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October 21, 2017

Bentham, Dickens, Quadrupeds

On this day in 1832 the radical British philosopher and reformer Jeremy Bentham died. Though a prolific writer -- the complete works run to thirty-six volumes -- Bentham's most famous connection to literature is as satiric target in Dickens's Hard Times. Dickens shared many of Bentham's enthusiasms, such as prison reform and the guarantee of a minimum wage, but he was horrified by what he took to be the general Utilitarian attitude. Bentham wrote of arriving at "the greatest happiness for the greatest number" through a "felicific calculus" in which pleasure and pain were clearly quantified, and upon which laws could incontestably operate; Dickens wrote of Mr. Dick and his kite, of "what larks!" Pip and Joe Gargery shared, of such incalculables as Tom-All-Alone's and the Marshalsea.

Dickens spoke out against the Utilitarian approach whenever given the chance. An early satirical sketch entitled "Full Report of the First Meeting of the Mudfog Association" documents the outrage of the statistician, Mr. Slug, when reporting "the result of some calculations he had made with great difficulty and labour, regarding the state of infant education among the middle classes of London." Mr. Slug had discovered that "within a circle of three miles from the Elephant and Castle, the following were the names and numbers of children's books principally in circulation":
    Jack and the Giant-killer . . . 7,943
    Ditto and the Bean-stalk . . . 8,621
    Ditto and Eleven Brothers . . . 2,845
    Ditto and Jill . . . 1,998
Some of the children appeared to believe in dragons and to wish to grow up to slay them; very few had a solid grasp of mathematics; "Not one child among the number interrogated had ever heard of Mungo Park -- some inquiring whether he was at all connected to the black man that swept the crossing."

"Mudfog" was 1837, five years after Bentham's death; Hard Times, seventeen years later, shows Dickens still at it. In this passage, the circus girl Sissy Jupe stands condemned for thinking a horse might be more than the graminivorous quadruped that Bitzer eventually anatomizes:
    'Girl number twenty,' said Mr. Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square forefinger, 'I don't know that girl. Who is that girl?'
    'Sissy Jupe, sir,' explained number twenty, blushing, standing up, and curtseying.
    'Sissy is not a name,' said Mr. Gradgrind. 'Don't call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecilia.'
    'My father as calls me Sissy. sir,' returned the young girl in a trembling voice, and with another curtsey.
    'Then he has no business to do it,' said Mr. Gradgrind. 'Tell him he mustn't. Cecilia Jupe. Let me see. What is your father?'
    'He belongs to the horse-riding, if you please, sir.'
    Mr. Gradgrind frowned, and waved off the objectionable calling with his hand.
    'We don't want to know anything about that, here. You mustn't tell us about that, here. . . . Give me your definition of a horse.'
    (Sissy Jupe thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand.)
    'Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!' said Mr. Gradgrind, for the general behoof of all the little pitchers. 'Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals! Some boy's definition of a horse. Bitzer, yours. . . .'
Bentham died wealthy, and used his estate to finance University College in London. As dictated in his will, his embalmed and dressed body was put on display there; it still sits today in a cabinet in one of the main College buildings.

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