Arts and Culture, Philosophy, Science

Jeremy Bentham: the man behind the auto-icon

Jeremy Bentham UCL exhibition

For those of you who don’t know, Jeremy Bentham is something of a name around the Campus of University College London, in Bloomsbury. The moral philosopher turned-spiritual founding father of the university is perhaps less well known for his moral philosophy and writings on legislative reform than his eccentricity and peculiar perspective on mortality. His auto-icon – otherwise known as his straw-stuffed skeleton – has recently been on display at the Met Breuer Museum in New York. Bentham was featured in an exhibition called ‘Like Life: Sculpture, Color and the Body, 1300-now.’ But lest UCL students fear that they have lost him forever as he finally achieves his dream of travelling to America, be reassured that Bentham will return in time for UCL graduation selfies in September.

Who was Jeremy Bentham?

Jeremy Bentham was an English Philosopher and social reformer, considered as the founder of Utilitarianism – the principle of ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number.’ Born in Spitalfields, London on 15 February 1748, the young Bentham was a child prodigy. By three he was studying Latin, and at twelve he attended Queen’s College, University of Oxford. If you’ve just graduated from university and are feeling like an underachiever, Jeremy Bentham is probably not the man to compare yourself to! Yet despite his prolific intelligence, Bentham was something of an oddball – he fondly referred to his home as ‘the hermitage’ and himself as the ‘hermit,’ he had two walking sticks that he named Dapple and Dobbin and spent many years of his life sharing a bed with his pet pig. As you have probably guessed from this information, Bentham was a fan of his solitude, although he occasionally allowed friends to dine with him, provided that he could create a list of conversation topics beforehand.

Jeremy Bentham’s moral philosophy

‘Create all the happiness you are able to create: remove all the misery you are able to remove.’

Prior to the appearance of his auto-icon at UCL, complete with the matching pub, The Jeremy Bentham (now regrettably turned into a branch of the Simmons chain, though they’ve retained his head), Bentham was best-known as a moral philosopher, social reformer, and jurist. His utilitarian principle has spawned a series of fascinating thought experiments, such as this one by Harvard Lecturer Michael Sandel, that bring into question the ethical implications of the principle. Bentham was also the inceptor of the famous Panopticon – the model of a prison where inmates could be seen at all times by a single watchman. Bentham’s panopticon went on to inspire the design of prisons the world over: Presidio Modelo prison in Cuba, is one such example. Commenting on the prison’s design, Bentham said:

The building circular, a cage glazed…By blinds and other contrivances, the inspectors concealed […] from the observation of the prisoners: hence the sentiment of a sort of omnipotence.

No wonder Bentham’s panopticon inspired Orwell’s dystopian surveillance classic 1984!

Bentham’s special relationship with University College London was born out of their shared principles. Founded in 1826 and the third oldest English university after Oxford and Cambridge, UCL was the first university to accept those traditionally excluded from education – women, non-conformists, Catholics, and Jews. Bentham’s large estate was used to fund the building of University College London: and thereon began London’s global university.

Jeremy Bentham and death

Despite being a well-respected Philosopher and Philanthropist, where Bentham truly gained infamy was regarding his interest in death and bodily preservation. In 1831 he wrote to the London City Council asking if he could replace the shrubs in his garden with mummified corpses as they would be ‘more aesthetic than flowers.’ Bentham took his fascination with the dead beyond that of the horticultural when he penned a pamphlet titled Auto-Icon; Or Farther Uses of the Dead to the living, inspired by the preserved heads of the New Zealand Maori. Although Auto-Icons of the dead have not exactly become the norm, Jeremy intended his pamphlet to universalise Corpse-preservation – to make death useful, and, to some extent, to normalise it – perhaps not such a bad idea given that society (in the 19th century and now) tends to treat dying and death as a dirty word, often still reduced to whispered conversations and condolence cards.

In order to put his words into action, Bentham left his body to close friend Doctor Thomas Southwood Smith – the preservation involved removing the flesh from his bones, before placing his internal organs in jars resembling ‘wine decanters.’ Bentham’s skeleton was then pinned together with wire and padded with hay, before donning his favourite suite. The only part of the process that did not go to plan was the preservation of Bentham’s head – a mishap on Southwood Smith’s part resulted in Bentham resembling more of a sunburnt Gollum than the magnificence that Bentham himself had envisaged.

Still, all was not lost. In place of Bentham’s real head was a wax (and much more aesthetically pleasing) replacement head, whilst his real head was relegated to a vault at UCL. A whole host of rumours surround the severed head – a rumour that UCL’s rivals King’s College London stole his head and played football with it as revenge for UCL students stealing their mascot persists around campus today. The head itself recently enjoyed renewed attention when it was brought out of its vault and displayed in UCL’s Octagon Gallery, as part of their ground-breaking exhibition on What does it mean to be human? – which explored a topic that would have fascinated Bentham himself: what relationship do the dead have with the living?

Proving that his Auto-Icon has left a legacy beyond that which even Bentham himself may have anticipated, Bentham’s body is still carefully wheeled out to attend University Council Meetings (though sadly he is not thought to be in the right condition to influence UCL’s political future, so he is recorded as ‘present, but not voting.’) It, therefore, seems fitting to leave the final words of this article with Bentham himself, whose voice and presence still appears as canny and knowing as it did over two-hundred years ago:

Twenty Years, after I am dead, I shall be a despot, sitting in my chair with dapple in my hand, & wearing one of the coats I wear now.

Sources:

QI: Quite Interesting
Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy

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