There have been thousands of London pub philosophers down the years – don’t we know it – but very few of our great thinkers sit in the Pantheon with Locke, Paine, Burke, Smith et al. One such is Jeremy Bentham.
Bentham was born in Spitalfields in 1748. A child prodigy, he was reading Latin by the age of four. He went up to Oxford at 12, completing his Master’s degree in 1766. Although called to the Bar, he never practised the Law. He spent the remainder of his long life philosophising about the best ways for man to govern man and hundreds or other topics which included sexuality, animal welfare, economics, prison government, education. But his primary concern was jurisprudence and how it related to constitutions, the application of the law and in particular the codifying of all of this. The platform for his thinking was Utilitarianism – the greatest happiness for the greatest number – the theories of which heavily influenced other thinkers and political theorists at home and abroad, not least John Stuart Mill.
Bentham was without question eccentric, and would be considered so today. He was a keen jogger, for example, over a century before that dubious pastime became mainstream. But only because it saved him time. One of his zany ideas was rather than to be buried, to have his remains preserved as what he called an Auto-icon. His wishes were fulfilled, so you can visit Jeremy Bentham today in a wooden cabinet at University of London (see below). But it was thought that his mummified head would be too disturbing for viewers, so it was replaced with a wax model. The original still exists. You can see it in this video clip about five minutes in.
The problem for Bentham scholars is that his output was prodigious: he would typically produce a dozen pages of writing every single day. A fraction of these have even been been looked at, let alone studied. The Bentham Project was set up 50 years ago to transcribe these with a view to publishing the complete works of Bentham in about 70 volumes. So far, 28 volumes have been published. So you can see that the exercise was shaping up to take a very long time indeed.
The solution is Transcribe Bentham, launched in October of last year. This is effectively a collaborative project whereby members of the public can muck in. The way it works is that the Bentham Project photographs all the manuscripts which participants can download and transcribe at home. The resulting documents are checked, corrected, locked and archived for publication. So far, thousands of volunteers from around the world have signed up and excellent progress is being made. But Transcribe Bentham are very keen to recruit more, so if you fancy it, do check out the web site and join in this worthy enterprise.
Bentham in the Community is part of the project’s programme of direct public engagement. Transcribe Bentham are holding three events this month: two are seminars and the other is a “Bentham walk”, exploring the parts of London that were Bentham’s stomping ground. The first seminar was last night, where I was privileged to share a platform with Professor Philip Schofield and Dr Valerie Wallace from the Bentham Project, along with the excellent Lucy Inglis, renowned Georgian London expert. It was an excellent evening, which included a visit to the Auto-icon and ended appropriately at the Jeremy Bentham pub.
I would strongly recommend that you go to the second seminar this coming Monday 16th May and the Bentham walk on 23 May. I shall definitely be attending the latter. Details are here. The events are free, but you need to book.