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Auto-iconicity and its vicissitudes: Bentham and Plato.


Jeremy Bentham's last wish was that after his death his body be publicly dissected and then preserved and exhibited. The ideas behind this somewhat extraordinary wish are elaborated in his work entitled Auto-Icon; Or, Farther Uses of the Dead to the Living. (1) While other philosophers who reflect on death are mostly concerned with the destiny of the soul after the death of the body, Bentham, in his Auto-Icon, is concerned exclusively with the destiny of the dead body, that is, the body that the soul has left. Accordingly, whereas other philosophers' reflections on death most often take the form of meditations on the immortality of the soul and completely disregard the postmortem fate of the body, Bentham's reflections on death take the form of meditations on the body--first and foremost on his own dead body--and disregard the destiny of the soul. As a treatise on the author's own dead body, Bentham's Auto-Icon is perhaps the only work of its kind, thus constituting its own genre, for which Bentham coined a new term: for the description of one's own death and the subsequent fate of the body, he proposed the term auto-thanatography as a natural sequel to one's autobiography. (2)

While people generally find the very thought of death or dead bodies revolting, by contrast in Bentham's eyes it is the dead bodies--bodies of animals and humans, preserved after death "in the torrid regions of Africa," "in the ice of the poles," "in the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii," "in rocks," and in "bogs, impregnated with tannine matter"--which provide "valuable materials for thought" (1). While others, as a rule, rarely talk about death, particularly not their own, Bentham said of his own death, and of the fate of his body after death, that "for many a year the subject has been a favourite one at my table" (2).

A good example of the way people generally try at all costs to ward off the idea of their own death can be found in Leo Tolstoy's novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich. There, not only do all the friends of the recently deceased Ivan Ilyich behave "as though death were a chance experience that could happen only to Ivan Ilyich" (3) and not to themselves, but Ivan Ilyich himself dies believing that death is an experience that happens only to others and not to himself:
  Ivan Ilyich saw that he was dying, and he was in a constant state of
    In the depth of his heart he knew he was dying, but not only was he
  unaccustomed to such an idea, he simply could not grasp it, could not
  grasp it at all.
    The syllogism he had learned from Kiesewetter's logic--"Caius is a
  man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal"--had always seemed to
  him correct as applied to Caius, but by no means to himself. That man
  Caius represented man in the abstract, and so the reasoning was
  perfectly sound; but he was not Caius, not an abstract man; he had
  always been a creature quite, quite distinct from all the others....
    Caius really was mortal, and it was only right that he should die,
  but for him. Vanya, Ivan Ilyich, with all his thoughts and feelings,
  it was something else again. And it simply was not possible that he
  should have to die. That would be too terrible. (4)

Although Ivan Ilyich is terminally ill, he still thinks that it will be Caius, that is, "man in the abstract," who will die, not he himself.

Although Bentham wrote his Auto-Icon shortly before his death and referred to it as his "last work," (5) he betrays in the treatise no fear of death; instead, he reflects on his own death just as objectively as he reflects upon everything else, that is, from the viewpoint of its possible utility. Although his writing was usually cold and dull, this utilitarian sage, when writing his auto-thanatography, becomes lively for the first time and does not even try to hide his enthusiasm in contemplating the postmortem fate of his body. As a utilitarian, he was exclusively interested in how he could be of use to his fellow humans even after death, that is, in what way even his dead body could contribute to the happiness of the living. As he wrote already in 1769, he wished "that mankind may reap some small benefit in and by my decease, having hitherto had small opportunities to contribute thereto while living." (6)

Other philosophers, such as Nicolas Malebranche or George Berkeley, similarly display no fear of death, but Bentham's lack of fear stems from different causes. It is, perhaps, not hard to face death if we share Berkeley's belief that the soul is "naturally immortal" (7) and that "the Resurrection follows the next moment to death." (8) The latter idea constitutes one of the "several paradoxes" that follow from Berkeley's radical theory of time. If, as a mind, I exist only as long as I perceive, then, of course, the moment I cease to perceive, that is, the moment I fall into a totally dreamless sleep or lose consciousness, I should cease to exist. Subsequently, in order to avoid this conclusion, Berkeley introduces his theory of time. According to Berkeley, what constitutes the time of each individual mind--and each individual mind has its own wholly subjective time, for there is no absolute time--is "the succession of ideas" (9) in the mind. It follows that the moment there is no succession of ideas, there is no time either. But if, when there is no longer any succession of ideas, there is also no time, then between death (the moment when I lose consciousness) and the resurrection (the moment when I regain consciousness) there is no time for me not to exist. (10) Thus, what Berkeley claims is not that I myself do not exist in the interval separating my death from the resurrection, but rather the interval itself does not exist. Since Berkeley believed that the "intervals of Death or Annihilation" are "nothing," (11) is it any wonder that he got a friend to assist him in hanging himself because he was curious to know "what were the pains and symptoms ... felt upon such an occasion"? (12)

It might be even less difficult to face death, if we were to share Malebranche's belief that "at death we do not lose anything." (13) According to Malebranche, in addition to the material body, which is inaccessible and inefficacious, we possess yet another "ideal" or "intelligible body"; and it is only the latter body that is capable of acting on us. It is not simply that the ideal body begins acting on us after death, when we have lost the material body; rather, the ideal body acts on us all along. Thus, for example, although we believe that it is our material body that causes pain in us when we are injured, it is in fact the ideal body that is causing the pain. Since, according to Malebranche, the soul can be united only to that which can act upon it, it follows that the soul is not, and cannot be, united to the material body, but only to the ideal one. The ideal body is "more real" than the material body; moreover, unlike the material body that no longer exists after death, our ideal body is "incorruptible," (14) and we therefore possess it even after we have lost the material one. Since death cannot separate us from the ideal body, to which we are really united, but only from the material body, which even while still alive was incapable of acting on us and was thus actually dead even before death, it is clear that "at death we do not lose anything": "therefore death which separates the soul ... from this insensible body ... is not to be feared at all." (15) Furthermore, since the body that acts upon us even while the material body is still alive is precisely the body that also acts upon us after the material body's death, it follows that in Malebranche the resurrection precedes death itself.

Incidentally, there is an apocryphal story--quoted by Thomas De Quincey in his brilliant essay On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts--which states that Berkeley supposedly caused Malebranche's death. When Berkeley called on the famous philosopher in Paris, he found him in his cell cooking. A dispute arose about the latter's doctrine of occasional causes. Berkeley urged Malebranche to retract his system, while the latter stubbornly stood his ground. "Culinary and metaphysical irritations united to derange his liver: he took to his bed, and died." (16) Berkeley thus came to be considered as "the occasional cause of Malebranche's death." (17)

If, on the other hand, we share Bentham's uncertainty about the ontological status of the soul after the death of the body, that is, if the "soul, existing in a state of separation from the body," cannot even be said to be a "real entity," (18) and if our entire postmortem fate is that of "a senseless carcass" (7), then clearly there is not much we can hope for in the afterlife. While Malebranche's postmortem fate is not dependent upon the fate of the dead material body, Bentham's is not dependent upon the fate of the soul. While Malebranche, in Entretiens sur la mort, views his own postmortem fate as the fate of the immortal soul, which, even after the death of the material body, remains united to the ideal body, Bentham in Auto-Icon, by contrast, sees his postmortem fate solely in terms of his dead body. Although this body will remain soulless even after the resurrection, it will nevertheless be precisely this body that Bentham will claim as "his own self."

The Auto-Icon Art

According to Bentham, the conventional disposal of the body after death goes against not only utilitarian wisdom but also common sense: it is a "source of evil" for the living--"undertaker, lawyer, priest--all join in the depredation" (1)--and it also deprives them of the good they might otherwise have obtained from the dead. But what is the good that can be extracted from the dead? In what way can the dead, through their bodies, contribute "to the common stock of human happiness" (2)?

After death, human bodies can serve two purposes: one that is "transitory," and the other, "permanent." The transitory purpose is "anatomical, or dissectional," and the permanent is "conservative, or statuary" (2). "The mass of matter which death has created" should not simply be disposed of, but should be used "with a view to the felicity of mankind." Bearing in mind his "greatest-happiness principle." Bentham argues that the dead body can be put to the best use if "the soft and corruptible parts" are employed "for the purpose of anatomical instructions," and "the comparatively incorruptible part" converted into "an Auto-Icon" (2).

Let us look first at the "transitory," that is, "anatomical, or dissectional" purpose of dead human bodies. It might seem unnecessary for the utilitarians to have to persuade anyone about the utility of the dead in teaching anatomy, for by now most of us will admit that by dissecting and studying the bodies of "the insensible dead," the "susceptible living" may be spared numerous severe pains. Yet in Bentham's time, this position was not widely shared. As Ruth Richardson observes, in Great Britain during this period the only legal bodies for medical dissection were those of hanged murderers. The dissection, performed by a surgeon-anatomist, was considered part of the punishment, an extension of the hangman's task. (19) Consequently, anatomists acquired a particularly low reputation in public opinion and the act of dissection itself was viewed with suspicion. The dissection of murderers was made compulsory by the 1752 Murder Act, in which dissection is described as a "further Terror and peculiar Mark of Infamy." (20) But since the bodies from this source clearly were in scarce supply, in order to satisfy the ever increasing demand of the anatomy schools, the so-called body snatchers (or "the resurrectionists," as they were also known) emerged and began digging corpses up from their graves and selling them to anatomy schools. Body snatching was not technically a crime of theft--dead bodies were not thought to belong to anyone by law and consequently "could be neither owned or stolen"--but was considered merely as an offense against public morality. (21) However, William Burke and William Hare from Edinburgh, the most notorious of the body snatchers and mentioned by Bentham in his Auto-Icon, did not simply dig up dead bodies, but actually murdered their subjects with the intention of selling their bodies to anatomists.

It is in this historical context that Bentham's extraordinary last will must be understood. Bentham left his dead body to his friend and disciple. Dr. Thomas Southwood Smith; it thus became Smith's property and could not be stolen from him with impunity. He was to dissect it and use it
   as the means of illustrating a series of lectures to which scientific
   & literary men are to be invited.... These lectures are to expound
   the situation structure & functions of the different organs.... The
   object of these lectures being two fold first to communicate curious
   interesting & highly important knowledge & secondly to show that the
   primitive horror at dissection originates in ignorance ... (22)

Bentham left his own body to an anatomist for dissection in a period when, as I said above, there was a growing demand for corpses in the medical schools, but only a scant supply, since only convicted criminals could be dissected. Indeed, corpses were so much in demand and so scarce in supply that murder began to pay. According to Bentham, it was "the pecuniary value attached" to the corpses that "created murderers in the shape of Burkes and Hares" (7). Rather than an empty gesture of a capricious philosopher who had lost his mind in old age, Bentham's donation of his body was an "exemplary bequest," (23) intended to inspire others to bequeath their bodies for dissection after death and thus ultimately to make murder unprofitable. Southwood Smith executed Bentham's last will faithfully, and dissected his friend's body in front of his disciples and medical students. Before the dissection, he gave a long oration, entitled A Lecture Delivered over the Remains of Jeremy Bentham, over the corpse.

The idea that dissected human bodies, having once served their "transitory" purpose, should be preserved, that is, put to their "permanent" or "conservative, or statuary" purpose, is urged by Bentham as follows:
   What resemblance, what painting, what statue of a human being can be
   so like him, as, in the character of an Auto-Icon, he or she will be
   to himself or herself? Is not identity preferable to similitude? (3)

Since nothing resembles an individual as well as that individual resembles himself, the bodies of the dead need to be preserved as their own most adequate representations. While one is usually represented after death by various icons--"resemblances," "paintings," and "statues"--the preservation of the body makes it possible for anyone to become his own icon, that is, an "auto-icon." The term auto-icon, invented by Bentham, is, as he says, "self-explanatory"; it means "a man who is his own image" (2). Converted into an auto-icon, every man could, even after death, continue to represent himself, to be "his own image." Since each man would be "his own statue," (24) auto-iconism would, of course, "supersede the necessity of sculpture" (4); that is, since each man would be "his own monument" (4), "there would no longer be needed monuments of stone or marble" (3). The art of auto-iconism, in short, would provide "likenesses more perfect than painting or sculpture could furnish" (5). Bentham thus was interested in the dead body in the same way that De Quincey was interested in murder--as an objet d'art, that is, as the object of "one of the fine arts."

Bentham set a personal example not only for the "transitory" (i.e., "anatomical") purpose, but also for the "permanent" (i.e., "statuary") purpose of dead human bodies: in his will, he directed Southwood Smith, after he had performed the dissection and anatomical demonstrations, to reassemble his bones into a skeleton, place on it the head (which was to have been processed separately), and then clothe the skeleton "in one of the suits of black usually worn by me" and seat it "in a Chair usually occupied by me when living." Thus clad, the skeleton was to be equipped with "the staff in my later years borne by me" and put in "an appropriate box or case...." (25) As a result, Bentham may still be seen today exemplifying the "permanent" purpose of dead human bodies: he sits as "his own statue" in a glass and mahogany case in a corridor of the University College, London, still representing himself more than a century and a half after his death. (26)

While the conservative preparation of the trunk and extremities amounted to no more than ordinary taxidermy--the skeleton is tied together at the joints by copper wires and wrapped in straw, hay, tow, cotton wool, wood wool, and so on (27)--the auto-iconization of the head required a special treatment. That special attention would need to be paid to the head is clear, for Bentham instructs, "The head of each individual is peculiar to him and, when properly preserved, is better than a statue" (2). Accordingly, Bentham advised that the head be treated like the heads of indigenous New Zealanders, that is, by exsiccation. In striving to contribute to human happiness, then, a civilized man is not to scorn the "savage ingenuity" of "the barbarous New Zealanders," who have "preceded the most cultivated nations in the Auto-Icon art" (2). The eyes, one of the "soft and corruptible parts" of the body, need not present a problem, since artifical eyes could be made out of glass and would not be "distinguishable from those which nature makes" (2). (28)

A curious irony had it that the auto-iconization of Bentham's body failed precisely at the head. Although Southwood Smith faithfully followed Bentham's instructions, the desiccated head was markedly dissimilar to the head of the living Bentham, and the anatomist therefore had a wax replica made to replace it. Although "identical" to the head of the living Bentham, the original head of the auto-icon was no longer "similar" to it, and Bentham, converted into an auto-icon, no longer resembled himself. It was, then, the wax replica that turned out to be more "like" Bentham than Bentham in the character of an auto-icon was "like himself." However, since, according to Bentham, the head is what is "peculiar" to each individual, Bentham's auto-icon, with its wax head, turned out to be no "better than a statue." The irony of this lies not only in the fact that it was the example of Bentham himself that proved that an individual is not necessarily his or her own most adequate representation after death, but also in the fact that in considering how to preserve his own head after death, Bentham was led to toy with the idea of experimenting in "the Auto-Icon art" of the New Zealanders: he planned to obtain a human head from an anatomist and dry it out in a stove in his house. (29) It is not clear if the experiment was ever actually carried out, although Bentham, in his Auto-Icon, does somewhat cryptically refer to experiments in "the slow exhaustion of the moisture from the human head" which have been going on "in this country" and "which promise complete success" (2)

The Corporeal Immortality

In Bentham's scheme, how exactly are the auto-iconized dead supposed to "contribute to the happiness of the living"? Besides their numerous other uses--moral, political, economical, genealogical, architectural, phrenological, (30) and so on--the auto-icons are also supposed to benefit the living through their "theatrical, or dramatic use" (12). Auto-iconism would make possible an entirely new kind of theater, one in which the auto-icons themselves would perform as actors. On the stage, the auto-icons would speak and gesticulate; they would be animated either from within (moved by "a boy stationed within and hidden by the robe") or from without ("by means of strings or wires," operated by "persons under the stage"). By special contrivances, it would seem as if the auto-icons breathed and as if their voices, lent by actors, issued from their own mouths; since the skin on their faces "would be rendered of a more or less brownish hue," as a result of "the process of exsiccation," they would need to wear stage makeup. (31) Thus, for the ultimate good to be extracted from them, the dead would have to be, as it were, brought back to life. The only roles the dead would play would be themselves. Thus, for instance, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, staged according to Bentham's principles of auto-iconism, would feature Julius Caesar himself, that is, his auto-icon, in the title role. "What actor can play Julius Caesar better than Julius Caesar in the character of an auto-icon can play himself?" is how the first sentence of Bentham's manifesto of the auto-iconic theater would no doubt read. Moreover, the auto-iconic theater would make it possible for the characters that actually lived centuries and continents apart to meet on stage face to face.

It is in this spirit that Bentham briefly sketches some dialogues that could be staged in the auto-iconic theater. The dialogues are categorized according to different disciplines, such as ethics, mathematics, and politics. (32) Each of the performers discusses his own work and achievements. Performers include thinkers as ancient as Confucius, Aristotle, and Euclid and as recent as John Locke, Isaac Newton, and D'Alembert. In all the draft dialogues, there is one name that persistently pops up, that of Bentham himself. Bentham would thus appear in all these dialogues and, of course, play himself. He reserves for himself absolutely pivotal roles in which he would compare his various achievements to the leading authorities in each particular field. Bentham also worked out the choreography of the corpses on the stage, down to the smallest details: after all the representatives of a particular discipline are gathered on the stage, Bentham enters and is greeted in the name of all the performers by one of the interlocutors who then introduces Bentham to each of the others and briefly sketches the principal achievements of each in his respective discipline. (33) The following exchange on ethics is a good example of the typical course of these dialogues. "The sage of the 1830th year after the Christian era," that is, Bentham himself, says to "the sage of three centuries and a half before the same," that is, Aristotle:
    In your work on morals, at the very outset of it, you bring forward
    the observation, that good in some shape or other, is the end in
    view of all men. Two thousand years have passed, and in all that
    time, nothing has been done on the subject by anybody else. Nobody
    has given a precise and clear import to the word corresponding to
    good, by translating the language of good and evil into the language
    of pleasure and pain.... (14)

Nobody but Bentham himself, of course, who considered the method of paraphrasis--namely, replacing words referring to abstract and obscure entities, the reality of which is merely "verbal," with words referring to perceptible, actually existing entities, such as pleasure and pain--to be one of his most important achievements. More or less the same story is repeated in Bentham's dialogues on mathematics with Euclid and Newton, (34) on politics with John Locke, and so forth. (35)

Dialogues between these dead clearly could not have been staged auto-iconically, since, with the exception of Bentham himself, none of them could play themselves any longer. While Bentham might well have hesitated as to the exact ontological status of their souls existing in a state of separation from their bodies--are they "real" or "fictitious entities"? (36)--he had no doubt as to their bodies: there were no "perceptible real entities" in the external world corresponding to the names of his interlocutors after their death. Nowadays, more than a century and a half after Bentham's death, such a performance should, in principle, be possible, although the selection of Bentham's coactors and interlocutors would be rather limited. Apart from Bentham, the only eminent sages that could play themselves after their death would be, for instance, Lenin, (37) Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, Kim II Sung, and a few others. Like Bentham, these men were all "auto-iconized"; even after death, they all continue to represent themselves. In one significant respect, they can even be said to represent themselves more adequately than Bentham does: unlike Bentham's auto-icon, their embalmed bodies are indubitably "better than a statue." Yet, even though they are all unquestionably "their own statues" or "their own monuments," nevertheless they are nothing more than just that, that is, monuments to themselves. What Bentham would probably have found objectionable about all these auto-iconized thinkers is that they all, as a rule, represent themselves as dead, that is, as corpses: even though they look exactly the same as they did when they were still alive, they nevertheless lie like dead people with their eyes closed, whereas Bentham himself is sitting upright in a chair, his (glass) eyes open, his hat on his head and his walking stick in his hands, as if he had just sat down, or as if he were just about to rise from his chair and leave for his daily "antejentacular circumgyration"--in a word, as if he were alive. While Bentham's auto-icon is flexible at the joints (if necessary, it can even be dismantled (38)), the rigid, embalmed corpses would be impossible to animate or to bring back to life even on the stage. Thus, in the auto-iconic theater, in which the dead are brought back to life by the staging of dialogues between them, Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, or Kim II Sung could only play themselves at the moment of their deaths. It is perhaps because they only represent themselves as dead that their embalmed bodies have not superseded "the necessity of sculpture," but, on the contrary, have inspired innumerable likenesses that represent them as living, even though, according to Bentham, their bodies are without question "better than a statue." Although these others may "contribute to the happiness of the living," not all the good has been "extracted" from them. They offer "anatomico-moral instruction" (7), but do not serve any "theatrical, or dramatic" purpose. It is therefore questionable whether the "extracted" good in fact outweighs "the evil done" (1), the expenses. For example, until a short time ago, Lenin's mausoleum laboratory in Moscow employed a staff of almost a hundred scientists--histologists, anatomists, biochemists, physical chemists, and opticians--who maintained the embalmed corpse around the clock, treating it with special chemicals and by means of equipment worth several million dollars. (39) In contrast, Bentham's auto-icon has been restored only twice since 1832: on both occasions, the moth-eaten clothes were simply cleaned and patched up, the stuffing replaced, and a bag of naphthalene and a bunch of lavender added for good measure. (40)

Let us briefly recall some typical difficulties concerning the dead human body in medieval philosophy. If the rational soul is the only substantial form of the human body, then after death, that is, after the separation of body from soul, Christ's body can no longer be called his. If, however, the dead body on the cross cannot be said to be identical with Christ's body, then it cannot be a fit object of worship. (41) For the utilitarian sage, however, this dilemma would present no difficulty; as Bentham tersely puts it, "A man's Auto-Icon is his own self" (10). Converted into an auto-icon, the "comparatively incorruptible part" of the matter created by death is identical with the living body and, therefore, is a fit object of worship (or scorn), to the extent that people, while still alive, will take into account the judgment they will receive after death in the eyes of their fellow human beings when deciding upon any course of action: "What will be said of my Auto-Icon hereafter?" (7). Public opinion, then, will assign the auto-icons their place in "the temple of honour" or in "the temple of dishonour" (6); but since it is not always possible to assign this place unequivocally, Bentham supplements his secular version of heaven and hell with "the Auto-Icon purgatory" (7), that is, a temple in which the auto-icons await the definite judgment of public opinion. Bentham believes that although the utilitarian eschatology cannot threaten with suffering or entice with pleasure after death--auto-icons are merely "senseless" carcasses--nevertheless it can, by exposing the auto-icons to the public eye, introduce "into the field of thought and action ... motives both moral and political" (7).

Furthermore, Bentham predicts that his auto-icon will become sacred. It is true that he designates his auto-icon merely as "quasi sacred" (15; original emphasis), but this was only because he thought that the term "sacred" had become "so open to abuse, as well as already so much abused" (15), not because he considered its use in this case exaggerated in any way. How was this anticipated beatification supposed to come about? Once the principles of auto-iconism had been generally accepted and people, following Bentham's example, had begun to auto-iconize their dead, the auto-icons would, by themselves, arouse in people a "virtuous curiosity" (7). This, in turn, would trigger pilgrimages to "the Auto-Icons of the virtuous," of the "benefactors of the human race," to the auto-icons of those who, while living, had acted in accordance with Bentham's principle of "the greatest happiness of the greatest number." These auto-icons "in their silence would be eloquent preachers," and the lesson they would preach to the pilgrims would be "Go thou and do likewise" (7). Therefore, what would be propagated in this way would be virtuous behavior, that is, action in accordance with Bentham's greatest-happiness principle.

While pilgrimages to the auto-icons of the benefactors would be undertaken by masses, the pilgrimages to "the old philosopher preserved in some safe repository" would be made only by the "votaries of the greatest-happiness principle" (15). Bentham's own auto-icon would thus be worshipped by only those few who understood that the good that made the auto-icons of the benefactors worthy of worship in the eyes of the masses was the direct result of their acting in accordance with Bentham's greatest-happiness principle; that is, his auto-icon would be worshipped by those who realized that the one who had first introduced this principle was, for that very reason, himself the greatest benefactor of the human race. In short, Bentham's auto-icon would be worshipped by the converts to utilitarianism.

It would be the auto-icon of Bentham himself that would, in the eyes of the converts, make all other auto-icons worthy of worship. Thus, although like all the other auto-icons of the illustrious dead Bentham's would be nothing other than "a senseless carcass of the biped" (7), in the eyes of the converts it would be the only one deserving of the elevated status of a "quasi sacred Auto-Icon" precisely because it would be the only one that would be worthy of worship on account of the person whom it represents, that is, it would be the sole icon worthy of worship in its own right.

In his will, Bentham directed his disciples, whenever they met in order to commemorate "the Founder of the greatest-happiness system of morals and legislation," to bring the case box containing his auto-icon into the room with them. (42) Thus, while in other sects leaders as a rule succeed the founder after his or her death, in contrast Bentham as an auto-icon would continue to "preside bodily" (5) over the sect of his followers even after his death:
    But when Bentham has ceased to live, (in memory will he never cease
    to live!) whom shall the Bentham Club have for its chairman? Whom
    but Bentham himself? On him will all eyes be turned,--to him will
    all speeches be addressed. (5)

What we encounter in Bentham's Auto-Icon is the obverse of Spinoza's project outlined in the second half of the fifth part of his Ethics. Here Spinoza considered "the mind's duration without relation to the body" (E5p20s), (43) not, as Bentham did, the body's duration without relation to the mind. While Spinoza's attention is focused on the part of the human mind that is eternal, Bentham is concerned with the part of the human body that is eternal. Spinoza believed that "the human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the body, but [that] something of it remains which is eternal" (E5p23), (44) whereas Bentham no doubt believed that after death something of the human body remains that is "imperishable" (12), namely, its "comparatively incorruptible part" converted into an auto-icon. Thus, if Spinoza's project in the Ethics can be termed an "alternative, secular salvation" (45) of the mind, Bentham's may be termed an alternative, secular resurrection of the body.

The Cratylus, or the Case of the Forged Auto-Icon

In Homer, psuche (soul) is the image (eidolon) of the dead body. One does not have a psuche; rather, it is after death that one becomes a psuche, an image of the body that no longer exists. The psuche of Patroclus that Achilles sees while falling asleep perfectly resembles the dead hero; it is, as it were, his exact double. At the same time, it is totally insubstantial. When Achilles reaches out to grasp the figure, it evaporates, melts away. It is, in short, a phantom or ghostly double of the dead body (Il. 23.65-108). (46)

We find a different picture in Plato, according to whom it is the dead body that is the image of the deceased: the corpses are "images [eidola] of the dead" (Leg. 959b2-3). (47) Nevertheless, one's preserved dead body would not have been characterized by Plato as one's self-image. Let us suppose that Socrates' dead body had been preserved. (48) This "auto-iconized" body would have been regarded by Plato only as an image or icon of Socrates, not as Socrates' auto-icon. Since what constitutes one's real being, one's self, is according to Plato "nothing other than the soul" (Leg. 959b), Socrates' dead body is his image not insofar as it is its own image, but insofar as it is the image of his soul. The dead body, in short, is the image of one's self, but it is not one's self-image. Thus, for Plato, the auto-iconic aspect of the dead body would have been less significant than its iconic aspect. Although the Benthamite auto-iconic theater would have most likely appealed to Plato--Bentham's dialogues of the dead are clearly nothing other than that kind of "poetry" that Plato would have been willing to admit in his city besides the "hymns to the gods," namely, "eulogies of virtuous men" (Rep. 607a)--the staging of one of his dialogues featuring Socrates' "auto-iconized" dead body would doubtlessly have left him less enthusiastic than Bentham. In Plato, the representational relation between body and soul is inverted: it is the dead body that is the image of the soul. While the immortal soul is what constitutes our real being, the dead body is its illusory, transient image, its "ghostly reflection." (49) In Platonic ontology, it is the body that is desubstantialized. It is not only after death that the body is deprived of reality; even while still alive, it was no more than an insubstantial "semblance" accompanying the soul (Leg. 959bl).

For Bentham, on the other hand, it is neither the soul that is the image of the dead body nor is it the dead body that is the image of the soul: the dead body is its own image and, as such, one's self-image. In Bentham's eyes, it is as a body that a man is "his own image" after death. This is because it is not the soul that has detached itself from the body, but the dead body itself that constitutes a man's self after death. Or, in Bentham's words, "A man's Auto-Icon is his own self" (10). Extraordinary though it may seem, this idea can nevertheless be understood against the background of Bentham's ontology. In Bentham's classification of entities, the soul after the death of the body, that is, the soul separated from the body, cannot even be said to be a "real entity"--it may well turn out to be only a "fictitious entity." "Of a human soul, existing in a state of separation from the body," writes Bentham, "no man living will, it is believed, be found ready to aver himself to have had perception of any individual example." (50) At best the soul is therefore an "inferential real entity," an entity the reality of which "not being, in any instance, attested by perception, cannot therefore be considered any otherwise than as a matter of inference." (51) Bentham is quick to add in a footnote, however: "Should there be any person in whose view the soul of man, considered in a state of separation from the body, should present itself as not capable of being, with propriety, aggregated to the class of real entities, to every such person, the class to which it belongs would naturally be that of fictitious entities." (52) The body, on the other hand, is a real entity par excellence, a "perceptible real entity," that is, an "entity the existence of which is made known to human beings by the immediate testimony of their senses, without reasoning." (53) Whether it is categorized as a "fictitious entity" or as an "inferential real entity," in Bentham's eyes the ontological status of the soul after death is more precarious than even the ontological status of the dead body, that is, the body that the soul has left behind: if properly preserved, the dead body is clearly still a "perceptible real entity." It is his ontology, then, that makes Bentham claim the "senseless carcass," rather than the soul, as "his own self" after death.

While Bentham is arguing that each thing is its own most adequate representation, Plato, in the famous passage of the Cratylus characterized by Alexander Nehamas as "the metaphysical version of the myth of Pygmalion," (54) argues that a thing itself can never be its own image or icon. Not only must an image numerically differ from the thing of which it is an image; it must, in resemblance, fall short of the thing it represents, "if it is to be an image." For if an image were to reproduce all the qualities of the thing it represents, that is, if it were to resemble its object in all respects, "everything would be duplicated" and one could no longer tell which is the image and which the real thing. If we were to add to an image all the qualities of the thing of which it is an image, it would cease to be an image of that thing and would become its exact double, a duplicate, a new real thing. Thus, if, besides the color and shape it already has, "some god" were to add to the image (eikon) of Cratylus all of Cratylus's internal properties, so argues Socrates, we would no longer have an image of Cratylus on the one hand and Cratylus on the other but, simply, "two Cratyluses" (Cra. 432a-d). (55)

The idea that an image, if it is to be an image, must fall short in resemblance of the thing it represents can also be found in Descartes, who in his Optics observes:
  [I]n no case does an image have to resemble the object it represents
  in all respects, for otherwise there would be no distinction between
  the object and its image. It is enough that the image resembles its
  object in a few respects. Indeed the perfection of an image often
  depends on its not resembling its object as it might.... Thus it often
  happens that in order to be more perfect as an image and to represent
  an object better, an engraving ought not to resemble it. (56)

What in Plato's eyes constitutes the key feature of icons or images, what in Descartes' eyes accounts for their "perfection"--their not resembling the objects they represent in all respects--is, in Bentham's eyes, the reason for their inadequacy: all icons or images--distinct from the thing itself, that is, "resemblances," "paintings," and "statues" of that thing--are dismissed by Bentham as inadequate precisely because they never resemble that thing as closely as it resembles itself, because in resemblance they necessarily fall short of the thing they represent.

What would a situation in which "everything would be duplicated" mean to Bentham? Why would the creation of the second Cratylus make his hair stand on end? In Plato's view, by turning a representation of Cratylus into his exact double we lose an icon or image and gain a new real thing; instead of Cratylus and his image we now have "two Cratyluses." In Bentham's eyes, on the other hand, we gain a new icon as well, an icon that could be called a "forged auto-icon." A Benthamite forged auto-icon is a paradoxical entity: it is a forgery precisely insofar as it is qualitatively entirely indistinguishable from the thing it imitates; if it fell short in resemblance of the thing it imitates, it would no longer be its "forged auto-icon," but merely one of the imperfect likenesses or icons that more or less inadequately represent the things of which they are icons. The second Cratylus is not only his own icon but also an icon of the first Cratylus. Resembling the first Cratylus as closely as the first Cratylus resembles himself, the second Cratylus represents the first Cratylus as adequately as the latter represents himself. Since he is an icon of the first Cratylus to the same extent as the first Cratylus is his own icon, the second Cratylus is a "forged auto-icon" of the first. And because a qualitatively indistinguishable, yet numerically distinct thing would represent Cratylus no less adequately than Cratylus represents himself, Bentham is led to conclude that "Auto-Icons ... cannot be forged" (5).

In representation, therefore, Bentham clearly strives for the highest degree of iconicity, that is, identity. "Isn't identity preferable to similitude?" he asks (3) in Auto-Icon. Each particular thing can most adequately be represented only by itself, each thing is its own best icon; in short, each object is a sign of itself. Thus, Bentham's auto-icon is a paradoxical sign that is identical with its denotatum, a sign that is itself its own denotatum.

Bentham's central principle of auto-iconism--since nothing can resemble a thing as closely as itself, a particular thing can most adequately be represented therefore only by itself--ultimately derives from Leibniz's principle of the identity of indiscernibles. According to Leibniz, no two things in nature can be exactly alike. If two things perfectly resemble each other, they are also numerically identical, that is, one and the same thing; two things that are indiscernible from one another are in reality nothing other than "the same thing under two names." (57)

From a Lacanian perspective, however, it is rather the reverse that holds true. "The anti-Leibnizean lesson of the Lacanian logic of the signifier," writes Zizek, "is that since a thing does not 'look like itself', resemblance is, on the contrary, the guarantor of non-identity." (58) Thus, what we encounter here is not the Leibnizean principle of the identity of indiscernibles, but its obverse, namely, a principle that could, perhaps, be termed a principle of "the dissimilarity of the identical."

A borderline case of this principle is embodied in the elusive character of Rameau's nephew, described by Diderot in the novel of the same name with the following words: "Rien ne dissemble plus de lui que lui-meme." (59) While according to Bentham nothing resembles an individual more than that individual resembles himself, according to Diderot nothing resembles Rameau's nephew less than himself. Thus, contrary to Bentham's principle of auto-iconism whereby an individual is his own icon, "his own image," that is, he resembles himself, Rameau's nephew does not look like or resemble himself--he is Rameau's nephew.

It is in accordance with this principle that in the film Lady Eve a character (played by Henry Fonda) sees the same woman for the second time (a woman who still looks exactly the same but is now pretending to be somebody different) and exclaims: "They look too much alike to be the same!" (60) What distinguishes the two women for him is precisely the fact that they are indistinguishable: they simply resemble one another too much to be identical. Thus, the striking resemblance between the two women leaves Fonda entirely indifferent. While, as a rule, it is the resemblance between two persons that attracts our attention and arouses our suspicion that they might in fact be one and the same person (and the greater the resemblance, the more it attracts our attention and the greater our suspicion), Fonda, by contrast, would begin to suspect that the two women might in fact be one and the same person only if the woman before his eyes "didn't look so exactly like the other girl." (61) It is the resemblance, then, that in his eyes guarantees nonidentity.

This very same logic governs Groucho Marx's speculation about Emmanuel Ravelli's identity in the film Animal Crackers. Upon learning that someone who looks "exactly like" Emmanuel Ravelli is in fact Emmanuel Ravelli, Groucho nevertheless protests: "But I still insist there is a resemblance." (62) It is because Emmanuel Ravelli resembles himself exactly that Groucho finds it hard to believe that he is indeed Emmanuel Ravelli: how could he possibly be Emmanuel Ravelli when he looks "exactly like" him? Emmanuel Ravelli, then, simply looks too much like himself to be identified as Emmanuel Ravelli. It seems then that an individual, according to this logic, can only remind us of himself or be recognized unequivocally if, despite the fact that everything about him reminds us of him, he himself does not remind us of him. In the same way, Margaret Dumont, in the opening scene from A Night at the Opera, reminds Groucho Marx of herself; he declares: "Your eyes, your throat, your lips--everything about you reminds me of you. Except you." Or, in Zizek's inimitable rendition of Hegelese: "The 'oneness' of a thing is grounded not in its properties, but in the negative synthesis of a pure 'One' which excludes (relates negatively to) all positive properties: this 'one' which guarantees the identity of a thing does not reside in its properties, since it is ultimately its signifier." (63)


(1) Bentham n.d. This privately printed volume, comprising 21 pages, is extremely rare; there is no date and no name of editor or publisher given on the title page. I consulted the copy in the Houghton Library at Harvard University. Quotations from this text will be referenced in the body of the article.

(2) Bentham n.d.: 2.

(3) Tolstoy 44; see also 37.

(4) Tolstoy 93-94.

(5) Bentham n.d.: 1, "Note by the editor."

(6) Quoted in Smith 4.

(7) Berkeley 1998: 156.

(8) Berkeley 1992: 354.

(9) Berkeley 1998: 138.

(10) For a fuller account of Berkeley's theory of time, see Tipton 271-96; Pitcher 206-11; Grayling 174-83; Berman 1994: 61-70; Furlong 148-55.

(11) Berkeley 1992: 308.

(12) See "Some Original Memoirs of the Late Famous Bishop of Cloyne," in Works of Oliver Goldsmith, 5 vols., ed. A. Friedman (Oxford 1966) 3: 35; quoted in Berman 1997: 38.

(13) Malebranche 12-13: 410.

(14) Malebranche 12-13: 405.

(15) Malebranche 12-13: 409-10.

(16) De Quincey 6: 123-24. In this essay, De Quincey toys with the idea that "every philosopher of eminence for the two last centuries"--that is, Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Leibniz, and Kant, in addition to Malebranche--"has either been murdered, or, at the least, been very near it; insomuch, that if a man calls himself a philosopher, and never had his life attempted, rest assured there is nothing in him" (118). Thus, De Quincey considers it "an unanswerable objection (if we need any)" against Locke's philosophy that, "although he carried his throat about with him in this world for seventy-two years, no man ever condescended to cut it" (118). On the other hand, Leibniz, generally recognized as a philosopher superior to Malebranche, must have felt deeply "insulted by the security in which he passed his days." His ambition that there would at least be an attempt on his life--which would bring ultimate recognition of his philosophy--was so great that in his old age he amassed a large sum of gold and kept it in his house in order to attract a potential murderer, but without success; in the end, he died "partly of the fear that he should be murdered, and partly of vexation that he was not" (124). The only reason Kant was not murdered was that his prospective murderer "was an amateur, who felt how little would be gained to the cause of good taste by murdering an old, arid, and adust metaphysician; there was no room for display, as the man could not possibly look more like a mummy when dead, than he had done alive" (125).

(17) For more on this point, see Luce 208-10.

(18) See Bentham 1838-43: 8: 196n.

(19) Richardson 34.

(20) Quoted in Richardson 37.

(21) Richardson 58-59.

(22) Bentham MSS Box 155, UC Library; quoted in Marmoy 80.

(23) Richardson and Hurwitz 195.

(24) Literary examples of "auto-iconization" (one's turning into one's own statue or one's own monument at the moment of death) of course abound. See, e.g., Malcolm Bradbury's description of Voltaire immediately before his death: "He's become his own statue, transfigured himself into his own waxwork, grown into his own bust" (Bradbury 478); and Ernest Hemingway's description of the seemingly dying F. Scott Fitzgerald: "Back in the room Scott was still lying as though on his tomb, sculpted as a monument to himself ..." (Hemingway 166).

(25) Bentham MSS Box 155, UC Library; quoted in Marmoy 80.

(26) When Burke was caught, he was sentenced to be hanged and publicly dissected; that is, the one who had engaged in murder to serve utilitarian ends was himself, in his turn, murdered and his own body put to its "farther use to the living." In fact, Burke's body was used not only for "transitory," but also for "permanent" purpose: the presiding judge decreed that after the execution and subsequent dissection of his body. Burke's skeleton should be reassembled and preserved in memory of his atrocious crimes (see Richardson 143; see also her 340 n. 52). Thus, Burke can still be seen today. Displayed in the Edinburgh University Museum, even today he continues to represent himself, even today he continues to be "his own image," his own icon.

(27) Marmoy 85.

(28) Artificial eyes were the only concession Bentham was prepared to make within his strict principles of auto-iconism: that is to say, the only part of his body that he did not insist on preserving as auto-iconic after death were his eyes. Instead, Bentham had a pair of glass eyes, later to adorn his desiccated head, made in his own color twenty years before his death, which he used to carry around in his pockets and show to his friends. See Marmoy 84n.

(29) Bowring, Autobiographical Recollections (London 1877) 343; quoted in Marmoy 78.

(30) Bentham n.d.: 3.

(31) Bentham n.d.: 13.

(32) Bentham n.d.: 14-15.

(33) Bentham n.d.: 13.

(34) Bentham n.d.: 15.

(35) Bentham n.d.: 14-15.

(36) See Bentham 1838-43: 8: 196n.

(37) One can easily imagine a dialogue between Bentham and Lenin, let us say, on ontology, in which the two interlocutors would jointly mock Berkeley and his belief in the nonexistence of matter, with Bentham probably quoting from his Fragment on Ontology, and Lenin from his Materialism and Empirio-Criticism.

(38) Richardson and Hurwitz 197.

(39) Zbarsky 181.

(40) Richardson and Hurwitz 196.

(41) For an account of the controversy, see Kenny 47. For an ingenious solution, see Eckhart 71-75.

(42) For the text of Bentham's last will, see Marmoy 80.

(43) Spinoza 1: 606.

(44) Spinoza 1: 607.

(45) Yovel 154.

(46) I draw here on Vernant 1991: 186-92. See also "Figuration de l'invisible et categorie psychologique du double: le colossos," in Vernant 1978: 2: 65-78.

(47) Although Plato, in contrast to Bentham, does not expect the dead to be of any "farther use to the living," his attitude toward dead bodies nevertheless resembles Bentham's own, in that the expenses the living have disposing of them should be as low as possible. For example, according to Plato, "one ought never to squander one's substance, in the belief that this lump of flesh being buried especially belongs to one"; one should only spend "a measured amount" on the disposal of the dead, that is, "not more than five minas" should be "spent on the whole funeral by a man of the highest class, three minas by a man of the second, two by a man of the third, and a mina by a man of the fourth" (Leg. 959d1-6). "Graves ... are not to be located on any land that is cultivable, ... but only where the nature of the land is suitable for this alone: to receive and hide, in a way that is the most painless to the living, the bodies of those who have died" (958el-4). And the stone markers must not be made any "larger than are required to contain at most four heroic lines of encomia on the life of the deceased" (959d4).

(48) The fact that it was not is deplored by Bentham in Auto-Icon: "Take the case of Socrates,--suppose him Auto-Iconized, and the Auto-Icon deposited in the British Museum, would the Auto-Icon justify Xenophon's character of him and the portrait drawn in his 'Memorabilia'?" (8).

(49) Vernant 1991: 190.

(50) Bentham 1838-43: 8: 196.

(51) Bentham 1838-43: 8: 196 (Bentham's emphases).

(52) Bentham 1838-43: 8: 196n. See also 196: "Considered as existing and visiting any part of our earth in a state of separation from the body, a human soul would be a ghost: and, at this time of day, custom scarcely does, fashion certainly does not command us to believe in ghosts" (Bentham's emphases). In this case, however, the soul could not even be categorized as a fictitious entity but rather as an imaginary nonentity.

(53) Bentham 1838-43: 8: 195.

(54) Nehamas 285; see also 263.

(55) For an excellent detailed discussion of the passage, see Tarn Steiner 69-74.

(56) Descartes 1:165-66 (emphasis added).

(57) Leibniz 216.

(58) Zizek 51.

(59) Diderot 32. See also Rousseau's description of himself: "Rien n'est si dissemblable a moi que moi-meme" (1: 1108).

(60) Henderson 467.

(61) Henderson 467.

(62) Cf. Barson 5.

(63) Zizek 51-52.

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