The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism

By Elie Halévy; Mary Morris | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER I
ORIGINS AND PRINCIPLES

JEREMY BENTHAM was born in 1748, and the smallest events of his childhood show that the period was one of transition and of stress. His father had been a Jacobite, but had ultimately rallied to the Hanoverian dynasty.1 The women of his family were pious and superstitious, and he grew up in an atmosphere of ghost stories, and was tormented by diabolical visions.2 His father, however, had provided him with a French tutor who made him read Candide at the age of ten.3 The loose morality of the time and the weakening of religious faith, at any rate among the enlightened classes, were universally admitted and deplored.4 But this break-up of existing moral standards was really only hiding the birth of a new world. A new era was beginning for western society. In France, the 'century of Louis XIV' was coming to an end, the period which had opened with Descartes' 'Discourse on Method' and closed with the book by Voltaire which has named and immortalised it, the classical century, the century of law and order; while the century of the Revolution was signalled by the Esprit des Lois and by the first writings of Rousseau, the Romantic century, the century of an emancipation at once religious, intellectual and moral. In England Hume was publishing his Inquiry into the Human Understanding, and Hartley his Observations on Man. This was the beginning of the Utilitarian century, the century of the Industrial Revolution, of the economists and of the great inventors. The crisis had been brewing for fifty years: two names contemporaneous with the Revolution of 1688 symbolise the new era: -- ' Locke and Newton',

____________________
1
Bentham, Works, Bowring edition, vol. x. p. 2.
2
Bowring, vol. x. pp. 13, 19, 21.
3
Bowring, vol. x. p. 11.
4
On the critical nature of this period of history see especially Hartley Observations on Man, Conclusion.

-5-

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