Jeremy Bentham – Philosopher, utilitarian, eccentric

This 15th February marks Jeremy Bentham’s 273rd birthday. But, if you’re unfamiliar with the name, never fear! We’ve put together a quick summary of his professional life, along with a list of our top seven of his frankly brilliant eccentricities…

Born to a wealthy family on the 15th of February 1748, Jeremy was somewhat of a child prodigy! We’re told he studied Latin at the age of 3, and went on to attend Queens College Oxford at age 12 to study law. After completing both a bachelors and masters degree in the subject though, he grew to become disillusioned and frustrated with the intricacies of law and indeed of lawyers themselves! He later said of them that “lawyers are the only persons in whom ignorance of the law is not punished!”

Professional life

Bentham turned his hand to writing criticism of law, suggesting ways in which it could be reformed, and existing society institutions improved. He is most known for his association with the rise of ‘Utilitarianism’, the ethical theory that prescribes actions that ‘maximise the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people’. He spent his life working on society reforms that upheld this fundamental principle, offering improvements to subjects as wide ranging as religion, poor relief, and prisons. He was also a strong advocate for animal welfare, the abolition of slavery, equal rights, and the decriminalisation of homosexuality. He was particularly scathing of religion, criticising the influence it held over many societal foundations. He strongly opposed the idea of ‘Natural Law’ and ‘Natural Rights’ – both considered as ‘God-given’ rights – remarking that they were “nonsense upon stilts!” and later published an essay on the subject under the same name.

Plan of Bentham’s Panopticon Prison – Willey Reveley 1791

He also spent many years of his life designing a new prison system that enabled one guard to maintain control over multiple prisoners without the need for physical punishment. His ‘Panopticon’ (meaning “all-seeing”) was based on a circular design with the cells arranged on the outer wall and a central watch tower within. The prison inspector could look into the cells, unseen by the prisoners, at any time – sort of like 18th century CCTV! Bentham anticipated that the inmates would all ‘behave themselves’ under the ‘omnipotent eye’ of the prison inspector, in order to avoid physical punishment.

Bentham the Eccentric

Bentham died on the 6th June 1832 aged 84, but his fight against societal norms didn’t necessarily end there… Perhaps as a final rebuff against the church, Bentham chose a very different manor of funerary practice… Instead of opting for a burial, which would have forced him to pay money to the church, in his will Bentham wrote in detail what was to become of him:

“My body I give to my dear friend Doctor Southwood Smith to be disposed of in a manner hereinafter mentioned, and I direct … he will take my body under his charge and take the requisite and appropriate measures for the disposal and preservation of the several parts of my bodily frame…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… He will cause the skeleton to be clad in one of the suits of black occasionally worn by me.”

Jeremy Bentham Auto-Icon, UCL

This ‘Auto-Icon’ (or self-image) made from his own skeleton was then directed be housed in a cabinet, and every now and then, was to be ‘wheeled out’ to attend meetings of his utilitarian friends and colleagues. Bentham’s wishes were followed to the letter, and you can still visit him today at University College London!

But not quite all of him…

Originally, Bentham’s own head was intended to sit atop his body (as you might expect!), however the desiccation process went a little wrong, robbing the head of its facial expression and making it look, well, rather creepy! A wax replica head was affixed to his body’s frame instead, and for a time, his actual head was kept and displayed, rather unceremoniously between his feet! Later, the head was placed in a wooden box to give it a little more protection, and displayed in the cloisters of UCL. However, his head proved too tempting a prize for neighbouring students, who stole it and held it to ransom in 1975! (Don’t worry, his head was later returned for the princely sum of £10) You may be relieved to hear that today Bentham’s head is now safely housed in UCL’s conservation safe.

Top 7 weird facts about Jeremy Bentham

And now to our favourite part; here’s a quick list of some of the more unusual facts about Jeremy Bentham:

  1.  He had a pet cat called the Reverend Sir John Langbourne, who ate macaroni noodles at the table, and who Bentham described as “a universal nuisance” (we all know cats like that).  Bentham was a strong opponent of animal cruelty, arguing that “the question is not ‘can they reason?’ nor ‘can they talk?’, but rather, ‘can they suffer?'”
  2. He had a pet teapot named Dickie that no one else was allowed to touch, and had two walking sticks named Dapple and Dobbin, one of which (whom?) is still displayed with his Auto-Icon.
  3. He may have invented jogging, or ‘circumgyrating’ as he called it, described by his friends of a sort of ‘trotting step’. We’re told that he would rise at 6am and circumgyrate for 2 hours a day before work.
  4. Bentham once wrote to London City Council asking if he could replace the shrubs in his front driveway with varnished, mummified corpses, which he said would be “more aesthetic than flowers” and would serve the purpose of de-mystifying death and conquering the human fear of mortality. It’s speculated that by requesting his own body to be preserved as an ‘Auto-Icon’ Bentham hoped to question the religious sensibilities of life and death.
  5. To complement his Panopticon Prison, he wrote a cookbook called ‘Jeremy Bentham’s Prison Cooking’, containing a series of recipes providing the inmates with cheap, nourishing food.
  6. He was the possible inventor of underpants – the conservation itinerary for the auto-icon lists a pair of underpants and two sets of socks (got to keep those feet warm!), and these are now thought to be the oldest examples of underwear recorded.
  7. He invented a game called ‘battledore’ – sounds epic, but basically a game of ‘keepie-uppie’ with a shuttlecock.