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NATURE OF THE AGE IN WHICH BENTHAM LIVED. HIS
(i) GENERAL CONDITIONS
WE have already seen, in the preceding essay on Beccaria, what were the characteristics of the eighteenth century in Europe generally. The observations there made may be supplemented by a few remarks on the nature of the age in England. The character of Bentham's thought, work, and achievements, and of the entire reform movement will be then more readily realised. Bentham was born in the middle of the eighteenth century, at an epoch of transition, which constitutes an important and significant parting of the ways. A new world was being engendered; marked changes in the literary and philosophical movements, in political views, in social conditions, in religious conceptions, in economic doctrines, in class relationships, in men's attitude to life and to their fellow-creatures, were taking place. In France the “siècle de Louis XIV "–the classical epoch of law, order, regularity—is expiring; it is followed by the reactionary period of the Revolution, which was inaugurated in the world of thought and opinion by such heralds of innovation
as Montesquieu's monumental L’Esprit des lois (1748), and the
early writings of Rousseau. The “romantic" age—the age of intellectual, religious, and moral emancipation—is advancing. In England Hume's Inquiry into the Principles of Morals (1751), Political Discourses (1752) and other striking contributions, together with David Hartley's Observations on Man (1749), indicate a new departure in philanthropy, religion, social economy, and political and moral science. The epoch of utilitarianism, of the “industrial revolution,” of economists and inventors is commencing. This general transition had already been preparing for half a century, with the earlier impetus given
vto the new movement by the work of Locke and Newton."
* Cf. Halévy, op. cit., vol. i., pp. 1, 2, 152
“The distinctive virtues of the eighteenth century,” writes Lecky, “were not those which spring from passionate or definite religious convictions. For these we must look rather to the two centuries that preceded it. In its closing years, it is true, the Methodist and Evangelical movements, and the strong conflicting passions aroused by the French Revolution, somewhat altered its character; but in general it was an unimpassioned and unheroic age, singularly devoid of both religious and political enthusiasm, and much more remarkable for intellectual than for
high moral achievements. It was pre-eminently a century of good sense; of sobriety of thought and action; of growing ######.o.o.o. extending knowledge; of great hopefulness about the future. In England, we must add to these characteristics a steady national progress; a free and temperate government; a constantly increasing respect for law; a remarkable absence of class warfare, and of great political and religious convulsions.” "
"The second half of the century shows a distinct advance, in respect of tone and manners, on the first half. Brutal and violent practices diminish; there is less of rank injustice generally. There is a growing feeling against the ill-treatment of slaves, and indeed against the whole traffic in them. Public opinion is being aroused about the horrible nature of prisons, of public executions, the abuses of the pillory. Legislation is becoming somewhat more rational and practical; attention is beginning to be directed to police organisation and to the condition of the roads; there is a diminution in the offences of highway robbery, piracy, smuggling, and kidnapping; proneness to riots and public disturbances is lessened. The practice of recruiting for the army and navy becomes less irregular and haphazard. Public amusements are losing much of their former grossness. The treatment of subordinates, including servants and children, is becoming more human.” It is true that as the century is drawing to its close, we find complaints of increasing vice in the upper sections of society; but a few examples furnish no proof of general conditions. As Lecky well says: “Each generation has its censors who pronounce it to be altogether extraordinary in its depravity, and these denunciations are sometimes even a sign of progress, for they merely show that men are more conscious of the evils around them; have raised their standard of excellence, and have learned to lay an increased stress upon moral improvement. This was very eminently the case at the close of the last century [i.e. the eighteenth] when the Methodist and Evangelical movements were at their height.” " The association of individualism and utilitarianism with the spirit of philanthropy was a significant feature of the time. (In the case of the Continent, we have already seen this in the preceding essay; witness the writings of Beccaria, Rousseau, Voltaire, and the Encyclopaedists.) The essential attributes of individualism—independence, energy, self-reliance—were widely emphasised as being the sine qua non of political and social salvation. Speaking generally, we *...*.*.*. and first principles of politics, law, bias Science engaged but little the attention of Englishmen; they were concerned more with practical details, isolated abuses and irregularities that had become gross and intolerable. Utilitarianism insists on concrete facts, observation, and the drawing of conclusions in accordance therewith. It adopts thus the empirical method, and so shows itself to be in harmony with the individualistic point of view, which looks to facts and particular interests rather than to comprehensive and coherent theories. Further, utilitarianism had regard not to the exclusive welfare of this or that section of the community, but to the greatest happiness of the greatest number. And so a notable characteristic of the utilitarian movement came to be an increasing spirit of humanity and philanthropy, coupled—and inevitably so—with an ardent desire for reform. To this end various causes contributed, such as, in the first place, the rapid development of the Press, which more and more revealed striking cases of suffering and abuse hitherto for the most part unobserved; secondly, the irrepressible democratic expansion, which was so powerfully aided by the industrial evolution and the growing wealth of the middle classes; and lastly, the Evangelical revival. During the greater part of the eighteenth century there was really less demand—as compared, say, with the present time— for measures of charity and philanthropy. Industry was less liable to fluctuate. The division of classes was more marked, and the relationship between them remained more clearly defined and more stable. The standard of comfort was lower, extreme want was, comparatively, rarer. The poor law system was most generously—and most unwisely—administered. Measures of legislation were limited to a few spheres. Attempts were made indeed to regulate commercial interests and to prevent crime—in many cases, as we shall see later, with signal ill success. Some provisions were made respecting private madhouses, and the treatment of children employed to sweep chimneys. But little was done, in the way of broad legislative changes, to remedy social abuses in general, and to alleviate the sufferings of the poor. The operation of the law of settlement (dating from the year 1662) had wrought much evil among the labouring classes. It tended actually to engender pauperism. Each parish, in its endeavour to keep down the rates and avoid the burden of maintaining the poor, could prevent the immigration of labourers or even expel them if they were likely to become chargeable. Thus, there was brought about a factitious interference with the free circulation of labour—the only saleable commodity possessed by the poor. Adam Smith denounced the law as a “violation of natural liberty and justice.” He declared that it was frequently a more difficult task for a poor man to cross the artificial boundaries of his parish than to cross a mountain ridge or an arm of the sea; and he believed there was scarcely a poor man over forty in England who had not been at some time or other “cruelly oppressed" by the application of this law. For the rest, the few enactments relating to Sunday observance, gaming, lotteries, disorderly houses were totally inadequate for the regulation of habits and the prevention of private vices. What legislation failed to do, benevolence and philanthropy attempted to supply. Charity organisations in London represented noteworthy efforts. What with foundling hospitals, Magdalen asylums, societies for training destitute boys as sailors, for aiding persons imprisoned for small debts, and discharged prisoners, it seems that the poor, the abandoned, the unfortunate were not altogether forgotten. Large sums of money were sometimes raised to assist prisoners of war, or soldiers and their families; and foreign appeals were not disregarded. Towards the end of the century, this benevolent spirit was, with the softening of manners, still further promoted, especially by the Evangelicals, who established numerous religious organisations 156 BENTHAM
*History of England in the Eighteenth Century, vol. vi (1887), chap. xxiii, pp. 270, 271. * Ibid., pp. 267, 268.
and educational societies. Indeed this growing kindliness elicited at times some hostility. Thus Fielding was blamed for palliating the vices injurious to society and corrupting the rising generation; he was reproved for setting the fashion of reducing virtue merely to the exercise of good affections, instead of regarding it as the fulfilment of moral obligations, and of representing “goodness of heart" as a sufficient substitute for probity." Hannah More observes that the time in which she lived was conspicuously an age of benevolence and liberality. But she thinks it was “the fashion rather to consider benevolence as a substitute for Christianity, than as an evidence of it. . . . It seems to be one of the reigning errors among the better sort to reduce all religion into benevolence, and all benevolence into almsgiving.”.” The current of humanitarianism, so closely allied to that of Evangelicalism, was gaining in momentum at the end of the eighteenth century and at the beginning of the nineteenth. It contributed greatly to the enactment of a large number of beneficial measures (which will be referred to hereafter), and prepared the way for the decisive triumph of Benthamism. The essence of humanitarianism is a deep-rooted aversion from physical pain or moral suffering, together with the consequent desire to put an end to all manifest forms of cruelty, oppression, injustice. “This passionate humanitarianism,” says Professor Dicey, “opposed though it was to much popular indifference as regards various forms of cruelty,” was shared by philanthropists of every school, with many men whose fear of Jacobinical principles made them shun the name of reformers. In the detestation of cruelty, Benthamite free-thinkers, Whig philanthropists, such as Fox, Tory humanitarians, such as Pitt, and Evangelicals who followed Wilberforce, were substantially at one. On this subject, men divided by the widest political and theological differences stood side by side; there was here no difference between Burke and Bentham, or between Wesley and his biographer Southey. Common humanitarianism was a strong bond of union between men who on other matters were stern opponents; William Smith, a leading Unitarian, or, in the language of the time, Socinian, and
* Sir John Hawkins, Life of Johnson (London, 1787), pp. 214, 215.
* “An estimate of the religion of the fashionable world" (1790), in Works, vol. xi, pp. 87-91.
* “E.g. sports, such as bull-baiting or prize fights, of which the one was defended by Windham, the friend and disciple of Burke and of Johnson, and the other was patronised on principle by a statesman so kindly and so religious as Lord Althorp.”