The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism

By Elie Halévy; Mary Morris | Go to book overview

FOREWORD

BENTHAM had just published his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legistation when the French Revolution broke out; in the universal upheaval the book passed unnoticed. In the preceding year he had entrusted Dumont with the publication of the French edition of his Principes de Droit Civil et Pénal; it was not until fourteen years later, at the end of the revolutionary period, that the Traités de Législation appeared in Paris. In political economy, Bentham was a disciple of Adam Smith, and his Defence of Usury met with some success; in the reaction which was then raging in England, years were to pass before Adam Smith's ideas recovered their popularity: Along with Howard, Bentham became known as the author of a project for reforming the penitentiary system; but the mind of the public was at this time disturbed by other preoccupations, and the Panopticon became, for Bentham, simply a cause of disappointment and of ruin. Thus it is not surprising that even when he was in the house of Lord Lansdowne, the Lord Shelburne of former years, one of the heads of the 'Jacobin' faction, and even when in relations with the revolutionaries of France, Bentham, a victim of the French Revolution, maintained a position of systematic hostility to the equalitarian and democratic principle. From the year 1789, in fact, there was as it were a pause in the history of Bentham's thought.

But what is true of Bentham's thought is not true of the Utilitarian doctrine. Alongside of Bentham, and independently of him, it was developing, and was being transformed and continually enriched by new principles. The Revolution, and the European crisis which it brought about, urgently confronted public opinion with the question whether both the exercise of political power and the enjoyment of wealth should not be more equally divided among citizens. A lengthy controversy began, provoked by the events in France. Burke, Mackintosh, Paine, Godwin and Malthus contributed to it in works which have remained classical. Now all these men, to whatever party they might belong, Godwin no less than Burke, Malthus no less than Godwin, were supporters of the principle of utility. It is clear that the doctrine of utility was becoming the universal philosophy in England, and that reformers were forced to speak the language

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