Jeremy Bentham has got to be one of the most flamboyant and popular philosophers in London, dead or otherwise. Yes, I said dead or otherwise. Jeremy Bentham died on June 6, 1832, but he still manges to get around. The intellectual force behind the origin of the philosophy of Utilitarianism, as well as a proponent for just about every questionable or just downright unpopular social stance of his time, the reclusive thinker has been sighted at a German beer festival, is the most unusual guest at the annual Jeremy Bentham dinner, and has attended University College of London board meetings as regularly as living board members.
The basic tenet of Utilitarianism is to strive for the greatest good for the greatest number, a stance that was not a popular one during Bentham’s lifetime. Bentham was born into a wealthy family in 1748, and spent much of his life as a recluse, composing literary works that promoted individual and economic freedom, freedom of expression, equal rights for women, the right to divorce, and the decriminalization of homosexual acts. He was also vocal in his opposition to slavery, the death penalty, and physical punishment of any kind – including children.
“Create all the happiness you are able to create; remove all the misery you are able to remove.”
As eccentric as his opinions were, there were probably a few others of his era who would sympathize, or at least discretely agree with him. What really set Bentham apart in my mind was his support for Animal Rights…in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. If his stances on human freedoms didn’t make him unpopular with the in crowd, suggesting that animals had rights probably sunk his name to the bottom of more than a few desired guest lists of London society. This leads me to believe his reclusive lifestyle was probably not completely by choice. One of his more famous quotes applied to animal rights:
“The question is not, ‘Can they reason,’ nor ‘Can they talk,’ but ‘Can they suffer?'”
Alright, the man was a bit of eccentric, but how did his story become even weirder in death? Upon his death, Bentham left his worldly fortune to the University College of London, dependant upon a couple of stipulations – his body was to be embalmed, put on display in an entry hall of the university, and was to be wheeled into any and all board meetings. And so it is, for the most part. His body was dissected, and this was a time when it was illegal to dissect any corpse except those of convicted murderers. During the procedure his organs were removed, and his head was so damaged so badly that a wax replica was made, which now sits atop what remains of him. Bentham’s mummified corpse is dressed in a set of his original clothes, stuffed with straw, cotton, and wool – with a little lavender thrown in to keep the moths away.
Bentham must have ruffled the wigs of more than a few political animals during his time, encouraging the rigorous examination of politicians and government officials so as to remind them they were “servants of the public, not their masters.”
Jeremy Bentham…a hero for his time, a hero for out time, and definitely a hero of mine.