perceiving the

truths which would rectify them, are not among the rarest of

endowments. Courage, verbal acuteness, command over the forms of

argumentation, and a popular style, will make, out of the

shallowest man, with a sufficient lack of reverence, a

considerable negative philosopher. Such men have never been

wanting in periods of culture; and the period in which Bentham

formed his early impressions was emphatically their reign, in

proportion to its barrenness in the more noble products of the

human mind. An age of formalism in the Church and corruption in

the State, when the most valuable part of the meaning of

traditional doctrines had faded from the minds even of those who

retained from habit a mechanical belief in them, was the time to

raise up all kinds of sceptical philosophy. Accordingly, France

had Voltaire, and his school of negative thinkers, and England

(or rather Scotland) had the profoundest negative thinker on

record, David Hume: a man, the peculiarities of whose mind

qualified him to detect failure of proof, and want of logical

consistency, at a depth which French sceptics, with their

comparatively feeble powers of analysis and abstractions stop far

short of, and which German subtlety alone could thoroughly

appreciate, or hope to rival.

If Bentham had merely continued the work of Hume, he would

scarcely have been heard of in philosophy. for he was far

inferior to Hume in Hume’s qualities, and was in no respect

fitted to excel as a metaphysician. We must not look for

subtlety, or the power of recondite analysis, among his

intellectual characteristics. In the former quality, few great

thinkers have ever been so deficient; and to find the latter, in

any considerable measure, in a mind acknowledging any kindred

with his, we must have recourse to the late Mr. Mill — a man who

united the great qualities of the metaphysicians of the

eighteenth century, with others of a different complexion,

admirably qualifying him to complete and correct their work.

Bentham had not these peculiar gifts; but he possessed others,

not inferior, which were not possessed by any of his precursors;

which have made him a source of light to a generation which has

far outgrown their influence, and, as we called him, the chief

subversive thinker of an age which has long lost all that they

could subvert.

To speak of him first as a merely negative philosopher — as

one who refutes illogical arguments, exposes sophistry, detects

contradiction and absurdity; even in that capacity there was a

wide field left vacant for him by Hume, and which he has occupied

to an unprecedented extent; the field of practical abuses. This

was Bentham’s peculiar province: to this he was called by the

whole bent of his disposition: to carry the warfare against

absurdity into things practical. His was an essentially practical

mind. It was by practical abuses that his mind was first turned

to speculation — by the abuses of the profession which was

chosen for him, that of the law. He has himself stated what

particular abuse first gave that shock to his mind, the recoil of

which has made the whole mountain of abuse totter; it was the

custom of making the client pay for three attendances in the

office of a Master in Chancery; when only one was given. The law,

he found, on examination, was full of such things. But were these

discoveries of his? No; they were known to every lawyer who

practised, to every judge who sat on the bench, and neither

before nor for long after did they cause any apparent uneasiness

to the consciences of these learned persons, nor hinder them from

asserting, whenever occasion offered, in books, in parliament, or

on the bench, that the law was the perfection of reason. During

so many generations, in each of which thousands of educated young

men were successively placed in Bentham’s position and with

Bentham’s opportunities, he alone was found with sufficient moral

sensibility and self-reliance to say to himself that these

things, however profitable they might be, were frauds, and that

between them and himself there should be a gulf fixed. To this

rare union of self-reliance and moral sensibility we are indebted

for all that Bentham has done. Sent to Oxford by his father at

the unusually early age of fifteen — required, on admission, to

declare his belief in the Thirty-nine Articles — he felt it

necessary to examine them; and the examination suggested

scruples, which he sought to get removed, but instead of the

satisfaction he expected was told that it was not for boys like

him to set up their judgment against the great men of the Church.

After a struggle, he signed; but the impression that he had done

an immoral act, never left him; he considered himself to have

committed a falsehood, and throughout life he never relaxed in

his indignant denunciations of all laws which command such

falsehoods, all institutions which attach rewards to them.

By thus carrying the war of criticism and refutation, the

conflict with falsehood and absurdity, into the field of

practical evils, Bentham, even if he had done nothing else, would

have earned an important place in the history of intellect. He

carried on the warfare without intermission. To this, not only

many of his most piquant chapters, but some of the most finished

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