So I read about this guy who founded the first progressive college in London in 1826, whose seated corpse is on display in the main building.  Well, I just had to meet him.  Turns out he didn’t found the college at all, but is considered to have inspired its founding and was a supporter.  Turns out that his head is not on display, but only his skeleton, dressed in clothes that he wore, with a wax head. 

And it turns out, he’s one of my new heroes.

His name was Jeremy Bentham, and I can’t believe I never heard of him before today.   Born in 1748, Jeremy was a very progressive thinker for his time.  He was a British philosopher, jurist, and social reformer who advocated the separation of church and state, equal rights for women, freedom of expression, the abolition of slavery, and the decriminalizing of homosexual acts.  Let me repeat that last – he advocated the decriminalizing of homosexual acts!  That’s the one that really got me.  A man who stands up for that in the 18th century must be very bold and brave, indeed.  Bentham is the father of a philosophy called Utilitarianism, what he later preferred to call The Greatest Happiness Principle.  Its fundamental axiom:  “It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong."  I really like that.  Sounds a lot like the philosophy of socialism, doesn’t it?  Bentham also believed that the great disparity in income between the rich and the poor would lead to political corruption – the rich using their wealth to influence the governing laws of the country.  Sounds a lot like our lobbying system in Washington.  He stated that if all it took was £500 a year to live comfortably, and one person had an additional £500 a year, their sense of fulfillment would likely be increased a good degree.  But if you gave them £500 more on top of that, their sense of fulfillment would actually begin to decrease.  £500 more, decrease more - and so on, and so on.  Basically the law of diminishing returns.  Also makes a lot of sense to me.

Bentham has also been hailed as the first patron saint of animal rights and he was highly active in law and prison reform, among many other things.  If you want to know more about him, check out his page at the University College of London.  He’s considered the college’s spiritual founder because in his time, membership in the Church of England was required of students entering Oxford and Cambridge.  The University College of London was the first in England to admit all, regardless of race, creed or political belief.

So why is Jeremy Bentham’s body on display at the college?  He requested it.  On his death, he wanted to be dissected for the education of medical students, and then mummified, dressed, and displayed as if he were sitting at his desk writing.  They tried to mummify his head using the practices of the Maori of New Zealand, but this left it looking too gruesome to display (although you can view it at the college).  Bentham’s body was therefore given a wax head fitted with some of his own hair, and the real head is locked away separately somewhere in the college.  There are some disturbing myths to read about this strange display, such as one about students using Bentham’s head to play football.  But there are other true stories to check out if you wish.  Oh, and you can see a revolving 360° image of Bentham’s body online.  You know you can’t resist.  Go ahead, check it out.

Tomorrow I’m off to see the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace!


08/02/2013 4:06am

Oh, my! How interesting, Vicki! I remember his name (and one of his cohort's: John Stuart Mill) from one of my political theory courses in college. We hardly mentioned him; our professor preferred American political thinkers: Jefferson, et al. They say "the victors write history," but the professors sure play a role in which bits of history get propagated!

08/02/2013 4:34am

Isn't it crazy? I never heard of this guy, but what a guy!


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