Bentham Project

Appreciations of Professor J.H. Burns

Prof Burns

All at the Bentham Project, and beyond, were deeply saddened to hear of the death of Professor J.H. Burns, the first General Editor of the Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham. Below are some appreciations from friends and colleagues of Professor Burns.

An appreciation of Professor Burns

I first met Professor JH Burns in the autumn of 1980 shortly after beginning my doctoral studies in the History Department at UCL, when I was sent by my supervisor, Ian Christie, to ask his advice about the proposed subject of my thesis. I entered his office at the appointed time, and JHB, who had difficulties with his sight, began to upbraid me, in a measured but firm manner, for not handing in a piece of written work. I eventually managed to explain that I was innocent of this charge. Apparently the offender had not turned up for his appointment, and I had entered in his place. The thing I remember most vividly, however, was thinking at the time: ‘I am in the presence of a proper scholar. It is a privilege to have some share of his attention.’ I was right. JH was a proper scholar, and it was a privilege to know him.

When I joined the Bentham Project in 1984, JHB was within two years of retirement, and had several years earlier given up the General Editorship to John Dinwiddy, who in turn had passed on the mantle to Fred Rosen in 1983. JHB was, nevertheless, still very much actively involved both in Bentham scholarship (as he remained throughout his ‘retirement’—an article on Bentham’s Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation is due to be published in the December 2012 issue of Utilitas) and in the administration of the Bentham Project through his membership of the Bentham Committee and its executive sub-committee. He maintained a passionate interest in the Bentham edition, and was always willing to offer advice and read drafts of texts and editorial introductions before they went to the press, and to answer a myriad of queries, whether concerning the text or the annotation. His knowledge of Bentham and the Bentham Papers was encyclopaedic (I choose that word very deliberately, since one of the themes that he discussed in his class on Bentham and the Enlightenment which I mention below was the influence of the Encyclopaedists on Bentham). JHB was unsurpassed in his knowledge of the Bentham manuscripts dating from the 1770s and 1780s, and on which he had undertaken most of his editorial work. I had heard, however, that he had no great fondness for Bentham—left to himself he would presumably have spent most of his time working on late mediaeval political thought. When he presented what has turned out to be his final Bentham Seminar in 2008 (dealing with Bentham and Brissot), I asked him whether it was true that he disliked Bentham. His answer was that he did like Bentham up to 1800, but not thereafter. It was the Enlightenment that he found fascinating, and Bentham as an Enlightenment figure was the figure that intrigued him.

I have several outstanding memories of JHB: a lecture on sovereignty at the LSE; a dinner hosted by Doug Long at his home in London, Ontario, just before the ISUS Conference in 1992, where JHB and his wife Yvonne were joined by John and Anne Robson and at which I eavesdropped on some brilliant conversation; JHB’s extraordinary opening speech at the JS Mill Bicentennial Conference held here at UCL in 2006; and his kindness in chairing my inaugural lecture—where he recalled an entry in a minute from a Bentham editorial meeting to the effect that I was to try alcohol. I hasten to add that this was in relation to cleaning ink stains from a desk, but it was the sort of oddity that appealed to JHB’s not inconsiderable sense of humour.

A highlight of the academic year was the two classes that JHB taught on the Bentham Masters course. As convenor of the course, I attended his classes as a sort of chairperson. He would speak to the students for an hour, and then take questions for a further hour, on the subjects of Bentham and the Enlightenment, and Bentham on Sovereignty. Speaking from just a few notes, JHB would hold us spellbound, as he expounded the subject with an authority, subtlety, and clarity that I have never heard surpassed, and perhaps only equalled by Ronald Dworkin. The extraordinary feature of these classes from my point of view was that, over a period of ten years (1989–99), each was different from every other (I still have my notes to prove it). He did indeed draw attention to the same central sources, and emphasize the same general themes, but the framework, illustrations, and examples were always different. This, to me, brings out why JHB was a truly great scholar. He had an amazing depth and breadth of knowledge, and was able to connect that information in a whole variety of ways that deepened the listener’s understanding, and present it in a way that made learning a delight.

The seminars also revealed another side of JHB. As I mentioned, the second hour of the class would consists of a question and answer session. There were a good number of intelligent and insightful questions asked, but there were also not a few ill-informed, semi-incoherent, and garbled questions (usually from me). It would never have crossed JHB’s mind to mock or put down in any way any person who had asked a question. Rather, he would rephrase the question and somewhere manage to find a grain of sense in it, and proceed to give an articulate, informative, and thought-provoking answer. JHB was not only a great scholar—he was a great human being.

- Professor Philip Schofield, University College London

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Professor J. H. Burns: a remembrance and a reminiscence.

I arrived in London in September of 1969, newly married, 22 years old, intimidated, nervous, intending to pursue D. Phil. Studies at the London School of Economics. I had applied to study at UCL, but had been told that no programme suitable to my background in History and Political Science was available there. Enrolling instead at the LSE, I was quickly intimidated, though it was no part of their intention to do so, by such formidable figures as my Supervisor, Prof. Elie Kedourie, and I resolved to return to Canada and find another career path. Before abandoning ship I decided to pay a courtesy call on one Professor James Burns at UCL. An undergraduate instructor of mine at Toronto, himself a student of Prof. Burns’s friend and colleague the great historian Alfred Cobban, had once said to me: “Long, you are bright but idle. You need to work with someone like Jimmy Burns. He’d soon set you right!” I resolved to meet this man. It was a meeting that changed the course of my life.

His office was at ground level, in the back of the History Department offices facing Gordon Square. I recall my first impression as though it had happened ‘only yesterday’. He was, of course, tall and slim, and always seemed to me to stand with a very straight back, but leaning slightly forward, as though anticipating something exciting. No doubt he was often very serious, and carried heavy responsibilities, but what I recall was a smile that was at once elfin and quizzical, with his head cocked slightly to one side, as though about to share a joke. Indeed he often did share a joke: more precisely a witticism or a wry observation of human foibles. It was a trait I can only describe as ‘endearing’. He wore his eminence and responsibilities lightly. He was utterly unpretentious and disarming. He welcomed this utterly unknown quantity from Canada with great warmth and courtesy. I informed him that I had hoped to study at UCL, but was not eligible. His face reddened, and he asked me to leave the room for a moment. From the corridor I could hear what I shall call a forceful telephone conversation with an unidentified Administrator regarding my status. In due course he re-admitted me, his amiable demeanour completely restored. Would I like to commence studies at UCL, he asked. There was, I recall his saying, “plenty of knowledge to share” in the field of Bentham research, and whatever bureaucratic impediments had existed before that moment had now been removed. I do not think that I hesitated, even for a moment’s reflection. My course was set.

He was profoundly averse, in my experience of him, to any sort of negative criticism, the kind that might fracture the brittle confidence of a young D. Phil. candidate. After I had made an absolutely disastrous presentation of my research on Bentham and J.S. Mill at a session of the Institute for Historical Research seminar at Senate House, I said to him, approximately, “What on earth will I do now?” “I would not wish”, he said carefully but kindly, “to say anything that might constitute destructive criticism. Just carry on.” At one of our monthly consultations a few months later, he would observe that “Bentham on liberty needs to be written”. And so I wrote it. Later still, he argued strongly that the autograph manuscripts on which my doctoral research had been based should be published. When I heard of his death, I wept to think that he did not live to see that happen. But it will happen. I made him a promise, and I intend to keep it. If it is permissible to prefix dedications to volumes in the Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham, I shall propose one in this case. And as I approach my own retirement as an academic, I see more clearly than ever how profoundly the trajectory of my entire professional career, and indeed of my life, has been shaped by this extraordinary gentleman and scholar.

I felt a pang of sympathy the first time I watched as he held a sheet of Bentham manuscript so very close to his eyes in order to decipher its contents. Such sentiments soon dissipated as I learned that he could read, and had read, more Jeremy Bentham manuscripts than anyone else on the face of the earth, and that he apparently had total recall of every snippet he had ever digested. In print or in conversation, he had a ‘voice’, a style of communication, that I found – and find to this day - utterly inspiring: plain-spoken, earnest, impassioned, always attentive and respectful to others, yet exhibiting without fail a depth of scholarship and discipline of intellect that was as indispensable to his students and colleagues as it was unattainable by those of us with less extraordinary gifts. He was a true polymath: he attacked a rich variety of other fields of scholarly interest – Papal absolutism and conciliarism in the medieval Catholic Church, the Action Française movement in early 20th century France, Hegel, Spinoza, natural jurisprudence – even the vagaries and varieties of English and Scottish cricket – with the same spirited engagement, the same invigorating adventurousness and strict methodological discipline, that he brought to his pioneering Bentham work. When he retired as General Editor of the Collected Works, a banquet was arranged in his honour. He spoke, quoting from Hegel and Dante in the original languages, and from various sources in French, with a Latin or Greek epigram thrown in here or there, without notes and without affectation, directing his attention increasingly, as he gathered rhetorical momentum, at Bentham’s auto-icon, which had been wheeled into the room for the occasion. The connection between the two figures was almost palpable.

We shall not see his like again. Or, as they say here in North America, “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore!” I was privileged beyond words to be guided, mentored, supported, befriended, and inspired by this great man. I shall remember him always not only for his scholarship but for his conviviality, his humility, his brilliance, and his essential humanity.

- Professor Doug Long, University of Western Ontario


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Professor J.H. Burns – A Student’s Tribute

I was an American student in the History Department in 1973-75, and first met Professor and Mrs Burns at the Cumberland Lodge weekend, where they extended a warm welcome to this newly-arrived, slightly bewildered overseas student. He was everything one might imagine and hope for in a professor – exuding as he did erudition, distinction and the authority that came from mastery of his craft and his field. But there was much more, including authentic kindness and concern for his students, whom he treated with respect that we perhaps deserved, but were too young to have earned. The only foolish questions were those left unasked, and if we were intimidated by his position, reputation and knowledge (as well we might have been) his gracious ways, unfailing courtesy and good humor disarmed all trepidation. Remarkably (and unusually) his own opinions on matters political remained a mystery (apart from despising the murderous Pol Pot). He taught all legitimate political ideas, respected all humane points of view, and welcomed the clash of competing ideas (preferably well-reasoned and articulate). To have injected his own opinions would have tainted his teaching and spoiled the fun.

Scholarly and administrative duties placed many demands upon his time; yet he always had (and if necessary, found) time for students and gave us his undivided attention. He made us feel that we were as important as any article, book, or academic obligation. For some academics, teaching is an obligation and students, a distraction or nuisance; but for Professor Burns, teaching was a calling. He was as devoted to teaching as to anything else in his professional life. So, I hasten to add, were most of his UCL colleagues (thanks perhaps in part to his sterling example).

I was blessed with some wonderful teachers at three fine universities, studying history and the law, but none surpassed Professor Burns. I studied law upon my return home and have earned my keep ever since in the practice of law – at various times as courtroom advocate and a counsellor to clients – but the best preparation for the law came not in law school, but in Professor Burns’ room and lectures. There one learned how to sort conflicting ideas with a combination of rigor and reason, then assert and defend one’s positions in the face of vigorous (though considerate) opposition. For this and much else I shall always be grateful.

We kept in touch during the intervening years, corresponding every year at Christmas. We met for lunch in the College cloisters in 1979, on my first visit to London after completing my studies and qualifying for the bar. Then in 1999, Professor and Mrs Burns joined me and two of our daughters for tea at Fortnum & Mason. Then thirteen and fifteen, on their first overseas trip, the girls were in awe; but of course the master teacher put them instantly at ease, as with any students. Professor and Mrs Burns welcomed them with warmth and respect, despite their tender years, and kept me from spending too much of our time together reminiscing. It was delightful and memorable.

Decades later, I cherish many warm memories of my time at the College – of friends and teachers, of lessons learned about history and, of course, the history of political ideas – and I also remember the larger lessons that universities teach about thought, life and the world. When we had tea that day, Professor Burns remarked that he had devoted more time and energy to teaching than to writing, but whenever I think of him (or recall his teaching in conversations with friends from those days) I am grateful for the balance he struck and the enduring lessons written in hearts and minds.

And so my family joins others who both mourn his passing and celebrate his life in saying the ancient Catholic prayer for those who have gone before:

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. And may his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace.

Surely a merciful God will welcome His good and faithful servant, after a long life well and honorably lived, full of devotion to those he loved, to his students and colleagues, and to the pursuit of Knowledge and Truth.

- George Kimball, UCL History, class of 1975


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The Centre Bentham organised a conference on “Bentham and France” in 2006. A few weeks after, I received a short and slightly irritated note from Professor Burns. Did we think he was too old to be invited to contribute to the conference? Had any one of us ever met him in person, we would immediately have been convinced that he was certainly not too old to contribute to any academic event. That he offered us part 1 of his Brissot article for the conference proceedings shows that he eventually bore no grudge against us.

His interest in Brissot and Bentham explains why we came to be in direct contact in the last six years of his life, as I looked up manuscripts for him in the Brissot papers at the Archives Nationales in Paris. I took the habit of sending him my on going work for comment. His flawless memory and his insightful eye saved me more than once from printing embarrassing approximations.

His legacy to all Bentham scholars working on Utilitarianism and the Enlightenment is immense. Reading French fluently, he recognised the truly cosmopolitan dimension of Bentham’s thought, uncovered the depth of his Enlightenment culture and the specificity of his position on French politics. From his ground breaking article on “Bentham and the French Revolution” to his latest work on Enlightenment legal reform in Europe, his encyclopaedic knowledge matched the breadth of Bentham’s undertaking.

- Dr Emmanuelle de Champs, Université Paris VIII