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Bentham, Jeremy (1748-1832)  
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Despite this fierce national animus and the lack of support for his liberal views, Bentham returned repeatedly to the subject throughout fifty years. In the end, he wrote over five hundred pages, mainly in five different periods--1774, 1785, 1814, 1816-1818, and 1824. This is astonishing when we realize that no essay on homosexuality appeared in English until John Addington Symonds printed ten copies of his A Problem in Greek Ethics for private use in 1883. We may appreciate the difficulties scholars who attempted to enlighten the public faced when we recall that the first book on the topic published in England, Havelock Ellis's Sexual Inversion, was suppressed by the courts as obscene in 1898.

The twenty-five pages of miscellaneous fragments Bentham wrote in 1774 take note of the intensity of English antihomosexual sentiment and contrast this with the tolerance of ancient Greece and Rome. In 1785, Bentham prepared a formal essay in a polished and coherent style, apparently meant for circulation. It is not clear what prompted this unique effort. Under the stimulus of treatises by Cesare Beccaria, Montesquieu, and Voltaire, law reform had received a powerful stimulus in Europe.

Nevertheless, in some rough manuscript notes preceding his essay, Bentham expresses his private anxiety about writing on this topic and dramatically reveals the distance of his perceptions from his countrymen's. "On this subject," he writes, "a man may indulge his spleen without control. Cruelty and intolerance, the most odious and mischievous passions in human nature, screen themselves behind a mask of virtue."

Perhaps Bentham prepared the essay for circulation among his French disciples since it seems especially to address continental opinion. We do not know if it helped persuade members of the French Constituent Assembly to decriminalize (hitherto a capital crime) in the revolutionary Code Pénal of 1791. Voltaire and Montesquieu had both opposed the death penalty for sodomy but had seen social dangers in its practice. Voltaire speculated that it was a threat to population, Montesquieu feared its effeminizing influence might weaken a nation's military strength.

In reply, Bentham gives instances of tolerant societies that suffered from overpopulation, and cites Julius Caesar and such Greek generals as Agesilaus, Xenophon, Themistocles, Aristides, Alcibiades, and Alexander as instances of bisexual men whose military prowess was remarkable.

Bentham regarded prejudice against homosexuals simply as an irrational hatred and antipathy. It is one of the distinctions of his later writings (from 1814 on) that he identifies what we now call and directs his efforts to analyzing it. In Bentham's view, it was this negative bias that needed explanation, not the phenomenon of same-sex desire. He finds its origin in religious asceticism inspired by the superstitious fear of a vengeful deity and in the desire of men who lead profligate lives to gain a reputation for virtue by damning a sin they are not inclined to.

He excoriates the contemporary press for intensifying popular prejudice by an unvaried tone of vituperation that made rational debate impossible. With respect to contemporary literature, Bentham takes to task Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, and certain French and German novelists for introducing homophobic episodes in their fiction.

But Bentham does not stop at countering negative attitudes toward homosexuality. Utilitarian ethics held that pleasure was good and pain bad. Its aim was to maximize the former and minimize the latter. In reviewing varieties of unorthodox sexual conduct, Bentham argues for the "beneficial effects of certain of these modes of enjoyment," that is, homosexuality. In his view, this was a harmless and pleasurable form of sexual behavior that did not have bad consequences such as unwanted pregnancies, abortion, infanticide, and female prostitution.

Of special interest is a detailed proposal Bentham wrote out in the form of a prospectus addressed to William Beckford in 1817. Beckford, the wealthiest man in England and the author of a famous romance, had been wholly ostracized by English society for some three decades on account of a homosexual scandal. Bentham, who had known Beckford slightly before his disgrace, seems to be suggesting that they collaborate on a book.

The work was to be a defense of homosexuality that would appeal to utilitarian values as against "gloomy and antisocial" ideals derived from Calvinist religion. It was to have three chapters devoted to literary and historical topics--perhaps Bentham thought that Beckford as a literary man could help him here. What inspired Bentham to contemplate this approach to the millionaire recluse is unknown; presumably Beckford never saw the document since it breaks off unfinished.

The title Bentham proposed for their joint effort had a startling ring: He suggested calling it "Not Paul but Jesus." Though the collaboration never took place, Bentham pressed ahead in the next two years with a sketch for a book that would critically analyze biblical attitudes toward homosexuality.

This pioneering work in biblical studies adumbrated Derrick Sherwin Bailey's Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition, which appeared in 1955.

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