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Bentham Ban Lifted
By Philip Schofield
I was privileged to represent the Bentham Project at an extraordinary event held at the University of Rosario, Bogotá, Colombia on 22 February 2002. The Rector of Rosario, Rafael Riveros, issued a decree lifting a ban on the study of the works of Jeremy Bentham which had been in place since the nineteenth century.
Bentham was a symbolic figure in nineteenth-century Colombia, feted by the liberals and despised by the conservatives. The controversy over Bentham, known as ‘La Querella Benthamista’, was sharply defined in the respective attitudes of the two great founding fathers of the Colombian state, namely Simón Bolívar (1783–1830), the Liberator, and Paulo Francisco de Santander (1792–1840). Both men corresponded with Bentham, and Santander, having been exiled from Colombia, came to London and met Bentham in 1830. It was Bolívar, however, who first banned the study of Bentham in Colombia’s public universities in 1828, following an assassination attempt perpetrated by ‘young idealists’ who, as Bolívar saw it, had been too much influenced by the teachings of Bentham. In contrast, when Santander became President of Colombia in 1832, the teachings of Bentham were restored to the curriculum. And so it went on throughout much of the nineteenth century, with Bentham proscribed by the conservatives, and prescribed by the liberals. The crucial issue was whether the Colombian state should be organized along secular lines, as recommended by Bentham, or retain a more traditional structure closely allied to the Roman Catholic Church.
The University of Rosario is the oldest University in Colombia, having been founded by King Philip IV of Spain in 1653, and has supplied the Republic of Colombia with twenty-nine of its Presidents. Rosario is a private University, and so was not bound by the prohibitions on Bentham’s teachings issued by the state or by the Church. In the event, the University itself banned the study of Bentham, and the ban has remained in force until now.
I was honoured to be invited to deliver the key-note lecture at the ceremony. I explained the origin of Bentham’s anti-religious and anti-clerical views, and his use of the principle of utility as a critical standard by which to test existing laws, institutions, practices, and beliefs. I also suggested that Bentham’s programme of substantive reform by means of the law must have appeared refreshing to statesmen who wished to reform the political and legal systems of the states to which they belonged, but faced resistance from entrenched interests such as the privileged nobility and church.
In a visit supported by the British Council in Colombia, I also had the opportunity to meet ‘Benthamistas’, scholars interested in the thought of Bentham, at the University of Javeriana in Bogotá, and to deliver lectures on Bentham at both Javeriana and at the University del Valle, in Cali. It was a memorable visit, and I was left with great admiration for academics who, despite all the problems which Colombia is facing at present, are striving to educate their young people in a way which will produce a better future for a potentially great country.
Philip Schofield (right) with Rafael Riveros (left), Rector of the University of Rosario, and Alfonso Lopez Michelsen (right), President of Colombia 1974–8 and alumnus of Rosario, at the ceremony to raise the ban on the study of Bentham.
Page last modified on 05 oct 10 15:04