Childhood & Early Life
Jeremy Bentham was born on 15 February 1748 in Houndsditch, London into a wealthy family which supported the Tory party. His father, Jeremiah Bentham, was a successful practitioner in the Court of Chancery. His mother, Alicia Whitehorn née Grove, was a pious woman; Jeremiah was her second husband.
Jeremy was the eldest of his parents’ seven children. However, all but his youngest sibling, Samuel, died in infancy. His mother too died on 6 January 1759. Thereafter, the two brothers were mostly raised by their father. They also spent a lot of time in their grandmother’s home.
Jeremy was a child prodigy. It is said that when he was still a toddler, he would sit at his father’s desk to read English history and that he began to study Latin at the age of three. Later he was admitted to Westminster, but did not enjoy his experience there.
In 1760, when he was barely twelve years old, his father made him enter the Queen’s College, Oxford. However, he did not find the environment at the college very stimulating.
To him, Oxford was a seat of prejudice and idleness. His experience during this period stimulated in him distrust for Anglican churches and antipathy towards oaths. Therefore, when he graduated in 1763 with a Bachelor of Arts degree, he was in a great dilemma.
To get his degree, he was required to swear his allegiance to the Church of England, which was against his principle. After a lot of deliberating, he finally agreed to take the oath because if he lost his degree, his father, who wanted him to enter the legal profession, would be disappointed.
Thereafter, 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. During this period, he was much impressed by judgments of Chief Justice Lord Mansfield, but detected fallacies in the lectures of Sir William Blackstone.
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Beginning of Benthamâ
Initially, Jeremy Bentham was a little confused about the goal of his life. Although he continued studying law at the behest of his father he soon became thoroughly disillusioned with it.
In 1766, while still a student of law, Benthen published his first book, ‘A Fragment of Government’. Written in a clear and concise style, the book is said to mark the beginning of his philosophical radicalism.
In 1769, he came across the works of prominent writers like Montesquieu, Helvétius, Beccaria, Voltaire, David Hume, David Hartley and Joseph Priestley. They helped him not only to find a direction for his life, but also to construct an initial version of his principle of the utility.
Also in 1769, Bentham was called to the bar. But to the immense disappointed of his father, who was confident that his eldest son would one day become the Lord Chancellor, he decided not to practice law. Instead, he began to concentrate on analytic jurisprudence.
He now spent long hours in reading and writing. By 1780, he had his first major work ‘An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation’ ready. However, the book was not published until 1789.
Meanwhile in 1781, Bentham came in contact with the Earl of Shelburne and, through him, came to know a number of the leading Whig politicians and lawyers. This was also the year, when he first coined the term ‘utility.’
One of the gentlemen he met during this period was Genevan exile Étienne Dumont. He later translated Bentham’s works and played an important role in making his name and philosophy known in Europe and America.
Visit to White Russia
Sometime in the mid-1780s, Jeremy Bentham travelled to Krichev in Belarus (then known as White Russia) to visit his brother, Samuel. There, he came across the concept of ‘Panopticon’, a circular building that allowed a single watchman to observe all (pan) inmates of an institution.
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He then began to develop the idea and proposed that prisons be built on this model. However, his proposal was never taken seriously; but the incident gave rise to his theory of ‘Sinister Interest’, which he propagated in the summer of 1804.
Concurrently, he also started pondering on the legal restraints on pecuniary bargains prevalent at that time. In 1787, he wrote a series of thirteen letters, addressed to economist Adam Smith, who opposed free interest rates, on this subject.
These letters were subsequently published in book form as ‘Defence of Usury’. In this book, he put forward strong arguments against any such restrictions. He stated that each person is best judge of his advantage and should be allowed to decide on what terms he should lend his money.
Return to England
On his return to England, Jeremy Bentham first tried to carve out a career in politics; but was not successful in that. Then from 1788, he began his work on the principles of legislation. In the following year, he published his famous book, ‘An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.’
Very soon, he became famous internationally as a writer and in 1792, he was offered honorary French citizenship. Although he accepted it, he did not approve many of France’s policies. In 1793, he wrote, ‘Emancipate your colonies!’ It was addressed at the National Convention of France and in it he tried to show ‘the uselessness and the mischievousness of distance dependencies on a European state.’
Jeremy Bentham also criticized the Jacobins and their tactic of oppression in strong terms. In 1796, he wrote ‘Anarchical Fallacies; Being an Examination of the Declaration of the Rights Issued during the French Revolution’.
Also in 1796, his father passed away, leaving him a good amount of inheritance. He now started working on his favorite project ‘Panopticon’, the circular prison that would require very few guards and spent a large part of his inheritance on it.
He worked on this project for sixteen long years. Though the government refused to adopt the concept, they paid him a compensation of £23,000 for his work in 1813. Because of this work, he is now taken as one of the pioneers of prison reforms.
Codification of law was another of his chief occupations. He wanted to codify British laws and wrote extensively on it. Even though his efforts were mostly unsuccessful, they laid the foundation for future works on this subject.
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From 1809 to 1823, Jeremy Bentham worked extensively on religion with the aim of eradicating such beliefs. ‘Parliamentary Reform Catechism’, written in 1817, is a major work on this topic.
In the political front, he advocated annual elections, equal electoral districts, women’s suffrage and secret ballot. He also supported participation of women in governance, reform of marriage laws, and decriminalization of homosexuality, etc.
In his essay, ‘An Offense against One Self’, Bentham argued that homosexuality was not unnatural and chastised the society for interfering into a largely private affair. However, the work was not published until after his death.
In 1823, he co-founded the ‘Westminster Review’ with James Mill, the father of John Stuart Mill. With him worked a group of young men, whom he called ‘philosophical radicals’. Among them, he developed a ‘father-son’ relationship with John Browning and also left a large legacy for Edwin Chadwick.
Jeremy Bentham also believed that education should be available to all, irrespective of wealth or religious affiliation. Many, who founded the London University (later University College London) in 1826, were inspired by his ideas. Bentham, then in his seventies, took only indirect part in its foundation.
He continued writing on various topics up to a month before his death. In addition to his published works, he left manuscripts amounting to an estimated 30 million words, which were later edited and published by his followers.
Personal Life & Legacy
Jeremy Bentham never married. He died on 6 June 1832 at his residence in Queen Square Place in Westminster, London. He was then eighty-four years old. In accordance with his will, his body was publicly dissected by his friend, the sanitary reformer Dr. Thomas Southwood Smith, and then permanently preserved as an ‘auto-icon.’
The ‘auto-icon’ was kept with Dr. Southwood Smith until 1850. In that year, it was acquired by the University College London and put on public display at the end of the South Cloisters in the main building, where it remains still now.