The Enlightenment Period

Thomas Reid and Jeremy Bentham

What were Bentham’s life and career like?

Bentham was born in Houndsditch, London, and began studies at Queen’s College, Oxford, when he was just 12 years old. After his graduation, he entered Lincoln’s Inn to become a lawyer and was called to the bar in 1767. He never practiced law, though, instead dedicating himself to reforming the entire system of civil and criminal law. Existing legal theory seemed incoherent, he felt, and the penal system was cruel and very expensive to administrate. Bentham’s legal writings began with work on legal reform that was not published until 1811, and his Comment on Blackstone’s Commentaries was not published until 1928. Bentham wrote voluminously, but there was a certain disorganization in his methods of completing any one thing. He published part of his Blackstone criticism as A Fragment on Government (1776) and Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789).

Bentham attempted to gain Catherine the Great of Russia’s support for his Constitutional Code. He was made a citizen of France after the Revolution, in 1792, and his ideas also reached the United States. But he was most influential politically in England, where he was leader of the philosophical radicals and an inspiration to the Benthamites. Both of these groups thought that Bentham’s pleasure principle or principle of utility could be used to change the world for the better. James Mill, father of John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), the great nineteenth century English utilitarian, was a close friend of his. Bentham also founded the journal Westminster Review, as well as University College.


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