‘He had a sarcastic turn of phrase’: discovery of 1509 book sheds new light on ‘father of utilitarianism’

<span>Jeremy Bentham’s skeleton and wax head on display in London.</span><span>Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Observer</span>
Jeremy Bentham’s skeleton and wax head on display in London.Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Observer

One of the dangerous “fools” caricatured in a medieval printed satire called Ship of Fools is the Foolish Reader. He is shown in an illustration surrounded by his many learned volumes, but he doesn’t read any of them. This idiot, depicted with many others, including a Feasting Fool, a Preaching Fool and a Procrastinating Fool, was a warning to the wise by the German author Sebastian Brandt 530 years ago.

Now research at a London university has unearthed a rare English 1509 copy of this book once owned by the renowned English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. And the 1494 satirical allegory, which pokes fun at various kinds of public folly, sheds new light on Bentham’s influential ethics.

It also makes it clear that Bentham himself was not the sort of fool to ignore his own books, since he has left revealing notes and formulas inked in the margins of several pages.

Bentham, the father of utilitarianism, is the man who established the principle that the best actions are those that create “the greatest good for the greatest possible number”. He remains the presiding academic muse at University College London, set up by admirers in 1826 to honour his intellect and academic approach. Bentham’s ethics were also later an inspiration to liberal theorists such as John Stuart Mill.

Last month, UCL academics unveiled the most significant rediscovered books left to the university in Bentham’s will, including the translation of Brandt’s Ship of Fools and a maths textbook explaining Euclid’s propositions. Their contents, together with the philosopher’s own notes, indicate how some of his radical ­theories were first sparked.

Bentham’s famous formulas for good governance now seem like a response to both the idiocy depicted in Ship of Fools and the mathematical clarity of Euclid. Dr Tim Causer, principal research fellow at UCL’s Bentham Project, believes the books show that the philosopher’s repu­tation as a “cold calculator” is undeserved.

“He had a well-developed sense of humour,” said Causer, whose team is working on a new definitive edition of Bentham’s collected works. “From his correspondence, you can see he had a dry wit and a sarcastic turn of phrase.”

But Bentham’s love of sums is just as evident: “There’s a mathematical sense to a lot of what he does, and this collection is a real window into the intellectual and cultural world of one of the world’s great thinkers.”

Critical margin notes under one of Euclid’s geometrical propositions are in Bentham’s handwriting. “The truth of this assertion of the commentators is not so obvious,” a jotting suggests.

Also in the bequest is a rare copy of the last volume of The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande by Raphael Holinshed (1577) – the text used by Shakespeare as a source for his history plays – and another history, The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke by Richard Grafton (1548).

Masters student Isabel Evans from California, studying library and information at UCL, has identified what she thinks is Bentham’s signature on the frontispiece of this huge volume. “We are still verifying some of the handwriting,” she said last week, “but you can just see that it has been crossed out later.”

Evans’s detective work was prompted by a chance conversation when Causer learned from a colleague of the extent of the gifts made to the university after Bentham’s death in 1832. Causer realised many of the valuable titles had gone astray.

“It is really exciting. There are still slips of paper in some pages that Bentham put there 200 years ago,” said the university’s head of rare books, Erika Delbecque, who is overseeing Evans’s work. “It is a hugely significant because Bentham is so closely related to the history of the university.”

Causer is confident more of Bentham’s books could be tracked down with further research funding: “A long-term aim is to digitise the books and make them available as a virtual Bentham library, but in the first instance we are trying to find out where they are. Some of the books date back to the 15th and 16th centuries. They are really important works and are priceless.”

Bentham’s last will and testament also infamously included the highly unusual stipulation that his body be publicly dissected and preserved as an “auto-icon”. In keeping with the dead man’s wishes, his skeleton, dressed in his own clothes and topped with a wax head, is still on display in the UCL student centre.

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