Bentham By John Stuart Mill


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. Milla 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

of his entire works, are entirely devoted: the ‘Defence of

Usury’. the ‘Book of Fallacies’; and the onslaught upon

Blackstone, published anonymously under the title of ‘ A Fragment

on Government’, which, though a first production, and of a writer

afterwards so much ridiculed for his style, excited the highest

admiration no less for its composition than for its thoughts, and

was attributed by turns to Lord Mansfield, to Lord Camden, and

(by Dr. Johnson) to Dunning, one of the greatest masters of style

among the lawyers of his day. These writings are altogether

original; though of the negative school, they resemble nothing

previously produced by negative philosophers; and would have

sufficed to create for Bentham, among the subversive thinkers of

modern Europe, a place peculiarly his own. But it is not these

writings that constitute the real distinction between him and

them. There was a deeper difference. It was that they were purely

negative thinkers, he was positive: they only assailed error, he

made it a point of conscience not to do so until he thought he

could plant instead the corresponding truth. Their character was

exclusively analytic, his was synthetic. They took for their

starting-point the received opinion on any subject, dug round it

with their logical implements, pronounced its foundations

defective, and condemned it: he began de novo, laid his own

foundations deeply and firmly, built up his own structure, and

bade mankind compare the two; it was when he had solved the

problem himself, or thought he had done so, that he declared all

other solutions to be erroneous. Hence, what they produced will

not last; it must perish, much of it has already perished, with

the errors which it exploded: what he did has its own value, by

which it must outlast all errors to which it is opposed. Though

we may reject, as we often must, his practical conclusions, yet

his premises, the collections of facts and observations from

which his conclusions were drawn, remain for ever, a part of the

materials of philosophy.

A place, therefore, must be assigned to Bentham among the

masters of wisdom, the great teachers and permanent intellectual

ornaments of the human race. He is among those who have enriched

mankind with imperishable gifts; and although these do not

transcend all other gifts, nor entitle him to those honours

‘above all Greek, above all Roman fame’, which by a natural

reaction against the neglect and contempt of the ignorant, many

of his admirers were once disposed to accumulate upon him, yet to

refuse an admiring recognition of what he was, on account of what

he was not, is a much worse error, and one which, pardonable in

the vulgar, is no longer permitted to any cultivated and

instructed mind.

If we were asked to say, in the fewest possible words, what

we conceive to be Bentham’s place among these great intellectual

benefactors of humanity; what he was, and what he was not; what

kind of service he did and did not render to truth; we should say

he was not a great philosopher, but he was a great reformer in

philosophy. He brought into philosophy something which it greatly

needed, and for want of which it was at a stand. It was not his

doctrines which did this, it was his mode of arriving at them. He

introduced into morals and politics those habits of thought and

modes of investigation, which are essential to the idea of

science; and the absence of which made those departments of

inquiry, as physics had been before Bacon, a field of

interminable discussion, leading to no result. It was not his

opinions, in short, but his method, that constituted the novelty

and the value of what he did; a value beyond all price, even

though we should reject the whole, as we unquestionably must a

large part, of the opinions themselves.

Bentham’s method may be shortly described as the method of

detail; of treating wholes by separating them into their parts,

abstractions by resolving them into Things, classes and

generalities by distinguishing them into the individuals of which

they are made up; and breaking every question into pieces before

attempting to solve it. The precise amount of originality of this

process, considered as a logical conception — its degree of

connexion with the methods of physical science, or with the

previous labours of Bacon, Hobbes or Locke — is not an essential

consideration in this pace. Whatever originality there was in the

method — in the subjects he applied it to, and in the rigidity

with which he adhered to it, there was the greatest. Hence his

interminable classifications. Hence his elaborate demonstrations

of the most acknowledged truths. That murder, incendiarism,

robbery, are mischievous actions, he will not take for granted

without proof; let the thing appear ever so self-evident, he will

know the why and the how of it with the last degree of precision;

he will distinguish all the different mischiefs of a crime,

whether of the first, the second or the third order, namely, 1.

the evil to the sufferer, and to his personal connexions; 2. the

danger from example, and the alarm or painful feeling of

insecurity; and 3. the discouragement to industry and useful

pursuits arising from the alarm, and the trouble and resources

which must be expended in warding off the danger. After this

enumeration, he will prove from the laws of human feeling, that

even the first of these evils, the sufferings of the immediate

victim, will on the average greatly outweigh the pleasure reaped

by the offender; much more when all the other evils are taken

into account. Unless this could be proved, he would account the

infliction of punishment unwarrantable; and for taking the

trouble to prove it formally, his defence is, ‘there are truths

which it is necessary to prove, not for their own sakes, because

they are acknowledged, but that an opening may be made for the

reception of other truths which depend upon them. It is in this

manner we provide for the reception of first principles, which,

once received, prepare the way for admission of all other

truths.’ To which may be added, that in this manner also we

discipline the mind for practising the same sort of dissection

upon questions more complicated and of more doubtful issue.

It is a sound maxim, and one which all close thinkers have

felt, but which no one before Bentham ever so consistently

applied, that error lurks in generalities: that the human mind is

not capable of embracing a complex whole, until it has surveyed

and catalogued the parts of which that whole is made up; that

abstractions are not realities per se, but an abridged mode of

expressing facts, and that the only practical mode of dealing

with them is to trace them back to the facts (whether of

experience or of consciousness) of which they are the expression.

Proceeding on this principle, Bentham makes short work with the

ordinary modes of moral and political reasoning. These, it

appeared to him, when hunted to their source, for the most part

terminated in phrases. In politics, liberty, social order,

constitution, law of nature, social compact, etc., were the

catchwords: ethics had its analogous ones. Such were the

arguments on which the gravest questions of morality and policy

were made to turn; not reasons, but allusions to reasons;

sacramental expressions, by which a summary appeal was made to

some general sentiment of mankind, or to some maxim in familiar

use, which might be true or not, but the limitations of which no

one had ever critically examined. And this satisfied other

people; but not Bentham. He required something more than opinion

as a reason for opinion. Whenever he found a phrase used as an

argument for or against anything, he insisted upon knowing what

it meant; whether it appealed to any standard, or gave intimation

of any matter of fact relevant to the question; and if he could

not find that it did either, he treated it as an attempt on the

part of the disputant to impose his own individual sentiment on

other people, without giving them a reason for it; a ‘

contrivance for avoiding the obligation of appealing to any

external standard, and for prevailing upon the reader to accept

of the author’s sentiment and opinion as a reason, and that a

sufficient one, for itself. Bentham shall speak for himself on

this subject: the passage is from his first systematic work,

Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation’, and

we could scarcely quote anything more strongly exemplifying both

the strength and weakness of his mode of philosophizing.

It is curious enough to observe the variety of inventions men

have hit upon, and the variety of phrases they have brought

forward, in order to conceal from the world, and, if possible,

from themselves, this very general and therefore very pardonable


1. One man says, he has a thing made on purpose to tell him

what is right and what is wrong; and that is called a ‘moral

sense’.. and then he goes to work at his ease, and says, such a

thing is right, and such a thing is wrong — why? ‘Because my

moral sense tells me it is.’

2. Another man comes and alters the phrase: leaving out

moral, and putting in common in the room of it. He then tells you

that his common sense tells him what is right and wrong, as

surely as the other’s moral sense did; meaning by common sense a

sense of some kind or other, which, he says, is possessed by all

mankind: the sense of those whose sense is not the same as the

author’s being struck out as not worth taking. This contrivance

does better than the other; for a moral sense being a new thing,

a man may feel about him a good while without being able to find

it out: but common sense is as old as the creation; and there is

no man but would be ashamed to be thought not to have as much of

it as his neighbours. It has another great advantage: by

appearing to share power, it lessens envy; for when a man gets up

upon this ground, in order to anathematize those who differ from

him, it is not by a sic volo sic jubeo, but by a velitis


3. Another man comes, and says, that as to a moral sense

indeed, he cannot find that he has any such thing: that, however,

he has an understanding, which will do quite as well. This

understanding, he says, is the standard of right and wrong: it

tells him so and so. All good and wise men understand as he does:

if other men’s understandings differ in any part from his, so

much the worse for them: it is a sure sign they are either

defective or corrupt.

4. Another man says, that there is an eternal and immutable

Rule of Right: that the rule of right dictates so and so: and

then he begins giving you his sentiments upon anything that comes

uppermost: and these sentiments (you are to take for granted) are

so many branches of the eternal rule of right.

5. Another man, or perhaps the same man (it is nO matter),

says that there are certain practices conformable and others

repugnant, to the Fitness of Things; and then he tells you, at

his leisure, what practices are conformable, and what repugnant:

just as he happens to like a practice or dislike it.

6. A great multitude of people are continually talking of the

Law of Nature; and then they go on giving you their sentiments

about what is right and what is wrong: and these sentiments, you

are to understand, are so many chapters and sections of the Law

of Nature.

7. Instead of the phrase, Law of Nature, you have sometimes

Law of Reason, Right Reason, Natural Justice, Natural Equity,

Good Order. Any of them will do equally well. This latter is most

used in politics. The three last are much more tolerable than the

others, because they do not very explicitly claim to be anything

more than phrases: they insist but feebly upon their being looked

upon as so many positive standards of themselves, and seem

content to be taken, upon occasion, for phrases expressive of the

conformity of the thing in question to the proper standards,

whatever that may be. On most occasions, however, it will be

better to say utility. utility is clearer as referring more

explicitly to pain and pleasure.

8. We have one philosopher, who says, there is no harm in

anything in the world but in telling a lie; and that if, for

example, you were to murder your own father, this would only be a

particular way of saying, he was not your father. Of course when

this philosopher sees anything that he does not like, he says, it

is a particular way of telling a lie. It is saying, that the act

ought to be done, or may be done, when, in truth, it ought not be


9. The fairest and openest of them all is that sort of man

who speaks out, and says, I am of the number of the Elect: now

God himself takes care to inform the Elect what is right: and

that with so good effect, and let them strive ever so, they

cannot help not only knowing it but practising it. If therefore a

man wants to know what is right and what is wrong, he has nothing

to do but to come to me.

Few will contend that this is a perfectly fair representation

of the animus of those who employ the various phrases so

amusingly animadverted on; but that the phrases contain no

argument, save what is grounded on the very feelings they are

adduced to justify, is a truth which Bentham had the eminent

merit of first pointing out.

It is the introduction into the philosophy of human conduct,

of this method of detail — of this practice of never reasoning

about wholes until they have been resolved into their parts, nor

about abstractions until they have been translated into realities

– that constitutes the originality of Bentham in philosophy, and

makes him the great reformer of the moral and political branch of

it. To what he terms the ‘exhaustive method of classification’,

which is but one branch of this more general method, he himself

ascribes everything original in the systematic and elaborate work

from which we have quoted. The generalities of his philosophy

itself have little or no novelty: to ascribe any to the doctrine

that general utility is the foundation of morality, would imply

great ignorance of the history of philosophy, of general

literature, and of Bentham’s own writings. He derived the idea,

as he says himself, from Helvetius; and it was the doctrine no

less, of the religious philosophers of that age, prior to Reid

and Beattie. We never saw an abler defence of the doctrine of

utility than in a book written in refutation of Shaftesbury, and

now little read — Brown’s ‘Essays on the Characteristics’; and

in Johnson’s celebrated review of Soame Jenyns, the same doctrine

is set forth as that both of the author and of the reviewer. In

all ages of philosophy one of its schools has been utilitarian –

not only from the time of Epicurus, but long before. It was by

mere accident that this opinion became connected in Bentham with

his peculiar method. The utilitarian philosophers antecedent to

him had no more claims to the method than their antagonists. To

refer, for instance, to the Epicurean philosophy, according to

the most complete view we have of the moral part of it, by the

most accomplished scholar of antiquity, Cicero; we ask any one

who has read his philosophical writings, the ‘De Finibus’ for

instance, whether the arguments of the Epicureans do not, just as

much as those of the Stoics or Platonists, consist of mere

rhetorical appeals to common notions, to eikita and simeia

instead of tekmiria, notions picked up as it were casually, and

when true at all, never so narrowly looked into as to ascertain

in what sense and under what limitations they are true. The

application of a real inductive philosophy to the problems of

ethics, is as unknown to the Epicurean moralists as to any of the

other schools; they never take a question to pieces, and join

issue on a definite point. Bentham certainly did not learn his

sifting and anatomizing method from them.

This method Bentham has finally installed in philosophy; has

made it henceforth imperative on philosophers of all schools. By

it he has formed the intellects of many thinkers, who either

never adopted, or have abandoned, many of his peculiar opinions.

He has taught the method to men of the most opposite schools to

his; he has made them perceive that if they do not test their

doctrines by the method of detail, their adversaries will. He has

thus, it is not too much to say, for the first time introduced

precision of thought into moral and political philosophy. Instead

of taking up their opinions by intuition, or by ratiocination

from premises adopted on a mere rough view, and couched in

language so vague that it is impossible to say exactly whether

they are true or false, philosophers are now forced to understand

one another, to break down the generality of their propositions,

and join a precise issue in every dispute. This is nothing less

than a revolution in philosophy. Its effect is gradually becoming

evident in the writings of English thinkers of every variety of

opinion, and will be felt more and more in proportion as

Bentham’s writings are diffused, and as the number of minds to

whose formation they contribute is multiplied.

It will naturally be presumed that of the fruits of this

great philosophical improvement some portion at least will have

been reaped by its author. Armed with such a potent instrument,

and wielding it with such singleness of aim; cultivating the

field of practical philosophy with such unwearied and such

consistent use of a method right in itself, and not adopted by

his predecessors; it cannot he but that Bentham by his own

inquiries must have accomplished something considerable. And so,

it will be found, he has; something not only considerable, but

extraordinary; though but little compared with what he has left

undone, and far short of what his sanguine and almost boyish

fancy made him flatter himself that he had accomplished. His

peculiar method, admirably calculated to make clear thinkers, and

sure ones to the extent of their materials, has not equal

efficacy for making those materials complete. It is a security

for accuracy, but not for comprehensiveness; or rather, it is a

security for one sort of comprehensiveness, but not for another.

Bentham’s method of laying out his subject is admirable as a

preservative against one kind of narrow and partial views. He

begins by placing before himself the whole of the field of

inquiry to which the particular question belongs, and divides

down till he arrives at the thing he is in search of; and thus by

successively rejecting all which is not the thing, he gradually

works out a definition of what it is. This, which he calls the

exhaustive method, is as old as philosophy itself. Plato owes

everything to it, and does everything by it; and the use made of

it by that great man in his Dialogues, Bacon, in one of those

pregnant logical hints scattered through his writings, and so

much neglected by most of his pretended followers, pronounces to

be the nearest approach to a true inductive method in the ancient

philosophy. Bentham was probably not aware that Plato had

anticipated him in the process to which he too declared that he

owed everything. By the practice of it, his speculations are

rendered eminently systematic and consistent; no question, with

him, is ever an insulated one; he sees every subject in connexion

with all the other subjects with which in his view it is related,

and from which it requires to be distinguished; and as all that

he knows, in the least degree allied to the subject, has been

marshalled in an orderly manner before him, he does not, like

people who use a looser method, forget and overlook a thing on

one occasion to remember it on another. Hence there is probably

no philosopher of so wide a range, in whom there are so few

inconsistencies. If any of the truths which he did not see, had

come to be seen by him, he would have remembered it everywhere

and at all times, and would have adjusted his whole system to it.

And this is another admirable quality which he has impressed upon

the best of the minds trained in his habits of thought: when

those minds open to admit new truths, they digest them as fast as

they receive them.

But this system, excellent for keeping before the mind of the

thinker all that he knows, does not make him know enough; it does

not make a knowledge of some of the properties of a thing suffice

for the whole of it, nor render a rooted habit of surveying a

complex object (though ever so carefully) in only one of its

aspects, tantamount to the power of contemplating it in all. To

give this last power, other qualities are required: whether

Bentham possessed those other qualities we now have to see.

Bentham’s mind, as we have already said, was eminently

synthetical. He begins all his inquiries by supposing nothing to

he known on the subject, and reconstructs all philosophy ab

initio, without reference to the opinions of his predecessors.

But to build either a philosophy or anything else, there must be

materials. For the philosophy of matter, the materials are the

properties of matter; for moral and political philosophy, the

properties of man, and of man’s position in the world. The

knowledge which any inquirer possesses of these properties,

constitutes a limit beyond which, as a moralist or a political

philosopher, whatever be his powers of mind, he cannot reach.

Nobody’s synthesis can be more complete than his analysis. If in

his survey of human nature and life he has left any element out,

then, wheresoever that element exerts any influence, his

conclusions will fail, more or less, in their application. If he

has left out many elements, and those very important, his labours

may be highly valuable; he may have largely contributed to that

body of partial truths which, when completed and corrected by one

another, constitute practical truth; but the applicability of his

system to practice in its own proper shape will be of an

exceedingly limited range.

Human nature and human life are wide subjects, and whoever

would embark in an enterprise requiring a thorough knowledge of

them, has need both of large stores of his own, and of all aids

and appliances from elsewhere. His qualifications for success

will be proportional to two things: the degree in which his own

nature and circumstances furnish them with a correct and complete

picture of man’s nature and circumstances; and his capacity of

deriving light from other minds.

Bentham failed in deriving light from other minds. His

writings contain few traces of the accurate knowledge of any

schools of thinking but his own; and many proofs of his entire

conviction that they could teach him nothing worth knowing. For

some of the most illustrious of previous thinkers, his contempt

was unmeasured. In almost the only passage of the ‘Deontology’

which, from its style, and from its having before appeared in

print, may be known to be Bentham’s, Socrates, and Plato are

spoken of in terms distressing to his great admirers; and the

incapacity to appreciate such men, is a fact perfectly in unison

with the general habits of Bentham’s mind. He had a phrase,

expressive of the view he took of all moral speculations to which

his method had not been applied, or (which he considered as the

same thing) not founded on a recognition of utility as the moral

standard; this phrase was ‘vague generalities’. Whatever

presented itself to him in such a shape, he dismissed as unworthy

of notice, or dwelt upon only to denounce as absurd. He did not

heed, or rather the nature of his mind prevented it from

occurring to him, that these generalities contained the whole

unanalysed experience of the human race.

Unless it can be asserted that mankind did not know anything

until logicians taught it to them that until the last hand has

been put to a moral truth by giving it a metaphysically precise

expression, all the previous rough-hewing which it has undergone

by the common intellect at the suggestion of common wants and

common experience is to go for nothing; it must be allowed, that

even the originality which can, and the courage which dares,

think for itself, is not a more necessary part of the

philosophical character than a thoughtful regard for previous

thinkers, and for the collective mind of the human race. What has

been the opinion of mankind, has been the opinion of persons of

all tempers and dispositions, of all partialities and

prepossessions, of all varieties in position, in education, in

opportunities of observation and inquiry. No one inquirer is all

this; every inquirer is either young or old, rich or poor, sickly

or healthy, married or unmarried, meditative or active, a poet or

a logician, an ancient or a modern, a man or a woman; and if a

thinking person, has, in addition, the accidental peculiarities

of his individual modes of thought. Every circumstance which

gives a character to the life of a human being, carries with it

its peculiar biases; its peculiar facilities for perceiving some

things, and for missing or forgetting others. But, from points of

view different from his, different things are perceptible; and

none are more likely to have seen what he does not see, than

those who do not see what he sees. The general opinion of mankind

is the average of the conclusions of all minds, stripped indeed

of their choicest and most recondite thoughts, but freed from

their twists and partialities: a net result, in which everybody’s

point of view is represented, nobody’s predominant. The

collective mind does not penetrate below the surface, but it sees

all the surface; which profound thinkers, even by reason of their

profundity, often fail to do: their intenser view of a thing in

some of its aspects diverting their attention from others.

The hardiest assertor, therefore, of the freedom of private

judgment the keenest detector of the errors of his predecessors,

and of the inaccuracies of current modes of thought — is the

very person who most needs to fortify the weak side of his own

intellect, by study of the opinions of mankind in all ages and

nations, and of the speculations of philosophers of the modes of

thought most opposite to his own. It is there that he will find

the experiences denied to himself — the remainder of the truth

of which he sees but half — the truths, of which the errors he

detects are commonly but the exaggerations. If, like Bentham, he

brings with him an improved instrument of investigation, the

greater is the probability that he will find ready prepared a

rich abundance of rough ore, which was merely waiting for that

instrument. A man of clear ideas errs grievously if he imagines

that whatever is seen confusedly does not exist: it belongs to

him, when he meets with such a thing, to dispel the mist, and fix

the outlines of the vague form which is looming through it.

Bentham’s contempt, then, of all other schools of thinkers;

his determination to create a philosophy wholly out of the

materials furnished by his own mind, and by minds like his own;

was his first disqualification as a philosopher. His second, was

the incompleteness of his own mind as a representative of

universal human nature. In many of the most natural and strongest

feelings of human nature he had no sympathy; from many of its

graver experiences he was altogether cut off; and the faculty by

which one mind understands a mind different from itself, and

throws itself into the feelings of that other mind, was denied

him by his deficiency of Imagination.

With Imagination in the popular sense, command of imagery and

metaphorical expression, Bentham was, to a certain degree,

endowed. For want, indeed, of poetical culture, the images with

which his fancy supplied him were seldom beautiful, but they were

quaint and humorous, or bold, forcible, and intense: passages

might be quoted from him both of playful irony, and of

declamatory eloquence, seldom surpassed in the writings of

philosophers. The Imagination which he had not, was that to which

the name is generally appropriated by the best writers of the

present day; that which enables us, by a voluntary effort, to

conceive the absent as if it were present, the imaginary as if it

were real, and to cloth it in the feelings which, if it were

indeed real, it would bring along with it. This is the power by

which one human being enters into the mind and circumstances of

another. This power constitutes the poet, in so far as he does

anything but melodiously utter his own actual feelings. It

constitutes the dramatist entirely. It is one of the constituents

of the historian; by it we understand other times; by it Guizot

interprets to us the middle ages; Nisard, in his beautiful

Studies on the later Latin poets, places us in the Rome of the

Caesars; Michelet disengages the distinctive characters of the

different races and generations of mankind from the facts of

their history. Without it nobody knows even his own nature,

further than circumstances have actually tried it and called it

out; nor the nature of his fellow-creatures, beyond such

generalizations as he may have been enabled to make from his

observation of their outward conduct.

By these limits, accordingly, Bentham’s knowledge of human

nature is bounded. It is wholly empirical; and the empiricism of

one who has had little experience. He had neither internal

experience nor external; the quiet, even tenor of his life, and

his healthiness of mind, conspired to exclude him from both. He

never knew prosperity and adversity, passion nor satiety. he

never had even the experiences which sickness gives; he lived

from childhood to the age of eighty-five in boyish health. He

knew no dejection, no heaviness of heart. He never felt life a

sore and a weary burthen. He was a boy to the last.

Self-consciousness, that daemon of the men of genius of our time,

from Wordsworth to Byron, from Goethe to Chateaubriand, and to

which this age owes so much both of its cheerful and its mournful

wisdom, never was awakened in him. How much of human nature

slumbered in him he knew not, neither can we know. He had never

been made alive to the unseen influences which were acting on

himself, nor consequently on his fellow-creatures. Other ages and

other nations were a blank to him for purposes of instruction. He

measured them but by one standard; their knowledge of facts, and

their capability to take correct views of utility, and merge all

other objects in it. His own lot was cast in a generation of the

leanest and barrenest men whom England had yet produced, and he

was an old man when a better race came in with the present

century. He saw accordingly in man little but what the vulgarest

eye can see; recognized no diversities of character but such as

he who runs may read. Knowing so little of human feelings, he

knew still less of the influences by which those feelings are

formed: all the more subtle workings both of the mind upon

itself, and of external things upon the mind, escaped him; and no

one, probably, who, in a highly instructed age, ever attempted to

give a rule to all human conduct, set out with a more limited

conception either of the agencies by which human conduct is, or

of those by which it should be, influenced.

This, then, is our idea of Bentham. He was a man both of

remarkable endowments for philosophy, and of remarkable

deficiencies for it: fitted, beyond almost any man, for drawing

from his premises, conclusions not only correct, but sufficiently

precise and specific to be practical: but whose general

conception of human nature and life furnished him with an

unusually slender stock of premises. It is obvious what would be

likely to be achieved by such a man; what a thinker, thus gifted

and thus disqualified, could do in philosophy. He could, with

close and accurate logic, hunt half-truths to their consequences

and practical applications, on a scale both of greatness and of

minuteness not previously exemplified; and this is the character

which posterity will probably assign to Bentham.

We express our sincere and well-considered conviction when we

say, that there is hardly anything positive in Bentham’s

philosophy which is not true: that when his practical conclusions

are erroneous, which in our opinion they are very often, it is

not because the considerations which he urges are not rational

and valid in themselves, but because some more important

principle, which he did not perceive, supersedes those

considerations, and turns the scale. The bad part of his writings

is his resolute denial of all that he does not see, of all truths

but those which he recognizes. By that alone has he exercised any

bad influence upon his age; by that he has, not created a school

of deniers, for this is an ignorant prejudice, but put himself at

the head of the school which exists always, though it does not

always find a great man to give it the sanction of philosophy.

thrown the mantle of intellect over the natural tendency of men

in all ages to deny or disparage all feelings and mental states

of which they have no consciousness in themselves.

The truths which are not Bentham’s, which his philosophy

takes no account of, are many and important; but his

non-recognition of them does not put them out of existence; they

are still with us, and it is a comparatively easy task that is

reserved for us, to harmonize those truths with his. To reject

his half of the truth because he overlooked the other half, would

be to fall into his error without having his excuse. For our own

part, we have a large tolerance for one-eyed men, provided their

one eye is a penetrating one: if they saw more, they probably

would not see so keenly, nor so eagerly pursue one course of

inquiry. Almost all rich veins of original and striking

speculation have been opened by systematic half-thinkers: though

whether these new thoughts drive out others as good, or are

peacefully superadded to them, depends on whether these

half-thinkers are or are not followed in the same track by

complete thinkers. The field of man’s nature and life cannot be

too much worked, or in too many directions; until every clod is

turned up the work is imperfect; no whole truth is possible but

by combining the points of view of all the fractional truths,

nor, therefore, until it has been fully seen what each fractional

truth can do by itself.

What Bentham’s fractional truths could do, there is no such

good means of showing as by a review of his philosophy: and such

a review, though inevitably a most brief and general one, it is

now necessary to attempt.

The first question in regard to any man of speculation is,

what is his theory of human life? In the minds of many

philosophers, whatever theory they have of this sort is latent,

and it would be a revelation to themselves to have it pointed out

to them in their writings as others can see it, unconsciously

moulding everything to its own likeness. But Bentham always knew

his own premises, and made his reader know them: it was not his

custom to leave the theoretic grounds of his practical

conclusions to conjecture. Few great thinkers have afforded the

means of assigning with so much certainty the exact conception

which they had formed of man and of man’s life.

Man is conceived by Bentham as a being susceptible of

pleasures and pains, and governed in all his conduct partly by

the different modifications of self-interest, and the passions

commonly classed as selfish, partly by sympathies, or

occasionally antipathies, towards other beings. And here

Bentham’s conception of human nature stops. He does not exclude

religion; the prospect of divine rewards and punishments he

includes under the head of ’self-regarding interest’, and the

devotional feeling under that of sympathy with God. But the whole

of the impelling or restraining principles, whether of this or of

another world, which he recognizes, are either self-love, or love

or hatred towards other sentient beings. That there might be no

doubt of what he thought on the subject, he has not left us to

the general evidence of his writings, but has drawn out a ‘Table

of the Springs of Action’, an express enumeration and

classification of human motives, with their various names,

laudatory, vituperative, and neutral: and this table, to be found

in Part I of his collected works, we recommend to the study of

those who would understand his philosophy.

Man is never recognized by him as a being capable of pursuing

spiritual perfection as an end; of desiring, for its own sake,

the conformity of his own character to his standard of

excellence, without hope of good or fear of evil from other

source than his own inward consciousness. Even in the more

limited form of Conscience, this great fact in human nature

escapes him. Nothing is more curious than the absence of

recognition in any of his writings of the existence of

conscience, as a thing distinct from philanthropy, from affection

for God or man, and from self-interest in this world or in the

next. There is a studied abstinence from any of the phrases

which, in the mouths of others, import the acknowledgment of such

a fact. If we find the words ‘Conscience’, ‘Principle’, ‘Moral

Rectitude’, ‘Moral Duty’, in his Table of the Springs of Action,

it is among the synonymes of the ‘love of reputation’. with an

intimation as to the two former phrases, that they are also

sometimes synonymous with the religious motive, or the motive of

sympathy. The feeling of moral approbation or disapprobation

properly so called, either towards ourselves or our

fellow-creatures, he seems unaware of the existence of; and

neither the word self-respect, nor the idea to which that word is

appropriated, occurs even once, so far as our recollection serves

us, in his whole writings.

Nor is it only the moral part of man’s nature, in the strict

sense of the term — the desire of perfection, or the feeling of

an approving or of an accusing conscience — that he overlooks;

he but faintly recognizes, as a fact in human nature, the pursuit

of any other ideal end for its own sake. The sense of honour, and

personal dignity — that feeling of personal exaltation and

degradation which acts independently of other people’s opinion,

or even in defiance of it; the love of beauty, the passion of the

artist; the love of order, of congruity, of consistency in all

things, and conformity to their end; the love of power, not in

the limited form of power over other human beings, but abstract

power, the power of making our volitions effectual; the love of

action, the thirst for movement and activity, a principle

scarcely of less influence in human life than its opposite, the

love of ease: None of these powerful constituents of human nature

are thought worthy of a place among the ‘Springs of Action’; and

though there is possibly no one of them of the existence of which

an acknowledgment might not be found in some corner of Bentham’s

writings, no conclusions are ever founded on the acknowledgment.

Man, that most complex being, is a very simple one in his eyes.

Even under the head of sympathy, his recognition does not extend

to the more complex forms of the feeling — the love of loving,

the need of a sympathizing support, or of objects of admiration

and reverence. If he thought at all of any of the deeper feelings

of human nature, it was but as idiosyncrasies of taste, with

which the moralist no more than the legislator had any concern,

further than to prohibit such as were mischievous among the

actions to which they might chance to lead. To say either that

man should, or that he should not, take pleasure in one thing,

displeasure in another, appeared to him as much an act of

despotism in the moralist as in the political ruler.

It would be most unjust to Bentham to surmise (as

narrow-minded and passionate adversaries are apt in such cases to

do) that this picture of human nature was copied from himself;

that all those constituents of humanity which he rejected from

his table of motives, were wanting in his own breast. The unusual

strength of his early feelings of virtue, was, as we have seen,

the original cause of all his speculations; and a noble sense of

morality, and especially of justice, guides and pervades them

all. But having been early accustomed to keep before his mind’s

eye the happiness of mankind (or rather of the whole sentient

world), as the only thing desirable in itself, or which rendered

anything else desirable, he confounded all disinterested feelings

which he found in himself, with the desire of general happiness:

just as some religious writers, who loved virtue for its own sake

as much perhaps as men could do, habitually confounded their love

of virtue with their fear of hell. It would have required greater

subtlety than Bentham possessed, to distinguish from each other,

feelings which, from long habit, always acted in the same

direction; and his want of imagination prevented him from reading

the distinction, where it is legible enough, in the hearts of


Accordingly, he has not been followed in this grand oversight

by any of the able men who, from the extent of their intellectual

obligations to him, have been regarded as his disciples. They may

have followed him in his doctrine of utility, and in his

rejection of a moral sense as the test of right and wrong: but

while repudiating it as such, they have, with Hartley,

acknowledged it as a fact in human nature; they have endeavoured

to account for it, to assign its laws: nor are they justly

chargeable either with undervaluing this part of our nature, or

with any disposition to throw it into the background of their

speculations. If any part of the influence of this cardinal error

has extended itself to them, it is circuitously, and through the

effect on their minds of other parts of Bentham’s doctrines.

Sympathy, the only disinterested motive which Bentham

recognized, he felt the inadequacy of, except in certain limited

cases, as a security for virtuous action. Personal affection, he

well knew, is as liable to operate to the injury of third

parties, and requires as much to be kept under government, as any

other feeling whatever: and general philanthropy, considered as a

motive influencing mankind in general, he estimated at its true

value when divorced from the feeling of duty — as the very

weakest and most unsteady of all feelings. There remained, as a

motive by which mankind are influenced, and by which they may be

guided to their good, only personal interest. Accordingly,

Bentham’s idea of the world is that of a collection of persons

pursuing each his separate interest or pleasure, and the

prevention of whom from jostling one another more than is

unavoidable, may be attempted by hopes and fears derived from

three sources — the law, religion and public opinion. To these

three powers, considered as binding human conduct, he gave the

name of sanctions. the political sanction, operating by the

rewards and penalties of the law; the religious sanction, by

those expected from the Ruler of the Universe; and the popular

which he characteristically calls also the moral sanction,

operating through the pains and pleasures arising from the favour

or disfavour of our fellow-creatures.

Such is Bentham’s theory of the world. And now, in a spirit

neither of apology nor of censure, but of calm appreciation, we

are to inquire how far this view of human nature and life will

carry any one: how much it will accomplish in morals, and how

much in political and social philosophy: what it will do for the

individual, and what for society.

It will do nothing for the conduct of the individual, beyond

prescribing some of the more obvious dictates of worldly

prudence, and outward probity and beneficence. There is no need

to expatiate on the deficiencies of a system of ethics which does

not pretend to aid individuals in the formation of their own

character. which recognizes no such wish as that of self culture,

we may even say no such power, as existing in human nature; and

if it did recognize, could furnish little assistance to that

great duty, because it overlooks the existence of about half of

the whole number of mental feelings which human beings are

capable of, including all those of which the direct objects are

states of their own mind.

Morality consists of two parts. One of these is

self-education; the training, by the human being himself, of his

affections and will. That department is a blank in Bentham’s

system. The other and co-equal part, the regulation of his

outward actions, must be altogether halting and imperfect without

the first; for how can we judge in what manner many an action

will affect even the worldly interests of ourselves or others,

unless we take in, as part of the question, its influence on the

regulation of our, or their, affections and desires? A moralist

on Bentham’s principles may get as far as this, that he ought not

to slay, burn, or steal; but what will be his qualifications for

regulating the nicer shades of human behaviour, or for laying

down even the greater moralities as to those facts in human life

which tend to influence the depths of the character quite

independently of any influence on worldly circumstances — such,

for instance, as the sexual relations, or those of family in

general, or any other social and sympathetic connexions of an

intimate kind? The moralities of these questions depend

essentially on considerations which Bentham never so much as took

into the account; and when he happened to be in the right, it was

always, and necessarily, on wrong or insufficient grounds.

It is fortunate for the world that Bentham’s taste lay rather

in the direction of jurisprudential than of properly ethical

inquiry. Nothing expressly of the latter kind has been published

under his name, except the ‘Deontology’ — a book scarcely ever,

in our experience, alluded to by any admirer of Bentham without

deep regret that it ever saw the light. We did not expect from

Bentham correct systematic views of ethics, or a sound treatment

of any question the moralities of which require a profound

knowledge of the human heart; but we did anticipate that the

greater moral questions would have been boldly plunged into, and

at least a searching criticism produced of the received opinions;

we did not expect that the petite morale almost alone would have

been treated, and that with the most pedantic minuteness, and on

the quid pro quo principles which regulate trade. The book has

not even the value which would belong to an authentic exhibition

of the legitimate consequences of an erroneous line of thought;

for the style proves it to have been so entirely rewritten, that

it is impossible to tell how much or how little of it is

Bentham’s. The collected edition, now in progress, will not, it

is said, include Bentham’s religious writings; these, although we

think most of them of exceedingly small value, are at least his,

and the world has a right to whatever light they throw upon the

constitution of his mind. But the omission of the ‘Deontology’

would be an act of editorial discretion which we should seem

entirely justifiable.

If Bentham’s theory of life can do so little for the

individual, what can it do for society?

It will enable a society which has attained a certain state

of spiritual development, and the maintenance of which in that

state is otherwise provided for, to prescribe the rules by which

it may protect its material interests. It will do nothing (except

sometimes as an instrument in the hands of a higher doctrine) for

the spiritual interests of society; nor does it suffice of itself

even for the material interests. That which alone causes any

material interests to exist, which alone enables any body of

human beings to exist as a society, is national character: that

it is, which causes one nation to succeed in what it attempts,

another to fail; one nation to understand and aspire to elevated

things, another to grovel in mean ones; which makes the greatness

of one nation lasting, and dooms another to early and rapid

decay. The true teacher of the fitting social arrangements for

England, France, or America, is the one who can point out how the

English, French or American character can be improved, and how it

has been made what it is. A philosophy of laws and institutions,

not founded on a philosophy of national character, is an

absurdity. But what could Bentham’s opinion be worth on national

character? How could he, whose mind contained so few and so poor

types of individual character, rise to that higher

generalization? All he can do is but to indicate means by which,

in any given state of the national mind, the material interests

of society can be protected; saving the question, of which others

must judge, whether the use of those means would have, on the

national character, any injurious influence.

We have arrived, then, at a sort of estimate of what a

philosophy like Bentham’s can do. It can teach the means of

organizing and regulating the merely business part of the social

arrangements. Whatever can be understood or whatever done without

reference to moral influences, his philosophy is equal to; where

those influences require to be taken into account, it is at

fault. He committed the mistake of supposing that the business

part of human affairs was the whole of them; all at least that

the legislator and the moralist had to do with. Not that he

disregarded moral influences when he perceived them; but his want

of imagination, small experience of human feelings, and ignorance

of the filiation and connexion of feelings with one another, made

this rarely the case.

The business part is accordingly the only province of human

affairs which Bentham has cultivated with any success; into which

he had introduced any considerable number of comprehensive and

luminous practical principles. That is the field of his

greatness; and there he is indeed great. He has swept away the

accumulated cobwebs of centuries — he has untied knots which the

efforts of the ablest thinkers, age after age, had only drawn

tighter; and it is not exaggeration to say of him that over a

great part of the field he was the first to shed the light of


We turn with pleasure from what Bentham could not do, to what

he did. It is an ungracious task to call a great benefactor of

mankind to account for not being a greater — to insist upon the

errors of a man who has originated more new truths, has given to

the world more sound practical lessons, than it ever received,

except in a few glorious instances, from any other individual.

The unpleasing part of our work is ended. We are now to show the

greatness of the man; the grasp which his intellect took of the

subjects with which it was fitted to deal; the giant’s task which

was before him, and the hero’s courage and strength with which he

achieved it. Nor let that which he did be deemed of small account

because its province was limited: man has but the choice to go a

little way in many paths, or a great way in only one. The field

of Bentham’s labours was like the space between two parallel

lines; narrow to excess in one direction, in another it reached

to infinity.

Bentham’s speculations, as we are already aware, began with

law; and in that department he accomplished his greatest

triumphs. He found the philosophy of law a chaos, he left it a

science; he found the practice of the law an Augean stable, he

turned the river into it which is mining and sweeping away mound

after mound of its rubbish.

Without joining in the exaggerated invectives against

lawyers, which Bentham sometimes permitted to himself, or making

one portion of society alone accountable for the fault of all, we

may say that circumstances had made English lawyers in a peculiar

degree liable to the reproach of Voltaire, who defines lawyers

the ‘conservators of ancient barbarous usages’. The basis of the


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