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Richard J. Arneson BENTHAMITE UTILITARIANISM AND HARD TIMES IT is commonly understood that Dickens's vaguely specified criticisms of the "Hard Facts" philosophy in Hard Times are intended as criticisms of Benthamite Utilitarianism. It is also commonly held that, on the level of theory at any rate, Dickens's criticisms are in the form of caricature so crudely painted as almost entirely to misrepresent its object. ' It would be foolish to deny the presence of bathos, flat caricature, and stereotyped sentiment in this novel, or for that matter in any of Dickens's novels. But alongside the flamboyantly bad there is much stronger and subtler material. In this paper I examine the criticisms of Utilitarianism in Hard Times, and argue that Dickens's arguments possess more cogency than he is usually given credit for. It will turn out that much of the intellectual interest of the novel derives from the tension between what Dickens says to us in authorial sermons and what he shows us in the structure of his plot. One complaint Dickens offers is that Utilitarians like Thomas Gradgrind oppose fact to fancy and, in their gross worship of fact and downcrying of fancy, stifle much in human beings that is essential to their flourishing. The fact-versus-fancy theme is traceable in the novel's handling of education in the Gradgrind school, of the upbringing of the Gradgrind children, and of working-class life in industrial towns such as Coketown. Here as elsewhere Dickens means to present in tandem a criticism of the "Hard Facts" philosophy and of the society which he believed increasingly to be operating on the principles of that philosophy; hence a response to Hard Times must deal with social criticism as well as philosophical critique. What exactly is it that Gradgrind thinking aims to excise from Victorian culture by its campaign against "fancy"? Critics have objected that 60 Richard J. Arneson61 Dickens's notion of fancy comprehends only playful imagination and light-minded amusement and as such cannot bear the heavy burden of argument he rests upon it.2 In many passages of the novel fancy is indeed tantamount to play. But Dickens insists on the significance of fancy for moral education and on the continuity between light fancy and the poetical imagination that heightens moral sensibility. Fancy, nurtured in a child even in the humble pursuits of nursery rhymes and fairy tales, turns into moral imagination in an adult, who is thereby enabled to place himself in thought in the position of another, intuit his way of thinking, sense his feelings, and so acquire the knowledge and the inclination to treat the other with intelligent sympathy. That Gradgrind education frustrates this natural process is Dickens's complaint against it. It is worth calling attention to the similarity between Dickens's complaint against a vaguely discerned spirit of the times and the much more focused criticism urged by J. S. Mill against Bentham in his 1838 essay in London and Westminster Review. Bentham, says Mill, lacked himself, and failed to appreciate, a certain sort of imagination— that which enables us, by a voluntary effort, to conceive the absent as if it were present, the imaginary as if it were real, and to clothe it in the feelings which, if it were indeed real, it would bring along with it. This is the power by which one human being enters into the mind and circumstances of another. This power constitutes the poet, insofar as he does anything but melodiously utter his own actual feelings. . . . Mill concludes that Bentham, lacking imagination and an historical sense, "saw accordingly in man little but what the vulgarest eye can see."3 And in his Autobiography, Mill acknowledges that in the Benthamite Radical circles he frequented in the 1820's, "From this neglect both in theory and in practise of the cultivation of feeling, naturally resulted, among other things, an undervaluing of poetry, and of Imagination generally, as an element of human nature."4 A sympathetic internal critic of Utilitarianism, Mill tries to retain the essentials of Bentham's secular and empiricist moral doctrine while softening its cruder aspects. Like Bentham, Mill identifies morality with furthering the greatest happiness...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 60-75
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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