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The mummy of the philosopher who still receives students from the University of London

Static, with a benevolent look and an incipient smile on his lips, Professor Jeremy Bentham personally receives the hundreds of students who daily swarm through the hall of the study center of the University College of London (UCL).

The neat black frock coat and ruffled blouse contrast with the modern building, but no one faults Bentham for his attire being a bit out of date: the philosopher died almost 200 years ago.

His ideas, however, are still very topical. He advocated for the separation between Church and State, for the abolition of slavery, physical punishment and the death penalty, for equal rights for women, freedom of expression, the right to divorce, individual freedoms and economic and even -although this was never published in life- for the rights of homosexuals.

The entrance “hall” of the UCL, presided over by the window of Jeremy Bentham. UCL

His influence spread among the liberators of Latin America and he even corresponded with Simón Bolívar. Two centuries later, many of these struggles are still going on.

“Spiritual Founder”

Bentham, creator of the doctrine of “utilitarianism” -which defends that the best action is the one that produces greater happiness or pleasure to a greater number of people-, died in 1832 and, by express wishhis body was dissected and dressed in his clothes so that he could continue to be present in case his friends missed him.

Since 1850 it has been exhibited at the UCL, where due to its revolutionary ideas and absolutely ahead of its time, it is considered the “spiritual founder” of the institution.

Legend has it that Bentham is still a part of academic council meetings, where he is always recorded in the minutes as “present but without vote”, except on occasions when the council is divided on a proposal. In that case, ensures the myth, always vote in favor.

“This is obviously not true,” confirms with a laugh Philip Schofield, Professor of the History of Political and Legal Thought at UCL and director of the Bentham Projectwho is working on a new critical edition of the thinker’s work.

The legend perhaps has its origin in 1976 when, for the 150th anniversary of the university’s founding, his “self-icon” (or self-image), as he called it, was brought to the council. He most recently returned in 2013, for the farewell of the then rector.

Jeremy Bentham (wearing hat) participates in a meeting of the academic council of University College London.  UCL

Jeremy Bentham (wearing hat) participates in a meeting of the academic council of University College London. UCL

His personal physician, Dr. Thomas Southwood Smith, was in charge of his mummification and preserving his body. Bentham had requested that it be done using the technique used by the New Zealand Maori, although the result was more than questionable.

The head was disfigured, although they were able to place the Cristal eyes that he himself chose and that he carried in his pocket during the last years of his life. As the result was not considered up to the character, and more than serving as inspiration it could sow terror, he commissioned a wax head with his good-natured countenance. Inside his suit he put his skeleton and a padding.

A mummy sitting at the table

For two decades, Southwood Smith showed the mummy to visitors, “and even sat him at the table during dinners,” Schofield reveals.

But one day the doctor moved into a smaller house and Bentham became a nuisance. In 1850 he donated it to UCL, where it has remained ever since.

His head was exposed for years at the feet of the philosopher and even was kidnapped in 1975 by students at King’s College London, who asked for a reward of £100, to be paid to a charity. UCL, of course, paid up and got the relic back. The skull is now kept out of sight at the Institute of Archaeology.


Jeremy Bentham’s “self-icon” in its former location, with mummified head to toe. UCL

“He was an extraordinary thinker, full of ideas,” explains Schofield, who has spent more than 37 years studying the figure of the philosopher.

Born in London in 1748 into a wealthy family, he studied law under pressure from his father, but decided early on that rather than become a wealthy barrister, his mission in life had to be to reform the law.

His thinking, however, became more radical over the years, and at the end of his days he came to the conclusion that it was not enough to reform the law, but that it was necessary to start from scratch.

He defended republicanism, advocated getting rid of the monarch, the aristocracy and the House of Lords, as well as the Anglican Church. Concepts that, for the moment, do not seem to have permeated British society.

The panopticthe concept of prison architecture that has served as a model for prisons around the world, such as the Model Prison in Cuba – where Fidel Castro was – or the Panopticon in Colombia, is also his work.

Too radical for Bolívar

His reformist ideas had an enormous influence among the liberators of Latin America, where he arrived through the French translations of the Swiss Étienne Dumont.

Between 1830 and 1840 the two political parties in Colombia were known as the “Benthamistas”, whose main figure was Francisco de Paula Santander, and the “anti-Benthamistas”, with Bolívar as a reference.

“Simón Bolívar corresponded with Jeremy Bentham, but ended up disliking him because he thought his ideas were too radical,” Schofield recounted. The traces of the philosopher are also found in the Argentina of Bernardino Rivadavia and in the Mexico of the liberal thinker José María Luis Mora.

Shortly after his death, University College received more than 100,000 documents of his writings, some of which, like those that collect his ideas on sexual morality, are still being deciphered today.

Bentham opposed criminal prosecution of homosexuality, and accused his contemporaries of hypocrisy because, while they admired ancient Greek and Roman thinkers known to have had sex with men, they condemned homosexuality.

Jeremy Bentham welcomes students from UCL.

Jeremy Bentham welcomes students from UCL.

But all of these ideas about sexual morality were kept secret because, as Schofield explains, Bentham thought they were too far ahead of his time and would destroy his reputation, nullifying everything he had written before.

His last wish was possibly one of the most radical. Although some have wanted to see in the “self-icon” a joke for posterity, or even a reflection of a narcissistic personality, researchers today point to the prolongation of a groundbreaking life: “It can be interpreted as a gesture against religion, monopolizing of death. He advocated religious freedom and he didn’t want to pay the priest to be buried”, interprets Scholfield.

Is it in bad taste? “Of course he is, but he is a volunteer, he wants to challenge viewers on the notion of good or bad taste,” says the academic. last performance? Also, “instead of being remembered with a sculpture he creates an image with his own body, something completely subversive,” he argues.

Two centuries later, the old professor continues to create controversy.

Source: Elcomercio

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