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Bentham, Jeremy (1748-1832)  
 
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The English philosopher, jurist, economist, and political scientist Jeremy Bentham argued for a tolerant attitude toward homosexuality in a series of papers first published in full in 1985.

Bentham was the leader of the so-called utilitarian school of ethics that held that the aim of legislation should be the "greatest happiness of the greatest number." He was the most notable law reformer the English-speaking world has ever produced; in this role, his influence extended not only to Britain and the United States but also to France, Spain, and Latin America. Several of the emerging republics of South and Central America consulted him in drawing up their constitutions and law codes. In the Hispanic world, he was hailed as "el legislador del mundo."

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Madame de Staël, a French observer with a wide knowledge of European politics and literature, thought her age should be known not as the age of Bonaparte or Byron, but as the age of Bentham. His international reputation was established by his Principles of Morals and Legislation, which appeared in the fateful year of 1789. Napoleon, for whom law reform was an issue of prime concern, called it a "work of genius."

Bentham, however, wrote far more than he published. The survey of his career that appeared in the Dictionary of National Biography in 1885 noted that a vast number of treatises, complete or unfinished, existed in manuscript at the time of his death, and conjectured that "owing to the almost insuperable difficulties in deciphering Bentham's handwriting in the later years, much of it has perhaps never been read."

Among these all but illegible papers were hundreds of pages, written at intervals over half a century, which make a contribution to what we would today call "gay studies." Bentham did not dare to publish any of them during his lifetime. Though a fragment of twenty-two pages appeared in print in 1931, no comprehensive account of the scope and significance of this impressive body of materials was published until 1985.

Bentham's primary interest in homosexuality arose in connection with law reform. In his day, men convicted under the English "" statute were regularly hanged, a punishment public opinion enthusiastically applauded in England long after executions had ceased in the rest of Europe. Nor was this harsh policy challenged anywhere in the public press or legal scholarship.

Bentham's task as reformer was made difficult not just by the force of English prejudice, but also by the absolute taboo on public discussion of homosexuality. In law books and in parliamentary debate, homosexual behavior was referred to stereotypically by the Latin formula, "peccatum illud horribile, inter Christianos non nominandum"--"that horrible crime not to be named among Christians." Bentham candidly admits in his notes the extreme fear he felt at the idea of making public his liberal opinions on the subject.

In order to counter British hostility, Bentham appealed to classical history and literature and to contemporary anthropological knowledge. The sketchy nature of his information shows how lacking scholarly sources were in his day. Bentham's work was a truly pioneering effort. Though he had been an outstanding student of Greek and Latin at Westminster School, his knowledge of classical texts bearing on homosexuality was limited largely to Thucydides' History, Xenophon's Symposium and Anabasis, Plutarch's Lives, Suetonius, Cicero's speeches, and Pliny's letters.

He was, moreover, aware of the poetry of Catullus, Horace, and Virgil. He cites especially Virgil's Corydon eclogue and, interestingly, in light of Byron's contemporary response, singles out the Nisus and Euryalus story in the Aeneid as evidence that the Romans condoned male love. Astonishingly, he seems ignorant of Plato's Symposium and Phaedrus, a circumstance that demonstrates how much Plato was neglected by students of the classics in Bentham's day.

Among the unpublished notes for 1774 is a brief, curious literary jeu d'esprit, which combines the satirical style of Swift with much imaginative fantasy, bearing the odd title, "Castrations to Mr. B, from the Daemon of Socrates." It makes the point that though Socrates declined to be seduced by Alcibiades, such relations were commonly accepted in his society. The portrayal of Socrates draws on Xenophon rather than Plato.

Bentham seems to have been quite isolated in arguing for a tolerant attitude to homosexuality. He complains that in England "nothing less than the heart's blood of the victims marked out for slaughter" could appease popular hatred; he describes the face of a judge who had just sentenced two men to hang as glistening with "delight and exultation."

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