Mandeville, Bernard (c. 1670–1733)

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Bernard Mandeville, a physician and moralist, was probably born in Rotterdam, Holland, where he was baptized on November 20, 1670. His family was a distinguished one, his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather having been noted physicians. The family name was originally de Mandeville, but Mandeville dropped the "de" in later life. He was educated at the Erasmian School in Rotterdam and then attended the University of Leiden, where he studied philosophy and medicine. He was granted the degree of doctor of medicine in 1691. His medical specialty was the treatment of nerve and stomach disorders, or, as he called them, the "hypochondriack and hysterick passions." Dr. Johnson is said to have had a high regard for a treatise Mandeville wrote on these diseases.

A short time after taking his degree Mandeville visited London to learn English, and liking the country and the people, he chose to settle in England. Little is known about his English life beyond the bare facts that he married, that he had a son and a daughter, that he practiced medicine, and that he apparently had plenty of time for writing. His success as a writer is all the more remarkable when one remembers that English was his adopted language. His best-known work is The Fable of the Bees, with its slogan "private vices, public benefits." It called forth a number of replies from the outraged defenders of virtue, including George Berkeley in the Alciphron and Francis Hutcheson. The book was a regular source of public and private controversy in the eighteenth century. The notoriety that this work gained Mandeville doubtless explains why no very consistent account of his situation and character has come down to us from his contemporaries. But Benjamin Franklin, who once met Mandeville, reported that he was "a most facetious and entertaining companion." Mandeville died at Hackney in England.

The Fable of the Bees was twenty-four years in the making. It began as a poem of 433 lines called "The Grumbling Hive: Or, Knaves Turn'd Honest" (London, 1705). The many bitter attacks on the poem caused Mandeville to produce several expositions, elaborations, and defenses of it, all of which grew, over the years, into the book The Fable of the Bees; Or Private Vices, Public Benefits. In its final form, the sixth edition (1729), the Fable consists of two parts. Part I is the original poem followed by several essays: (1)"An Enquiry into the Origin of Moral Virtue," consisting of twenty-two remarks on various lines or words in the poem, such as luxury, pride, and so on; (2) "An Essay on Charity and Charity Schools"; (3) "A Search into the Nature of Society"; and (4) "A Vindication of the Book" against a presentment of the grand jury of Middlesex and other abuse. Part II, which is as long as the first part, consists of six dialogues in which Cleomenes instructs Horatio in the true meaning of the Fable.

As might be expected in a book that was put together over a long period and whose later parts are a defense of the earlier, Mandeville's targets are several, and assessing the relative importance of his ideas is not easy. His economic doctrines are certainly more thoroughly worked out than his moral theories, and he wanted politicians to take his economic views seriously. Given that a politician desires the nation he governs to be great and wealthy and given that there is a large population to be kept in employment, then a certain kind of economic life must be permitted and even fostered. The production of necessities will neither employ very many people nor by itself make a nation great. Therefore, the production of luxuries must be permitted, and their consumption on the most lavish scale possible encouraged, thus simultaneously achieving splendor and full employment. Mandeville analyzes the making of hooped and quilted petticoats in order to show not only the opportunities for labor the manufacture of this luxury provides in itself, but also the subsidiary employments (shipwright, sailor, dye-finder, and so on) that fashion calls into being.

In "An Essay on Charity and Charity Schools" Mandeville gives some hint of the structure of the society that is required to produce a great and wealthy nation. In this essay, he opposes educating the poor on the grounds that knowledge enlarges and multiplies our desires and that the fewer things a person wishes for, the more easily may his necessities be supplied. As Mandeville understood the English economic system of the eighteenth century, it required a large number of laboring poor, and he feared that education would make them dissatisfied with their lot and would consequently disrupt the system.

But Mandeville goes on to show the mixed feelings that have always troubled the analytical observer of society who is also a decent human being. He tells us that he does not wish to be thought personally cruel, but he believes that proposing to educate the poor is "to be Compassionate to excess, where Reason forbids it, and the general Interest of the Society requires steadiness of Thought and Resolution." It is, he argues, no harder on the poor to withhold education from them, even though they may have "natural parts and genius" equaling the rich, than it is to withhold money from them as long as they have the same inclinations to spend as the rich have.

Mandeville strongly favored free trade, seeing clearly that in order for one nation to buy another's goods, it must be able to sell its own. Any restriction in international trade must cause the loss of markets, with a consequent fall in the level of employment at home. In the eighteenth century Mandeville's writings became the chief source of arguments in favor of the manufacture of luxuries and against restrictions on trade, either within a given nation or between nations. Adam Smith owed much to his knowledge of The Fable of the Bees.

Mandeville did not choose, however, to publish these economic doctrines in a straightforward way. Instead, he offered them in his moralizing poem, "The Grumbling Hive." The bees in the poem have many vices, but their society thrives. Mandeville's notion of vice is a threefold one. First, he has in mind such character traits as envy, vanity, love of luxury, and fickleness in diet, furniture, and dress. These traits make buyers eager to spend lavishly and consume prodigiously, so that they will soon be ready to spend again. Second, Mandeville calls vice that behavior necessary to profitable trade. The seller must conceal from the prospective buyer both the original cost of his goods and the lowest price at which he is willing to sell, while the buyer must conceal the highest price at which he will buy. Mandeville believes that success will certainly require deceit on the part of both buyer and seller, not to mention sharper practices that may descend to downright fraud. Third, Mandeville counts crime as a vice that provides public benefits. Thieves are valuable on two counts. The threat of them keeps locksmiths in business, and when they do succeed, they soon squander their gains, thus contributing to the circulation of wealth. Mandeville may therefore conclude, "The worst of all the Multitude/Did something for the Common Good." In this vein he regards even wars and natural disasters as valuable to the economic system, for by destroying goods, they provide an opportunity for labor to replace them.

Against his claims for the social utility of vice Mandeville sets the following picture of virtue:

It is certain that the fewer Desires a Man has and the less he covets, the more easy he is to himself the more he loves Peace and Concord, the more Charity he has for his Neighbor, and the more he shines in real virtue, there is no doubt but that in proportion he is acceptable to God and Man. But let us be Just, what Benefit can these things be of, or what earthly good can they do, to promote the Wealth, the Glory and Worldly Greatness of Nations?

By a divine fiat the bees of the grumbling hive are all made honest, and their society declines into simplicity and insignificance.

Why did Mandeville present his economic doctrines in a poem praising vice, a poem that could only outrage his contemporaries? The most likely supposition is that in the first writing the motives of the moralist are uppermost. If English economic life is seen as it is and as it will be, then encouraging men to be honest and frugal is a disservice to both them and the continuation of the economic system. By praising those sorts of behavior that are ordinarily called vicious, Mandeville hoped to shock the moralist into seeing the world as it is. He gives the moralist the choice either of accepting the world as it is and changing his tune or of rejecting the world and admitting that the virtues the moralist praises require a context quite different from what is ordinarily supposed. What Mandeville takes to be economic truths thus become the basis for a program that is no less than the reform of moralizing.

As The Fable of the Bees grew, Mandeville came to offer bits of moral theory, largely because of his discovery of the writings of the Earl of Shaftesbury. He attacked Shaftesbury bitterly. He calls the claim that men may be virtuous without self-denial "a vast Inlet to Hypocrisy." He says that Shaftesbury's search for "a real worth and excellence" in things "is not much better than a Wild-Goose-Chace that is but little to be depended on." Mandeville's own view is that "our Liking or Disliking of things chiefly depends on Mode and Custom, and the Precept and Example of our Betters and such whom one way or other we think to be Superior to us. In Morals there is no greater certainty."

The organization of men into a society arises from the multiplicity of each man's desires and the need to overcome the great man's desires and the need to overcome the great natural obstacles that stand in the way of satisfying these desires. In society each man achieves his own ends by laboring for others. Under a government each member of society is rendered subservient to the whole, and all men, by cunning management, are made to act as one. The key to social organization is man's pride and his consequent delight in flattery. Thus, governors may flatter men into putting public interest before private interest, and men are led to be pleased with themselves for being virtuous. Indeed, this satisfaction is the reward for virtuous actions, and it is ultimately this feeling that makes virtue possible.

These doctrines place Mandeville in the moral-sense school, but his presentation of them is desultory and unsystematic. A successor, such as David Hume, would have been interested to find these views in the Fable. But there is something else in Mandeville's writings that is even more impressivethe large number of vignettes, anecdotes, and sketches that make the reader feel he is learning what people are really like and that must in the end make him a shrewder observer of human nature.

See also Berkeley, George; Franklin, Benjamin; Hutcheson, Francis; Johnson, Samuel; Moral Sense; Shaftesbury, Third Earl of (Anthony Ashley Cooper); Smith, Adam; Virtue and Vice.


The premier modern edition of The Fable of the Bees is that prepared by F. B. Kaye, 2 vols. (London, 1924). Kaye's researches have provided us with a balanced account of Mandeville's life, and his introductory essay on Mandeville's thought and influence should be consulted.

Mandeville's other works include The Virgin Unmask'd: Or, Female Dialogues betwixt an Elderly Maiden Lady, and Her Niece (London: J. Morphew, 1709); Free Thoughts on Religion, the Church, and National Happiness (London: T. Jauncy and J. Roberts, 1720); A Modest Defence of Publick Stews (1724); An Enquiry into the Causes of the Frequent Executions at Tyburn (London: J. Roberts, 1725); An Enquiry into the Origin of Honour, and the Usefulness of Christianity in War (London: J. Brotherton, 1732); and A Letter to Dion [Berkeley], Occasion'd by His Book Call'd Alciphron (1732).

Elmer Sprague (1967)