Nonsense upon Stilts

Jeremy Bentham (15 February 1748 – 6 June 1832) was an English philosopher, jurist, and social reformer regarded as the founder of modern utilitarianism.

Bentham defined as the “fundamental axiom” of his philosophy the principle that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.” He became a leading theorist in Anglo-American philosophy of law, and a political radical whose ideas influenced the development of welfarism. He advocated individual and economic freedoms, the separation of church and state, freedom of expression, equal rights for women, the right to divorce, and (in an unpublished essay) the decriminalizing of homosexual acts. He called for the abolition of slavery, capital punishment and physical punishment, including that of children. He has also become known as an early advocate of animal rights. Though strongly in favour of the extension of individual legal rights, he opposed the idea of natural law and natural rights (both of which are considered “divine” or “God-given” in origin), calling them “nonsense upon stilts”. Bentham was also a sharp critic of legal fictions.

Bentham’s students included his secretary and collaborator James Mill, the latter’s son, John Stuart Mill, the legal philosopher John Austin, as well as Robert Owen, one of the founders of utopian socialism. He “had considerable influence on the reform of prisons, schools, poor laws, law courts, and Parliament itself.”

John Stuart Mill – though a typical British windbag of armchair philosophy – had nonetheless a deep appreciation of human nature.  Consider for example his comment in the 1820s upon John Austin:

The dissatisfaction with life and the world, felt more or less in the present state of society and intellect by every discerning and highly conscientious mind, gave in his case a rather melancholy tinge to the character, very natural to those whose passive moral susceptibilities are more than proportioned to their active energies.”

Excerpt From: John Stuart Mill “Autobiography

John Stuart Mill (20 May 1806 – 7 May 1873), usually cited as J. S. Mill, was a British philosopher, political economist, and civil servant. One of the most influential thinkers in the history of classical liberalism, he contributed widely to social theory, political theory, and political economy. Dubbed “the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century”, Mill’s conception of liberty justified the freedom of the individual in opposition to unlimited state and social control.

A member of the Liberal Party and author of the early feminist work The Subjection of Women, he was also the second Member of Parliament to call for women’s suffrage after Henry Hunt in 1832.

These “young men of the higher classes“, sons of bankers and those who “made money by contracts during the war“, persons who had the prospect of being rich by inheritance, were as such incredible yet they often spoke convincingly in favour of social reform and improvement. It is ironic that those of means are challenged for having no persuasive interest; whereas those without means are challenged for having patent self-interest. No wonder philosophy became the acceptable middle ground – ostensibly the one arena in which only the dedicated and capable mind is worthy of notice. It was likewise undeniable that access to the political system was – and for the most part still is – confined to select few. Merely writing about morality or social contract did nothing to advance the cause.

The theories of these great minds were secured upon practical recommendations:

“I became practically conversant with the necessities of compromise, the art of sacrificing the non-essential to preserve the essential. I learnt how to obtain the best I could, when I could not obtain everything; instead of being indignant or dispirited because I could not have entirely my own way, to be pleased and encouraged when I could have the smallest part of it; and when even that could not be, to bear with complete equanimity the being overruled altogether. I have found, through life, these acquisitions to be of the greatest possible importance for personal happiness, and they are also a very necessary condition for enabling anyone, either as theorist or as practical man, to effect the greatest amount of good compatible with his opportunities.”

Excerpt From: John Stuart Mill “Autobiography”

The theme of happiness surfaces once again not only regarding self-satisfaction but also self-realization. It is clearly a prescription for life on earth not a mandate for life hereafter. The focus is far from spiritual. During Mill’s lifetime even the books examining not the truth but the usefulness of religious belief – the opinion of its necessity for moral and social purposes – he considered as full of contradictions and perverting to the moral sentiments as any of the forms of Christianity. Whew!  Didn’t see that coming!

In the heat of this pandemic environment, the favoured and once flavoured profane topics of discussion (music, entertainment, travel, food, real estate, automobiles, cosmetics, jewellery and clothing) have dwindled to those abstruse considerations prompted by what one reads as a diversion from topics of disinfection and isolation. Even the stock market – apart from its volatility – has evaporated as a subject of serious immediate and meaningful debate. The inescapable rage is that we haven’t a clue how long or at what cost the disease will endure. Nor is it likely that the most cogent intellectual deliberations – whether from the ground up or from the atmosphere down – will have any potency. The demon is not of an abstract moral or political nature. It is a universal scourge of indiscriminate application. Everyone from Hollywood stars to national politicians is susceptible. The unstable and fictitious boundaries between people are crumbling.

The Black Death, also known as the Pestilence, Great Bubonic Plague, the Great Plague or the Plague, or less commonly the Great Mortality or the Black Plague, was the most devastating pandemic recorded in human history, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 75 to 200 millionpeople in Eurasia, peaking in Europe from 1347 to 1351. The bacterium Yersinia pestis, which results in several forms of plague (septicemic, pneumonic and, the most common, bubonic), is believed to have been the cause. The Black Death was the first major European outbreak of plague and the second plague pandemic. The plague created a number of religious, social and economic upheavals, with profound effects on the course of European history.

The Black Death probably originated in Central Asia or East Asia, from where it travelled along the Silk Road, reaching Crimea by 1343. From there, it was most likely carried by fleas living on the black rats that traveled on Genoese merchant ships, spreading throughout the Mediterranean Basin, reaching the rest of Europe via the Italian peninsula.

Amusingly the ramifications are as toxic and as wildly polarized as ever they were – socially, politically and religiously. The fodder for assertion of almost any ilk is daily surfacing, not the least of which is the abhorrence of foreigners of any description.  Borders worldwide have closed.  It is like putting the lid on a bottle of perfume – the hum lingers. Familiarity of any scope has become scandalized and sanitized. Family is no longer a licence for impunity. We have at once graduated to an isolationism of both generic and abstract significance. But we cannot escape our own nature – the good or the bad, human or animal – nor its inherent susceptibilities.

Sitting in my armchair in the drawing room, dare I to open the window? To let in the stench of impermanence? Where can I fly with abandonment? Whither shall I direct my mind?