Bentham's Philosophy, Part 2 to the Life & Works of
Bentham is to be compared to William Godwin: they resembled one another in their "blind contempt for the past." While each preached the need for nonviolent revolution, each had a different following. Bentham's revolution was to be effected by legislation, Godwin's by argument.
Jeremy Bentham was critical of the approach taken by Blackstone in his Commentaries (1765-9). Commentaries was written by Blackstone (university teacher; lawyer; and, in time, a judge); he meant it to be a concise and clear statement of the common law, ordered and elucidated, to be used by the busy practitioner. Bentham thought it deficient, as it did not consider the social impact of the law. (However, I should say here, that it was not Blackstone's purpose to make any statement about the consequences of the law, one way or the other; Blackstone was not a law reformer.)
It was in his book,8 Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), Bentham strove "to cut a new road through the wilds of jurisprudence." In it he was to develop the idea that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should govern our judgment of every institution and action.9 This simplified view, viz., we proceed with legislative action which will bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number, was, apparently, to be the only extent of Bentham's thought. Jeremy Bentham was not, according to William Hazlitt, an original thinker; he was, a compiler.
"But Mr. Bentham's forte is arrangement; and the form of truth, though not its essence, varies with time and circumstance. He has methodized, collated, and condensed all the materials prepared to his hand on the subject of which he treats, in a masterly and scientific manner; but we should find a difficulty in adducing from his different works (however elaborate or closely reasoned) any new element of thought, or even a few fact or illustration. His writing are, therefore, chiefly valuable as books of reference, as bringing down the account of intellectual inquiry to the present period, and disposing the results in a compendious, connected, and tangible shape; but books of reference are chiefly serviceable for facilitating the acquisition of knowledge, and are constantly liable to be superseded and to grow out of fashion with its progress, as the scaffolding is thrown down as soon as the building is completed.
"There is a technicality of manner, which renders his writings of more value to the professional inquirer than to the general reader. Again, his style is unpopular, not to say unintelligible. He writes a language of his own that darkens knowledge. His works have been translated into French - they ought to be translated into English. People wonder that Mr. Bentham has not been prosecuted for the boldness and severity of some of his invectives. He might wrap up high treason in one of his inextricable periods, and it would never find its way into Westminster Hall. He is a kind of Manuscript author - he writes a cypher-hand, which the vulgar have no key to. The construction of his sentences is a curious frame-work with pegs and hooks to hang his thoughts upon, for his own use and guidance, but almost out of the reach of everybody else. It is a barbarous philosophical jargon, with all the repetitions, parentheses, formalities, uncouth nomenclature and verbiage of law-Latin; and what makes it worse, it is not mere verbiage, but has a great deal of acuteness and meaning in it, which you would be glad to pick out if you could."10
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