Bentham III--A Fragment (I)
Prof. Bill Long 9/27/05
This and the next essay will summarize Bentham's approach and major points in the Preface and Introduction to his 1776 work, A Fragment of Government. A number of preliminary observations might be helpful. (1) Bentham wrote this work at age 28, the first of his major works in a creative career spanning more than five decades. You can easily recognize his polemical style, skill in dividing issues, youthful exuberance and extreme attention to detail that will characterize all his life's work. (2) Bentham has a distinctive style that is stilted and earnest at the same time, one that frequently introduces new terms ("parergona work of supererogation"--p.4) as he goes along. (3) However, all of Bentham's work is an exposition and attempt to fill out the meaning of the phrase he "discovered" in 1768 ("the greatest good for the greatest number") with respect to law and political science. (4) Bentham's "target" in the Fragment is William Blackstone ("B"), his teacher at Oxford and author of the wildly successful Commentaries on the Laws of England (4 vols.). The Fragment, actually, focuses most attention on seven pages of the first edition (which we read in class), pp. 47-53.
In the Fragment, he criticizes B for many comments he makes throughout his first edition. Bentham's tone is usually cynical/hypercritical/snide though at times he will recognize B's skill and confess grudging admiration for him. Let's turn now to an exposition of the Preface/Introduction. There are two online versions of the Fragment. The Preface/Introduction is 12 pages in one and 14 in the other. I will be quoting from the first one.
1. We can't get any further than the first sentence before we must stop. "The age we live in is a busy age; in which knowledge is rapidly advancing towards perfection." The first sentence tells us a lot about Bentham and why he will have difficulty with B. He is a man of the Enlightenment, a movement beginning in France about 1740-50 and characterized by skepticism about things religious and political. The Enlightenment wanted to get rid of monarchies and the political influence of the Catholic Church. In addition, supporters of Enlightenment strove for "perfection," the improvement of society through application of reason to institutions and long-accepted practices. Bentham was born in 1748; B in 1723. In that generation an entire world passed before people's eyes. Europe went from respect for and submission to traditional institutions to revolution. B was representative of the old order and mindset; Bentham was longing for the new. Every word Bentham writes breathes this air of liberation and advancement, of dissatisfaction with the old and yearning for a sort of secular kingdom of God through legal, political and institutional reform.
2. An indication of Bentham's commitment to the new is his pairing of scientific and moral reform. "Discovery and improvement" in the natural world must needs find its corresponding reformation in the moral world. Then he backtracks. Perhaps discovery of moral concepts isn't really what is at stake, but simply the work of moral reformation. In any case, he then drops in his "life line" at the end of paragraph two, and you know you are reading Jeremy Bentham: "it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong..." He calls it his "fundamental axiom," and it will be the measure for whether he considers a statute useful or not.
3. He states his approach in the third paragraph. "If it be of importance and of use to us to know the principles of the element we breathe, surely it is not of much less importance nor of much less use to comprehend the principles, and endeavour at the improvement of those laws, by which alone we breathe it in security." But then, the hammer falls. If he runs across any Author, "especially any Author of great name" (hm...have anyone in mind, Jeremy?) who seems to be a "determined and persevering enemy" of this mode of thinking, what should we do? Well, of course, we should consider that the "interests of reformation" go hand in hand "with the downfall of his works." A little chutzpah for a 28 year-old, don't you think?
4. And so, to remove all doubt, he generously identifies his enemy in the next paragraph--the Author of the "celebrated" Commentaries on the Laws of England, a work which, in less than a decade has "obtained a greater share of esteem, of applause, and consequently of influence..than any other writer who on that subject has ever yet appeared." Bentham is not wrong in that assessment. B's achievement was monumental, and even while he was lecturing at Oxford (he began in 1758) before the publication of his first volume (1765) his fame was spreading far and wide. Bentham is torn, though only minimally, by this spread of fame. He will admit that B has pulled together sources and put out an effort that really is quite amazing. Yet, Bentham believes that B's work is completely wrongheaded and, worse, it imports assumptions into it which really vitiate the whole.
5. Bentham states his main ground for dislike of Blackstone in the next paragraph--"the antipathy to reformation." It is the "grand and fundamental" blemish on the whole work. This "ungenerous antipathy" (to reformation) seemed to promise a "general vein of obscure and crooked reasoning, from whence no clear and sterling knowledge could be derived." For this reason, he took in hand the first part of the first volume of B, and he focuses on ch. 2, which we read for class.
6. In the next three or four paragraphs (page 2 of online text), Bentham tells us a little about how B structures his work in the Introduction (first four chapters), but then he says, "It would have been in vain to have thought of travelling over the whole of so vast a work." What to do instead? Bentham tells us his design: "My design, therefore, was to take such a portion of it, as might afford a fair and adequate specimen of the character and complexion of the whole." Bentham thought that this introduction (the first 115 pages) was the part "most his (i.e., B's) own" and that the "rest was little more than compilation." Bentham is wrong on the latter point; B's monumental effort to bring together scattered sources and invent the theory of the common law was more than simply bringing together "scattered sources."
7. So we follow Bentham on his mental process of how he ends up focusing on this part (47-53) of B's work. On p. 3 he tells us that in the middle of B's definition of Law municipal he found, "not without surprize, the digression which makes the subject of the present Essay." Bentham says he was perplexed by this digression (47-53). At first he thought he would just pass over it in silence, because he perceived it had no connection to the whole. But after he read to the end of the Introduction, "it then became necessary to come to some definitive resolution concerning this excentric part of it; and the result was, that being loth to leave the enterprize I had begun in this respect, imperfect, I sat down to give what I intended should be a very slight and general survey of it." But, he discovered that as he looked at it more closely the "more confused and unsatisfactory it appeared to me." He therefore thought he needed to show the confusion in great detail. Sometimes confusion can only be unraveled after you spend a good deal of time looking at it and taking it apart line by line. Hence, his work grew to the Bulk in which the Reader sees it."
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