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Section 12.: Mischief 6 continued. —II. Cambridge 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 continued.—II. Cambridge Oaths.
Such, in regard to oaths and perjury, being the state of things in one of the two chief sources and seats of Church-of-England piety, what is it in the other?
The answers—to the purpose of sincerity, widely different: but, as will presently be seen, to the purpose of the main position, viz. that of the impropriety of the ceremony, much the same.
At Cambridge, on admission into the state and condition of a member of the University, an oath, to the same effect as above, together with other effects in abundance, is exacted. But, subjoined to the formulary, and on the same paper, is printed an explanation, by which, one point excepted, and that an useless one, it is declared to amount to nothing. The engagement thus sanctioned is—what? an engagement to pay obedience to these same statutes, all or any of them? No: but only,—in case of disobedience, and prosecution and conviction and judgment accordingly, and execution denounced,—an engagement to submit to it, and in so doing, to be humble.*
“Excerpta è Statutis Acad. Cantabrigiensis, &c. Cambridge. J. Archdeacon, 1785.”
On this occasion surely, if on any, is one of Moses’s commandments broken, and the Lord’s name taken in vain,—if, by taking in vain, be meant, taken to some bad purposes, and to no good ones: yet so taken in vain, as that, upon the so taking it, no such thing ever takes place as perjury.
Comparing together the state of opinions and religious feelings in these two seats and sources of Church-of-England piety, a few results,—in an historical point of view at least not altogether devoid of interest,—present themselves:—
1. That, at Cambridge as well as at Oxford, there was a time at which perjury was not regarded as a matter of complete indifference.
2. That, at Cambridge as well as at Oxford, some person or persons was or were found, in whom symptoms of a desire to be exempted from it had manifested themselves.
3. That, by the ruling powers, at Cambridge as well as at Oxford, in compliance with such desire, measures were taken for the relief of those consciences, in which, on the score in question, symptoms of uneasiness had thus broken out.
4. That, in this view, neither at Cambridge any more than at Oxford, did it please these reverend potentates to pursue the simple and only proper course, viz. as above, to divest of this extraordinary sanction the comparatively trifling regulations in question, leaving them to the support afforded by those ordinary sanctions, to which the general law of the land, and with it not only the well-being but the very being of society, is confided.
5. That, at Cambridge as well as Oxford, the influence of the principle,—above spoken of as being common to the ruling powers, under every modification of the Christian religion (not to speak of others,) when by law established, viz. the assumption of infallibility,—openly announced, or necessarily, howsoever covertly implied,—is on this occasion discernible. To the standard of opinion and conduct, matter may, in case of urgent necessity, be added, but from it none is ever to be taken away.
6. That, for the purpose in question, at Cambridge, the course taken was such, that thereafter whatsoever other objections it may remain open to, as above, still in that seat and source of piety, on the score of a violation of the sort of oath of obedience in question, no person, living in a state of perjury, has perhaps ever been, or was likely to be, found:—while, in Oxford, what seems highly probable, not to say certain, is—that, bating rare and casual exceptions,—as in the case of confinement by sickness,—from that time to the present, no member of the university, by whom the oath, which is administered to all above the age of childhood, has ever been taken, has ever dwelt in that seat and source of piety for two days together, without living in the habitual commission of that sin.
7. That the form of government under which, at Oxford, perjury was thus rendered universal and perpetual,—to this time, and by the blessing of God to all future time,—was monarchical: viz. during the vigorous part of the joint reign of Charles I. and Archbishop Laud:—the form of government, under which, at Cambridge, it was abolished as above, was republican: viz. that of the Long Parliament.
8. That the religion under which perjury was thus established, was the religion, which, in England, having along with the monarchy been restored, remains still established, viz. Episcopalian Church-of-Englandism:—the religion under which, at Cambridge, perjury was abrogated, as above, was presbyterianism: viz. under the same Long Parliament.
Without incurring the reproach of misrepresentation, the distinction thus brought to view could not have been passed over without notice.
Not that, to the present, or to any other practical purpose, the importance of it presents itself as very considerable. In both seats of piety, so perfectly and universally does it appear to be understood, that, applied to the purpose in question at least, an oath is a mere matter of form, i. e. that it amounts to nothing, and is of no use,—and that, where it is not punishable, perjury is a sort of a thing that no man need put himself to the trouble of being ashamed of; that no instance, it is believed, was ever known, in which, in the circumstance of being exempted from this perjury, a member of the University of Cambridge has been heard or seen, inpublic or in print at least, to speak of himself as possessing any advantage.
True it is—that, in both seats of well paid piety, a man hears indeed, now and then, as of other good things, so of a good thing called by the name of Christian liberty: but, under this appellation, whatever else be the meaning of it, no such liberty as the liberty of not perjuring one’s self appears, in either of them (with the exceptions above brought to view in the case of Oxford,) to have been considered as comprised.
Of a yoke, which sits so light upon the shoulders by which it is borne, it is not natural, that, by the mere force of sympathy, the pressure should be rendered very grievous to others, to which it does not extend itself.
On any such ground, between the children of the one sister and those of the other, have any symptoms either of sympathy, or of heart-burning, ever presented themselves? No, never. If, on the shoulder of the Oxonian, a piece of a feather having been deposited by the wind, it happened to the man of Cambridge to observe it there, what he might or might not do, is—the picking it off,—what it is certain he would not seriously do, is the taking the relief so administered for the subject-matter of boast, or the burthen for the subject-matter either of reproach or commiseration. Instead of the feather on the shoulder, suppose the consciousness of perjury in the bosom, the result will be the same.
Piety is one thing: sincerity is another. In both seats, of everything that is right and proper, in all proper places, on all proper occasions, piety continues to be professed: of sincerity,—at least in so far as concerns an aversion to perjury, or to falsehood in a declaration of opinion concerning religion,—in a case where anything is to be got by it, no such aversion seems ever to have been manifested, except by here and there a scabby sheep or two, who for that cause have, upon occasion, been cast out of the flock, being not without reason regarded as not well assorted to the company into which they had been introduced.
In the House of Lords, the bench of bishops,—in some proportion at least—but which, unless it be to a father who has a son to prepare for the reception of the Holy Ghost, seems not to call for any very anxious inquiry,—is divided between the right reverend persons whose piety has had the milk of the one alma mater, and those in whose breasts the same useful quality has had the milk of the other kind mother, for its source. On any of those occasions on which the influence exercised by a speech is understood to depend in so great a degree upon the personal reputation of the speaker, was any Cambridge-bred ever heard to claim, at the expense of any Oxford-bred prelate, any superiority in the scale of trust-worthiness? A stare, as if Lord Stanhope had just spoken, is the only reply which a question to any such effect could reasonably expect to receive.
The conclusion is—that, in both of the two original sources of that piety, the profession of which is so well paid for with public money, as well as in that elevated reservoir which has its place in the House of Lords, an oath is universally considered as mere form: and that the breach of it, when not understood to expose a man to visible punishment,—the breach of it, termed in one word perjury, is regarded as a matter of indifference;—a sort of act of which no man need be ashamed.
The result here spoken of in the character of a mischief, being the corruption infused into the system of public morals, and it being among the positions here maintained, that an oath is a ceremony devoid of use, the contempt thus shown to be entertained for it cannot (it may perhaps be said) consistently with this position, be placed upon the list of mischiefs. True: in so far as the contempt is confined to the ceremony,—to the ceremony considered by itself. But in that ceremony is included an assertion, and by the falsity of that assertion sincerity is violated: in the perjury, a sort of insincerity is included: and, for and by every grain of insincerity which enters into the composition of it, every human character is by so much the worse.
As matters stand at present, while, in the character of a security for sincerity, or for good conduct in any other shape, the nothingness of the ceremony is as yet unacknowledged,—while, on the contrary, you will see it so frequently spoken of as the very basis on which society rests, and without which the whole fabric would fall to pieces,—so it is that, by what is regarded as a profanation of the ceremony, and a violation of the obligation supposed to be contracted by it,—contracted by its own single virtue,—indication is given of a looseness of principle, as the phrase is, or, in a language somewhat more determinate, of a comparative insensibility to the trangression-preventing influence of the three tutelary sanctions, as hath been elsewhere indicated and explained.*
All this while, to bear a man out in the breach thus made in what is universally, and without any contradiction, spoken of in the character of a most sacred duty, to protect him against reproach—nothing whatever is there but custom. Custom? and of what sort? a custom of acting—not in conformity, but in opposition, to the dictates of honest judgment: a custom analogous to a custom of smuggling, or a custom of false coining: a custom of doing that which he, whose custom it is, believes to be wrong, and feels himself unable to find anything to say in justification of.
It imports—(this habit of perjury)—it is produced by, and itself goes on producing and fortifying, the custom of regarding the distinctions between right and wrong as depending upon custom and nothing else. If the difference between happiness and unhappiness depended upon custom, so would that between right and wrong. Unfortunately, this is not the case. By the custom which men of one colour have so long been in, of seizing men of another colour when they could get at them, and keeping them in a state of slavery, what is easy enough to see is, how the sufferings of the men thus dealt with are created: what is not easy to see is, how they are lessened. By the custom which men with one set of religious phrases in their mouths have so long been in, of keeping in a state of humiliation and hopeless degradation men with another set of religious phrases in their mouths, what is easy to see is, how, in the minds of men thus dealt with, irritation is created: what is not easy to see is, how it is assuaged.
Not that, either under monarchy or under episcopacy, perjury has ever eo nomine been put upon the list of essentials, and the obligation of committing it considered as constituting the matter of a 40th article. At the utmost, the breaking of oaths can but be considered as of the number of those exercises which are left unprohibited, in such sort as to be, “when the magistrate requireth,” lawful, just as, by article the 39th, the taking of them is.
To an eye which should confine its view to the state of things as in this respect it exists at Oxford, it might be apt to appear, that, in the eyes of those fathers of the church, whose seat is in the High Place, the propagation of perjury has been and continues to be an object of importance. Turn, however, to Cambridge, and you will see immediately, either that with the right reverend persons in question this has not been at all an object, or that, if it has, the benefit that would result from it has been considered as out weighed by some inconvenience that would result from the putting of the business at Oxford upon the footing on which it stands at Cambridge: for example, a shake given to so pious and useful a doctrine as the doctrine of virtual infallibility, as above.*
Things being as they are, that, with the right reverend persons in question, the propagation of the practice in question either has never been at all an object, or at least has never been an object of preponderant importance, is demonstrated by experience. For, if it had been, matters would, before now, have in such sort ordered themselves, that the Oxford instrument intituled Explanatio Juramenti would at Cambridge have been substituted to the decree without a title, by which the Oxford perjuries have been prevented from establishing themselves at Cambridge:—and thus that uniformity, which on other occasions has been so dear to the church (i. e. to governing men,) and for which the church has (i. e. men governed by them have) been made to pay so dearly, would there also, and on this occasion, have been established.
At present, in this as in so many other instances, the object of importance is—that oaths should be taken: for the accomplishment of it, effectual provision continues accordingly to be made. The question of no importance continues to be—whether, after having been taken, they have been kept or broken: and for this they have accordingly been left to take their chance.
After all, this practice of taking oaths, whatsoever may happen to them when taken, to what is it that in these latter days it is indebted for its continuance? Answer—Not so much to its absolute and intrinsic, as to its relative importance; relation being had to the grand object of objects—jargonicè, the peace of the church: in plain language, the preserving from disturbance the ease of so many high-seated persons, spiritual and temporal, sacred and profane: a blessing which cannot but be subjected to more or less disturbance, as often as the eye of scrutiny is directed to a subject so little able to abide it.†
So again, on the other hand, in the case of the mischievous applications made of it—for example, on the occasion of the recent associations among the malefactors called Luddites. What can not be proved is, that in any one of the instances, in which, to the mischievous purpose in question, an oath has been administered by them to one another, it has actually, by its separate influence, been productive of any binding, of any mischievous fidelity-securing, effect: for, independently of any such superstitious tie, other forces acting in that same direction are but too plainly perceptible; viz. in case of fidelity, the prospect of success in respect of the accomplishment of the mischievous object, whatever it be, which, by the supposition, is a common one; in the case of defection, the fear of vengeance at the hands of the associates who would thus be deserted and betrayed.
But, at the same time, what is proved, is—that, in the opinion of the persons by whom the oath is administered, it does promise to operate with the desired effect, upon the persons to whom it is administered: and, in their situation, being, by the tie of common interest, and with the advantage of opportunity, engaged, each of them, to form the truest judgment concerning the texture of each others’ minds, and this for the express purpose of determining what sort of force is likely to operate upon them with the greatest effect, thus it is, that, for regarding the instrument in question as likely to operate to the mischievous purpose here in question, the public has the best evidence that the nature of the case admits of.
On the subject of university oaths, another observation, that may perhaps present itself in the character of an objection, to the conclusion inferring the inefficiency of the ceremony as a security for testimonial verity, from its inefficiency in the character of a security of habitual obedience to the regulations thus sanctioned, may be thus expressed: Conclusive as is the proof given of the inefficiency of this ceremony to that purpose, in that seat of distinguished piety, among that class of pious men, what does not follow is—that, on the occasion of judicial testimony, even supposing the profane checks to mendacity altogether removed, this religious ceremony would, even in the instance of the same persons, be completely inoperative. Why? Because the oath against disobedience is administered once for all; viz. on entrance, and not afterwards: whereupon, human weakness considered, nothing is more natural, than that of the impression made by the ceremony, the force, howsoever great at the moment, should in general act more and more faintly at every successive point of time, till sooner or later its action came to be equal to 0.
But, in the case of the judicial oath, the time, at which the act which it is employed to influence comes to be performed, follows instantaneously upon the ceremony: instantaneously, and before the impression made by it, whatever it may be, has had time to lose any of its force.
That the observation has a degree of truth in it, can scarcely be denied.
But, on the other hand, as in the case of the statutes in question, occasions for the fulfilment, and thereby for the breach of it, are occurring every day,—under these circumstances, suppose the engagement to be renewed every day, the ceremony to be repeated every day,—exists there in this case any sufficient reason for supposing that, from such an arrangement, the degree of observance would, in the whole body taken together, receive any considerable increase?—Not it indeed. A discovery would soon be made,—and as soon, very generally, not to say universally, received,—that the ceremony was a matter of form—a mere matter of form. And, be it oath, be it subscription, be it what it will,—no sooner is it understood that the operation is a matter of form, than its efficiency, if it ever had any, is at an end. He who, speaking of an engagement of any kind, terms it a matter of form, says in other words—“I do not hold myself bound by it.”
In the case of an instrument derived from a supernatural and extraordinary source,—such as is the fear of expected future—but never in this life experienced or observed—punishment,—the impression made by it seems likely to depend for its force in no inconsiderable degree on the unfrequency of the application made of it: in the case of an instrument, derived from a natural and ordinary source,—such as is the fear of visible and frequently observed, if not also experienced, punishment,—the force of the impression does not seem, in an equal, if in any, degree, liable to abate.
Memorandum, August 3, 1804.—
Found the printed copy from which what follows is printed,—found it, together with several other copies,—on the pavement of the Senate House at Cambridge, and by leave of the person who showed the house, and in presence of three other persons, took it away with me.
“Juramentum à singulis Scholaribus in Matriculatione suâ præstandum.
“Cancellario Procancellarioque Academiæ Cantabrigiensis, quatenus jus fasque est, et pro ordine in quo fuerim, quam diu in hac republicâ degam, comitèr obtemperabo; leges, statuta, mores approbatos, et privilegia Cantabrigiensis academiæ (quantum in me est) observabo; pietatis et bonarum literarum progressum, et hujus academiæ statum, honorem, dignitatem, tuebor quoad vivam, meoque suffragio atque consilio rogatus et non rogatus defendam: ita me Deus adjuvet, et Sancta Dei Evangelia.
“3d Jul. 1647.
“Placet vobis, ut in majorem in posterum cautelam jurantium et levamen, hæc verba sint annexa juramentis academiæ matriculationis, admissionis, creationis:—
“ ‘Senatus Cantabrigiensis decrevit et declaravit, eos omnes qui monitionibus, correctionibus, mulctis, et pœnis, statutorum, legum, decretorum, ordinationum, injunctionum, et laudabilium consuetudinum hujus academiæ transgressoribus quovis modo incumbentibus, humiliter se submiserint, nec esse, nec habendos esse, perjurii reos.’
“Et ut hæc vestra concessio pro statuto habeatur, et infra decem dies in libris procuratorum inscribatur.”
[* ]Introduction to Rationale of Evidence, Ch. VII. § 7.
[* ]Add to this, in the instance of those whose piety has for its source the sincere milk sucked from the breast of alma mater Oxonia, the indecorum which would attach upon any such humiliation as that of receiving a sort of correction at the hands of her younger sister.
[† ]Inoperative to beneficial purposes, operative to mischievous ones,—inoperative to the purpose of securing testimonial verity for the use of justice, operative to the purpose of securing fidelity to mischievous engagements,—positions thus contrary, how (it may be asked) can they be reconcilable?