Melton prior Institut


Linton- Life in the Collections

William Johnson Fox (ed.):

19) The Monthly Repository for 1832, New Series, vol. VI,

London 1832 / 2010

(bound copies)

In his influential study on the Unitarian periodical The Dissidence of Dissent. The Monthly Repository 1806- 1838 (1944), Francis Edward Mineka discusses the influence of Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism and of the Comte de Saint-Simon´s New Christianity on Fox´editorial conception. The pugnacious Unitarian minister had been “tremendously attracted” by the Saint-Simonianism´s social gospel, but unlike the Tory socialist Thomas Carlyle, he always kept a very critical distance to their hierarchical system of privileged aristocracy. Mineka points out that the Repository under Fox was “a rare instance of a magazine maintained on a high level of excellence over an appreciable period of time by voluntary, unpaid contributors.”

This volume, the first one under Fox’ sole editorship, “initiated a policy of active political engagement that extended the journal’s intellectual and cultural reach, making it an avant-garde production often far ahead of its time.” (Isobel Armstrong, The Monthly Repository in ncse, online edition 2008) Of major significance is an article titled On the Character and Philosophy of the late Jeremy Bentham, which gives a short account on the public dissection of the philosopher’s corpse and an abridged version of the oration „delivered over the remains of this most illustrious man, by Dr. Southwood Smith.“ This dissection and the following mummification of Bentham’s corpse, which were ordered by will, can be considered as a kind of informal constitutional act of the 19th century secular movement and has had a far-reaching impact on members of the Fox circle like Linton.Young Linton must have encountered Bentham’s stuffed corpse quite often at the dinners in the home of his fatherly friend and family doctor, Thomas Southwood Smith, where the deceased sat dressed in his everyday clothes in a glass case, on view for anyone “who takes an interest in the writings and character of Jeremy Bentham.” (Richard Hengist Horne: A New Spirit of the Age. Vol. I, 1844) Southwood Smith had been one of the closest friends of Bentham, to many  the most important philosophical proponent of early British radicalism. For Goethe, who was of the same age, the thoughts of the founder of Utilitarianism marked the “peak of madness,” and even a commentator such as William Hazlitt, who was politically well disposed towards Bentham, criticised him for his “barbarous philosophical jargon” and was astonishedhe had not yet been “prosecuted for the boldness and severity of some of his invectives.” (The Spirit of the Age or Contemporary Portraits, 1825) Benthamism is often understood as an expression of a narrow-minded, puritan trader’s ethics that philosophically indulges in a pure cost-benefit calculation. But this would mean to disregard the explosiveness that Bentham’s philosophy unfolded, particularly in England. It mainly consisted in the fact that he had shaken and challenged puritan ethics through the pronounced hedonistic approach of his “greatest happiness” principle. But also the accusation of propagating an unrestricted “swinish” egotism did not gain traction, because, in his view, from the perspective of society as a whole, the principle of maximising happiness necessarily resulted in the coinciding of self-interest and duty as service to the community. Through an increased individualistic interpretation, Bentham’s theories have later been reduced to a mere doctrine of economic laissez-faire, a development that the ideological split of radicalism into liberalism and socialism had reflected. But as opposed to latter-day interpretations, early, inconsistent Benthamism was both individualistic and communitarian. It can be regarded as the open attempt to create a vital societal set of rules based on neither the authority of conventions, nor on transcendent entities.

In 1824 the committed physician Southwood Smith, in his essay The Use of the Dead to the Living, had called for allowing anatomical gifts, and Bentham, radically demonstrating his utilitarian principles, had not only made his own body available, but also written in his will that it be preserved “in the manner of the New Zealanders for the purpose of commemorating the Founder.” As the article reported, the public dissection along with the funeral address had been performed by Southwood Smith himself, in the charged atmosphere of a sudden thunderstorm. Besides, the Monthly Repository provides a longer excerpt from the funeral oration, but not a word was said about his second testation. Bentham’s followers avoided going into detail and discussing his mummification in public. After all, one did not want to fall into disrepute as a neo-heathen sect that, in blasphemous reversal of Christian myths, gathered around the stuffed corpse of its master, who had even been preserved in the manner of Stone Age savages. However, it can be assumed that most artists of the Craven Hill circle were familiar with all the details of this spectacular matter, certainly including the detailed proposals to revolutionise the culture of commemoration that Bentham had presented in this context. Although he wrote them down only shortly before his death in an unpublished manuscript, he must have dealt with this set of ideas for quite some time – for he had carried the glass eyes, which were meant to one day lend his mummified skull a lively expression, in his waistcoat pocket for twenty years.

In Bentham’s view, the human corpse benefited society in two ways, possessing an “anatomical, or dissectional” as well as a “conservative, or statuary” value. He attributes the term auto-icon to the latter. These body sculptures would “supersede the necessity of sculpture”, for it is after all evident that “identity [is] preferable to similitude”. In Bentham’s vision of the future, which suffices entirely without the mimetic services of art, the auto-icons populate not only public buildings and private, ancestral portrait galleries, but also – after having been made weatherproof through the impregnation with rubber – outdoor spaces, parks and alleys. What he does not elaborate is the consequence of his playful and capricious proposals, which, however, is obvious and lies in radically levelling and democratising the cult of commemoration shaped by feudal patterns, i.e., the cultural segment that, in Bentham’s eyes, formed the ideological backdrop of a reduced and irrational understanding of the nation.

Bentham’s mummification can be regarded as the background of Linton’s late American didactic piece Cetewayo and Dean Stanley (1880), which deals with colonialism and memorial cult. In his early publications, Linton had granted a lot of space to Benthamism. From the very start, the austere doctrine of maximising use, even if it was hedonistically founded, had hardly been in line with his idealistic altruism. From the mid-1840s onward, Linton, like many other fellow travellers, replaced Fox’s expanded spiritual Benthamism with a theologically underpinned nationalism in the style of Mazzini, which gave expression to the democratic liberation movements in Europe. It was evident, however, that Mazzini’s vision of a Republican Europe and his foundation of a People’s International League was firmly rooted in Bentham’s work on intergovernmental legislation, a state of affairs which he described using the neologism internationality. And it is an open question whether Linton’s anthropomorphous vision of a universal republic, which he had explicated in his central political treatise, The Religion of Organization, adhered to an afterimage of the cadaver of the father of supranationality. For had not Bentham organically manifested his idea of communitarian responsibility with the act of his dissection and, with his mummification, also given an impressive example suitable for lending his highly abstract atomistic theories a corporeal presence?