Academic journal article Helios

Auto-Iconicity and Its Vicissitudes: Bentham and Plato

Academic journal article Helios

Auto-Iconicity and Its Vicissitudes: Bentham and Plato

Article excerpt


Jeremy Bentham's last wish was that after his death his body be publicly dissected and then preserved and exhibited. The ideas behind this somewhat extraordinary wish are elaborated in his work entitled Auto-Icon; Or, Farther Uses of the Dead to the Living. (1) While other philosophers who reflect on death are mostly concerned with the destiny of the soul after the death of the body, Bentham, in his Auto-Icon, is concerned exclusively with the destiny of the dead body, that is, the body that the soul has left. Accordingly, whereas other philosophers' reflections on death most often take the form of meditations on the immortality of the soul and completely disregard the postmortem fate of the body, Bentham's reflections on death take the form of meditations on the body--first and foremost on his own dead body--and disregard the destiny of the soul. As a treatise on the author's own dead body, Bentham's Auto-Icon is perhaps the only work of its kind, thus constituting its own genre, for which Bentham coined a new term: for the description of one's own death and the subsequent fate of the body, he proposed the term auto-thanatography as a natural sequel to one's autobiography. (2)

While people generally find the very thought of death or dead bodies revolting, by contrast in Bentham's eyes it is the dead bodies--bodies of animals and humans, preserved after death "in the torrid regions of Africa," "in the ice of the poles," "in the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii," "in rocks," and in "bogs, impregnated with tannine matter"--which provide "valuable materials for thought" (1). While others, as a rule, rarely talk about death, particularly not their own, Bentham said of his own death, and of the fate of his body after death, that "for many a year the subject has been a favourite one at my table" (2).

A good example of the way people generally try at all costs to ward off the idea of their own death can be found in Leo Tolstoy's novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich. There, not only do all the friends of the recently deceased Ivan Ilyich behave "as though death were a chance experience that could happen only to Ivan Ilyich" (3) and not to themselves, but Ivan Ilyich himself dies believing that death is an experience that happens only to others and not to himself:

  Ivan Ilyich saw that he was dying, and he was in a constant state of
    In the depth of his heart he knew he was dying, but not only was he
  unaccustomed to such an idea, he simply could not grasp it, could not
  grasp it at all.
    The syllogism he had learned from Kiesewetter's logic--"Caius is a
  man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal"--had always seemed to
  him correct as applied to Caius, but by no means to himself. That man
  Caius represented man in the abstract, and so the reasoning was
  perfectly sound; but he was not Caius, not an abstract man; he had
  always been a creature quite, quite distinct from all the others....
    Caius really was mortal, and it was only right that he should die,
  but for him. Vanya, Ivan Ilyich, with all his thoughts and feelings,
  it was something else again. And it simply was not possible that he
  should have to die. That would be too terrible. (4)

Although Ivan Ilyich is terminally ill, he still thinks that it will be Caius, that is, "man in the abstract," who will die, not he himself.

Although Bentham wrote his Auto-Icon shortly before his death and referred to it as his "last work," (5) he betrays in the treatise no fear of death; instead, he reflects on his own death just as objectively as he reflects upon everything else, that is, from the viewpoint of its possible utility. Although his writing was usually cold and dull, this utilitarian sage, when writing his auto-thanatography, becomes lively for the first time and does not even try to hide his enthusiasm in contemplating the postmortem fate of his body. As a utilitarian, he was exclusively interested in how he could be of use to his fellow humans even after death, that is, in what way even his dead body could contribute to the happiness of the living. …

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