Page images

far in advance of his age; at any rate the flagrancy of the abuses which he sought to correct, and the inveteracy with which these were defended by the powerful and multitudes of the respectable must always have furnished a stimulus to a mind of such simplicity, integrity, and far-seeing sagacity. The British nation was to pass from one condition not only of physical or material power to another, but needed to be reformed in respect of almost every institution, social and political. The system of education, of class interests, being paramount in almost every branch of legislative and executive government, the absurdities which crowded the code of jurisprudence, were of the sort of strongholds of abuse which Bentham besieged, and not without finally making a breach in what were in his time considered sacred edifices; till at length, through his persevering advocacy of first principles, a light broke in upon other great spirits, to the realization by our day of discoveries and improvements which are in some degree analogous to the mighty advance made by steam-power. Such have been the triumphs of Bentham in behalf of sound constitutional principles, and which have resulted or are destined to be perfected in the course of practical application.

There were sundry peculiarities, constitutional as well as conditional, in Bentham's early history. It would be too much perhaps to assert that there was any thing very singular in his academical education, which was conducted in the fashion of the period at Westminster and Oxford. He seems to have been a precocious boy; having entered college when only about his twelfth year, and receiving his bachelor's degree at sixteen. He was extremely sensitive, possessed an uncommonly retentive memory; was dwarfish when young, but became robust when approaching manhood. Nor was his youthful eagerness for practical improvement and essential information, altogether at odds with his physical developement; for although most desirous of intellectual knowledge and affectionately alive to moral sentiments, he had to submit to parental prejudices which denied him the opportunities he so vehemently longed to cultivate. We are told in the Memoirs that in early life he keenly felt the want of acquaintances. “ Desirous of instruction, few had been the means of instruction which were allowed to him beyond those which school and university afforded; and the narrow and monkish system of education which then prevailed, was not very favourable to the development of the mental faculties. Bentham, too, had strong affections, to which he would willingly have found a response from the breasts of others, but in his youth this happiness was denied him.” One consequence of his want of congenial acquaintances was his falling so much into the society of servants, as to have acquired from them a nervous

feeling about ghost stories, which afterwards warred with his better judgment.

Bentham's mind was innately independent; so that any absurd restraint or mistaken denial could but only stimulate his curiosity and his desire for substantial acquirements; and as soon as he found himself at liberty to pursue objects worthy of his choice, his enjoyment of life became intense, or rather of every new conquest in the realms of speculation and information. His filial obedience seems to have been exemplary, although it must often have been severely put to the test; and perhaps never more painfully than when his father chose for him the profession of the law, and it appears with a degree of despotic authority. The son's speculative turn, however, could not be checked, and he pursued with every possible facility, we may be sure, those closet philosophical studies which were to result in a celebrated authorship. At length a fragment was published by him, which elated the elder Bentham, and probably induced him to acquiesce in the young man's choice of studies and pursuits. The following passages are from one of Jeremy's letters regarding the work mentioned, as well as concerning his experience at the bar :

For some years before the publication of the Fragment, I had been regarded in the light of a lost child : despair had succeeded to the fond hopes which something of prematurity in my progress had inspired. On my being called to the bar, I found a cause or two at nurse for me : my first thought was how to put them to death ; and the endeavours were not, I believe, altogether without success. Not long after, a case was brought to me for my opinion. I ransacked all the codes. My opinion was right, according to the codes; but it was wrong, according to a manuscript unseen by me, and inaccessible to me; a MS. containing the report of I know not what opinion, said to have been delivered before I was born, and locked up, as usual, for the purpose of being kept back or produced according as occasion served. This incident, the forerunner of so many others, added its fuel to the flame which Constantia (Philips) had lighted up. I went to the bar as the bear to the stake; I went astray this way and that way, The region of chemistry, amongst other foreign fields, was one in which I wandered. I incurred the anathema which, without my knowledge, had been pronounced against me, and against all who dared presume to accompany me or follow me in my wayward course. I walked erect in all those regions in which prostration of understanding and will, had, with such successful suit, and such illustriously consecrated authority, been prescribed.

* In my anxiety to soothe the paternal sufferings, ere yet the “Fragment on Government” had issued from the press, I could not conceal the little attempt I had made to raise myself out of that obscurity which, while on myself it sat lightly, was to him (his father] so unendurable. He would there by see that my mind had not been totally abstracted from the country so rich in gold mines, though so unknown in the golden age. I saw the use of secrecy : I solicited at his hands, not without earnestness, a corres

pondent promise, and obtained it. My father, it may well be imagined, was not among the last to whom the sensation produced by it was perceptible. One day, as I was at my chambers, a neighbour and friend of his, whom I had never before seen, called to offer me his congratulations. Struck all of a heap with the unexpected charge, penetrated with that abhorrence for falsehood which I had imbibed from earliest infancy, I sought refuge in the arms of evasion and found none. I remember it as if it had been yesterday. My countenance could not but have betrayed the strongest symptoms of the confusion under which I laboured: the countenance of a guilty criminal charged on the sudden with the blackest crime could not have betrayed more. * * Finding that my cheeks had been regarded as affording conclusive evidence of what my tongue had endeavoured to conceal; understanding, at the same time, from the tormentor, that direct evidence of the affirmative had been received by him from a quarter superior to all suspicion-a quarter that was suspicion-proof-I ceased kicking against the pricks, and received, as composedly as I could, the unwelcome compliment. The eagerness to obtain some little alleviation under so long a course of suffering, had, in an unguarded moment, it was but too plain, shut the door of my father's memory against the plighted promise.

It appears that the memoirs of Constantia Philips had disclosed to Bentham some legal trickeries or wrongs, leaving an abiding and disgusting impression, which influenced his long career.

In the course of years the father professed, at least, to have become reconciled to Jeremy's choice of pursuits. We find him thus expressing himself in one letter :-“Às natural as it may be for a parent to extend his views and wishes with respect to his children, I have, however, become so much of a philosopher by contracting mine as to content myself with the reflection, that the satisfaction my son enjoys arises so much from himself, that no accidents of life are likely to deprive him of it, while he has that share of the health and soundness of mind which he has at present, and which seem to promise to be lasting.

And here we may appropriately utter a word or two in correction of certain mistakes which have obtained with regard to his writings and also to his character. It has, for instance, been the popular persuasion, arising no doubt partly from the logical closeness and profound reasoning of his writings, and partly from the fact that people will rather talk about the works of a great man than study them, that he is all mysticism and metaphysical obscurity. Now it is the abundance and weight of his matter that oppresses the careless and superficial reader, not its indistinctness and vagueness. To be sure his sentences are long, and often full of modifications, parenthetically introduced ; but these are necessary to his positions and elucidations of doctrine. His language is also frequently a new coinage ; but then it is so manifestly part of the man, -of his style and conduct of thought, that by no other means could he so effect

ually do justice to his characteristic powers and feelings, nor so exhibit an idiosyncracy. His manner is consequently to the patient reader shorn of much of the repulsiveness which at first presents itself; the feeling becoming strong that he heartily despised affectation, and honestly strove after the most forcible utterance which the elements of language presented to his construction. It is indeed notorious that in his early writings are found some of the finest models of composition; his constant anxiety appearing to have been to divest whatever he wrote of all tawdry ornament, and to take his stand upon an extraordinary wealth of ideas ; a very rare excellence.

Then as respects his personal character, people have run away with the notion that his disposition was stern and severe, judging of the man by the earnestness and the strength with which he urged his fundamental views; whereas, on the other hand, he was not only possessed of a fine and lively imagination, but he cherished a fund of healthy good humour, and a continual flow of the warmest philanthropy. He was an enemy of every species of concealment, and was candid in an extraordinary degree. He therefore, while honestly assailing the selfish and crooked policy of others, affected no tenderness. And yet when some of his most humane and enlightened projects were defeated, he spoke of the bitter disappointment with a philosophic composure, if not a playful taste. Hear how he expressed himself to his brother when speaking of the defeat of his great scheme for a penitentiary:

Next week Pitt and Dundas are to come to see Panopticon together : and nobody can say how soon in the week; for the whole school days end this week, and though they don't break up yet awhile, the next week and so on will consist chiefly of half-holidays. If you don't come in time to make the raree-show, I must turn you off, and take the jiggumbobs into my own hands. My fainting fits, at the thoughts of losing the dear body, are cured. I am assured distinctly that Panopticon would not be at all affected by it; but what is better, there is no danger of having anybody else to deal with ; their myrmidons give out by authority that Dundas's exit is no nearer than it was when he came in; and that Pitt himself knows no more who is to be the successor than the pope of Rome. They professedly keep the seals dangling in the air to catch renegadoes : if they would lend them me awhile, I would set them a-dancing at the end of a fishing-rod before the bedchamber window at a certain house. Pounce would go the glass, as if the citoyen had been dashing at a mouse. rious of Pitt's friends, yea, manifold, I am told, have been at him with mallets, beating Panopticon into his head : your duke, I suppose, mediately, if not immediately, of the number. Nobody can be better known anywhere, I am positively assured, than your humble servant is, and always has been, in the cabinet,-sins and blasphemies of all sorts, of course, included : so much the better, as they don't seem to stand in the way of his salvation. What my enemies, if I have any, say of me, I am


not told; but the account my friends give of me is, that I am mad; for which I make them a low bow, for madness, forsooth, being interpreted, means vartue. This last offer seems to be regarded as an egregious instance : chuckle-heads, who have been used all their lives long to see chess, and battledore, and shuttlecock played at for nothing,—can't bring themselves to conceive that anybody in his senses should be able to find amusement in a game that anybody has ever been paid for playing at. The offer, such as it is, seems to have come seasonably enough, and not to be in any great danger of being rejected. The deficiency seems to have been very generally felt, and openly enough recognised; and it was observed, that if nothing be gained, nothing can be lost by the experiment.

Bentham certainly did not spare his opponents, even although the party should be identical with the sovereign; for George the Third, it appears, disdained not to come forward as a political writer. We quote a passage referring to this singular and covert office.

In the year 1789, an attempt was made by Great Britain, or by the king of Great Britain, to break up the alliance between Russia and Denmark. The pretext was the restoration of the balance of the power, and the retention by Russia of Oczakow, which had been taken from the Turks by the Russians. In the Gazette de Leyde, letters were written under a feigned name by George the Third himself, urging upon the King of Denmark the propriety of his breaking his engagements with Russia, and associating himself with the policy then pursued. A private communication of Mr. Elliott, our minister at Copenhagen, to the Danish court, obtained publicity, and upon that communication, Bentham sent remarks to the Editor of the Public Advertiser.

Dr. Bowring thus reports relative to the correspondence which occurred in connexion with Bentham's hand in the affair :

These Anti-Machiavel Letters excited the resentment of George the Third. He discovered their author, and never ceased to regard Bentham in the light of a personal enemy. Bentham always attributed the veto he put upon the Panopticon Bill, after it had passed both Houses of Parliament, to the vindictive feelings created by this correspondence. Bentham had not mentioned to any one that he had written the first two letters, signed Anti-Machiavel; but on the day, or the day after the letter appeared, (so sharply attacking the policy of his unknown royal opponent,) Bentham called at Lansdowne House, and he thus relates what passed :“ You are found out,” cried Lord L., laying hold of me, Lady Lansdowne it was that detected you,” and he told me by what mark. He was in a perfect ecstacy. His fame had been grounded, in no small degree, on his knowledge of foreign politics. Guess my astonishment, when I found the whole story new to him. Never shall I forget the rapidity with which we vibrated, arm in arm, talking over the matter in the great dining-room. A day or two after, came out, in the same paper, an answer, under the signature of a Partizan. “So," says he, “ here's an antagonist you have

« PreviousContinue »