Bentham Immortalized

The radical British philosopher and reformer Jeremy Bentham died on this day in 1832. Apart from his controversial contributions to the social and political debate, Bentham holds an esteemed place in any list of Oddest Last Wills & Testaments:

My body I give to my dear friend Doctor Southwood Smith to be disposed of in a manner hereinafter mentioned…. The skeleton he will cause to be put together in such a manner as that the whole figure may be seated in a chair usually occupied by me when living, in the attitude in which I am sitting when engaged in thought in the course of time employed in writing. I direct that the body thus prepared shall be transferred to my executor. He will cause the skeleton to be clad in one of the suits of black occasionally worn by me. The body so clothed, together with the chair and the staff in my later years bourne by me, he will take charge of and for containing the whole apparatus he will cause to be prepared an appropriate box or case….

Bentham went on to ask that his "Auto-Icon," as he dubbed it, be present at any gathering of those "friends and disciples" who might wish to commemorate him as "the founder of the greatest happiness system of morals and legislation." In 1850, those disciples associated with University College London went a step further by placing the mummified and glass-boxed Bentham on display in a hallway there, where he sits to this day -- more or less, as too many student pranks with the preserved head have necessitated a wax replacement.

Charles Dickens shared many of Bentham's enthusiasms, such as prison reform and the guarantee of a minimum wage, but he was horrified by what he took to be the general Utilitarian attitude. Bentham wrote of arriving at "the greatest happiness for the greatest number" through a "felicific calculus" in which pleasure and pain were clearly quantified, and upon which laws could incontestably operate; Dickens wrote of Mr. Dick and his kite, of "what larks!" Pip and Joe Gargery shared, and perhaps most famous of all his pleas for non-utility, of the circus girl Sissy Jupe, condemned by Mr. Gradgrind, a notorious Benthamite, for thinking a horse might be more than a graminivorous quadruped.

 


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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