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ccording to John Stuart Mill, writing soon after Queen Victoria ascended the throne, one could not understand contemporary thought without noticing that it divided into two schools derived from Jeremy Bentham and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the "two great seminal minds of England in their age" ("Bentham," 214). As Mill explained in a second essay in The London and Westminster Review,

the two men are each other's "completing counterpart": the strong points of each correspond to the weak points of the other. Whoever could master the premises and combine the methods of both, would possess the entire English philosphy of their age. Coleridge used to say that every one is born either a Platonist or an Aristotelian: it may be similarly affirmed, that every Englishman of the present day is by implication either a Benthamite or a Coleridgean. ("Coleridge," 262)

Mill's earlier essay had stated this opposition in the clearest terms: "Bentham was a Progressive philosopher, Coleridge a Conservative one. . . . To Bentham it was given to discern more particularly those truths with which existing doctrines and institutions were at variance; to Coleridge, the neglected truths which lay in them" ("Bentham," 214).

Following Mill's lead, modern critics have extended this division of Victorian thought, seeing Mill's father, Mill himself, and others as the representatives of a progressive or liberal strain, and Mill's friend Carlyle, Pugin, Newman, Arnold, Ruskin, and Morris as a sort of conservative strain; one has to say "sort of," since on some issues, such as health care, government intervention, and education, Arnold, Ruskin and Morris were more progressive or radical than the Utilitarians!

Whatever his complex influence, there is no doubt that Bentham was the great asker of socially and politically disturbing questions, for as Mill points out,

Bentham has been in this age and country the great questioner of things established. It is by the influence of the modes of thought with which his writings inoculated a considerable number of thinking men that the yoke of authority has been broken, and innumerable opinions, formerly received on tradition as incontestable, are put upon their defence, and required to give an account of themselves. Who, before Bentham (whatever controversies might exist on points of detail), dared to speak disrespectfully, in express terms, of the British Constitution, or the English Law? He did so; and his arguments and his example together encouraged others. We do not mean that his writings caused the Reform Bill, or that the Appropriation Clause owns him as its parent: the changes which have been made, and the greater changes which will be made, in our institutions, are the work of philosophers, but of the interests and instincts of large pottions of society recently grown into strength. But Bentham gave voice to those interests and instincts: until he spoke out, those who found our institutions unsuited to them did not dare to say so, did not dare consciously to think so.

Like Bentham's influence, that of Coleridge reached far beyond those in his immediately circle or party, affecting all serious thinkers, since "he has been the great awakener in this country of the spirit of philosophy, within the bounds of traditional opinions. He has been, almost as truly as Bentham, 'the great questioner of things established'; for a questioner needs not necessarily be an enemy" ("Coleridge," 260; emphasis added). Whereas Bentham taught people to ask about "any ancient or received opinion, Is it true?" Coleridge taught them to ask, what is its meaning and significance?

Bentham judged a proposition true or false as it accorded or not with the result of his own inquiries; and did not search very curiously into what might be meant by the proposition, when it obviously did not mean what he thought true. With Coleridge, on the contrary, the very fact that any doctrine had been believed by thoughtful men. and received by whole nations or generations of mankind was part of the problem to be solved, was one of the phenomena to be accounted for. And as Bentham's short and easy method of referring all to the selfish interests of aristocracies, or priests, or lawyers, or some other species of impostors, could not satisfy a man who saw so much farther into the complexities of the human intellect and feelings. [260]


Bentham, Jeremy. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907. First edition 1780.

Houghton, Walter E. The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870. New Haven: Yale UP, [c. 1956], esp. 93-96.

Mill, John Stuart. "Bentham," Autobiography and Other Writings. Ed. Jack Stillinger. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969. Originally appeared in The London and Westminster Review 29 (August 1839): 467-506.

Mill, John Stuart. "Coleridge," Autobiography and Other Writings. Ed. Stillinger. Originally appeared in The London and Westminster Review 33 (March 1840): 257-302.

Last modified 1999