Jeremy Bentham’s Mummified Body Is Still on Display–Much Like Other Aging British Rock Stars

Plato’s ide­al of philoso­pher-kings seems more unlike­ly by the day, but most mod­ern read­ers of The Repub­lic don’t see his state as an improve­ment, with its rigid caste sys­tem and state con­trol over child­bear­ing and rear­ing. Plato’s Socrates did not love democ­ra­cy, though he did argue that men and women (those of the guardian class, at least) should receive an equal edu­ca­tion. So too did many promi­nent Euro­pean polit­i­cal philoso­phers of the 18th and 19th cen­turies, who had at least as much influ­ence on world affairs as Pla­to did on Athens, for bet­ter and worse.

One such thinker, Jere­my Ben­tham, is often remem­bered as the inven­tor of the panop­ti­con, a dystopi­an prison design that makes inmates inter­nal­ize their own sur­veil­lance, believ­ing they could be watched at any time by unseen eyes. Made infa­mous by Michel Fou­cault in the mid-20th cen­tu­ry, the pro­pos­al was first intend­ed as humane reform, con­sis­tent with the tenets of Bentham’s philo­soph­i­cal inno­va­tion, Util­i­tar­i­an­ism, often asso­ci­at­ed with his most famous dis­ci­ple, John Stu­art Mill.

Ben­tham may also have been one of the most pro­gres­sive sec­u­lar philoso­phers of any age—espousing full polit­i­cal rights for everyone—by which he actu­al­ly meant every­one, not only Euro­pean landown­ing men. “In his own time,” writes Faramerz Dab­hoi­wala at The Guardian, Ben­tham “was cel­e­brat­ed around the globe. Count­less prac­ti­cal efforts at social and polit­i­cal reform drew inspi­ra­tion from him. […] He was made an hon­orary cit­i­zen of rev­o­lu­tion­ary France, while the Guatemalan leader José del Valle acclaimed him as ‘the leg­is­la­tor of the world.’ Nev­er before or since has the Eng­lish-speak­ing world pro­duced a more polit­i­cal­ly engaged and inter­na­tion­al­ly influ­en­tial thinker across such a broad range of sub­jects.”

Ben­tham took the role seri­ous­ly, though there may be the seeds of a mor­bid prac­ti­cal joke in his last philo­soph­i­cal act.

As he lay dying in the spring of 1832, the great philoso­pher Jere­my Ben­tham left detailed direc­tions for the preser­va­tion of his corpse. First, it was to be pub­licly dis­sect­ed in front of an invit­ed audi­ence. Then, the pre­served head and skele­ton were to be reassem­bled, clothed, and dis­played ‘in the atti­tude in which I am sit­ting when engaged in thought and writ­ing.’ His desire to be pre­served for­ev­er was a polit­i­cal state­ment. As the fore­most sec­u­lar thinker of his time, he want­ed to use his body, as he had his mind, to defy reli­gious super­sti­tions and advance real, sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge. Almost 200 years lat­er, Ben­tham’s ‘auto-icon’ still sits, star­ing off into space, in the clois­ters of Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Lon­don.

His full-body par­o­dy of saints’ relics doesn’t just sit in Lon­don, in the “appro­pri­ate box or case” he spec­i­fied in his instruc­tions. It has also sat in its box in cities across Eng­land, Ger­many, and New York’s Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art. “Not unlike an aging British rock star,” writes Isaac Schultz at Atlas Obscu­ra, “the old­er he gets, the more tours he seems to go on. Some­times Bentham’s sev­ered, mum­mi­fied head,” with its ter­ri­fy­ing, unblink­ing glass eyes, “accom­pa­nies the rest of him.” Some­times it doesn’t.

The head, which was sup­posed to have been kept atop the ful­ly dressed skele­ton, was mis­han­dled and dam­aged in the cre­ation of the “auto-icon” and replaced by a wax repli­ca (sure­ly an acci­dent and not a way to mit­i­gate the creepi­ness). What did Ben­tham mean by all of this? And what is an “auto-icon”? Though it sounds like the sort of inscrutable prank Sal­vador Dali might have played at the end, Ben­tham described the idea straight­for­ward­ly in his pam­phlet Auto-Icon; or, Far­ther Uses of the Dead to the Liv­ing. The philoso­pher, says Han­nah Cor­nish, sci­ence cura­tor at the Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Lon­don, gen­uine­ly “thought it’d catch on.”

Pho­to via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

In his short, final work of moral phi­los­o­phy, Ben­tham shows that, like Pla­to, he didn’t quite get the point of mak­ing art, advanc­ing a the­o­ry that becom­ing one’s own icon would elim­i­nate the need for paint­ings, stat­ues, and the like, since “iden­ti­ty is prefer­able to simil­i­tude” (to the extent that a mum­mi­fied corpse is iden­ti­cal to a liv­ing per­son). Oth­er util­i­tar­i­an rea­sons include ben­e­fits to sci­ence, reduced pub­lic health risks, and cre­at­ing “agree­able asso­ci­a­tions with death.”

Also, in what must have been intend­ed with at least some under­cur­rent of humor, he asked that his remains “occa­sion­al­ly be brought into meet­ings involv­ing his still-liv­ing friends,” writes Schultz, “so that what’s left of Ben­tham might enjoy their com­pa­ny.”

Learn more about Bentham’s “auto-icon” in the Atlas Obscu­ra videos here, includ­ing the video fur­ther up show­ing how a team of pro­fes­sion­als packed up and moved the whole macabre assem­blage to its new home across the Uni­ver­si­ty of Lon­don cam­pus. And read an even more detailed descrip­tion, with sev­er­al pho­tographs, of how the old­est par­tial­ly mum­mi­fied British rock star philoso­pher trav­els, here.

via Atlas Obscu­ra

Relat­ed Con­tent:

97-Year-Old Philoso­pher Pon­ders the Mean­ing of Life: “What Is the Point of It All?”

An Ani­mat­ed Leonard Cohen Offers Reflec­tions on Death: Thought-Pro­vok­ing Excerpts from His Final Inter­view

How Did the Egyp­tians Make Mum­mies? An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the Ancient Art of Mum­mi­fi­ca­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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