Jeremy Bentham was born in London in 1748 and died in 1832. He devised the doctrine of utilitarianism, arguing that the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number is the only right and proper end of government’. He was a major thinker in the fields of legal philosophy and representative democracy, and originated modern ideas of surveillance through his scheme for a Panopticon prison. He supported the idea of equal opportunity in education and his ideas contributed to the foundation of University College London in 1826, the first institution in England to admit students of any race, class or religion and the first to welcome women on equal terms with men. Bentham’s ideas have tremendous relevance to contemporary society; engaging with his thinking helps us to understand better the world we live in today.
Bentham had many associates and acolytes. He was invited to Bowood, the house of William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne and 1st Marquess of Lansdowne, where he met Samuel Romilly and Étienne Dumont. He was friends with Henry Brougham, George Grote, David Ricardo and the radical artisan Francis Place. Perhaps his most significant relationship was with James Mill and his son John Stuart Mill, both of whom were profoundly influenced by, and helped to edit, Bentham’s works. James Mill met Bentham around 1808 and spent summers with Bentham and his circle at Forde Abbey, Bentham’s country house in Somerset. The Mills lived in a house owned by Bentham on Queen Square (now Queen Anne’s Gate). Bentham’s ideas inspired James Mill’s Essay on Government (1820) and the work of John Stuart Mill including On Liberty (1859) and Utilitarianism (1863).
In his will Bentham left his body to medical science. He also requested that his body be preserved and this ‘Auto-Icon’, as Bentham called it, was gifted to University College London in 1850 by Bentham’s surgeon, Thomas Southwood Smith. Today Bentham sits in UCL’s South Cloisters dressed in his own clothes and sitting in his chair. You can visit the Auto-Icon from 09:00 – 18.00 on Monday to Friday.
Find out more:
- Sign up to the Transcribe Bentham newsletter
- The Bentham Project website
- Read an introductory essay on Bentham.
- Read an overview of Bentham’s life and philosophy in P. Schofield, Bentham: A Guide for the Perplexed (Continuum, 2009).
- Consult the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry for Bentham (subscription required).
- Watch and listen to video and audio features on Bentham.
- Download leaflets on Bentham’s key ideas.
- Find out more about the Panopticon prison.
- Read more about Bentham and his Forde Abbey circle.
- Bentham texts available online
- Information on the Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham.