Front Page Titles (by Subject) Appendix C: Comment on Bentham in Bulwer's England and the English (1833) - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume X - Essays on Ethics, Religion, and Society
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Appendix C: Comment on Bentham in Bulwer’s England and the English (1833) - 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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Comment on Bentham in Bulwer’s England and the English (1833)
edward lytton bulwer (later Bulwer-Lytton, later 1st Baron Lytton), England and the English (London: Bentley, 1833), II, 163-70. JSM comments in his Autobiography (139) that, in addition to the Appendix on Bentham (the first essay printed above), Bulwer also “incorporated” in his text “a small part” of JSM’s critique of Bentham. (See Textual Introduction, cxvi-cxvii above). It cannot be determined which part of the following passage is JSM’s, but the images of Bentham as destroyer and reconstructor, the description of Bentham as the great questioner (cf. 78), the reference to an age of transition, and the suggestion of Bentham’s seminality, are all typical of his attitude at the time; and both in wording and idea the fourth paragraph closely approximates comments on Bentham known to be his.
[In] legislative and moral philosophy, Bentham must assuredly be considered the most celebrated and influential teacher of the age—a master, indeed, whom few have acknowledged, but from whom thousands have, mediately and unconsciously, imbibed their opinions.
The same causes which gave so great a fertility to the school of the Economists, had their effect upon the philosophy of Bentham; they drew his genius mainly towards examinations of men rather than of man—of the defects of Law, and of the hypocrisies and fallacies of our Social System; they contributed to the material form and genus of his code, and to those notions of Utility which he considered his own invention, but which had been incorporated with half the systems that had risen in Europe since the sensualism of Condillac had been grafted upon the reflection of Locke. But causes far more latent, and perhaps more powerful, contributed also to form the mind and philosophy of Bentham. He had preceded the great French Revolution—the materials of his thoughts had been compounded from the same foundations of opinion as those on which the more enlightened advocates of the Revolution would have built up that edifice which was to defy a second deluge, and which is but a record of the confusion of the workmen. With the philosophy of the eighteenth century, which first adopted what the French reasoners term the Principle of Humanity—(that is, the principle of philanthropy—a paramount regard for multitudes rather than for sectarian interests,)—with this philosophy, I say, the whole mind of Bentham was imbued and saturate. He had no mercy, no toleration for the knots and companies of men whom he considered interrupters or monopolists of the power of the many—to his mind they were invariably actuated by base and designing motives, and such motives, according to his philosophy, they were even compelled to entertain. His intellect was as the aqueduct which bore aloft, and over the wastes and wrecks below, the stream of the philosophy of one century to the generations of the other. His code of morals, original in its results, is in many parts (unconsciously to himself) an eclecticism of nearly all the best parts of the various theories of a century. “The system of Condillac required its ‘moral’ code, and Helvetius supplied it.” The moral code of Helvetius required its legislative, and in Bentham it obtained it. I consider, then, that two series of causes conspired to produce Bentham—the one national, the other belonging to all Europe; the same causes on the one hand which produced with us the Economists—the same causes on the other hand which produced in France, Helvetius and Diderot, Volney, Condorcet, and Voltaire. He combined what had not been yet done, the spirit of the Philanthropic with that of the Practical. He did not declaim about abuses; he went at once to their root: he did not idly penetrate the sophistries of Corruption; he smote Corruption herself. He was the very Theseus of legislative reform,—he not only pierced the labyrinth—he destroyed the monster.
As he drew his vigour from the stream of Change, all his writings tended to their original source. He collected from the Past the scattered remnants of a defeated innovation, and led them on against the Future. Every age may be called an age of transition—the passing on, as it were, from one state to another never ceases; but in our age the transition is visible, and Bentham’s philosophy is the philosophy of a visible transition. Much has already happened, much is already happening every instant, in his country—throughout Europe—throughout the world, which might not have occurred if Bentham had not been; yet of all his works, none have been read by great numbers; and most of them, from their difficulties of style and subject, have little chance of ever being generally popular. He acted upon the destinies of his race by influencing the thoughts of a minute fraction of the few who think—from them the broad principles travelled onward—became known—(their source unknown)—became familiar and successful. I have said that we live in an age of visible transition—an age of disquietude and doubt—of the removal of time-worn landmarks, and the breaking up of the hereditary elements of society—old opinions, feelings—ancestral customs and institutions are crumbling away, and both the spiritual and temporal worlds are darkened by the shadow of change. The commencement of one of these epochs—periodical in the history of mankind—is hailed by the sanguine as the coming of a new Millennium—a great inconoclastic reformation, by which all false gods shall be overthrown. To me such epochs appear but as the dark passages in the appointed progress of mankind—the times of greatest unhappiness to our species—passages into which we have no reason to rejoice at our entrance, save from the hope of being sooner landed on the opposite side. Uncertainty is the greatest of all our evils. And I know of no happiness where there is not a firm unwavering belief in its duration.
The age then is one of destruction! disguise it as we will, it must be so characterized; miserable would be our lot were it not also an age of preparation for reconstructing. What has been the influence of Bentham upon his age?—it has been twofold—he has helped to destroy and also to rebuild. No one has done so much to forward, at least in this country, the work of destruction, as Mr. Bentham. The spirit of examination and questioning has become through him, more than through any one person besides, the prevailing spirit of the age. For he questioned all things. The tendencies of a mind at once sceptical and systematic, (and both in the utmost possible degree,) made him endeavour to trace all speculative phenomena back to their primitive elements, and to reconsider not only the received conclusions, but the received premises. He treated all subjects as if they were virgin subjects, never before embraced or approached by man. He never set up an established doctrine as a thesis to be disputed about, but put it aside altogether, commenced from first principles, and deliberately tasked himself systematically to discover the truth, or to re-discover it if it were already known. By this process, if he ever annihilated a received opinion, he was sure of having something either good or bad to offer as a substitute for it; and in this he was most favourably distinguished from those French philosophers who preceded and even surpassed him, as destroyers of established institutions on the continent of Europe. And we shall owe largely to one who reconstructed while he destroyed, if our country is destined to pass more smoothly through this crisis of transition than the nations of the continent, and to lose less of the good it already enjoys in working itself free from the evil;—his be the merit, if while the wreck of the old vessel is still navigable, the masts of the new one, which brings relief, are dimly showing themselves above the horizon! For it is certain, and will be seen every day more clearly, that the initiation of all the changes which are now making in opinions and in institutions, may be claimed chiefly by men who have been indebted to his writings, and to the spirit of his philosophy, for the most important part of their intellectual cultivation.
I had originally proposed in this part of my work to give a slight sketch of the principal tenets of Bentham, with an exposition of what I conceive to be his errors; pointing out at once the benefits he has conferred, and also the mischief he has effected. But slight as would be that sketch, it must necessarily be somewhat abstract; and I have therefore, for the sake of the general reader, added it to the volume in the form of an appendix.* I have there, regarding him as a legislator and a moralist, ventured to estimate him much more highly in the former capacity than the latter; endeavouring to combat the infallibility of his application of the principle of Utility, and to show the dangerous and debasing theories, which may be, and are, deduced from it. Even, however, in legislation, his greatest happiness principle is not so clear and undeniable as it is usually conceded to be. “The greatest happiness of the greatest number” is to be our invariable guide! Is it so?—the greatest happiness of the greatest number of men living, I suppose, not of men to come; for if of all posterity, what legislator can be our guide? who can prejudge the future? Of men living, then?—well—how often would their greatest happiness consist in concession to their greatest errors.
In the dark ages, (said once to me very happily the wittiest writer of the day, and one who has perhaps done more to familiarize Bentham’s general doctrines to the public than any other individual,) in the dark ages, it would have been for the greatest happiness of the greatest number of burn the witches; it must have made the greatest number, (all credulous of wizardry,) very uncomfortable to refuse their request for so reasonable a conflagration; they would have been given up to fear and disquietude—they would have imagined their safety disregarded and their cattle despised—if witches were to live with impunity, riding on broomsticks, and sailing in oyster-shells;—their happiness demanded a bonfire of old women. To grant such a bonfire would have been really to consult the greatest happiness of the greatest number, yet ought it to have been the principle of wise, nay, of perfect, (for so the dogma states,) of unimpugnable legislation? In fact, the greatest happiness principle, is an excellent general rule, but it is not an undeniable axiom.
[* ]See Appendix B. [I.e., the essays printed at 3-18 above.]