Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Critical Introduction by F. C. Montague
Jeremy Bentham (17481832)
[Jeremy Bentham was born in London on the 15th of February 1748. He was educated at Westminster School and Queens College, Oxford. In 1763 he became a member of Lincolns Inn. In 1776 he published anonymously his first important work, the Fragment on Government. In 1789 he published his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. He devoted the remainder of his life chiefly to applying the principles of this work to the amendment of particular branches of the law. The Westminster Review was founded in 1823 at his expense and by his disciples. Bentham died in London on the 6th of June 1832. A collected edition of his works with a memoir of his life, filling eleven volumes, was published in 1843 by John Bowring, his literary executor.]
BENTHAM was essentially a man of science, not a man of letters. Even as a child he did not care for books which did not afford him facts. In later life he condemned poetry on the ground that it was a misrepresentation of reality. He had himself a strong logical faculty, but a weak imagination. He saw human nature in the abstract, not in the concrete. He could analyse motives, but he could not depict character. In spite of his genuine benevolence he had too little sympathy with men to judge his own contemporaries aright or to penetrate the secrets of history. His only vigorous passions were the intellectual passions of study and controversy. He led a tranquil life unruffled by sudden changes of fortune, by great joys or by great sorrows. A man so limited by his nature and by his circumstances could never have been a great literary artist. Had Bentham adopted the profession of letters, he might have written some vigorous pamphlets or newspaper articles, but he would not have left behind him anything to interest later generations.
Bentham, however, did not care for literary distinction. The reform of law was the supreme object of his ambition. Most of his works, having been written with this object, are technical rather than literary in character. They are taken up with minute investigations into the defects of English law, or with elaborate expositions of an ideal legal system. They are remarkably full, clear, and precise in statement; but they are not attractive; they are not even readable. They have no literary merits save those which belong to a good manual of medicine or of engineering. They are not works of art, and therefore do not come within the scope of literature properly so called.
It is only in discussing the first principles of politics and legislation that Bentham finds a subject-matter giving scope for literary treatment. Bentham had meditated long and carefully upon the ultimate problems which must be solved by the legislator or by those who furnish the legislator with ideas. He had reached definite conclusions respecting the origin of society, the object for which society exists, the proper function of government, and the real meaning of political liberty. He stated his conclusions in the Fragment on Government, the Principles of Morals and Legislation, and Anarchical Fallacies. These writings, few and incomplete as they are, have exerted a considerable influence on philosophy and on politics. Upon these writings, together with one or two pamphlets such as the Defence of Usury, rests whatever literary reputation Bentham has attained.
Even in handling themes of general interest Bentham, it must be owned, is literary only by accident. He cannot pretend to the sparkling elegance of Montesquieu, the careless graces of Hume, or the rhetorical pomp of Burke. His highest merit is that he is simple and vigorous. He writes like a man who has fully considered his subject and who knows exactly what he wants to say. He writes without the least endeavour to be fine. He is too much engrossed with the task of communicating his thoughts to be desirous of calling attention to his eloquence. Thus, if he had no literary graces, he has no literary affectation. By dint of devotion to his subject he comes to have a style, not a great or a beautiful style, but a style eminently characteristic of the man, adequate to his ideas and stimulating to the earnest reader.
Benthams literary power is most evident in controversial passages. His virtues and his failings alike fitted him for controversy. What he saw at all he saw with remarkable clearness. He wielded a rare power of deductive reasoning. He argued with admirable stringency from his own premises. He pounced with unerring keenness upon every fallacy of an opponent. Like most men who can argue well he argued with zest. His feelings warmed and his spirits rose as he pulled to pieces propositions which he considered false and mischievous. On such occasions he attained to a very grim humour and even to a very austere eloquence. It would be difficult to name any English author who has wielded a greater destructive power. And it is only just to add that Benthams ultimate aim was always constructive. He made war upon that which he regarded as error only in order to conquer room for that which he regarded as truth.