The Year of Covid 19: Political Religion and the Culture Wars. Part 2.5. The Utilitarians I: Elie Halévy and the Philosophical Radicals 1750-1867.

This is the sixth essay in the series on my blog dealing with cultural wars.  The picture on the front is of Jeremy Bentham, who has a good claim to be acknowledged as the first British progressive. The first essay in the series sets the scene in the post-1990 decades: The year of Covid-19: political religion and the culture wars.Part 1. In this essay, which will be rewritten, I set the scene for the formation of a self-proclaimed progressive coalition of often unlikely partners (the Chinese Politburo, the Biden administration, the Californian hi-tech oligarchy, Wall Street, the EU, Whitehall, the BBC and the US media giants, western universities, militant teaching unions…) determined to dominate the world’s cultural high ground.  These progressives have a common agenda, which include radical secularization- most evident in the EU failing to mention two millenia of Christian experience in its constitutional text- historical revisionism of foundational myths shared by millions of people; the rediscovery of identity politics via the prominence, anew, of the politics of biology, notably in matters of sex and race; and the campaign for “green energy” which at its root is a new version of the Marxist-Leninist eternal war against what its advocates consider to be something called “ international capitalism”. 

Its epicentre is the western world-the United States, the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, western Europe, but it has no serious purchase on Russia, China, India, Pakistan South-East Asia, Africa, the southern Mediterranean or the broad area of the Middle East, the Gulf states  and of Central Asia. This “progressive agenda” has effectively disentangled itself from the disaster of the Soviet Union, and has taken up defunct socialist causes to impose a new political religion on humanity-all the while proclaiming innocence of imperial intent. Its protagonists deploy every tactic in the radicals’ handbook,[1] and their efficacy has been  magnified many times over by the phenomenon of social media, culminating in the present set of  culture wars. Social media are a boon to the world’s Trostkiites, wherever they are located, in governments, in corporate headquarters, in universities or in schools and in the blogosphere. They can launch cultural war at any target, whenever they like and wherever they like. 

The present cultural wars though are nothing new. What is new are the particular conditions of the present, but the substance of what is being fought over has been the same for the past three millenia; This may be summarized as a permanent debate about the source of law: at one end of the spectrum are those who maintain that the law has been revealed by the Creator in the burning bush to Moses; at the other end, are those who are convinced that the law is embedded in nature, indeed that the laws of nature are the same as the laws for men and women. There are of course an infinite variety of alternative mixtures of the two along the spectrum, but it is the two extremes that define the composition. At the Revelation end of the spectrum are Orthodox Jews and the Vatican; at the other end of the spectrum are those who state that the fundamental law of humanity is the struggle for survival. I set the scene for this in the second article which  takes us back to the Jewish, Greek, Roman and Christian roots of European culture :  The Year of Covid 19: Political religion and the culture wars. Part 2. 1. Europe’s legacy: the first fifteen hundred years to AD 410. In this article, I discuss Europe’s cultural and religious legacy from its first fifteen hundred years, until AD 410 when Alaric’s troops put Rome to the sack. I will add a section on the very important legacy of the dominant European people of that millenia, known as the Celts. Archeology and the study of DNA indicates that their legacy is much greater than previously thought.

The third article covers the fourteen hundred years, known as “the Middle Ages”, stretching from the fourth century when the Roman Empire became officially Christian until the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492. At the start of the period, the recognizable inheritance from Christianity is already vast.. There are two interpretations of the Logos, the Christian idea of Logos as the workings of the Holy Spirit over time in this world, as contrasted to the Logos of the Greeks, or the workings of Nature in this world, both being forces beyond human ability to control : I will be adding to this article, a section on the Vikings, whose religion incorporates belief in Valhalla, where the delight of the warrior is to engage in unremitting warfare until the end of time, a Gotterdämmerung. At the end of this long period, we are on the verge of discovering the new figures representative of a Europe with boundless ambition: Don Juan ( near limitless sexual prowess) and Faustus (so greedy as to enter a pact with the Devil). The legacy of this prolonged tract of time may be summarized as twofold: first, the whole of Europe is  drenched in Christianity; second, Christianity’s hold on the peoples of Europe is nonetheless tenuous. Given the nature of Christianity, it could never have been otherwise. 

The fourth article spans the years from the fifteenth century to 1789, and the outbreak of the French revolution. This chapter opens with two key dates: the first, 1453, marks the fall of Constantinople to Sultan Mehmet’s Turkish armies, while the second key date is 1492, and records events at the other end of the Mediterranean: the armies of the Catholic monarchs of Castille, Ferdinand and Isabelle,capture Granada, the last Moslem stronghold in the Iberian peninsula.  Both 1453 and 1492 are intimately linked: the ancient texts from Greece and Rome, preserved for centuries in Constantinople, are dispersed across western Europe and stimulated the scholarly discovery of Europe’s past, while the roads across the Asian continent being now blocked, adventurers, such as Columbus, study the old maps to see if there is an oceanic way to the Indies by sailing westwards.The period witnessed a century and a half of religious wars, which prompted a search for peace in secular thought, as religion had been seen as the source of war. The revolution of 1789 broke out in France, Europe’s hegemon, and immediately steered a radical path in rejecting Europe’s Christian inheritance, compounding its impact. The  French revolutionary wars  are Europe’s first, modern cultural war.

The fifth article opens with the French revolution-  which evolves fast into a concerted effort to de-Christianize France and to create an alternative secular religion to Christianity in Europe. We may view the Revolution as forming an arena, in the  one corner of which are the Radicals, proclaiming the oneness of humanity, the moral equality of  all men,  the universal character of the human condition, and their proposition for world revolution.  In the other corner, are the Christians who proclaime the oneness of humanity, the moral equality of all men, the universal character of the human condition, and eventual world revolution. The main difference between them is that the supporters of a Radical Enlightenment were impatient for revolution now, in the face of all the injustices accumulated from the past; whereas the supporters of a Christian worldview held, and hold,  that tradition and the past had their inner logic, impatience was a vice, and injustices were unfortunately a part of the human condition.They had to be dealt with carefully, because the one rule in politics that consistently applies, is that unforeseen consequences are certain to occur. This was the perspective of Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the French Revolution, written in early 1790.Burke famously diagnosed the key critique against the “progressive” cause, to wit that there is no evident link between the world we wish to create, and the world that has been shaped by our actions. The more ambitious and utopian our dreams of the future, the more “progressives” will find themselves resorting to force to bend recalcitrant humanity to conformity. The Revolution definitely sired a   brutal progeny of which I isolate four: Darwinism; utilitarianism; Marxism; and nationalism.  I start with Darwinism:  By the end of the century the prime contender to the still prevalent Christian culture of Europe was scientific racialism, predicated on state-of the-art studies of biology.  Science was the new theology and Nature, not God, its subject of study. The law of humanity was survival of the fittest, and Charles Darwin was its reluctant oracle.

This is the sixth article, and its focus is utilitarianism, a concept which had its roots in Europe’s Republic of letters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It has an eccentric founding figure in the person of Jeremy Bentham, whose historian is Elie Halévy. Halévy is  also the author of a six volume  history of nineteenth century England from 1815, and its preceding decades, through to 1914, and the outbreak of war in August. Halévy’s question was why did England not succumb to revolution, and his answer was because of the crucial alliance for timely reform between the school of utilitarians, known as Radicals, and nonconformist Methodism. The article deals with the utilitarians, who may be considered Britain’s home grown secular progressives, Britain’s Jacobins to make a parallel to France;  their patron saint is Jeremy Bentham, whose body is embalmed in the entrance to the  student centre of University College, London. In what follows, I introduce the work of Elie Halévy; sketch the precursors to the utilitarians, mostly clergymen of the Church of England; Jeremy Bentham himself; and his colleague, and fellow intellectual, James Mill, an atheist Presbyterian with a gift for publicity. The article on the economics of utilitarianism follows, which in turn precedes an article on nationalism. Here, then, are the French Revolution’s progeny, the four riders of Europe’s apocalypse, which opens in August 1914: Darwinism; utilitarianism; Marxism; and nationalism.They all reject Europe’s Christian past, and entertain very different perspectives on history, the present and the future.

Elie Halévy: scholar, philosopher, historian. 

Elie Halévy (1870-1937) is the French historian of the British utilitarians, as well as the author of a six volume history of nineteenth century Britain, both of which endured for decades after his death as indispensable classics on the period.[2] He was born into  the third generation of a famous French family of Jewish descent,  composed of musicians, scholars and politicians. Brought  up as a Protestant, Halévy won a place at the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure, a grande école dating from the French revolution. His doctorate, which he completed in 1901,  formed the basis of the first major study to make his name, La Formation du Radicalisme Britannique,  published in the years 1901-1904 as three volumes. They were eventually presented to English readers in a translation, as The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism, New York,  MacMillan ,1928.  He had been attracted to study the utilitarians because they exemplified how abstract ideas could be interpreted into the detail of politics via legislation. Utilitarianism, he came to argue, was predicated on two contradictory principles: the one lay at the root of utilitarian thinking about legislation, and the other about the way that the economy worked. 

Halévy set out his argument in the conclusion to his work on philosophical radicalism: society is shaped by the state as legislator, the engineer who operates as “the great dispenser of pleasures and pains in society. It is he who creates the moral order, the equilibrium of interests. Society is the work of his artifices. In this way is applied what we have called the principle of the artificial identification of interests”. [3]

On the other hand, society is shaped by the spontaneous interplay of market forces. In Halévv’s words, the social philosophers of England see  the universal order as “surely and instinctively established by the spontaneous division of tasks and by the automatic mechanism of exchanges”. “In space, he continues, the unity of interests is all the more perfect the more towns, provinces and nations avoid splitting up the commercial universe into a series of little isolated worlds by means of legislative artifices and customs barriers: economic cosmopolitanism is based on the immediate identity of all interests”. [4]  This conception of social phenomena, he writes, makes it possible to foresee the progressive elimination of all laws, and even to demand their immediate suppression. 

The utilitarians thus hold “two contradictory principles in one and the same system”.[5]  Which of the two principles would win out when applied in practice? he asked.  Nowhere better to explore  the matter than in nineteenth century England, where the doctrines of the utilitarians were applied in law, in government, in economics, and across the Empire. The study took up the rest of his life, and remained unfinished at the time of his death in 1937.  

Halévy’s History of the English People in 1815, the first of the  six volumes, came out in French in 1912 and 1913, and in English in 1924. He presents the question he seeks to answer within the context of a crucial statement about Europe:  “The difference between the nations of Europe consists after all not so much in the elements which compose their national charachter, as in the different proportions in which are combined, in each nation, elements common to most or all. The great political invention of modern England has been representative democracy. The invention, however, has spread and is still spreading, and with increasing rapidity, throughout Europe—indeed the entire world. Indeed, representative democracy bids fair to become part of the common inheritance of mankind. How, then, have these representative institutions of England been built up? Along what lines have they been developed and modified? » [6]

His answer comes in three parts covering political institutions, economic life, and religion and culture. Politics in 1815 was “ a sport of aristocratic cabal”; voting rights were highly restricted; and  a  novel manufacturing system hurled people into penury. All the signs pointed to England as the country most surely “destined to revolution”. Yet, he writes, this was not to be. In no other country of Europe were social changes accomplished with such marked and gradual continuity. Why was this? Religion was his answer, in close alliance with utilitarian radicalism.  “We have sought in vain to find the explanation by an analysis of her political institutions and economic organization. Her political institutions were such that society might easily have lapsed into anarchy had there existed in England a bourgeoisie animated by the spirit of revolution. And a system of economic production that was in fact totally without organization of any kind would have plunged the kingdom into violent revolution had the working classes found in the middle class leaders to provide it with a definite ideal, a creed, a practical programme. But the élite of the working class, the hard-working and capable bourgeois, had been imbued by the Evangelical movement with a spirit from which the established order had nothing to fear”. [7]

The next two volumes dealt with the period from the battle of Waterloo to the Reform Bill crisis of 1830- the years which he termed The Liberal Awakening–  and a second volume covered the further decade to 1841, and the coming to power of Sir Robert Peel-The Triumph of Reform. Both books appeared in 1922 in French, and then in 1926 in English translation. His narrative is a complex tapestry of an inherited executive, weaker than elsewhere in Europe, obliged thereby to seek for a degree of popular consent in order to maintain law and order; the fluctuations of the price of corn; population growth and displacement between country to town; the development of radical ideas for government, law, economy, crime and punishment, alongside the gathering movement for land reform  and for Catholic emancipation in Ireland; the corresponding response within a moribund state church for a neo-Catholic revival- a church whose “imperturbable apathy” “left free scope to the often fanatical zeal of the protestant sects”. These sects were “enormously strengthened by the birth and rapid growth of the great Methodist body. They offered an outlet by which the despair of the proletariat in times of hunger and misery could find relief, opposed a peaceful barrier to the spread of revolutionary ideas, and supplied the want of legal control by the control of a despotic public opinion”. Thus, “England was revealed as in very truth the country of self-government, the country which in the deepest sense-the moral and religious sense- of the phrase “governs itself”, instead of being governed by an external authority”.[8] The tempered nature of liberalism and of English individualism made impossible the formation of revolutionary or reactionary parties of the continental kind. 

1845 Key year. Corn Law repealed May 1846. Cobden: « Well, I will, with God’s assistance during the next twelve months, visit all the large states of Europe, see their potentates or statesmen, and endeavour to enforce those truths which have been irresistible at home. Why should I rust in inactivity? If the public spirit of my countrymen affords me the means of travelling as their missionary, I will be the first ambassador from the people of this country to the nations of the continent. I am impelled to this by an instinctive emotion such as has never deceived me. I feel that I could succeed in making out a stronger case for the prohibitive nations of Europe to compel them to adopt a freer system than I had here to overturn our protection policy.”

.” In October 1850 he wrote a letter to Joseph Sturge, claiming that in the last twenty-five years “you will find that we have been incomparably the most sanguinary nation on earth… in China, in Burma, in India, New Zealand, the Cape, Syria, Spain, Portugal, Greece, etc, there is hardly a country, however remote, in which we have not been waging war or dictating our terms at the point of a bayonet.” Cobden believed that the British, “the greatest blood-shedders of all”, had been then involved in more wars than the rest of Europe put together. In this, Cobden blamed the British aristocracy, which he claimed had “converted the combativeness of the English race to its own ends”.[16] In April 1852, when the British declared war on Burma for the mistreatment of two British sea captain by the Burmese government, Cobden was “amazed” as the casus belli for the war:« I blush for my country, and the very blood in my veins tingled with indignation at the wanton disregard of all justice and decency without our proceedings towards that country exhibited. The violence and wrongs perpetrated by Pizarro or Cortez were scarcely veiled in a more transparent pretence of right than our own.” The Burmese, Cobden continued, had “no more chance against our 64 pound red-hot shot and other infernal improvement in the art of war than they would in running a race on their roads against our railways… the day on which we commenced the war with a bombardment of shot, shell and rockets…that the natives must have thought it an onslaught of devils, was Easter Sunday!”[17]

“Peace will come to earth when the people have more to do with each other and governments less.” “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is – in extending our commercial relations – to have with them as little political connection as possible.” John Morley,  Richard Cobden’s Life by Roberts Brothers: Boston, 1881.

Halévy then decided to take up the narrative again in 1895, three years after he had first visited England as a young man at the age of 22. As he explains in the introduction to the fifth volume, Imperialism and the Rise of Labour[9] first published in French in 1926, and translated into English in 1929, “I did not find it easy to decide where I should end my narrative”. Should it be in 1901, the year of Queen Victoria’s death? The conclusion of the Boer war the year later? 1906 when the Liberal Government of Asquith, Lloyd George and Churchill was elected? or should the series be ended in 1914, and the outbreak of the world war? The whole period between 1895 and 1914, he wrote, did not really belong to the English nineteenth century. These were years of decadence, when there was a sense that the vitality of mid-century England was on the wane, when “ we witness the decline…of the ideal which (England) had pursued for an entire century and which she had come to regard as the secret of her greatness-the decline of that individualist form of Christianity in which Protestantism essentially consists…”, and the spread of neo-Catholicism and of socialism. “The task to which I am impatient to return and to which I propose to devote the remainder of my strength and my life will be the story of that great epoch(-the middle years of the century) during which the British people cherished the splendid illusion that they had discovered a moderate liberty, and not for themselves alone but for every nation that would have the wisdom to follow their example, the secret of moral and of political stability”. [10] Those middle years are covered in an unfinished volume, edited by R.B.McCallum, entitled Victorian Years: 1841-1895[11]

Utilitarianism’s precursors.

 The precursors of utilitarianism sought to establish the social sciences on the same footing as the physical sciences, and with a similar rigour of logic displayed by the likes of Sir Isaac Newton, -the great physicist, mathematician and astronomer-of whom Alexander Pope wrote, “Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night: God said, Let Newton be! And all was light”. Their endeavours were informed by the sense that religion could no longer be called upon to ensure that peace reigned between men.  As  Thomas Hobbes wrote, referring to  the contemporary wars of the seventeenth century, religion “has, of late more than any other thing in the world, bene the cause of civille warre”. [12] Peace and prosperity had to be established therefore  on some alternative footing. How could  that be achieved when men behaved  as they did, driven by fear and greed, living in permanent warfare one with another? Hobbes delivered  his answer in Leviathan, a radically secular pamphlet in which he described life for men struggling in “a state of nature”,  without a sovereign power over them, as “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short”. To end this hopeless condition, men must use their power of reason,  abandon their freedom, and submit to a sovereign in exchange for the security that the Leviathan delivers. Human co-existence has to be achieved not by individuals conceding voluntarily to the word of God whispering to their inner self, but by an external power frightening them into conformity to the Leviathan’s will. The price of freedom was thus all power to the monster that ruled.

John Locke, another major philosopher of the period, took a no less secular approach to the question of how to achieve social peace and security. He did so not by proposing to  install a tyrant, but through a joint compact among reasonable people to live in freedom and peace one with another. Writing at the time of England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688, marking the end of the religious wars and laying the foundations of what later evolved into being a constitutional monarchy, Locke had a more benign view of human nature than Hobbes. But like Hobbes, he placed his faith in human reason: men would be incentivized to abandon the state of nature because they could calculate that it would be in their own advantage to live together in freedom, peace and security as peace-loving gentlemen in a society predicated on mutual consent. These ideas of Locke found their way into the text of the Declaration of Independence. As Thomas Jefferson wrote to Richard Price at the time of the French revolution “I consider them (Bacon, Locke and Newton) as the three greatest men that ever lived, without any exception”.  [13]

Though both Hobbes and Locke proposed secular theories of  politics, both of them-as well as Newton- never dreamt of denying the tenets of Christianity. Indeed, Hobbes’ highly pessimistic view of human psychology is reminiscent of St Augustine’s definition of human nature as indelibly fallen, and in need of God’s Grace for redemption. Hobbes proposes his own version of  redemption, but it comes mercilessly through the blind will of the Leviathan. In Locke’s case, his political theory is steeped in the biblical texts,  the Ten Commandments,  the Old Testament, the Letters of Paul the Apostle in the New Testament, and notably the biblical view that all people are equal and created in the image of God. One of the consequences of this doctrine is that governments need the consent of the governed, as expressed in the American Declaration of Independence, and in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights,  proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris in December 1948.

The earliest utilitarians were in fact theologians, Anglicans all, in a church which wore its theology lightly, where its clergy rode to the hounds, sang with the best, and “kept the miraculous character of Christianity as far as possible in the background. Their religion,  Halévy writes, was a liberal and rationalistic Christianity, a system of humanitarian ethics in which the supernatural was left out of sight”. [14] If God was there, he hovered somewhere in the background, leaving people to make their own decisions. Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713), for instance,  had nature inculcate in us an “inner eye” that helps us to make moral decisions. This “inner eye” guides us to align our own interest “ and good of every one, to work towards the general good”. [15] Of course a person can chose the opposite, but in so doing  he “ceases to promote his own happiness and welfare…”. John Gay (1699-1745), another natural theologian, brings God out of the shadows, as a Church of England clergyman should, and in his   “Dissertation concerning the Fundamental Principle of Virtue or Morality” (1731) argues that promoting human happiness is  incumbent on us because it was approved by God. William Paley (1743-1805), also a Church of England clergyman, was arguably the most influential of them all as the author of Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, which remained a best seller for most of the nineteenth century, influenced Darwin’s thinking and found its way into popular teaching until the second world war, when natural theology was undermined by the aftermaths of 1914, and the descent of Europe to barbarity. [16] Paley’s argument, writes Halévy,” identified Christian with utilitarian ethics, and presented Jesus Christ as the first teacher of the greatest happiness principle”. [17] It may not be inappropriate to consider these theologians as England’s first bien pensants.

Meanwhile, more creative political thinking was being conducted in a France beset by the problems inherent to an over-centralized state, prone to indulge in grandiose schemes, regularly short of funds, and where the traditional constitution had atrophied. The Estates General had not convened since 1612; the traditionally de-centralised nobility had now to worship at the shrine of the monarchy in Versailles; the nobility owned nearly half  of the land, and were exempt from tax; the senior clergy owned a further ten per cent, and were also exempt from tax; the burden of taxation fell on the peasantry, while  the bourgeoisie in the parlements stood on their inherited rights against the centre’s demands. As George Sabine argues in his A History of Political Theory[18] the old constitution was moribund. Hence, political thought dwelt less on the traditional rights of Frenchmen, than on abstractions derived from a priori reasoning. All, the trend of thinking went in France, had to be invented anew. Helvetius, for instance, in his De l’Esprit, argued that the task of the legislator was to seek out the greatest good for the greatest number as the means to discovering what public policy should be. Pleasure and pain , he wrotes, have “placed the germ of self-love in the hearts of every man”. “The whole art of legislation consists in forcing men, by the sentiment of self-love, to be always just to others”. [19]

By contrast, leading political thinkers in the England of the late eighteenth century looked not forwards to an unknown ideal, but rather to the tried and tested ideas and judgements of the past, less to abstract reason and more to custom. Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England , published in the years 1765-1770, are a case in point. Magna Carta.writes Blackstone, is “the principal bulwark of our liberties”.  God is the chief lawgiver: “Man must necessarily be subject to the laws of his Creator.” The Glorious Revolution of 1688 , to Blackstone, was “a living reality” , “a Revolution which had produced a constitution with perfect checks and balances.” [20]

This was the central argument of Edmund Burke, another Old Whig, in his Reflections on the French Revolution, which he wrote in early 1790: societies, he said, function not on ideas but on prejudices, on custom rather than on abstract reason. “The (1688) Revolution was made to preserve our antient indisputable laws and liberties, and that antient constitution of government which is our only security for law and liberty… Our oldest reformation is that of Magna Carta. You will see that Sir Edward Coke,  that great oracle of our law, and indeed all the great men who follow him, toBlackstone, are industrious to prove the pedigree of our liberties. They endeavour to prove that the ancient charter…were nothing more than a re-affirmance of the still more ancient standing law of the kingdom…In the famous law…called the ( 1628) Petition of Right the parliament says to the king, “Your subjects have inherited this freedom”, claiming their franchises not on abstract principles “as the rights of men”, but as the rights of Englishmen, and as a patrimony derived from their forefathers ».

Both Blackstone and Burke were adamant that atheism was an abomination.  “The Bible, wrote Blackstone, has always been regarded as part of the Common Law of England”; Burke considered the Christian religion as the foundation of civil society in Europe. Here was another gulf between the French political theorists of the late eighteenth century, and the defenders of the 1688 Glorious Revolution. Religion was a prime issue in the manoeuvrings that led to the flight of the Catholic King, James II, and the invitation to the Protestant Dutch William to ascend the throne.[21] Three decades later, Cardinal Bernis could write in his Memoirs that by 1720 it ”was no longer considered well bred (in France) to believe in the gospels”. [22] What bound the philosophes  together-Rousseau, Diderot, Voltaire or Holbach in his Système de la Nature, -was “to cure the spiritual malady of religion,the germ of ignorance, barbarity, hypocrisy, filth and the basest self hatred”. [23]  Man had been led  to believe in heaven and hell, immortality and the mumbo jumbo of  religion “because, wrote d’Holbach,  he was told that God had condemned him to misery. He never entertained a wish of breaking his chains, as he was taught, that stupidity, that the renouncing of reason, mental debility, and spiritual debasement, were the means of obtaining eternal felicity. » [24]

Despite the differences between the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the American Revolution of 1776, and of the American and French Revolution of 1789, there was one domain where the protagonists of the two revolutions, American and French, were in agreement, and the Glorious Revolution was the outlier. The particularity of the Glorious Revolution is that it was commemorated in the name of English ancestry, and the latter two were both creatures of natural law. The first was particular to England, while the revolutions of 1776 and 1789 laid claim to represent universal values. Natural law  may be traced to Aristotle or to Cicero, in both Old and New Testaments, and was expounded among many others by Thomas Acquinas. Natural law theory holds that all people have inherent rights, conferred not by an act of legislation, but by God, nature or  by reason. In Acquinas’ interpretation, humans have reason, and thus have a spark of the divine, from which it follows that all human lives are sacred, and hence are fundamentally equal. The Declaration of Independence sounds off  with the following famous trumpet call, predicated on  the natural law: “We hold these Truths to be self–evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness…”. In the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the National Assembly declares, “in the presence of the Supreme Being” that “men are born and always continue free and equal in respect of their rights”. Both revolutions in short declare that men are bestowed with intrinsic rights which no humans can remove. The English utilitarians beg to differ. 

Jeremy Bentham : Founder of secular utilitarianism. 

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) has a reasonable claim to be called  Britain’s first progressive. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a progressive as someone who believes that human societies are amenable to improvement through political action. As a type, they came in to being in the mid-eighteenth century. They lived off the sale of their ideas, tended to  admire their own intelligence, considered religion to be a superstition, and  believed that the benefits of progress were universal. Inherited differences among humanity were real enough, they observed, but were no more than  relics of bygone ages,  destined to disappear. All people had common psychological traits, and aspired-as the utilitarians insisted- to maximise pleasures and minimize pains.  The future beckoned as an improvement on today, let alone on the past, unless reactionaries sought “to turn the clock back”.  Reactionaries, they believed, opposed progress either out of  ignorance or from malice. The cure for ignorance was education, while malice, many progressives believed,  would have to be crushed by terror. Bentham disapproved of terror and  prevaricated on war:  “ War, he observed, is mischief upon the largest scale”. [25] In this, Bentham represented well enough the ambiguity of progressives as to whether the use of violence was legitimate or not.

Bentham was a prodigy, taking up the study of Latin at the age of 3; he then attended Westminster School, and was sent up to Queen’s College, Oxford, at the age of 12.  At a young age, he read Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (1739–40)—which declared that all social inquiry should be based on the “experimental Method of Reasoning”— and Helvetius’  De lesprit (1758), in which Helvétius delineated the potential for utility to act as a guide to human conduct. At Oxford, he  listened to Blackstone lecturing on his Commentaries, and was not impressed.  He came away convinced that  Blackstone’s exposition of English law amounted to little more than an assertion that old was good. He was called to the bar in 1769, but became frustrated by the complexity of English law, which he termed the “Demon of Chicane”, and opted instead to work on the theory of government and law.  In 1776, he produced  his first major work,  A Fragment on Government, as a preliminary to developing a theory of penal law. This was followed by An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) in which he announced  himself to the world as a proponent of utility as the guiding principle of conduct and law. His intent  was to build a collection of legal codes, to bring greater clarity and consistency to the practice of the law. In 1776, he also contributed to an official government response to the American Declaration of Independence, entitled “A Short Review of the Declaration”, which he described as “a cloud of words”, peddling false doctrine. 

In the years prior to the French revolution, he joined correspondence with the great thinkers of the age, Gibbon, Voltaire, d’Alembert, and aspired to be a chosen adviser to the enlightened despots of Europe.[26] A major step in his career was his entry into the orbit of his future patron, William Petty, the second Earl of Shelburne (1737-1805). Initially drawn to the promise of the French Revolution, he was put off by the bloody excesses of the Terror, and turned his efforts to penal reform.  Initially, his ideas were taken on board by the Prime Minister, William Pitt, but Pitt lost power and by 1803 his ideas were encountering stiff resistance. This is when he is credited with outlining his theory of  “sinister interests”, determined to block ameliorative changes in the law and administration for essentially venal purposes. In his later years, he became convinced that extensive reforms could only be achieved in a democracy, eventually informed by male and female universal suffrage. He never married, and his head and skeleton, padded out with straw and dressed in his clothes, are on display at the main entrance to the University of London Student Centre. Before his death, Bentham bought a single share in the new university. 

Bentham’ is known as the “Father of Utilitarianism”, [27]  the principle idea of which- Iain Hampsher-Monk writes [28], is that  “clarity in the understanding of any legal and political systemcan only be achieved by rejecting metaphysics and a commitment to positive descriptions, reducible to accounts of individuals’ experience and behaviour; and that there is only one criterion for evaluating or even analysing legal systems: the maximization of the happiness of the greatest number under that law”. For all his later fame, Bentham was not a great disseminator of ideas.  William Cobbett , radical reformer and a Bentham contemporary, described Bentham’s writings as “ puzzling and tedious beyond mortal endurance”.  [29] Notwithstanding, Halévy writes that the doctrine of Bentham and of his disciples came to exert enormous influence over the century and over their country.[30]

Dissemination of his ideas was furthered by devoted disciples who went out of their way to broadcast them. A Genevan Calvinist pastor-Stephen Dumont- translated his early works into French, the indispensable language of Europe’s cosmopolitan republic of letters. Bentham  also worked closely together with James Mill- a  Scottish philosopher with a considerable reputation in his own right- and the father of the more famous John Stuart. With their help, and through his own perseverance, Bentham became well known in France at the time of the French Revolution, and then later in Italy, Spain, Portugal and Latin America, as well as in Russia, Poland and the United States. As his ideas gained traction, Bentham came to inspire the early Victorian reformers on poor relief, factory reform, local government or public utilities. He was active in the ferment of ideas leading up to the Great Reform Act of 1832, extending the suffrage, and the free market ideas which he had written about were implemented eventually in 1845 as UK product markets were opened to foreign suppliers. Bentham also exerted enormous influence on India through the agency of Thomas Babington Macaulay. Macaulay went to India in the years 1834 to 1838, where he was primarily responsible for the introduction of Western institutional education  , and also for furthering the cause of the English language as the language of instruction in secondary schools in India-arguably one of the most momentous decisions of cultural imperial power.

James Crimmins writes that Bentham launched his career as a legal theorist in 1776 with the anonymously published A Fragment on Government[31] Fragment  was a critique of Blackstone’s Commentaries, and through him, an attack on the Whig conception of English government. My “fundamental axiom”, Bentham writes,  holds that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”, and “the obligation to minister to general happiness, was an obligation paramount to and inclusive of every other”. This principle of utility, it is worth recording,  is not at all compatible with the Whig theory of government whereby law emerges from countless judicial decisions made on the basis of the judge’s assessment of the relevance of preceding  verdicts to the case under review. As Halévy records, “The philosophy of utility is not essentially a liberal philosophy; in his youth Bentham was a Tory. His family had long been Jacobite (supportive of the Stuart claim to the throne). He took the part of the King against Wilkes, and also against the revolted Americans, dissatisfied with the reasons by which the insurgents justified their disobedience …” Everybody on all sides in the American revolution, Bentham  considered,  were claiming their rights, and not basing their assessments on true principles, which of course were utilitarian. [32] His views were spelt out further in his Introduction to the Principles, which appeared in 1789. 

The pamphlet opens with the following proposition: “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. One the one hand the standard to right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne…The principle of utility recognizes this subjection, and assumes it for the foundation of that system, the object of which is to rear the fabric of felicity by the hands of reason and law…By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose happiness is in question: or what is the same thing in other words, to promote or oppose that happiness. I say of every action whatsoever; and therefore not only of every action of a private individual, but of every measure of government”. Morals and legislation are judged on the same principle of utility, which in turn is the equivalent of a law of nature. [33]

Bentham makes Nature, not revelation, the foundation of his religion. [34] He saw himself as the founder of a sect which would supplant Christianity. His utilitarian principles would provide the  substitute for Scripture, and the  end objective of the project was to be the creation of a society organized along utilitarian lines. The elimination of religion was to be the ultimate task of the legislator[35] and the new utopia was to be ushered in by politics. This programme was, and is, every bit as radical as the French revolutionaries’ determination to secularize France. 

Bentham’s   hostility to Christianity is reported as dating from  an  exchange with his tutor at Oxford over the Thirty Nine Articles, the foundation stones of Anglican theology since Henry VIII’s days.[36] [37] His tutor told him to take the Articles on faith, and not worry his young head about them. This proved to be a fatal piece of advice to such a contrarian mind, and sparked a general antipathy to religion in general: Between 1809 and 1823, as James Crimmins observes,  Jeremy Bentham carried out « an exhaustive examination of religion with the declared aim of extirpating religious beliefs, even the idea of religion itself, from the minds of men.” [38]

In one of his pamphlets on religion, entitled Not Paul, but Jesus (1823) , Bentham has Paul set up his own religion based on the anti-utilitarian precept of asceticism, against Jesus, who appears as a fun-loving person,   frequenting prostitutes,-the world’s first utilitarian.  “Thus it is, writes Bentham, that, according to the principle of utility, the pleasure whatsoever it be, that may be capable of being derived from the pleasures of the bed….from gratification afforded to the sexual appetite, belongs not either to the field of religion or to the field of morality by any other title than does the pleasure of scratching where it itches”. [39] In this vein, Bentham was like the French philosophes: he ridiculed Christian theology, described God as a “non-person”, took Christianity to task for demonizing homosexuals, and disparaged religious establishments. Religion, he believed, constituted a hindrance to human improvement. Governments, he said, should get out of religion, just like they should get out of trade.

The project that occupied him for years (1786-1812) was his Panopticon.  The basic idea was to build a circular compound which would allow a small management team to oversee the activities of prisoners. The supervisor would have absolute powers. He would be seated at the centre, whence he could see all the inmates who would be alone in their own cells. The law of solitude would never be suspended. They would have to be always and at all times on their best behaviour, in fulfilment of the maxim that “the more strictly we are watched, the better we behave”. The principle could be extended, he proposed,  to the creation of 250 Panopticon-style “Industry Houses”, which would accommodate paupers and turn their lives to better use as worker-slaves. There would be other multiple advantages: ‘Morals reformed-health preserved-industry invigorated-instruction diffused-public burthens lightened-Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock-the gordian  knot of the Poor-Laws are not cut, but untied – all by a simple idea in Architecture!” [40]. No  need, once the structures in place,  for the rat-infested hulks anchored as prisons on the Thames, or for sending convicts to Australia. The Panopticon would help, as Bentham’s wrote to a friend,  in “grinding rogues honest and idle men industrious” [41]

Bentham’s gradual conversion to the democratic ideal is considered now to be rooted in the constant oppositions he experienced over his Panopticon idea. [42] He became convinced that people in power were not motivated to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number, but were more concerned to further their own selfish or sinister interest. Initially, he considered that lawyers were the problem: their main concern was to ensure that complexity drove healthy fees. In his later years, he spread his critique beyond lawyers to the whole of the British establishment. The British constitution, he argued, was “a sham-an imposture”, [43] and he proposed in his Plan of Parliamentary  Reform (1817) that  elections should be annual, voting should be secret, the franchise should be widened, and the quality of MPs enhanced. Only by thorough going reform could improvements be introduced and  sinister interest overwhelmed.

Bentham’s enthusiasm for reform gives him title not just to “Father of Utilitarianism”, but also to be the first Anglophone progressive. What distinguishes progressives from liberals is that the latter follow Queen Elizabeth I in not making “windows into men’s souls”. The author of the Panopticon has a quite different intent. He aspires to control mind. That was the reason why his plan failed. A parliamentary committee reviewed Bentham’s proposal in 1811, and came to the conclusion that there was “no channel for complaint” or “higher authorities to censure or control the keeper”. [44]Here was a key critique  of Bentham’s ideas. Bentham, his critics maintain,  is a closet authoritarian, and seeks to use state power to impose his policies-whether free trade, penal reform, or majority rule- on the public.  In his Great Transformation, first published in 1944, Karl Polanyi argued that, with industrialization, came  the onset of greater state control over newly created market institutions. Free trade was the policy of a strong state imposing its will on society. Michel Foucault, one of the architects of the post-modernist school, viewed the Panopticon as an early expression of the repressive, modern “society of surveillance”. [45] And Gertrude Himmelfarb points out that Bentham switched from the inherited idea of the uncontrollable power of the king to a “democratic ascendancy” represented by an “omnicompetent legislature”. [46]

Bentham was as controversial in life as he has been in death. This is hardly surprising: his ideas were a moving target. For instance, he was hostile to the American Revolution when it occurred, but became a sincere admirer later in life. As Halévy pointed out, he contained within his own utilitarian thinking two contradictory principles, the one in favour of extreme laissez-faire, and the other for unchecked centralized power. He can therefore be ascribed paternity of both free trade and of state socialism. In similar vein, his hostility to “sinister interest”, triggered enthusiasm for universal suffrage, until he came to contemplate the idea of giving voice in public affairs to the poor, destitute and ignorant. Not least, he set an example to progressives of later generations to hold opponents in contempt, rather than submit his ideas to closer scrutiny. In Halévy’s words “the doctrine of utility is not, in origin and in essence, a philosophy of liberty ».[47]

His defenders argue by contrast that  Bentham was for pleasure not pain,  and that he was eager to make life better for as many people as possible. [48] He decried abuses wherever he saw them; his proposals for penal reform were intended to benefit humanity, as were his support for free markets, his advocacy of female suffrage or his portrayal of Jesus as a hedonist. He backed  all the things that right-minded people supported: he was critical of the abuses of established religion; he favoured freedom of the press, he campaigned to level differences in class and gender. In the judgement of Lionel Robbins, the liberal economist, Labour party supporter then chairman of the board of the Financial Times, Bentham was a liberal, and  we are called upon to admire the “ humble, rational, humanitarian spirit of this great man ». [49]

To his detractors, Bentham was accused of thinking that “Man, that most complex being, is a very simple one …”.[50] Disraeli expressed the same thought in defining Bentham’s ideas as rooted in “Brutilitarianism”- -an appreciation that is repeated by Frank Leavis, the mid twentieth  century literary critic, who considered that Bentham epitomized the harshness  of so-called scientific thinking applied to complex humanity.”[51]  Roger Scruton, the conservative philosopher, in his inaugural lecture,  entitled “Modern Philosophy  and the neglect of aestheticism, delivered  at Birbeck College in 1987, talked of ”that morality of the Philistine which was launched into the world by the smiling idiot Jeremy Bentham, and which has marched ever since”.

James Mill (1773–1836) : Historian, economist. 

James Mill’s claim to fame rests on his  being the father of John Stuart Mill and the collaborator of Bentham. As an effective propagator of Bentham’s ideas, he was a major reason that utilitarian ideas have been on the march ever since. Mill, though, was also a significant thinker in his own right. He was born in the county of Angus, raised as a Presbyterian, and attended Montrose Academy before going up to Edinburgh University. His mother, Isabel Fenton, was a forceful character and kept him working at his studies most of his waking hours. “His one sole occupation, writes his biographer, was study”. [52] To keep himself in pocket, he tutored the children of noble families-an experience which left in him an abiding dislike of the hereditary aristocracy. He studied for the faith, but became an atheist, and left Scotland for London where he earned his keep by writing. His output was prodigious: he published over one thousand articles, and five major books. In 1805, he married Harriet Burrow, who within one year gave birth to John Stuart, the first of nine children. James submitted his son to an exceptionally rigorous education, an experience which John Stuart Mill later described in his Autobiography as conducted with extreme rigour, where he was segregated from other children, and from which he eventually experienced a major breakdown at the age of 18, from which he recovered in his mid 20s.[53] In 1808, James became acquainted with Bentham, was won over to his principles and became a persuasive propagandist for the utilitarian cause. Eventually, the two drifted apart, given Bentham’s irascibility and as Mill became financially independent following the success of his History of India, published in 1817. As Bruce Mazlich notes,  “on the basis of it (the History), he (Mill) secured the post of examiner in the East India company, rising to the top in a few years.” [54]

The History of India was his best known work.. It took twelve years to complete. The three volume book describes how the East India company acquired its possessions, and was based on archival records and documentary material. As Mill  states in his preface, he never visited India, nor did he bother to learn any of India’s many languages. This, he wrote, was a guarantee of objectivity: “A duly qualified man can obtain more knowledge of India in one year in his closet in England than he could obtain during the course of the longest life, by the use of his eyes and ears in India. »  The book went into numerous editions, and was a prescribed read into the 1920s at Hailebury , the school where students prepared for the Indian Civil Service. 

Through it, Bentham’s utilitarian philosophy acquired a considerable influence in the administration of India, writes Thomas Trautmann.[55] Amartya Sen, the Nobel prize economist, in an address to the Millenium Session of the Indian History Congress in 2001, [56] damns Mill  for his bias, « from a dominant colonial perspective ». Mill, Sen writes,  played « a major role in introducing the British governors of India (such as the influential Macaulay) to a particular characterization of the country ». By comparison, Sen reminded his audience,  the Iranian mathematician Alberuni had written his  history of India, Ta’rikh al-hind, in the eleventh century; had learnt Sanskrit, and studied Indian texts on mathematics, natural sciences, literature, philosophy, and religion, and written clearly about the invention of the decimal system in India.

Sen says Mill  bent British minds against Indian culture. Is this true? According to Thomas Trautmann “James Mill’s highly influential History of British India (1817) – most particularly the long essay ‘Of the Hindus’ comprising ten chapters – is the single most important source of British Indophobia and hostility to Orientalism”.[57] Mill, writes Trautman, “was educated for the ministry, and licensed to preach by the Presbyterian Church, but he lost his faith and exchanged it for the Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham…, with its faith in progress and in the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number. Accordingly, Mill’s prescription for the Indians is not conversion to Christianity, but modernization…” This of course was not the programme of the British Nonconformists who conceived of the project to convert India to Christianity, with baneful results culminating in the events of 1857, when the sepoy-soldiers in the service of the East India Company-rebelled. But nor was it the programme of the so-called British Orientalists who-as Sen acknowledges-considered that Indians were “a people of high civilization”. One such Orientalist was Horace Hayman Wilson, Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University, who cordially disliked Mill’s assessment of Indian civilization, but nonetheless  edited successive editions of the History .  In the Preface to the edition of 1858, Wilson wrote bluntly that “its tendency is evil.”[58] “In many instances, the intensity of his prejudices, Wilson wrote,  has dimmed the clearness of his perception and blunted the acuteness of his intelligence”. “He is a zealot for a party; he panigyrizes its leader; he places its principles in the fairest light; he labours to bring odium upon the principles and practices of his opponents; he advocates in a word the theoretical views of Mr Bentham and tries all measures and all institutions by a scale constructed according to the notions of that writer upon law and government”. Readers, in other words, were put on notice to take the History with a pinch of salt. 

The battle between Modernizers and Orientalists lived on well beyond India’s independence in 1947. [59] As a modernizer, Mill  had a staircase view of history, where Europeans of the early nineteenth century were on the higher steps, and Indians were lower down the staircase, but mounting nonetheless. Both he, and the East India company, disapproved of adding a new caste to the many in Hindu India, and did not embrace a racially-based caste system. Mill , furthermore, admired Islam for holding all men equal- a point of convergence with his Presbyterian roots. Mill could therefore anticipate an end to British rule in India, once a sufficient number of Indians had been educated to the task. 

For that to happen, India had to be well governed.  Halévy records that Bentham, while opposing empire building, also “dreamt of making laws for India: now that James Mill occupied an important post in the East India Company, might not his dream become a reality? “I shall be the dead legislative of British India…Twenty eight years after his death, the Indian penal code came into force; it had been drawn up by Macaulay under the influence of Bentham’s and James Mill’s ideas, so that Bentham, who had failed to give a legal code to England, did actually become the posthumous legislator of the vastest of her posessions”.[60] English became the official language of administration in 1835;  the 1836 Black Act placed Indians and Britons on the same footing under the law; open competition by exam for the Indian Civil Service was introduced in 1853, seventeen years before the 1870 legislation for the UK.[61] In practice, British members of the Indian civil service, as well as British officers in the armed forces, often made themselves highly conversant with local languages. Benthamites were equally active in laying out the plans for the colonization of Australia and of Canada. As Halévy writes, “It is paradoxical that the Benthamites should have played such an immediate part in the foundation of the new colonial Empire; but it is natural that they should have helped to make this Empire into a federation of autonomous nations”.  [62]

Mill’s statement of theory on representative government came with his 1820  Essay on Government, in which he argued that theory was there to elucidate and order the plethora of facts. “ We know, says Mill, no universal proposition respecting human nature which is true but one- that men always act from self-interest”. The theory was that government was the chosen instrument to achieve the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Mill  had of course been converted to utilitarianism on meeting Bentham in 1808, so the History was saturated with the theory. In the History, he had written that   “ no scheme of government can happily conduce to the ends of good government, unless it is adapted to the state of the people for whose use it is intended”. [63] In other words, good government had by definition to be aligned on the interests of the governed, and that in Mill’s judgement meant in the case of India that East India Company rule was best for the natives until such time as the Indians had sufficient educated people to lead them. The same condition of course held in England. Good government could not be achieved by monarchs (wherein a single ruler exploits his subjects) or by aristocrats (wherein a ruling élite exploits the common people). The only way, Mill was convinced, was by universal suffrage in a representative government. For India, this would be sometime in the future, but self-government was inevitable. Eventually, sooner in England or later in India, to ensure that the representatives did not run away with the public interest, what was required was regular elections, transparency in the election process, and election of members of the middle rank[64]– in modern parlance, representatives should be chosen on their merit. 

On Government was reprinted in subsequent editions in 1823, 1825 and 1829, reaching an ever wider audience, and evincing concern from Whigs that Mill’s democratic proposals would undermine the moderate cause for reform. This was the thrust of Thomas Babington Macaulay’s essay, Mill on Government, which came out  in the March 1828 issue of the Edinburgh Review.[65] “We think that the theory of Mr Mill rests altogether on false principles, and that even on those false principles, he does not reason logically”. “Certain propensities of human nature are assumed; and from these premises the whole science of politics is synthetically deduced.” Mill’s prime assumption is that people act in their self-interest, in other words that men are always and everywhere behaving like “ a yahoo fighting for carrion”. If that is the case, then Mill’s favourable comments about widening the suffrage suggests that he favours the expoliation of the rich by the poor, or that plunder is the chief desire of all classes of society. Nor does his account take into consideration that rich men can consume only a fraction of their wealth; that much of their wealth goes on hospitality and that they appreciate the good opinion of others. Men have as many interests as they have appetites, so the statement is meaningless. It is impossible , Macaulay concludes,  to build a theory of politics on a priori principles. Politics is not amenable to such treatment. Its raw material is too diffuse. It can only be studied through observation of historical events, followed by generalisations, which in turn are negated by the discovery of further facts. 

Politics is always controversial, and no science of it can ever be settled.  The lesson applied particularly to Bentham and Mill. Bentham in his Plan for Parliamentary Reform (1817), and Mill  in his Essay on Government (1820) both failed to reconcile the two axioms of their system: either men pursued their self interest at the expense of government ensuring pleasure to the greatest number; or the greatest happiness is secured  by government action, and men, both rulers and ruled, abandon pursuit of their own interests. They cannot have it both ways. Rather lamely, therefore, they concluded that the interests of rulers and ruled converged  only when both were agreed. How could this be achieved? Regular elections, they chanted. But regular elections would in practice ensure that the debate between opposing political armies in the public arena would never relent. The political battle would never die away. 

Bentham and Mill did not make matters any easier for themselves by venturing onto the terrain of education.[66] They, and the thinkers of the period,  were unable to make up their collective mind whether education should stimulate the imagination and the senses, or whether schools should follow the recommendations of Mr Gradgrind, Charles Dickens’ nightmarish headmaster in the novel Bleak House, considered to be the satirical representation of James Mill, who treated his pupils like calculating machines, and sought to fill their little heads with “Facts, Facts, Facts”. If schooling fired the imagination of pupils, public debate would assuredly be ignited; if Mr Gradgrind prevailed, the nation would be enveloped in the silence of agreement between rulers and ruled. 

The Utilitarians, we may surmise,  regularly circle back to the Panopticon, Bentham’s transparent prison of penal reform. Good behaviour is best  imposed by enforced isolation- an early version of woke cancellation- and  by discipline. 

One of the major developments of the years between 1832, the year of the Great Reform Bill, and 1867, the year when the second Reform Act widened the franchise to working men, was the merger of the Whigs and radicals into the Liberal party, dominated by the imposing figure of William Ewart Gladstone, and the emergence of Benjamin Disraeli to the leadership of the Tories. Bentham had ridiculed the English for their “misguided reverence for the past”, and  the Radicals carried the attitude over to the Liberal Party. Disraeli had no such inhibitions. Like Blackstone and Burke, he realized that the country’s loyalties lay in the prevalent attitude to the past as a future that had been empirically explored by one precedent applied to another over generations. Inevitably, the debate about the past flared up anew as soon as the Constitution was evoked. 

The Benthamite Walter Bagehot, editor of  the equally Benthamite The Economist, wrote that year -1867-  in his The English Constitution, that “wisdom consisted in not opening the franchise too wide to the ignorant masses. ” “The lower orders, the middle orders are still, when tried by what is the standard of the educated ten thousand, narrow-minded, unintelligent, incurious”. Disraeli disagreed. “The meanest subject of our king, he had written,  is born to great and important privileges; an Englishman, however humble may be his birth, whether he be doomed to the plough or destined to the loom, is born to the noblest of all inheritances, the equality of civil rights; he is born to freedom, he is born to justice, and he is born to property. There is no station to which he may not aspire; there is no master whom he is obliged to serve; there is no magistrate who dare imprison him against the law; and the soil on which he labours must supply him with an honest and decorous maintenance…Thus the English in politics are as the old Hebrews in religion,  a favoured and peculiar people.”[67]

Disraeli lived in a different imaginary world to the Benthamites. His world was soaked in history; in a world of  inherited freedoms; dependent on deeply felt loyalties; not amenable to Bentham’s felicific calculous; unexpected and colourful. “The difference between a misfortune and a calamity is this, Disraeli opined : if Mr Gladstone fell into the Thames, this would be a misfortune. But if someone dragged him out again, this would be a calamity”.  Bentham and his utilitarian followers by contrast thought more as Cromwellians, with the future predictable and the way there set. By the 1820s, Bentham was republican in all but name, in favour of  an end to the monarchy; for the abolition of the House of Lords; in favour of a codification of law to override the common law;  and for the “euthanasia” of the Church of England. Bagehot followed in his footsteps. The monarchy, Bagehot wrote, was to represent the “dignified” part of the constitution, its rationale being to dazzle the ignorant masses with trivia, while real politics was conducted by ministers in the Cabinet.  A Benthamite  UK was to be  a monarchy in form but a republic in fact. 

Disraeli’s UK was altogether on another plane: he magnified the monarch’s dignified role by making Queen Victoria Empress of India in 1876. In India, the durbars of 1877, 1903 and 1911, marked the confirmation of the Raj, and sat  a British  Empress of India on the throne of the United Kingdom, at the apex of the British Constitution. Disraeli’s initiative was also a foreign policy that located “England” as straddling two worlds.  Halévy describes this foreign policy in  his pamphlet, published in 1905, L’Angleterre et son Empire[68] «  Toute cette politique extérieure- politique européenne et politique coloniale- est une politique de principes, une politique libérale. Le gouvernement anglais intervient en Europe : mais c’est pour défendre les institutions libérales contre les puissances absolutistes. Hors l’Europe il n’intervient pas, si ce n’est pour assurer partout la liberté des échanges. Elle est en meme temps une politique d’interet, une politique nationale. Par elle, la diplomatie anglaise est prépondérante en Europe. Par elle, le commerce anglais a la suprématie sur tous les mers ». [69]

Interim conclusion.

Halévy’s generalisation on British foreign policy held more for the earlier part of the nineteenth century, less for the Europe that developed after the unification of Germany. The main focus of his histories of Bentham and of nineteenth century England, though, are about the domestic context. A summary of his ideas would include the following observations: Bentham’s preferred form of thinking was abstract, aprioristic and modelled on the physical sciences. His intent from the start was to create a body of dogma that would serve the legislator as a guide to creating a code of a new law, which superceded both Christianity and the common law.  His two key axioms was that men always and everywhere pursued their own interest; and the purpose of legislation was to ensure the greatest happiness for the greatest number. These two axioms being contradictory, he found himself having to defend a set of oxymorons: the preferences of rulers and ruled would have to converge, if the two axioms were to become reconciled; this could be achieved by forcing or by  inducing convergence, at the cost of individual liberties; anybody who opposed the ideas of utilitarians was suspect of exercising “sinister interest”, thereby justifying an assumption of evil intent to opponents, rather than reasoned opposition to the ideas; there is therefore a hidden presumption of utilitarians seeking a window on men’s souls, ie yearning for thought control; utilitarians are therefore both for freedoms and for force, whether it being forcing peoples to adapt free trade or having the minority comply with the wishes of the majority. Halévy points out also that utilitarians argue that society is shaped by both the legislator and by market forces when left to themselves.  Utilitarians are for modernization, requiring fundamental societal and institutional changes in both India and Britain. The only difference between India and Britain is in the timing of the necessary changes, sooner for Britain because it is presumed to be more advanced, and later for India. 

By the mid-years of the nineteenth century, there are two major dents in the utilitarian ideology: one is Macaulay’s that Bentham’s approach is fundamentally false, and that only the historical approach will do as far as politics are concerned; and second that its supporters urge universal suffrage but think that the ignorant masses cannot be trusted. Disraeli had no such inhibition. This is one of the many problems besetting the utilitarians during those crucial mid-years of the century, which Halévy did not have the time to cover, and thereby was not able to answer. Their project encountered unexpected hurdles: Darwin, and his hammer blows to protestant religion; Disraeli, and his imagination applied to British politics; the responses in Europe and the United States to free markets, and Marx’ analysis thereof; and the rise in the second half of the nineteenth century of nationalism. We turn now to free markets and Marx. 

[1] Saul D.Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, Random House, 1971. 

[2]  Myrna Chase, Elie Halévy: An Intellectual Biography. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980. 

[3]   Elie Halévy, The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism, Martino Publishing, Mansfield Centre CT, 2013, p. 487. 

[4] Ibid. p.488. 

[5] Ibid. p. 489. 

[6]  A History of the English People in 1815, Volume I, Routledge, ARK edition 1987p. xxix 

[7]  Ibid p.371., 

[8] The Liberal Awakening, Volume II, Routledge, ARK edition, p.viii. 

[9] Imperialism and the Rise of Labour, Ernest Benn, 1951, p.vii.

[10] The Rule of Democracy : 1905-1914, Ernest Benn, 1961. P.viii.

[11] Victorian Years: 1841-1895.Ernest Benn, 1961. 

[12] David Johnston, « Hobbes Mortalism », History of Political Thought, Vol X, No.4, 1989, pp. 647-663. P.657. 

[13]  « The Letters : 1743-1826, Bacon, Locke and Newton.” See Internet. 

[14] A History of the English Peoples in 1815, pp.343-344. 

[15] D.D.Raphael, British Moralists, Vol 1, Clarendon Press, 1969. Vol 1, p.188.  

[16] Matthew Daniel Eddy, « Nineteenth Century Natural Theology”, Oxford Handbook of Natural Theology, Clarendon Press, 2013. Pp. 101-117.  

[17] A History of the English Peoples in 1815,p. 344. 

[18] George H. Sabine, “ France: the Decadence of Natural Law”, A History of Political Thought,Harrap, 1937, pp.458-485. 

[19] Quoted in Sabine, p.477 from De l’Esprit, Vol II, p.24. 

[20] A W B. Simpson, Biographical Dictionary of the Common Law. Butterworths. London. 1984, pp.57-61. 

[21]  Bill Speck,  Religion’s role in the Glorious Revolution, History Today, July 1988,p. pp.30-35.  The article  considers the three cornered manouvrings between Anglicans, Dissent and Catholics that culminated in the events of 1688-1689.

[22] Quoted from Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism, New York, Norton, 1977, p. 339. 

[23] Ibid. p. 373. 


«  il vécut dans l’infortune, parce qu’on lui fit entendre que ses dieux le condamnoient à être misérable ; il n’osa jamais résister à ses dieux ni se débarasser de ses fers, parce qu’on lui fit entendre que la stupidité, le renoncement à la raison, l’engourdissement de l’esprit, l’abjection de son ame étoient de sûrs moyens d’obtenir l’éternelle félicité. »

[25] Jeremy Bentham, The Principles of International Law, Essay 3.

[26] J.W. Burns, Jeremy Bentham : From Radical Enlightenment to Philosophic Radicalism, The Bentham Newletter,  June 1984, No. 8. pp. 4-14. 

[27] Robert Nozick, in The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, Sage, Cato Institute, pp.30-31. 

[28] Iain Hampsher-Monk, Modern Political Thought: Major Political Thinkers from Hobbes to Marx, Blackwell, 1992. P.306. 

[29] Quoted J.R. Dimwiddy, in The Bentham Newsletter, June 1984, No.8. “Bentham and the early nineteenth century”, pp.15-33. 

[30] Halévy, The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism, p.508.

[31] James Crimmins, Jeremy Bentham, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, revised December 2021. 

[32] Halévy, Philosophic Radicalism, p. 144. 

[33] Halévy, Philosophic Radicalism, pp.26-27. 

[34] James Crimmins,  « Secular Utilitarianism:Atheism and the secular Society », Journal of the History of Ideas, 1990.University of Pennsylvania Press. 47 (1): 95-110.

[35]  Crimmins, p.110. 

[36] Philip Schofield, Utility and Democracy: the Political Thought of Jeremy Bentham, Oxford University Press,2006,  p.172.

[37] J.W. Burns, Jeremy Bentham : From Radical Enlightenment to Philosophic Radicalism, The Bentham Newletter,  June 1984, No. 8. pp. 4-14. 

[38] James E.Crimmins, Bentham on Atheism and Secular Soiciety, Journal of the History of IdeasVol 47. No. 1. Jan-Mar. 1986, pp.95-110.

[39] Not Paul, but Jesus, Vol III, Doctrine. The Bentham Project, UCL, London, 2013.  pp.55-56. 

[40] Jeremy Bentham, Works, ed John Bowring, London 1843. IV p. 39.

[41] Jeremy Bentham, The Correspondence of Jeremy Bentham, vol. IV: 1788-93, ed. A. Taylor Milne. London: Athlone Press, 1981, 342.

[42] Paul Schofield, Chapter 5, « The emergence of sinister interest”, in Utility and Democracy: The Political Thought of Jeremy Bentham, Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 109-136. 

[43] Philip Schofield, quoted p.170. 

[44] Cited in Gertrude Himmelfarb, p.68 “The Haunted House of Jeremy Bentham”, Victorian Minds: A Study of Intellectuals in Crisis, New York, Alfred Knopf, 1968, Pp. 32-81. 

[45] Michel Foucault, Surveiller et punir : Naissance de la prison, Gallimard, 1975. See also Anne Brunon-Ernst, New Perspectives on Bentham’s Panopticon, Ashgate, 2012. 

[46] Himmelfarb. p.75.

[47] Halévy,The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism.  p.84. 

[48] Kathleen Blake, Pleasures of Benthamism: Victorian Literature, Utility, Political Economy, Oxford University Press, 2009. 

[49] Cited by Gertrude Himmelfarb, p.15. Bentham in the Twentieth Century, London 1965, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Bentham’s Utopia: The National Charity Company, The Journal of British Studies, Vol 10, Issue 1, Nov 1970,  pp. 80-125.

[50] John Stuart Mill, Essays on Bentham and Coleridge, 1838, p.14. Jonathan Bennett copyright, 2017. 

[51] Michael Bell, F. R. Leavis. Routledge, 1988.p 9

[52] Alexander Bain, James Mill : A Biography, London, Longmans, 1882. p. 7. 

[53] John Stuart Mill, Autobiography, Ebooks, Gutenberg Project, 20918. Chapter Two: “Moral influences in early youth”. 

[54] Bruce Mazlish, , James and John Stuart Mill : Father and Son, Transaction Publishers, 1988, p.4. 

[55] Thomas R. Trautmann, Aryans and British India, University of California Press, 1997. p. 118. 

[56] Amartya Sen, History and the Enterprise of Knowledge, The New Humanist, 31.05.2007.

[57] Trautmann, Aryans and British India. p. 117. 

[58] James Mill, The History of British India, 5th edition with notes and continuation by Horace Heyman Wilson, London, Wertheimer, 1858. Preface pp.vii-xxxvi. 

[59] Natalie P.R. Silkin, « Horace Hayman Wilson and Gamesmanship in Indology”, Asian Studies,August, 1965. pp.301-323. The author labels H.H.Wilson an out and out fraud. Trautmann by contrast calls Wilson “distinguished” (Trautmann, p.118)

[60] Elie Halévy, The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism, p.502. 

[61] Kathleen Blake, Pleasures of Benthamism : Victorian Literature, Utility, Political Economy, Chapter 7, Utilitarian Political Economy and Empire: Mill as Liberal Imperialist, Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. 195-231. 

[62]  James Mill, Essay on Government, Cambridge University Press, reprint. 1937; also 2015.  William Thomas, James Mill’s Politics: the “Essay on Government” and the Movement for Reform”, The Historical Journal, Vol. 12, No 2.1969, pp.249-284. 

[63] History of British India, Volume II, pp.135-136. 

[64] John Millar, Origin of the Distinction of Ranks, originally published by Blackwood, Edinburgh, and Longman, London 1806. Reprint by Liberty Fund 2006. 

[65] Mill on Government, Edinburgh Review March 1829. Pp. 282-322. In the preface to The Miscellaneous Writings, Lord Macaulay, Two Volumes. Vol I. London, Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, 1860,

[66] Thomas Dixon, Educating Emotions from Gradgrind to Goleman”, Res Pap Educ. 2012, 27(4): 481-495.

[67]  Disraeli the Younger, Vindication of the English Constitution in a Letter to a Noble and Learned Lord, London, Saunders and Otley, 1835. Pp. 204-205

[68]  Elie Halévy, L’Angleterre et son Empire, Hachette Livre, BnF, 1905. 

[69] Ibid. p. 11.

About Jonathan Story, Professor Emeritus, INSEAD

Jonathan Story is Emeritus Professor of International Political Economy at INSEAD. Prior to joining INSEAD in 1974, he worked in Brussels and Washington, where he obtained his PhD from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He has held the Marusi Chair of Global Business at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and is currently Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Graduate Schoold of Business, Fordham University, New York. He is preparing a monograph on China’s impact on the world political economy, and another on a proposal for a contextual approach to business studies. He has a chapter forthcoming on the Euro crisis. His latest book is China UnCovered: What you need to know to do business in China, (FT/ Pearson’s, 2010) ( His previous books include “China: The Race to Market” (FT/Pearsons, 2003), The Frontiers of Fortune, (Pitman’s, 1999); and The Political Economy of Financial Integration in Europe : The Battle of the Systems,(MIT Press, 1998) on monetary union and financial markets in the EU, and co-authored with Ingo Walter of NYU. His books have been translated into French, Italian, German, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Arabic. He is also a co-author in the Oxford Handbook on Business and Government(2010), and has contributed numerous chapters in books and articles in professional journals. He is a regular contributor to newspapers, and has been four times winner of the European Case Clearing House “Best Case of the Year” award. His latest cases detail hotel investments in Egypt and Argentina, as well as a women’s garment manufacturer in Sri Lanka and a Chinese auto parts producer. He teaches courses on international business and the global political economy. At the INSEAD campus, in Fontainebleau and Singapore, he has taught European and world politics, markets, and business in the MBA, and PhD programs. He has taught on INSEAD’s flagship Advanced Management Programme for the last three decades, as well as on other Executive Development and Company Specific courses. Jonathan Story works with governments, international organisations and multinational corporations. He is married with four children, and, now, thirteen grandchildren. Besides English, he is fluent in French, German, Spanish, Italian, reads Portuguese and is learning Russian. He has a bass voice, and gives concerts, including Afro-American spirituals, Russian folk, classical opera and oratorio.
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