Jeremy Bentham's Essay on “Paederasty”

John Lauritsen

All gay scholars are grateful to Louis Crompton for rescuing Jeremy Bentham's “Essay on Paederasty” from oblivion, as well as for his 1985 book, Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in 19th Century England, and his magnum opus, Homosexuality & Civilization (2003). Crompton's Introduction was published in the Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 3(4), Summer 1978, and Bentham's essay appeared in the following issue. In this Internet edition I have silently corrected a few errors, eliminated some of Crompton's square brackets, improved the punctuation, and added my own notes. I have not corrected or modernized Bentham's spelling.
    Crompton was a thorough scholar, but he sometimes used inappropriate language, for example, “homosexuals” or “homosexuality”, and he was sometimes deaf to the tone of a passage, unable to distinguish between statements made facetiously or ironically and those intended literally. In my notes following Crompton's Introduction I point out a few examples. My own Afterword follows Bentham's essay.

Louis Crompton

The following essay, which is being published for the first time, is the earliest scholarly essay on homosexuality presently known to exist in the English language. It was written by Jeremy Bentham, English utilitarian philosopher and law reformer, about 1785. After Bentham's death in 1832, the manuscript was given to University College, London, as part of its enormous collection of unpublished Bentham papers. The essay was first noted in the Catalogue of the manuscripts published in 1937 (Milne, 1962). It antedates by a generation the next known essay on homosexuality, Shelley's “Discourse on the Manners of the Antient Greeks Relative to the Subject of Love” (written in 1818, but not published until 1931) [Note 1], and by almost a century John Addington Symonds's A Problem in Greek Ethics (written in 1873) and Richard Burton's “Terminal Essay” to his translation of The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (1886) [Note 2]. None of these other essays deal with Bentham's subject, which is law reform.
    In all, Bentham left about 300 manuscript pages on homosexuality and the law. He wrote substantially on the subject at three periods of his life, first when he was 26, again when he was 37, and finally, at greatest length, in his 60s. The University of London manuscripts include 36 folios of notes in English and French on sexual “Nonconformity”, dated, by the cataloger, c. 1774; the essay on “Paederasty”, with related notes, dated c. 1785; and 188 folios of notes dated 1814 and 1816. In 1931, C. K. Ogden printed 22 pages of excerpts from the 1814-1816 materials in an appendix to his edition of Bentham's Theory of Legislation, under the title “Offences against Taste”. This is all that has so far appeared in print.
    The 1780s, when Bentham wrote the present article, were a period when much thought was given to criminal law reform in western Europe. The movement had been inspired by the publication of Cesare Beccaria's (1764/1964) Of Crimes and Punishments. Widely read in Europe and America, Beccaria's book had a significant influence in France on the eve of the Revolution, especially after Voltaire wrote a commentary on it and published his Prix de la justice et de l'humanite in 1777. It was in this current of impassioned zeal for reform that Bentham moved. As a utilitarian moralist his test for the ethical value of an act was whether it increased pleasure and diminished pain; his test for legislation was the “greatest happiness principle”, which he took from Beccaria.
    In France and Latin Europe in the 18th century the penalty for sodomy was burning; in England it was hanging. At least a dozen executions took place in England in that century (Report of the Select Committee, 1819) and more than 60 in the period 1806-1835 (Crompton, 1978, p. 91; Gilbert, 1974, 1977). To Bentham, the use of the death penalty for what he regarded as a socially harmless pleasurable activity must have seemed the ultimate perversion of law. Consequently, he attempts in his essay to develop some kind of theory to account for the existence of such virulent homophobia in English society. Bentham also takes issue with other leading political and legal philosophers of his time. Montesquieu (1748/1966), in the sixth chapter of Book XII of L'esprit des loix, had linked sodomy with such ecclesiastical crimes as heresy and witchcraft, thus implying that it might be now regarded less seriously in an enlightened age. Nevertheless, he had condemned homosexual behavior as communicating to men the “weaknesses” of the female sex. Voltaire (1764/1962), although he was later to argue against burning homosexuals at the stake, was largely hostile to homosexuality in his widely read essay on “Socratic Love” in the Philosophical Dictionary. There he implies that such practices are a threat to population and that “Greek love” among the Greeks was a wholly Platonic affair. [Note 3] In England, public sentiment and legal thought were both much more conservative. Sir William Blackstone (1769/1966, chap. 15), who had classified “buggery” as an “Offence against the peace” in his Commentaries, held that the death penalty was divinely sanctioned by the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and seemed to regret that England had abandoned the traditional punishment of burning.
    Blackstone also endorsed the opinion, highly influential on later English and American judges and legal authorities, that references to the legal aspects of sodomy should be brief, terse, and as obscure as possible. [Note 4] That Bentham should write hundreds of pages on a topic English authorities regularly dismissed in a paragraph or a page was a remarkable act of defiance, even though the pages were never published. He was quite aware of his daring and fearful of the consequences. In a remarkable page of jottings, wholly different in style and tone from the essay itself, and written in a crowded, miniscule hand that is almost indecipherable, he revealed his personal anxieties. “To other subjects,” he notes, “it is expected that you sit down cool: but on this subject if you let it be seen that you have not sat down in a rage you have given judgment against yourself at once.” (Bentham then changed the words I have italicized to “betrayed”.) “It is a curious example to think what would have become of Socrates, and Titus, the delight of mankind, Cicero the Father of his Country ... had they lived in these latter days. They would have perished on our gibbets.” “I am ashamed to own that I have often hesitated whether for the sake of the interests of humanity I should expose my personal interest so much to hazard as it must be exposed to by the free discussion of a subject of this nature.” “At any rate when I am dead mankind will be the better for it.” “There is a kind of punishment annexed to the offence of treating it with any sort of temper, and that one of the most formidable that a man can be subjected to, the punishment of being suspected at least, if not accused, of a propensity to committ it, should he plead [Note 5] for the liberty of trying the offence by the principle of utility.” “When a man attempts to research [Note 6] this subject it is with a halter about his neck. On this subject a man may indulge his spleen without controul. Cruelty and intolerance, the most odious and most mischievous passions in human nature, screen themselves behind a mask of virtue.” In speaking of this crime, men “make a merit of discarding all reason and all humanity” [72-188d].
    In his essay on “Paederasty” Bentham answers Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Blackstone, argues that ancient Greece and Rome practised homosexuality widely, and attacks sexual asceticism in morals. He is a kind of champion on the side of the homosexual in favor of decriminalization. Yet at the same time, he repeatedly refers to homosexual behavior as “disgusting”, “preposterous”, “abominable”, and the like. Apparently, the use of traditional homophobic language was the price Bentham felt he had to pay for treating the question from a reformist point of view. [Note 7] Though such language appears in the 1785 essay, which Bentham seems to have been preparing for publication, it is absent from the 1785 notes, and from the Ogden transcription of the notes of 1814 and 1816. In the latter, he explicitly objects to homophobic expressions, that is, to labeling homosexuality an “abomination” or “unnatural”, and coins new neutral language, calling it “the improlific appetite”. [Note 8] Indeed, where the essay of 1785 might be described as reformist, the notes of 1814 and 1816 can only be called revolutionary, since in them he presents homosexual activity not simply as not meriting punishment but as behavior the encouragement of which would have positive social consequences (Bentham, 1814-1816/1931).
    Great as Bentham's influence on law reform was in Britain, Spain, and Latin America, his opinions on homosexuality do not seem to have had any effect in England. [Note 9] In the early 19th century, England reduced its capital offenses from about 200 to about half a dozen crimes, all involving violence, but kept the death penalty for sodomy. A proposal to abolish it in 1841 failed. Not until 1861 was life imprisonment substituted for hanging. Bentham's proposed reform, decriminalization, was not achieved until 1967.
    I have not been able to examine the Bentham manuscripts in London, but have worked from Xeroxes and microfilms kindly supplied to me by Mrs. J. Percival, archivist at the Manuscripts and Rare Books Room, D. M. S. Watson Library, University College, who has also supplied useful information about these documents. The essay on “Paederasty” is part of Bentham's proposal for a reformed “Penal Code”. It is preserved in Box 72 of the Bentham collection and is written on large foolscap sheets (or “folios”), each folded to make four pages. The essay begins on the folio stamped %2-191 by the cataloger and continues through folio 205. In the text I have indicated new pages by slant bars and new folios by the numbers stamped on them. Folios 72-187 to 189 contain separate notes which will appear at the end of the essay.
    Bentham's handwriting is often extremely difficult to decipher. In some places the ink is very faint. I have indicated doubtful readings by a question mark in brackets. Words omitted or required by the sense where Bentham's scrawls are illegible have been placed in brackets. [Note 10] Bentham frequently writes interlinear or other revisions without canceling his first version. Where these are legible I have usually preferred them to the original. Where they cannot be deciphered I have transcribed the first draft. Where both versions are legible it usually appears that the second changes the wording but not the sense. I have incorporated Bentham's footnotes into the text in parentheses and marked them J.B. The topical headings that Bentham placed in his margins have been printed in italics as sectional headings. In most cases I have silently replaced Bentham's French and Italian quotations from Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Beccaria by modern translations from the editions listed in the References.
    Taking his cue from Montesquieu, Bentham classified homosexual acts under “Offences against one's self”. It is perhaps worth noting that Bentham nearly always, in this essay, conceives of male homosexuals as bisexuals, capable of marriage, who are also attracted to adolescent boys, rather than as adult men who love other adult men. [Note 11]

Beccaria, C. [Crimes difficult to prove. Of crimes and punishments] (K. Foster & J. Grigson, trans., chap. 36). New York: Oxford University Press, 1964. (Originally published, 1764. )

Bentham, J. Offences against taste. The theory of legislation (C. K. Ogden, Ed.). New York: Harcourt Brace, 1931. (Originally written, 1814-1816.)

Blackstone, W. Commentaries on the laws of England (Vol. 4). London: Dawson's of Pall Mall, 1966. (Originally published, 1769.)

Crompton, L.
Gay genocide: From Leviticus to Hitler. In L. Crew (Ed.), The gay academic. Palms Springs, Calif.- ETC Publications, 1978.

Gilbert, A. N.
The Africaine courts-martial: A study of buggery and the Royal Navy. Journal of Homosexuality. 1974,1(1), 111-122.

Gilbert, A. N. Sexual deviance and disaster during the Napoleonic Wars. Albion, 1977, 9, 98-113.

Milne, A. T. Catalogue of the manuscripts of Jeremy Bentham in the Library of University College, London (2nd ed.). London: Athlone Press, University of London, 1962.

Montesquieu, Baron de. [Of the crime against nature. The spirit of the laws] (T. Nugent, trans., Book XII). New York: Hafner, 1966. (Originally published, 1748.)

Report of the Select Committee on Criminal Laws. House of Commons, July 8, 1819.

Voltaire. [
So-called Socratic love. Philosophical dictionary] (P. Gay, trans.). New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962. (Originally published, 1764.)

The late Louis Crompton (1925-2009) was Professor of English, University of Nebraska. Crompton gratefully acknowledged the assistance of Frank Rice and Luis Diaz-Perdomo in transcribing the Bentham manuscripts. Bentham's essay was published with the permission of the D. M. S. Watson Library, University College, London.

Crompton's Introduction was first published in Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 3(4), Summer 1978.

John Lauritsen

1. There was considerable overlap between the Bentham circle and the Shelley circle. The Pagan Press edition of Percy Bysshe Shelley's superb translation of Plato's dialogue on Eros, The Banquet or The Symposium, is the only one to include Shelley's introductory essay, “Discourse on the Manners of the Antient Greeks Relative to the Subject of Love”. Shelley's essay begins with an eloquent tribute to Ancient Greece, the fountainhead of Western Culture. Although Shelley does not explicitly address legal reform, he puts forward a pain versus pleasure criterion for evaluating acts, acquired from his reading of Beccaria; he holds that acts should not be punished unless they cause harm to another person. Shelley discusses aesthetic issues, the superior beauty of the young Greek male, and asserts that love can be far more important than the pleasure derived from sexual acts. For information on The Banquet and other Pagan Press books click here.   

2. An annotated edition of Burton's essay on pederasty is included in the web pages, Sir Richard Francis Burton: Explorer of the Sotadic Zone.  

3. Crompton misreads Voltaire here. The essay on “Socratic Love” is an exercise in irony and studied ambivalence. Voltaire was unable or unwilling to celebrate or defend male love overtly, so he threw in such expressions of mock disapproval as “vice” and “infamous outrage against Nature”. Nevertheless, the overall thrust of his essay is positive, for example, the title. In the passage below Voltaire rebuts the ecclesiastical dogma that sex between males is unnatural, a “sin against Nature” (peccatum contra naturam):

“How can a vice, which would destroy the human race if it became general, an infamous outrage against Nature, be nonetheless so very natural? Though ostensibly the final stage of willful corruption, it is nevertheless the common endowment of those who have not had time to be corrupted. It has entered innocent hearts that have not yet known ambition, nor deceit, nor the lust for wealth. It is blind youth, graduating from childhood, that follows an inchoate instinct and plunges into the fray.” (tr. John Lauritsen)

4. Here Crompton might have given the Latin phrase used by Blackstone and other legal scholars: “Peccatum illud horribile inter christianos non nominandum” (“The sin so horrible that it must not be named among Christians”).

5. Crompton has “[if he] pleads”. Surely, “should he plead” is what Bentham either wrote or intended to say, and the square brackets have been eliminated.

6. Crompton gives “search [?]” here. Obviously, “research” makes better sense.

7. Unfortunately, Crompton had a tin ear for irony — not only in the writings of Bentham, but also those of Voltaire, Gibbon, Shelley, and Sir Richard Burton. For a discussion of Burton's use of irony and ostensibly negative language to elude the censors click here. For Henry Fowler's discussion of irony click here.   

8. The obvious inference, which Crompton fails to draw, is that Bentham's “homophobic” language in the essay is mock disapproval or camouflage, and that his real sentiments are expressed in his notes.

9. If Bentham's “opinions on homosexuality” were never published or expressed publicly, how could they have had any effect in England?

10. I have eliminated these brackets. See footnotes 5 and 6.

11. It is regrettable that Crompton uses “homosexual” as a substantive, denoting a particular kind of person, rather than as an adjective, defining a particular kind of love or act. It is true that Bentham portrays men who have sex with other men as capable of marrying women, having sex with them, and raising families. But the time has come to acknowledge that most human males, not just a minority, are attracted to each other, erotically and otherwise. When males have sex with each other, they are expressing an ordinary, healthy component of male sexuality — something phylogenetically inherent in the sexual repertoire of the human male, and thus a product of evolution. Contra Crompton, it is clear in context that Bentham uses the word “paederasty” (despite its literal meaning) to apply to all forms of male love — including sex between two adults or between two adolescents — not just to sex between adults and adolescents.

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