Front Page Titles (by Subject) Appendix B: Obituary of Bentham (1832) - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume X - Essays on Ethics, Religion, and Society
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Appendix B: Obituary of Bentham (1832) - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume X - Essays on Ethics, Religion, and Society 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume X - Essays on Ethics, Religion, and Society, ed. John M. Robson, Introduction by F.E.L. Priestley (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985).
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Obituary of Bentham (1832)
Examiner, 10 June, 1832, 370-2. This, JSM’s first published commentary on Bentham, is described in his bibliography as “An obituary notice of Jeremy Bentham in the Examiner of 10th June 1832” (MacMinn, 21). The passage reprinted here is the central part of the obituary; the full text will be found in the volume of this edition given to newspaper writings. While the tone is more eulogistic, many of the remarks are paralleled in the more critical account in the Appendix to Bulwer (3-18 above) and in the passage from Bulwer’s text given below in Appendix C. See also my “John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham,” 259.
Let it be remembered what was the state of jurisprudence and legislation, and of the philosophy of jurisprudence and legislation, when he [Bentham] began his career. A labyrinth without a clue—a jungle, through which no path had ever been cut. All systems of law then established, but most of all that in which he himself was nurtured, were masses of deformity, in the construction of which reason in any shape whatever had had little to do, a comprehensive consideration of ends and means nothing at all: their foundation the rude contrivances of a barbarous age, even more deeply barbarous in this than in aught else; the superstructure an infinite series of patches, some larger, some smaller, stuck on in succession wherever a hole appeared, and plastered one over another until the monstrous mass exceeded all measurable bulk, and went beyond the reach of the strongest understanding and the finest memory. Such was the practice of law: was its theory in any better state? And how could it be so? for of what did that theory consist, but either of purely technical principles, got at by abstraction from these established systems, (or rather, constructed, generally in utter defiance of logic, with the sole view of giving something like coherence and consistency in appearance to provisions which in reality were utterly heterogeneous); or of vague cloudy generalities arbitrarily assumed à priori, and called laws of nature, or principles of natural law.
Such was existing jurisprudence; and that it should be such, was less surprising than the superstition by which, being such, it was protected. The English people had contrived to persuade themselves, and had to a great degree persuaded the rest of the world, that the English law, as it was when Mr. Bentham found it, was the perfection of reason. That it was otherwise, was the only political heresy, which no one had been found hardy enough to avow; even the English constitution you might (if you did it very gently) speak ill of,—but not the English law: Whig, Tory, and Democrat joined in one chorus of clamorous admiration, whenever the law or the courts of justice were the subject of discourse: and to doubt the merits of either appeared a greater stretch of absurdity than to question the doctrine of gravitation.
This superstition was at its height, when Mr. Bentham betook himself to the study of English law, with no other object than the ordinary one of gaining his living by practising a liberal profession. But he soon found that it would not do for him, and that he could have no dealing or concern with it in an honest way, except to destroy it. And there is a deep interest now, at the close of his life, in looking back to his very first publication, the Fragment on Government, which appeared considerably more than half a century ago, and which exhibits, at that remote period, a no less strong and steady conviction than appears in his very latest production, that the worship of the English law was a degrading idolatry—that instead of being the perfection of reason, it was a disgrace to the human understanding—and that a task worthy of him, or any other wise and brave man, to devote a life to, was that of utterly eradicating it and sweeping it away. This accordingly became the task of his own existence: glory to him! for he has successfully accomplished it. The monster has received from him its death wound. After losing many a limb, it still drags on, and will drag on for a few years more, a feeble and exanimate existence; but it never will recover. It is going down rapidly to the grave.
Mr. Bentham has fought this battle for now almost sixty years; the greater part of that time without assistance from any human being, except latterly what M. Dumont gave him in putting his ideas into French; and for a long time almost without making one human being a convert to his opinions. He exhausted every mode of attack; he assailed the enemy with every weapon, and at all points; now he fell upon the generalities, now upon the details; now he combatted evil by stripping it naked, and showing that it was evil; and now by contrasting it with good. At length his energy and perseverance triumphed. Some of the most potent leaders of the public became convinced; and they, in their turn, convinced or persuaded others: until at last the English law, as a systematic whole, is given up by every body, and the question, with all thinking minds even among lawyers, is no longer about keeping it as it is, but only whether, in rebuilding, there be a possibility of using any of the old materials.*
Mr. Bentham was the original mover in this mighty change. His hand gave the impulse which set all the others at work. To him the debt is due, as much as any other great work has ever been owing to the man who first guided other men to the accomplishment of it. The man who has achieved this, can afford to die. He has done enough to render his name for ever illustrious.
But Mr. Bentham has been much more than merely a destroyer. Like all who discredit erroneous systems by arguments drawn from principles, and not from mere results, he could not fail, even while destroying the old edifice, to lay a solid foundation for the new. Indeed he considered it a positive duty never to assail what is established, without having a clear view of what ought to be substituted. It is to the intrinsic value of his speculations on the philosophy of law in general, that he owes the greater part of his existing reputation; for by these alone is he known to his continental readers, who are far the most numerous, and by whom, in general, he is far more justly appreciated than in England. There are some most important branches of the science of law, which were in a more wretched state than almost any of the others when he took them in hand, and which he has so exhausted, that he seems to have left nothing to be sought by future enquirers; we mean the departments of Procedure, Evidence, and the Judicial Establishment. He has done almost all that remained to perfect the theory of punishment. It is with regard to (what is the foundation of all) the civil code, that he has done least, and left most to be done. Yet even here his services have been invaluable, by making far clearer and more familiar than they were before, both the ultimate and the immediate ends of civil law; the essential characteristics of a good law; the expediency of codification, that is, of law written and systematic; by exposing the viciousness of the existing language of jurisprudence, guarding the student against the fallacies which lurk in it, and accustoming him to demand a more precise and logically-constructed nomenclature.
Mr. Bentham’s exertions have not been limited to the field of jurisprudence, or even to that of general politics, in which he ranks as the first name among the philosophic radicals. He has extended his speculations to morals, though never (at least in his published works) in any great detail; and on this, as on every other subject which he touched, he cannot be read without great benefit.
Some of his admirers have claimed for him the title of founder of the science of morals, as well as of the science of legislation; on the score of his having been the first person who established the principle of general utility, as the philosophic foundation of morality and law. But Mr. Bentham’s originality does not stand in need of any such exaggerations. The doctrine of utility, as the foundation of virtue, he himself professes to have derived from Hume: he applied it more consistently and in greater detail, than his predecessors; but the idea itself is as old as the earliest Greek philosophers, and has divided the philosophic world, in every age of philosophy, since their time. Mr. Bentham’s real merit, in respect to the foundation of morals, consists in his having cleared it more thoroughly than any of his predecessors, from the rubbish of pretended natural law, natural justice, and the like, by which men were wont to consecrate as a rule of morality, whatever they felt inclined to approve of without knowing why.
The most prominent moral qualities which appear in Mr. Bentham’s writings, are love of justice, and hatred of imposture: his most remarkable intellectual endowments, a penetrating deep-sighted acuteness, precision in the use of scientific language, and sagacity and inventiveness in matters of detail. There have been few minds so perfectly original. He has often, we think, been surpassed in powers of metaphysical analysis, as well as in comprehensiveness and many-sidedness of mind. He frequently contemplates a subject only from one or a few of its aspects; though he very often sees further into it, from the one side on which he looks at it, than was seen before even by those who had gone all round it. There is something very striking, occasionally, in the minute elaborateness with which he works out, into its smallest details, one half-view of a question, contrasted with his entire neglect of the remaining half-view, though equally indispensable to a correct judgment of the whole. To this occasional one-sidedness, he failed to apply the natural cure; for, from the time when he embarked in original speculation, he occupied himself very little in studying the ideas of others. This, in almost any other than himself, would have been a fault; in him, we shall only say, that, but for it, he would have been a greater man.
Mr. Bentham’s style has been much criticised; and undoubtedly, in his latter writings, the complicated structure of his sentences renders it impossible, without some familiarity, to read them with rapidity and ease. But his earlier, among which are some of his most valuable productions, are not only free from this defect, but may even, in point of ease and elegance, be ranked among the best English compositions. Felicity of expression abounds even in those of his works which are generally unreadable; and volumes might be filled with passages selected from his later as well as his earlier publications, which, for wit and eloquence, have seldom been surpassed.
[* ]We mean the old technical terms and distinctions; for the substantive provisions of that or any other system of law, must of course consist, in the far greater proportion, of things useful or unobjectionable.