The Curious Head Of Jeremy Bentham

‘Reputation is the road to power.’

If his own words are to be believed, Jeremy Benthem was among the most powerful men of his time. The English philosopher, economist, and theoretical jurist was utilitarianism’s earliest and chief partisans. Born on 15 February 1748, living through the Georgian era, this brilliant mind was way ahead of its time. He was an advocate of individual rights and economic freedoms , the separation of state and church, freedom of expression, equal rights  for women, the right to vote, and (in an unpublished essay) the decriminalising of homosexuality. He also called for the abolition of slavery, capital punishment, and physical punishment including that of children. Additionally, he also became an early advocate of animal rights. 

‘A Fragment on Government’, Bentham’s first book, was published in 1776. The subtitle in the Introduction to Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries, Being an Examination of What Is Delivered, on the Subject of Government in General, indicates the nature of the work. Bentham saw Blackstone’s “antipathy to reform” as the Commentaries’ “grand and fundamental” flaw. Bentham’s book, written in a clear and concise style unlike his later works, may be considered the beginning of philosophical radicalism. It’s also an excellent essay on sovereignty. The statesman Lord Shelburne (later 1st Marquess of Lansdowne) read the book and summoned its author in 1781. Lord Shelburne became the Prime Minister a year later, following Lord Rockingham’s death near the end of the American Revolutionary War. Bentham became a regular visitor to Shelburne’s home. 

In 1785, Bentham travelled to Russia to see his brother, Samuel Bentham, an engineer in the Russian armed forces; it was there that he wrote his Defence of Usury (published 1787). This, his first economics essay, proffered in the form of a series of letters from Russia, shows him as a disciple of the economist Adam Smith, but one who posited that Smith did not follow the logic of his own principles. Bentham believed that each individual was the best judge of his own advantage and that it was desirable from a public standpoint for him to strive for it without constraint, as there was no reason to limit the application of this doctrine in the practice of lending money at a profit His later works on political economy, though with modifications, adhered to the laissez-faire principle. He provided a list of what the state may and may not do in the Manual of Political Economy (1800), the second list being much longer than the first.

Bentham’s life ended on 6 June 1832 at the age of 84 when he took his last breath at his Queen Square Palace residence in Westminster, London, England. He had continued to write until a month before his death and had made meticulous plans for his body’s dissection after death and preservation as an auto-icon. Bentham made a will in 1769, when he was 21 years old, leaving his body to a family friend, the physician and chemist George Fordyce, for dissection.

Following the dissection, Bentham’s skeleton and mummified head were to be dressed in his clothes and hat, positioned with his chair and staff “in the attitude in which I am sitting when engaged in thought,” and placed within “an appropriate box or case” for viewing.

He argued that dissection would advance scientific knowledge and greatly simplify medical education (cadavers for medical education were extremely difficult to obtain in Bentham’s day). The display of auto-icons would, among other things, reduce the need for paintings, statues, and other monuments to remember people (because “identity [is] preferable to similitude”), eliminate the threat to public health posed by accumulating corpses, and “diminish the horrors of death” by leaving only its “agreeable associations.” Unfortunately for him, the attempt to mummify his head failed, leaving his skin discoloured and stretched. As a result, the mummified head was replaced with a wax head. Bentham’s auto-icon was purchased by University College London (UCL) in 1850 and displayed there. The mummified head was first placed between the icon’s feet, then in a nearby box, and finally in a safe at the University College London’s Institute of Archaeology. The auto-icon is still on display today.

-Ramita Misra

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