Autobiography HTML version

Last Stage Of Education, And First Of Self-Education
For the first year or two after my visit to France, I continued my old studies, with the
addition of some new ones. When I returned, my father was just finishing for the press
his Elements of Political Economy, and he made me perform an exercise on the
manuscript, which Mr. Bentham practised on all his own writings, making what he called
"marginal contents"; a short abstract of every paragraph, to enable the writer more easily
to judge of, and improve, the order of the ideas, and the general character of the
exposition. Soon after, my father put into my hands Condillac's Traité des Sensations,
and the logical and metaphysical volumes of his Cours d'Etudes; the first
(notwithstanding the superficial resemblance between Condillac's psychological system
and my father's) quite as much for a warning as for an example. I am not sure whether it
was in this winter or the next that I first read a history of the French Revolution. I learnt
with astonishment that the principles of democracy, then apparently in so insignificant
and hopeless a minority everywhere in Europe, had borne all before them in France thirty
years earlier, and had been the creed of the nation. As may be supposed from this, I had
previously a very vague idea of that great commotion. I knew only that the French had
thrown off the absolute monarchy of Louis XIV. and XV., had put the King and Queen to
death, guillotined many persons, one of whom was Lavoisier, and had ultimately fallen
under the despotism of Bonaparte. From this time, as was natural, the subject took an
immense hold of my feelings. It allied itself with all my juvenile aspirations to the
character of a democratic champion. What had happened so lately, seemed as if it might
easily happen again: and the most transcendent glory I was capable of conceiving, was
that of figuring, successful or unsuccessful, as a Girondist in an English Convention.
During the winter of 1821-2, Mr. John Austin, with whom at the time of my visit to
France my father had but lately become acquainted, kindly allowed me to read Roman
law with him. My father, notwithstanding his abhorrence of the chaos of barbarism called
English Law, had turned his thoughts towards the bar as on the whole less ineligible for
me than any other profession: and these readings with Mr. Austin, who had made
Bentham's best ideas his own, and added much to them from other sources and from his
own mind, were not only a valuable introduction to legal studies, but an important portion
of general education. With Mr. Austin I read Heineccius on the Institutes, his Roman
Antiquities, and part of his exposition of the Pandects; to which was added a considerable
portion of Blackstone. It was at the commencement of these studies that my father, as a
needful accompaniment to them, put into my hands Bentham's principal speculations, as
interpreted to the Continent, and indeed to all the world, by Dumont, in the Traité de
Législation. The reading of this book was an epoch in my life; one of the turning points in
my mental history.
My previous education had been, in a certain sense, already a course of Benthamism. The
Benthamic standard of "the greatest happiness" was that which I had always been taught
to apply; I was even familiar with an abstract discussion of it, forming an episode in an
unpublished dialogue on Government, written by my father on the Platonic model. Yet in
the first pages of Bentham it burst upon me with all the force of novelty. What thus