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Bentham, Life and Involvement with University College London

Bentham left his estate to University College.  This major center for higher learning has a long and influential history as the world's leading educational center for progressive political-economic ideas.

UCL (University College London) article on Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham
The philosopher and jurist Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was born in Spitalfields, London, on 15 February 1748. He proved to be something of a child prodigy: while still a toddler he was discovered sitting at his father's desk reading a multi-volume history of England, and he began to study Latin at the age of three. At twelve, he was sent to Queen's College Oxford, his father, a prosperous attorney, having decided that Jeremy would follow him into the law, and feeling quite sure that his brilliant son would one day be Lord Chancellor of England.

Bentham, however, soon became disillusioned with the law, especially after hearing the lectures of the leading authority of the day, Sir William Blackstone (1723-80). Instead of practising the law, he decided to write about it, and he spent his life criticising the existing law and suggesting ways for its improvement. His father's death in 1792 left him financially independent, and for nearly forty years he lived quietly in Westminster, producing between ten and twenty sheets of manuscript a day, even when he was in his eighties.

Pictures, above left: Bentham in about 1790, aged about forty, and (right) in 1823, aged seventy five.

Even for those who have never read a line of Bentham, he will always be associated with the doctrine of Utilitarianism and the principle of `the greatest happiness of the greatest number'. This, however, was only his starting point for a radical critique of society, which aimed to test the usefulness of existing institutions, practices and beliefs against an objective evaluative standard. He was an outspoken advocate of law reform, a pugnacious critic of established political doctrines like natural law and contractarianism, and the first to produce a utilitarian justification for democracy. He also had much to say of note on subjects as diverse as prison reform, religion, poor relief, international law, and animal welfare. A visionary far ahead of his time, he advocated universal suffrage and the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

By the 1820s Bentham had become a widely respected figure, both in Britain and in other parts of the world. His ideas were greatly to influence the reforms of public administration made during the nineteenth century, and his writings are still at the centre of academic debate, especially as regards social policy, legal positivism, and welfare economics. Research into his work continues at UCL in the Centre for Politics, Law and Society and in the Bentham Project, set up in the early 1960s with the aim of producing the first scholarly edition of his works and correspondence, a projected total of some seventy volumes!

Jeremy Bentham and UCL (University College London:

Bentham is often credited with being one of the founders of the University of London, the forerunner of today's University College London. This is not, in fact, true. Bentham was eighty years of age when the new University opened its doors in 1828, and took no part in the campaign to bring it into being. However, the myth of his participation has been perpetuated in a mural by Henry Tonks (1862-1937), in the dome above the Flaxman gallery in the main UCL library. It shows William Wilkins (1778-1839), the architect of the main building, submitting the plans to Bentham for his approval while the portico is under construction in the background. Needless to say, it is pure fantasy.

Yet although Bentham played no direct part in the establishment of UCL, he still deserves to be considered as its spiritual father. Many of the founders, particularly James Mill (1773-1836) and Henry Brougham (1778-1868), held him in high esteem, and their project embodied many of his ideas on education and society. He strongly believed that education should be made more widely available, and not only to those who were wealthy and members of the established church, as was the case at the traditional universities, Oxford and Cambridge. As the first English University to open its doors to all, regardless of race, creed or political belief (provided they could afford reasonable fees!), UCL went a long way to fulfilling Bentham's vision of what a University should be. He took a great interest in the new institution, and was instrumental in securing the appointment of his pupil John Austin (1790-1859) as the first Professor of Jurisprudence at UCL in 1829.

Thus it was only right that UCL should provide a home both for Bentham's voluminous manuscripts, now in the library, and for his other tangible memorial, his famous (or perhaps notorious) "Auto-Icon".

The Auto-Icon
At the end of the South Cloisters of the main building of UCL stands a wooden cabinet, which has been a source of curiosity and perplexity to visitors.

The cabinet contains Bentham's preserved skeleton, dressed in his own clothes, and surmounted by a wax head. Bentham requested that his body be preserved in this way in his will made shortly before his death on 6 June 1832. The cabinet was moved to UCL in 1850.

Not surprisingly, this peculiar relic has given rise to numerous legends and anecdotes. One of the most commonly recounted is that the Auto-Icon regularly attends meetings of the College Council, and that it is solemnly wheeled into the Council Room to take its place among the present-day members. Its presence, it is claimed, is always recorded in the minutes with the words Jeremy Bentham - present but not voting. Another version of the story asserts that the Auto-Icon does vote, but only on occasions when the votes of the other Council members are equally split. In these cases the Auto-Icon invariably votes for the motion.

Bentham had originally intended that his head should be part of the Auto-Icon, and for ten years before his death (so runs another story) carried around in his pocket the glass eyes which were to adorn it. Unfortunately when the time came to preserve it for posterity, the process went disastrously wrong, robbing the head of most of its facial expression, and leaving it decidedly unattractive. The wax head was therefore substituted, and for some years the real head, with its glass eyes, reposed on the floor of the Auto-Icon, between Bentham's legs. However, it proved an irresistible target for students, especially from King's College London, and it frequently went missing, turning up on one occasion in a luggage locker at Aberdeen station. The last straw (so runs yet another story) came when it was discovered in the front quadrangle being used for football practice. Thereafter it was removed to the College vaults, where it remains to this day.

Many people have speculated as to exactly why Bentham chose to have his body preserved in this way, with explanations ranging from a practical joke at the expense of posterity to a sense of overweening self-importance. Perhaps the Auto-Icon may be more plausibly regarded as an attempt to question religious sensibilities about life and death. Yet whatever Bentham's true motives, the Auto-Icon will always be a source of fascination and debate, and will serve as a perpetual reminder of the man whose ideals inspired the institution in which it stands.

Further reading:

J.R. Dinwiddy, Bentham (Oxford University Press, 1989) - in the 'Past Masters' series.

C.F.A. Marmoy, 'The "Auto-Icon" of Jeremy Bentham at University College London', Medical History, 2 (1958), 77-86.

R. Richardson and B. Hurwitz, 'Jeremy Bentham's self-image: an exemplary bequest for dissection', British Medical Journal, 295 (July-Dec. 1987), 1958.

Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, ed. J.H. Burns and H.L.A. Hart, (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1996). A new paperback edition with an introduction by F. Rosen, and an interpretive essay by H.L.A. Hart. Rosen's introduction outlines recent trends in Bentham scholarship, and contains an extensive bibliography.

For details of Bentham's Collected Works published to date Click here

For information on Bentham's manuscripts, held in University College London library Click here

For an example of Bentham's handwriting Click here

This page is maintained by Irena Nicoll

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