Front Page Titles (by Subject) Section 11.: Mischief 6— Corrupting the National Morals and Understanding—Oxford University Oaths. - The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 5 (Scotch Reform, Real Property, Codification Petitions)
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Section 11.: Mischief 6— Corrupting the National Morals and Understanding—Oxford University Oaths. - Jeremy Bentham, The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 5 (Scotch Reform, Real Property, Codification Petitions) 
The Works of Jeremy Bentham, published under the Superintendence of his Executor, John Bowring (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1838-1843). 11 vols. Vol. 5.
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Mischief 6—Corrupting the National Morals and Understanding—Oxford University Oaths.
Thin are the partitions by which the moral and intellectual parts of man’s frame are divided: scarcely can corruption gain the one, without making its way to the other.
When, in the shape of an immense mass of unperformable engagements, all sanctioned by an oath, the seeds of perjury had been thus thickly sown, it could not be long ere they began yielding such their fruits: fruits more or less bitter to some stomachs, but at any rate conspicuous to all eyes:—a remedy was deemed necessary.
The simple course would have been to abolish the oath: but this would have been contrary to more than one fundamental principle of ecclesiastical polity.
1. One is—that the church is infallible; that is, that a set of professors, who, at the expense of the people, are paid by the sovereign—such of them as do anything—for reading and endeavouring to explain a most important indeed, but not the less obscure and mysterious book,—written at different times, before the use of printing, in different dead languages,—remain for ever, as they and their predecessors have been for two hundred and fifty years past, under the happy incapacity of putting in any one instance a wrong sense upon it.*
The influence of this attribute displays itself in both departments of the mind; the understanding and the will: opinions, real or pretended, are by it converted,—that is, the words given as containing the expression of them are converted,—into articles of faith: acts of the will, of which, when issuing from the pen of acknowledged authority, the expressions become laws, are converted into—what certain laws of the Medes and Persians were once pretended to be—everlasting and immutable laws or ordinances.
Between the immutability that belongs to articles of faith, and the immutability that belongs to laws,—between the essential characters of these two productions of the one attribute, infallibility,—the nature of the subject-matter has however produced some difference: articles of faith admit neither of subtraction nor yet of addition; nor consequently of change or substitution, which is composed of subtraction and addition put together: ordinances are equally unsusceptible of subtraction,—but of addition, consideration had of the changes and chances to which the affairs of this transitory life are subject,—of addition, so it be made but rarely, nor then but with a sparing hand, they are not altogether unsusceptible.
To herself, Holy Mother Church—Sancta-Mater Ecclesia—younger and revolted sister of the Church of Rome—reserved the superior establishment, the manufactory of articles of faith. It was set up and worked out,—the moulds accordingly all broken up—the necessary assortment being completed, completed for all eternity, so long ago as the year 1562.
To her two daughters—Kind Mother Oxford University, and Kind Mother Cambridge University,—Alma Mater Academia Oxoniensis, Alma Mater Academia Cantabrigiensis—(for thus it is that, as often as they talk in Latin, the two goodly fellowships of heads of colleges, when acting in their legislative capacities, respectively style themselves,) she gave up the subordinate establishment—the manufacture of ordinances: ordinances, by which the minds of the flower of the English youth were and are to be moulded,—to the form at any rate, whatsoever may become of the substance,—of orthodox piety, of virtue, and of what little there may be, that is conducive to such orthodoxy, in knowledge.
The above, how pregnant soever in practical consequences, is itself no other than a theoretical principle: another,—itself a practical one, the practical object and fruit of the theoretical one,—is—that the minds of men are by these their rulers to be kept in a state of perpetual dependence: of dependence as abject and entire as possible.
Lest the conduct of these possessors of power should experience any inconvenient check in the opinions of the persons subject to it, matters were accordingly, and are to be, so ordered, that all notions of duty, moral as well as religious, religious as well as moral, are to be resolved into one much more simple obligation: the imagined obligation, produced by skilful culture out of the liberty, of submitting—submitting on all occasions, and without reserve—to the opinion, real or pretended, and thence to the will of these the ruling and domineering few. Such being the end, behold one necessary means.
When by the ruling powers such is the species of dominion aimed at, a necessary condition is,—and such accordingly is their interest,—that, on the part of the subject herd, transgression should be as universal and as continual as possible: that thus, finding in their own consciences nothing but condemnation, they should, with an intensity of self-assurance proportioned to the enormity and multiplicity of such their transgressions, behold, in the authority of these their spiritual guides, their only hope—their only prospect of deliverance from the wrath to come.
In every community,—it is of the obedience of the men subject to authority, that the power of the man possessed of authority is composed: in proportion to the need which each person so subject conceives himself to have of the beneficial exercise of such authority, will be the strictness of that obedience: proportioned to the self-attested wickedness of the sinner, is the magnitude of the demand he has for absolution, in whatsoever shape and from whatsoever hand such deliverance may peradventure come.
Thus it is, that,—the effective power of the confessor being as the multitude and enormity of the sins, real or imagined, of the penitent,—it is in that respect the interest of the confessor, that, in the eyes of the penitent, and thence that in reality, these sins should be as multitudinous as possible; and thence for example it is, that, without exception or distinction, the words miserable sinners—us miserable sinners—are regularly crammed into their mouths: that so, by a perpetual fever, a perpetual demand for opiates, such as the laboratory of the confessor is furnished with, may be kept up.
Under the Church of Rome, the potion is administered in the retail way,—drop by drop, by hand as it were,—to each patient by himself: and accordingly it is under that one of the two churches that the subjection is most entire: under the Church of England, under the dominion of its universities, it can only be administered in the wholesale way: it can only be administered, as if it were by steam, to the whole flock of penitents in the lump. In this mode, to administer it with any chance of effect, required no small degree of art: it has been, or will presently be seen, what that art has been, and with what success it has been practised.
To the accomplishment of the design thus indicated, the course thus pointed to being, in the situation in question, if not the only, the most promising and directly leading course,—so, of the existence of such design, the taking of that course, which has thus been seen to have been and to continue to be taken, cannot but be acknowledged to be evidence: evidence, the probative force of which is as the degree of pertinacity, wherewith a system necessitating a constant and universal habit of perjury—a system, having certainly for its effect the generation rather than the prevention of so many of the acts which itself prohibits,—a system for which, considered in these its peculiar features, no other assignable use or object can be found,—is upholden and persevered in: persevered in in sullen silence, without defence because without possibility of defence, in the midst of repeated and persevering remonstrance and reproach.
A self-styled explanation of the oath,—bound up indeed in the same volume with the oath, but neither referred to by it, nor so much as, by the operation of the press, placed near to it,—such has been, and such continues to be, the instrument employed to both these purposes.
In pursuance of this design, a new principle in morals and legislation, and that a fundamental one, it was found necessary should be advanced: a principle, which, in itself, considered in an intellectual point of view, will be seen to be not less glaringly absurd than in effect as well as in design pernicious: advanced it required to be, and advanced it was and continues to be accordingly. By any being invested with authority, and acting in pursuance of that authority,—such an one excepted, if such an one there be, whose moral essence is composed of pure malevolence,—punishment (it seems now to be pretty generally understood, unless it be where the influence of such contrary doctrine as is about to be mentioned has been prevalent) is never aimed at or regarded in the character of an end:—prevention, viz. of delinquency, being in every case the end—punishment, a means directed to that end:—an instrument, how unwillingly soever, yet, under the spur of necessity, employed notwithstanding, in the character of a means.
According to this other,—this anile, for such it may be called, anything rather than maternal, theory, which it was found necessary for Mother University to set up in opposition to the theory of common sense and common humanity,—according to this theory, punishment is not a means leading to prevention, but a co-ordinate end placed by the side of it on the same level: so that, when, by a person in authority,—say a parent, say a master, say a legislator,—any act is forbidden to be done,—a punishment being appointed to be inflicted in case of its being done,—in every such case, whether the act be abstained from, or the punishment be inflicted, is—in his eyes, and to his wishes—a matter of indifference.
In the world at large—in the case of murder, for example—suppose a legislator taking up the pen and saying, “Thou shalt not commit murder. Whoso committeth murder shall be hanged.” To this legislator, according to the Oxford theory, it is matter of indifference how many murders are committed, so long as for every man murdered there is another man hanged.
Suppose in this case—(not that there could be any use in it)—suppose an oath taken by every man that he will never commit murder. By this oath, according to the same theory, would any man’s conscience be bound to abstain from committing murder? Not it indeed: all that it could be bound to would be,—in case of his committing murder, and being unfortunate enough to be found out and prosecuted to conviction,—all that the man would stand thus engaged for is—to stand still while the rope is putting about his neck.
As to the subject part of the community,—as it was in the beginning, so it is now,—it is in this explanation, including the theory on which it grounds itself, that such of them as feel any need of any such remedy find an opiate, such as it is—and that the only one—for whatsoever agitation their conscience may have been subjected to, by the consciousness of continually-repeated perjury. As to the rulers, their well-seasoned consciences have needed neither that nor any other sedative. From one sin alone could they receive any sensible spasm;—and that is—the giving up the article of infallibility, nominal or real, as above mentioned. Sooner than give up that, they would all of them promise and vow to say the Bismillah,—as some of them, in the midst of their pious abhorrence of popery, do still, it should seem,* to say mass. As to Laud’s Explanation, if to them it were anything, so far from an opiate, it would be a caustic: for, by it are specially marked as perjuries those things which (omissions included) they are, all of them, doing every day and all day long: under it they are, all of them, so many—(is it the fault of those who thus act, or of those who, that it may be no longer acted, thus speak of it?)—are, all of them, so many specially declared and posted perjurers.†
What is manifest all this while is—that, to the purpose of prevention,—which, except under such tutorage, is everywhere regarded as the sole object of every law considered in the character of a prohibitive one,—the effect of all this apparatus, binding and loosing together, is less than nothing. Without any such system of contradictions, the law of the land,—not quite so well obeyed, any more than quite so well in all points deserving to be obeyed, as could be wished,—does however, upon the whole, obtain a tolerably sufficient measure of obedience. But this theocratical code,—with its oath and its explanations, and its perjuries and its equivocations,—and, under the name of principles of legislation, its principles of misrule,—what, with all its ingenuity, and all its piety, has it done, but to expose itself to contempt, and its religion along with it?
Such would be its inefficiency, if prevention of mischief, its pretended, were its real object: but, its real objects being such as have been above explained, sure, too sure it is,—that, with relation to those objects, inefficiency cannot, with truth and justice, be imputed to it.‡
[* ]Having operated as a stumbling block when employed by the Church of Rome, it seems to be understood, that in and by the Church of England the term infallibility shall not be employed. In practice, however, the thing itself, the attribute so denominated, is not the less assumed (it will be seen) and grounded upon: so that, in the articles of liberty and security, all that is gained to the people by the relinquishment of the term, is the substitution of a circumlocution to the proper appellative, while, by the grammatical impropriety, the political—the despotic—pretension, and its supporters, are screened in some measure from the reproach so justly due.
[* ]Ex. gr. at Magdalen College; viz. by the oath there taken for the observance of the college statute. See, in Ayliffe’s Hist. I. 365, as per Terræ Filius, I. 15, anno 1726; Dialogue between Cartwright, Bishop of Chester and Hough, then President of the College, and by Terræ Filius, styled “the present Bishop of Worcester,” anno 1813, does this oath, with the statute in question unabrogated, continue to be administered? Like quære, in regard to the several other colleges.
[† ]Not to speak of the absurdity of this theory upon the face of it, it is not without full notice of the practical consequences of it, that these reverend guardians and instructors of youth have persevered so determinately in the propagation of it. To one of their own number—to that same Principal of Hertford Hall, afterwards Hertford College—it had been an instrument of grievous annoyance. In despite of both sanctions, political and supernatural,—in despite of prohibition and oath together,—a scholar of his had marooned: in the 40s. penalty, under favour of the explanation of the oath, the fugitive, and the ruling member of a college that received and harboured him, had found, instead of what it professed to be, a bar, what it was in effect, a licence: and, at the price of these 40s., the act of migrating from one of those seats of piety and morality to another,—this act, which, supposing it an offence, is more than ten times as bad an one (so, it will be seen, says the penalty) as that of being taken in the act of fornication without licence,—had received its expiation:—the faith of both sinners, in the power of they know not who, to absolve them from their oaths, having made them whole. Against an abuse thus dangerous to his authority, the reverend disciplinarian, in a lamentation of no fewer than 207 pages, gave vent to his complaints: but, though the root of the mischief lay in the first place in the oath, in the next place in the explanation by which that same oath is explained away,—so fundamental a doctrine is the doctrine of infallibility, and so incompatible with it would have been the abolition of abuse in any shape however flagrant—that, although, in the abolition of one or other or both of these conflicting institutions, he could not but see his only remedy, yet—so perfectly hopeless was the prospect—that the dose of courage, necessary to enable a man to come forward with a proposal for the application of this only remedy, could never, in all these 207 pages, nor at any time afterwards, be mustered up.
[‡ ]Besides scattered articles in other places, in tit. xv. De Moribus Conformandis, to look no further, among the contents of pages from 173 to 179, sections from 2 to 8 inclusive, are found regulations in abundance, from the violation of which no man who ever passed so much as a week—not to say a day—in the university, unless it were in a state of confinement, can, it may safely be said, have been exempt—not to go further back—for these last fifty years.