“Living” Philosophy: Jeremy Bentham’s Auto-Icon

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Jeremy Bentham’s “auto-icon,” still on display at University College London.

Shortly before his death on June 6, 1832, Jeremy Bentham, English philosopher and the founder of modern utilitarianism, left detailed instructions for his body to be dissected, preserved, and placed in a wooden case, to be exhibited at the University of London and wheeled out for important administrative meetings. Known today as Bentham’s “auto-icon” (self-image), his post-taxidermy skeleton is still on display at the end of the South Cloisters in the main building of University College London (UCL), propped in a sitting position and outfitted with Bentham’s own clothes, plus a wax head.

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Bentham’s preserved head

Bentham’s actual head currently resides in the Conservation Safe at the UCL Institute of Archaeology. Before that it had been on exhibit with the rest of the philosopher’s remains until in 1975, students from King’s College London — rival to UCL for over 200 years — stole the head and demanded a ransom of ₤100. In desperation, UCL finally agreed to pay ₤10, after which the head was returned and moved to storage. Todd Buchholz, writing of this incident, quips that it “just shows how difficult it is to measure fecundity and purity” (two key principles of Bentham’s method for calculating the economic value of pleasure versus pain).

The official website of the “UCL Bentham Project” recounts a number of legends about the auto-icon. “Its presence, it is claimed, is always recorded in the minutes with the words ‘Jeremy Bentham – present but not voting,’ ” the website explains. “Another version of the story asserts that the Auto-Icon does vote, but only on occasions when the votes of the other Council members are equally split. In these cases the Auto-Icon invariably votes for the motion.” Readers are assured that Bentham’s presence at these meetings is just a myth, but who knows for sure…

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Jeremy Bentham, the “founder of the greatest happiness system of morals and legislation.”

Bentham’s will is clear about why he bequeathed his body to UCL in the first place. “If it should so happen that my personal friends and other disciples should be disposed to meet together on some day or days of the year for the purpose of commemorating the founder of the greatest happiness system of morals and legislation,” reads the will, “my executor will from time to time cause to be conveyed to the room in which they meet the said box or case with the contents therein to be stationed in such part of the room as to the assembled company shall seem meet.” However morbid or conceited, instruction for the auto-icon to preside at meetings certainly makes commemorating Jeremy Bentham’s ideas an unforgettable experience.

 

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