chapter  III
21 Pages

The Clew to the Labyrinth

Bentham’s main concern in the 1770s, from which the criticism of Blackstone in the Fragment and Comment was a relative digression, was to write a work of critical jurisprudence, explaining and justifying the correct principles of legislation, together with the production of a fully rational and justified criminal code. As well as the raw material, he sketched several projected prefaces for the work throughout the decade. In one written near the end he compares what he saw when he started on his study of the law with what he had been led to expect. He had been taught to believe that the law was ‘as near to perfection as any thing can be that is human’; instead he ‘saw crimes of the most pernicious nature pass unheeded by the law’, delay, confusion, expense, ‘light shut out from every question by fantastic and ill consider’d rules of evidence’, ‘the various rights and duties of the various classes of mankind jumbled together into one immense and unsorted heap: men ruined for not knowing what they are neither enabled nor permitted to learn: and the whole fabric of jurisprudence a labyrinth without a clew’ (UC 27.172). The only way that he saw to ‘cleanse the Augean stable’ was ‘to pour in a body of severe and steady criticism and to spread it over the whole extent of the subject in one comprehensive unbroken tide’. Some of this criticism, that of fictions in the operation of the law and in its justification, has been examined in the last chapter; and Bentham had provided, in the Preface to the Fragment, an earlier justification of criticism, declaring that the motto of a good citizen was ‘To obey punctually; to censure freely’ (399). However, anyone who succeeded in finally plucking the mask of mystery from the face of jurisprudence, in finding the thread that led to the centre of its labyrinth, needed to do more than criticise these obvious legal fictions. Something was needed which would clarify the whole area, which would show both what law really was, and also how it really ought to be. It is the concern of this chapter to describe and evaluate the metaphysics which Bentham himself developed for this task; the metaphysics which served as his own ‘clew’ to thread the labyrinth in which he found himself when starting his own study of the law.