If a Bentham does not snore . . . he's not legitimate.
Jeremy Bentham’s walking sticks were called Dapple and Dobbin.
Jeremy Bentham's ideas were so admired in France that he was made an honorary French citizen in 1792.
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the social philosopher and reformer, was the founder of Utilitarianism and could make a serious claim to be the most influential philosopher since Aristotle. His definition of ‘utility’ as ‘the property in an object which tends to produce pleasure, good or happiness, or to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil or unhappiness’ led to his famous formulation of law as ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people’.
In 1831 he wrote to London City Council asking if he could replace the shrubs beside his driveway with mummified corpses, which he said would be ‘more aesthetic than flowers’. This idea was developed further in his pamphlet Auto-Icon; or Farther Uses of the Dead to the Living, in which he proposed that every man could become his own statue. His inspiration was the preserved heads of the New Zealand Maori. In his ruthlessly rational way, he suggested that, ‘If a country gentleman have rows of trees leading to his dwelling, the auto-icons of his family might alternate with the trees; copal varnish would protect the face from the effects of rain’. So, who needs family portraits when you can have your actual ancestors as ornaments.
Bentham wasn’t joking. Death, then as now, was a taboo, steeped in fear and religious superstition. Burying corpses and letting them rot in the ground seemed to him wasteful, repugnant and unhygienic. The Auto-Icon idea made death useful, offering the safe disposal of corpses, while providing a permanent memorial to the dead person.
The Auto-Icon was suggested as a rational, practical alternative to church burial. The fact that is also very odd and creepy idea is entirely in character with Bentham himself and his friends suppressed publication of the pamphlet for many years after his death.
Bentham’s own Auto-icon is still visible today, 178 years after he died, preserved in a glass-fronted wooden cabinet at University College, London, where is still wheeled out to attend university meetings (recorded as present but not voting).
In his will, Bentham left his body to his friend Dr Thomas Southwood Smith with very precise instructions. Before the dissection began, 28 of Bentham’s friends gathered to say farewell. His corpse lay before them in a simple nightshirt. Dr Southwood Smith carefully stripped the flesh from the bones and placed the internal organs and ‘the soft parts’ in labelled glass containers ‘like wine decanters’. The bones were then pinned together with copper wire and the skeleton dressed in a suit of Bentham’s clothes, padded out with hay, straw and cotton wool. A sachet of lavender and naphthalene was placed in the stomach cavity to discourage moths. The whole ensemble was to be topped off with his actual head (well preserved and with a suitable hat on it).
Southwood Smith succeeded in all save the preservation of the head, so had a model made in wax, with some of Bentham’s own hair attached. For many years the rather grotesque real head sat at Bentham’s feet in the glass cabinet, complete with the blue glass eyes he had carried around in his pocket for six months before he died.
‘Twenty years after I am dead, I shall be a despot, sitting in my chair with Dapple in my hand, and wearing one of the coats I wear now.’ he wrote in his will. Bentham got his wish. He still sits there, dressed since 1939 in new, moth-resistant underwear (he was ever the revolutionary by wearing woollen boxer shorts in an era when when most men went commando, simply tucking their shirt between their legs.). Only the mummified head, once a victim of regular undergraduate pranks, is now locked away in storage.
Prose is when all the lines except the last go on to the margin. Poetry is when some of them fall short of it.
Lawyers are the only persons in whom ignorance of the law is not punished.
Bentham was deeply eccentric. He avoided social engagements and didn’t need company, describing himself as being ‘in a state of perpetual and unruffled gaiety’. He did occasionally allow friends to dine with him, but made lists of conversational topics beforehand.
By day, other than ‘circumgyrating’ at high speed across London parks (a kind of early precursor of jogging), his favourite pastime was badminton – then known as ‘battledore’ where the players simply kept the shuttlecock in the air for the highest number of hits possible.
His pet pig, allegedly shared his bed for a time, and he was also fond of cats, in particular a tom cat he required to be addressed as The Reverend John Langhorne. His collection of mice ran wild in his office, destroying manuscripts and terrifying guests.
Apart from two early dalliances, he seemed to have no intimate dealings with women, although even at the end of his life, memories of his romantic youth would quickly move him to tears.
Odd though he was, Bentham is an important thinker. His idea that ordinary people were entitled to happiness struck at the heart of the entrenched rights of the aristocracy, the Crown and the judicial system. He opposed slavery, capital and corporal punishment; he believed in equal rights for women, and for animals, and called for the decriminalising of homosexuality. He praised free trade and freedom of the press; he supported the right to divorce and urged the separation of the church and state. Most of what we now call liberalism can be traced back to Bentham and his protégé, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873).
Bentham was the first person ever to use the words ‘international’ and ‘monetary’ and may yet have more surprises for us. He wrote between 15 and 20 pages every day and left an archive of more than five million mouse-gnawed manuscript pages behind him, fewer than half of which have been published.
Jeremy Bentham referred to his house as 'The Hermitage' and to himself as 'The Hermit'.
The QI Elves considered Jeremy Bentham as a panellist in 2000, but he was too expensive.
Jeremy Bentham was learning Latin at three-years-old and by five could play Handel sonatas on his violin.
Bentham had a ‘sacred teapot’ called Dickey which he referred to as a pet.
Bentham devised a system for calculating happiness, which he called 'felicific calculus', listing fourteen pleasures and twelve pains.
In 1804, Napoleon transformed the European legal system with his Code Napoleon, based on Jeremy Bentham's ideas.