Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Bentham and Hobbes: An Issue of Influence

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Bentham and Hobbes: An Issue of Influence

Article excerpt

Historians of political thought commonly assume that the similarities in the thought of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) are the product of Bentham's reading of Hobbes and infer that Bentham was in a certain sense a disciple of Hobbes.1 This has been generally true through the past one hundred years of scholarship, from the commentator writing at the end of the nineteenth century who had no doubt that Bentham's "chief ideas and methods are to be found in Hobbes," to the end of the last century when Gerald Postema insisted that Bentham was "a careful student of Hobbes."2 In between George Sabine argued that Hobbes's political philosophy "affected the whole later history of moral and political thought," but its powerful "positive influence" was most fully felt in the nineteenth century when his ideas were incorporated into the thinking of the utilitarians.3 The implication of Sabine's comment was that Hobbes's influence was not always of the positive sort. In other words, if one can conceive of influence being positive then it can also be negative, and Hobbes had just such an influence on many who read him until his ideas became respectable in the hands of Bentham and his associates.4 John Plamenatz concurred. Bentham, he wrote, "lived in the shadow of Hobbes" and, together with James Mill, came close to "an uncritical acceptance" of Hobbes's doctrines.5 Because Bentham abandoned Hobbes's "vocabulary" (laws of nature, natural rights, covenant, and so forth) "the difference between them appears so much greater than it is," claimed Plamenatz. But eliminate the troublesome phrases from Hobbes's writings and what remains, save for Hobbes's extravagant fear of anarchy, is strikingly similar to the fundamental political doctrines of Bentham.6

At the heart of the syndrome of ideas that the utilitarians are assumed to have inherited from Hobbes is the belief that the methods of physical science were the proper models for political explanation.7 William Bluhm wrote that the mechanistic and naturalistic framework in which Hobbes couched his theory was not to be approached in the literature of political theory until Bentham set forth his felicific calculus. Since the time of Hobbes, Bluhm argued, Bentham stands out as the great exception to the history of neglect that has been the general fate of mathematical forms of analysis in the study of politics (until the second half of the twentieth century).8 Moreover, in postulating man as a rational actor motivated by selfish interest and in suggesting that it is in the interest of the ruler to govern in the majority interest as the best way of preserving his own power, Bluhm argued that Hobbes provided "an interesting echo ... of a central Benthamic principle, [and thus] good evidence that Hobbes is the forerunner of Utilitarianism."9 The views of Sabine, Plamenatz, and Bluhm found an impressive echo in John Bowle's influential Hobbes and his Critics, where Hobbes is described as "a forerunner of the Benthamite school of political thought."10 It is with this kind of understanding in mind, that W. H. Greenleaf commented, "it is no accident that the modern revival of interest in Hobbesian ideas is associated with the utilitarians...."11

Oddly, these commentators have remarkably few references to Hobbes in Bentham's writings to work with. …

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