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The world’s governments are mostly followers of Jeremy Bentham, but most people follow Epicurus – and there is some hope in that

Most governments, whether they know the writer or not, tend to follow the assumption of the late Mr. Jeremy Bentham. They regard humans as soulless machines, not beings with free will and moral agency, and they regard the idea of rights against the State as ‘nonsense’ and natural justice itself, which is to say limiting state power, as ‘nonsense on stilts’.

To most governments and the witchdoctors in universities and media – and the establishment generally, rights are goods and services from government – not limits on the size and scope of government. They may or may not believe that there should be 13 Departments of State seeking to produce “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” like Bentham – they may believe they should be 11 Departments of State controlling society or 14 or some other number, but they agree that there should be a permanent bureaucracy which is neither elected or appointed by people who are elected (thus making elections to some extent a sham) dedicated to the Progressive agenda of spending ever more money and imposing ever more regulations. To most modern governments, and the evil establishments they represent, such works as “The New Atlantis” by the collectivist supporter of despotism Sir Francis Bacon (the mentor of Thomas Hobbes) are not horror stories – they are an inspiration, as they were for Jeremy Bentham. For more modern examples, see Richard Ely (the inspiration of both “Teddy” Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson) and “Philip Dru: Administrator” by President Wilson’s “other self” Colonel House.

So far a depressing picture – but I do not think that most people in most countries fully share this Benthamite view of things. I think that most people are closer to the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. The philosopher Epicurus did not deny the Gods (he was not a materialist as Hobbes and Bentham were), but he did not stress them either – his concern was with this life. Nor did Epicurus deny moral agency: the ability to meaningfully choose – free will. On the contrary, his philosophy was based upon the principle of free will – he hoped to convince people to choose to change their lives. And how to change their lives? Not by politics – but by their own efforts and by cooperating with their friends. Not in wild orgies (the short term pleasure undermining longer term happiness)… but in the simple joys of life and friendship. About a million miles for someone like me – I am really a Stoic in my political attitudes, always looking for a noble cause to die horribly for (telling me to forget politics and “enjoy your life” is like telling acid to be alkaline), but also a million miles from a follower of Jeremy Bentham with their obsession with planning society – treating people as non-sentient (non-beings).

Take the example of a young lady I overheard whilst on a recent overseas trip. The young lady asked a friend to help her decide which bangle on a table was the most pretty – this was a very serious matter for her, indeed her face was a picture of serious consideration into what was, for her, a very serious matter. This young lady was not unintelligent (I heard her speak at least two languages with total confidence) – it was just that her concerns were not political. Her mind was not bent on the planning of society (or preventing it being planned – in a desperate stand against the forces of evil) – and making (by force and fear) everyone do what she wanted them to do. The young person’s concern was with her own happiness and the happiness of the people around her – happiness to be promoted voluntarily, not by force.

I think most people are like this – large numbers of evil people exist, but most are not. Most people are, whether they know the man’s name or not, followers of Epicurus. I am not – most people are utterly alien to me (people like Cato the Younger are my sort of people). But most people are NOT followers of Jeremy Bentham with his desire to plan society, which means that (deep down) most people are not on the same side as most modern governments and the entrenched establishments they represent.

Television and posters (and so on) is all a good example of this. It is not all socialist, ever bigger government, propaganda. Most television, posters, magazines etc. are really focused on ‘life style’, fashions, holidays, house design, clothing, food, drink…

I think the late Cambridge historian Maurice Cowling was right about the majority of the Westminster Review crowd not really being about the “liberty” they constantly spoke and wrote about – but really being about replacing the power of the landowners and clergy with themselves, as public (state) officials (the rule of the “educated” – rather the rule of landowners who were also unpaid Justices of the Peace, and the military leaders in times of war or civil strife), although he may have been too hard on Mr John Stuart Mill.

After all these people, the Westminster Review types, did not really even stand for private control of land – their “free trade in land” position was really a deception hiding a government-control-of-land agenda (just as Jeremy Bentham’s “Not Paul but Jesus” work was a deception – as Mr Bentham did not really believe in Jesus or any divine being) , and they wanted government departments set up to cover the things traditionally covered by church and voluntary groups. But most of modern culture is not really political.

Most of modern culture is not a political conspiracy by ‘liberals’ – it is more “girls [and boys] just want to have fun”, people are not (in the main) interested in politics, but are more interested in wanting to have fun and be happy. Not in wild orgies – but in the gentle pleasures of ordinary life, including romantic affairs and relationships: whether they know it or not, most people are followers of Epicurus rather than Jeremy Bentham.

They can not really defend themselves, although calling them sheep would be a bit too harsh – they are free will rational beings, but they deserve to be defended. They deserve Ambrosius Aurelianus (and Artorius – if Artorius really existed) and his knights (and they were knights – late Roman heavy cavalry were fully armoured, and in Britannia there was also the Celtic tradition of horsemanship) to at least try and save them.

And if it ends the way it ended for Cato the Younger then so be it – for as the old French series “The Flashing Blade” put it – “It is better to have fought and lost – than not to have fought at all”. All human beings die – it is what we do while we are alive that counts.

19 comments to The world’s governments are mostly followers of Jeremy Bentham, but most people follow Epicurus – and there is some hope in that

  • …and there is some hope in that

    Who are you really and what have you done with Paul Marks? 😉

  • Paul Marks

    Even I sometimes have a hopeful thought Perry – not often, but it does happen.

    For example, whilst much of television and posters, and radio and magazines and….. are socialist (ever bigger government) propaganda – most of it is NOT. Most of it is “life style” stuff – it is about clothing, holidays, improving one’s home and garden, eating well, and-so-on.

    Most people are not Jeremy Bentham or Sir Francis Bacon types – determined to “plan society” via state despotism. Most people are (whether they know his name or not) followers of Epicurus – they want a quiet glass of wine with their friends in a nice garden.

  • Rob Fisher (Surrey)

    This post is true and is a useful way of thinking about it. More useful than grouping people into left and right.

    Occasionally, while drinking their wine in the sun, the Epicurians think sadly of the poor and needy. And the Benthamites assure them: spare just a little wine and we will take care of that.

  • Sam Duncan

    Good post, Paul. What has struck me recently is the realisation that the Benthamites of all parties simply don’t understand this at all. They don’t understand the Epicuran point of view, and they don’t understand that it’s the point of view of most people. Worse than that, they don’t understand that there is any other way of looking at the world. They see evil around every corner because they think everyone wants to impose his opinions on everyone else, as they do. It must be a miserable, fearful, existence.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Yes, like Rob Fisher, I can go with the Benthamite-Epicurean-Stoic classification. Benthamism is not out of place among the three schools despite coming so much later in history than the other two.

    But I have to admit that I was entirely distracted from consideration of these rival philosophies by mention of The Flashing Blade. I remember watching this aged about five and quite liking it despite not having much idea of what was going on. Like the author of the website to which you link, I knew it was History because of the swords and horses, and that was all I needed to know. If you want to hear the theme tune and see the opening titles, here they are on YouTube. (Ear-worm threat level: critical.)

  • The fact that people often vote with their feet much more wisely than with their heads could be cited as testimony to their being fundamentally epicureans despite often being fooled into voting (with their heads) for benthamite programmes.

  • Arabella

    This is a beautiful article 🙂

    I’ve long described myself as an Epicurean, and thus often had to explain what it does and does not mean as it often confused with Hedonist. The author clearly understands the true meaning in its entirety and that makes me very happy 😘

  • RRS

    If this is considered to be all there is to “epicureanism,” then t’is time to return to Pieria to refill our bottles.

    Perhaps we are looking at a similarity in the way people regard themselves as “epicurean” having about the same degrees of connections to those original disciples and disciplines as most “Marxists” of today have to the actual work of Marx.

    That was an interesting play on stoic as a consideration of life in terms of death, particularly after reference to the epicurean, which considers death in terms of life.

  • Paul Marks

    Interesting comments.

    As for planners in the ancient world – some Greek writers suggested that the great advantage the Republican Romans had over the late Greeks was that “law” had come to mean edicts to plan society in the Greek cities, whereas in Republican Rome families were still more independent of the state and law was mainly a matter of punishing aggressions (criminal law) and settling disputes (civil law). Greek law had been like that in Athens and other cities – but had changed as what we would call “Legal Positivism” had grown, with crime no longer being defined as an aggression against the bodies or goods of others, but rather as any refusal to obey state edicts for what the state thought was for the general welfare or public interest (in its plans for society).

    Of course the Roman Empire became statist in its turn – Jeremy Bentham could not have taught the Emperor Diocletian much about creating a bureaucracy and defining law as orders and edicts, and Diocletian also sincerely believed that everything he did was for the “greatest good of the greatest number”.

    The Emperor Diocletian did not invent the fallacy that a business being “open to the public” made it a “public place” meaning “a state place” – but he took the idea just as far as modern governments do.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Speaking for myself, i feel alien to all 3 options: Benthamite, Epicurean, and Stoic.

    Perhaps the best way to explain why i feel alien is to over-simplify:
    * For Benthamites, liberty is something given by the State: as Paul points out, they cannot conceive of rights of the citizen vis-a-vis the State.
    * For Stoics (and Judeo-Christians, and Lockeans (and of course Locke was Christian) and Objectivists), liberty is a natural right, given by God or justified by moral intuitions (or by petitio principii, in the case of Objectivists).
    * For me (and i am certainly not the first to think so, but i cannot think of a label for us) liberty is something which is not given: it is something that each of us must earn for himself/herself; in collaboration with others, to be sure, but it must be voluntary association.

    I could expand on that, but i won’t, partly because i have some email to write urgently; but also because i want to urge you to think, rather than tell you what to think 🙂

    Just a word on Epicureans: i have lived and studied/worked in some of the most free countries in the world, and most people in these countries fit the Epicurean label, understood broadly; but they implicitly trust the State to guarantee their freedom, and therefore they are, in this respect, philosophically closer to Bentham than to myself. Their trust in the ruling class, though, is not unbounded: see Trump, Brexit, and the rise of anti-EU, anti-immigration parties in much of continental Europe.

    And a footnote on Hobbes: a quick look at the table of contents of Leviathan could have made Paul aware that Hobbes was not an atheist: he was a true eccentric, a Christian materialist. (Ayn Rand otoh was a boring atheist materialist.)

    Maybe i’ll rant about free will, tomorrow.

  • Paul Marks

    RRS – modern Marxists share the same objective as that of Karl Marx, the destruction of private property based “capitalist” society. Their language and tactics have changed – but their evil objective remains the same.

    Are Stoics death obsessed? In theory no – but in reality perhaps yes.

    To someone like Marcus Aurelius or Cato the Younger their life was a preparation for their death – even if nothing came after it. I can understand that – all too well. The same law for all, equal nonaggression rights (not equal goods) and freedom of speech – the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (although John Wayne’s version of David Crockett says much the same about a Republic in the 1960 version of “The Alamo”). Principles worth dying for – even if (as he knew – yes KNEW) they are not compatible with a government that was a disguised military dictatorship, a population addicted to “bread and games” (government subsidised bread and VILE games), and the evil institution of slavery. People often note the melancholy of Roman writers – but given the contradictions between reality and principle, and the knowledge that this reality must lead to disaster, melancholy was the natural response. Although I still love Rome – in spite of all its horrors, till the time of Diocletian with his Persian robes and his prostrations, and his planning of society. The Republic had been an illusion for centuries – but it was an illusion still worth dying for (perhaps even living for), Diocletian and those who came after him took even that away.

    Is there an Epicurean approach to politics? Well many people have argued that there is – but that seems to me to turn the teachings of Epicurus himself on their head. He and his friends were about opting out of “public affairs” and concentrating on what they knew – their own lives and helping people they met. Not grand ideas to plan society – or grand last stands to PRVENT the planning of society.

    So they need other people to protect them – because whilst they leave politics alone, it will not leave them alone. People like a Roman Emperor who so wanted peace, but spent his life at war (Marcus Aurelius), or a Republican Senator who lived for the cause and died for it (Cato the Younger), or an ex Congressman who died in a ramshackle building in 1836 (David Crockett).

    But in the end no man can do everything – not if the people are just civilised in their gardens and leave it to others. But can Epicureans help (risk their lives) and still be Epicureans?

  • Junican

    I was reading Marcus Aurelius not long ago. There was a curious passage where he talked about the un-importance of death. It was not easy to understand. I think that what he was saying was that we are alive ONLY in the NOW. It is important to understand that BEING ALIVE (conscious?) is not a physical thing. We are ALIVE only in this instant. Thus, the past and the future are irrelevant.
    That does not mean that we should not be mindful of the past or should not plan for the future.
    I was quite taken by that idea. It is not one that I have come across before.

  • RRS


    You might find Carlo Rovelli’s recent Order of Time helpful in understanding the concept of “now.”

  • Paul Marks

    Junican – both Stoics and Epicureans present those sort of words about death (and the process of physical and mental decay that normally proceeds death), I find it unconvincing – but if works for you, that is good.

    Snorri – Thomas Hobbes had (like a modern leftist) a practice of redefining words. He does not refrain from using such words as “justice” and “right” – he redefines them to empty them of all moral content. He does the same with the word “God”.

    David Hume admitted that he did not believe in God (or really in the human person – David Hume did not really believe that the human “I”, the person, exists, which really is an extraordinary position). And Jeremy Bentham finally admitted that his work “Not Paul But Jesus” was a fraud – as he did not believe in Jesus.

    In the time of Thomas Hobbes openly admitting to being an atheist was very dangerous – hence, I believe, his word games. But you could be correct – he may really have believed that God (not Jesus whilst on this Earth – but God in His eternal state) has a physical body and so on. But I doubt he really believed any such thing – I think he was just lying, after all there is nothing in the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes (or the others in his tradition) to suggest that lying is a bad thing. If it is for the greatest happiness of the greatest number (in their estimation) I do not believe they have any problem with lying. They have no honour – indeed regard the concept with amused contempt.

    Of course……

    Alexander of Aphrodisias, the great Classical Commentator on Aristotle, argued that the soul could die with the body – but that is NOT what we are dealing with here. Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, Jeremy Bentham, even J.S. Mill are not arguing that the soul (the human person) dies with the body (as, for example, Ayn Rand believed), their position really is that the human person (the “I” the soul – free will, moral agency) DOES NOT EXIST AT ALL.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Paul: Hobbes’ theory that God is a material object is so preposterous (and blasphemous) that Hobbes could not possibly have attached his name to it, if he did not believe in it.

    Frankly, i do not understand why you spend time reading: what’s the point, when you can just make up stories about what people “really believed” that has little or nothing to do with what they actually wrote? That goes also for authors that you like, btw.

    Mind you, i myself do not accept that you really believe in free will, independently of what you actually write: after all, you seem to do your best to undermine belief in free will.

  • Alisa

    Frankly, i do not understand why you spend time reading: what’s the point, when you can just make up stories about what people “really believed” that has little or nothing to do with what they actually wrote?

    I will volunteer an explanation: you see, different people can read the same text and understand it (and even misunderstand it) in different ways. That you can understand, can’t you?

  • Snorri Godhi

    No, Alisa, Paul openly says that people did not mean what they wrote. He denies that they meant what they wrote, but he understands it differently from most others. The fact that he accuses people of lying should have given you a clue.

  • Alisa

    Really? Have you never read something where you thought that the writer must had been lying? Or do you take everything you read at face value?

  • Paul Marks

    Snorri – if a man (or a women) redefines such words as right and honour to mean nothing good (if he or she empties these and other words of all traditional content) then I take note of that – and distrust them.

    Thomas Hobbes was, by his repeated admissions, no good – he openly accepted the principle of accepting any regime that did not attack him personally. He would not risk his own life to save anyone else – that is apparent in his work (not just one of them – all of them). For such a man lying is normal – if it preserves his own skin. Indeed this (saving his own skin) is his central principle – if one can call it a principle.

    I do not tend to be very charitable in my judgements of people (you are correct about that Snorri) – but only because when someone tells me they are dishonourable I tend to take note of that (I do not discount it). For example, when “Kim” Philby said (repeatedly) various things about himself and his beliefs whilst drunk – I would have taken careful note (and, because of his position, ordered his arrest and the investigation of him and his activities) – I would NOT have said “oh that is dear old Kim sounding off again”. For example, someone repeats (as truth) socialist propaganda and disinformation – I do NOT assume “they are just joking” or “he was just drunk”, I take it very seriously, very seriously indeed.

    Take an example you may have seen – from “Game of Thrones”.

    When a character tells another “trust no one in this city – especially not me” the other character takes it as humorous self deprecation, I would NOT.

    I have many faults – but being caught with a knife at my throat by someone who TOLD ME he had no honour, is not one of them.

    Thomas Hobbes (de facto) mocks traditional concepts of honour (of honestly) – so I note that and would not believe another word the man told me (about anything) if I had reason to doubt him. As for believing that God (in the eternal state) has a physical body – a belly and so on. Someone who plays that game is likely really trying to ridicule the very concept of there being a God – but WITHOUT actually saying they do not believe in God (because they are scared to say that – in the context of the mid 17th century), but does not have the courage to say so. Thomas Hobbes repeatedly said he was not a brave man (not a man of principle) and on THAT I take him at his word.

    Also the tradition he founded (leading to David Hume, Jeremy Bentham and so on) was a tradition of atheists – but YES you may be correct Snorri, Thomas Hobbes may NOT have been an atheist (although I very strongly suspect that he really was an atheist).

    Lastly – of course it is possible to believe that the soul (the person – free will, moral agency) dies with the body. That was mentioned by Alexander of Aphrodisias – almost two thousand years ago.

    Ayn Rand and many other people have that as their position – that the human person (the “I” – free will, moral agency) dies with the body. If is perfectly possible for an atheist to be an honourable (i.e. good) person – just as it is possible to believe in God and still be a total scumbag.

    But that is most clearly NOT the position of Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, Jeremey Bentham and-so-on. Their position is that human personhood (human BEINGS) DOES NOT EXIST. My objection to them is NOT that they are atheists – but that they are pushing an evil position (indeed the foundational position of evil itself) in relation to human personhood (the capacity to choose what is morally right against the desire to do evil), their position undermines (deliberately – or not deliberately) human personhood (a human BEING – a subject, not just an object).

    Not that it dies with the body – but that it does not exist in the first place.

    And I do not have to read between the lines to know that about these writers – it screams from their works. The cloven hoof marks are (metaphorically) all over the works.

    Of course we all face evil within ourselves – every day, and we all fail to resist it at times (we are not saints). However, if someone tells me that he is not even trying to resist evil – worse that he does believe that it is possible to choose to resist our evil desires (that we are not even “some one” we are just some THING – denying the subject-object distinction of human personhood, free will, moral agency) then I take careful note of that – and do not trust that person (who has declared themselves to be a non person – indeed declared that personhood does not exist) again.