Mandeville, Bernard (1670–1733)

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MANDEVILLE, BERNARD (16701733), satirical writer and medical doctor. A specialist in nervous disorders, Bernard Mandeville was a Dutchman whose family had included physicians for generations. He received a classical education at the Erasmian school in Rotterdam. At the University of Leiden he studied medicine but also wrote a philosophical treatise on the ancient question of whether or not animals had souls. His cosmopolitan background led to a close knowledge of French skeptical literature and particularly the writings of Pierre Bayle (16471706), which influenced him considerably. Mandeville emigrated to London around 1691, possibly because of his involvement in local political disturbances, known as the Costerman Tax Riots, in Rotterdam in 1690. He settled down to a successful medical practice and married an Englishwoman, Ruth Elizabeth Laurence. Mandeville counted among his friends the eminent physician Sir Hans Sloane (16601753).

Mandeville's literary career began with the publication of a Hudibrastic poem entitled The Grumbling Hive; or, Knaves Turned Honest (1705), in which he began a satirical attack on Puritan asceticism that lasted his whole life. With the addition of prose essays, the poem grew into the first part of The Fable of the Bees (1714). A second part appeared in 1729. One of the appended essays dealt with the subject of charity schools, which, Mandeville controversially argued, would create discontent among the poor by overqualifying them for the (menial) tasks that they needed to do to make a living and that society needed them to do for its survival. The polemical subtitle, Private Vices, Publick Benefits, pithily encapsulated what later became known as the Mandevillean paradox, a questioning of the effects of adhering to an ascetic morality in a materialistic society.

The addition of the essay on charity schools to The Fable of the Bees led to a sometimes bitter public controversy engaging clerics and theologians like William Law (16861761), Joseph Butler (16921752), and Bishop George Berkeley (16851753), who all attacked Mandeville's work as morally corrupting. The Grand Jury of Middlesex condemned The Fable of the Bees to be burned by the public hangman, which added to Mandeville's notoriety and reputation as a freethinker. But the Mandevillean paradox became a focal discussion of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. Adam Ferguson (17231816), David Hume (17111776), and Adam Smith (17231790) in Britain and Voltaire (16941778) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778) on the Continent felt the need to examine Mandeville's assertion that luxury, far from being harmful, was the foundation of a flourishing, commercial society.

Mandeville wrote a number of other works, including one on nervous disorders and several on the subject of religion and its effects upon war. He also wrote pamphlets on important and topical social subjects, such as prostitution (A Modest Defence of Publick Stews; 1724) and hanging (An Enquiry into the Causes of the Frequent Executions at Tyburn; 1725). On these social questions his views, expressed journalistically, could be radical, in the English context, suggesting, for example, that prostitution should be regulated by the state. But his lasting fame and the critical attention he has received is primarily based on the ideas expounded in his Fable of the Bees.

See also Bayle, Pierre ; Enlightenment ; Hume, David ; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques ; Smith, Adam ; Voltaire .


Primary Source

Mandeville, Bernard. The Fable of the Bees; or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits. 2 vols. Edited by F. B. Kaye. Oxford, 1924.

Secondary Sources

Jack, Malcolm. Corruption and Progress: The Eighteenth-Century Debate. New York, 1989.

Prior, Charles W. A. Mandeville and Augustan Ideas: New Essays. Victoria, B.C., 2000.

Malcolm Jack

Mandeville, Bernard

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Mandeville, Bernard



Bernard Mandeville (1670?-1733), English political satirist, was born in (or near) Rotterdam. He was educated there at the Erasmian School and, at the age of 15, matriculated at the University of Leiden. There his studies included medicine and philosophy. The early influence on Mandeville of mechanistic philosophy—Descartes and Gassendi—was later reinforced by a reading of Hobbes. The fourth generation of a medical family, Mandeville took his m.d. in 1691 and followed his father’s specialization in nervous and digestive disorders. By 1699 he had moved this practice to England, settled, and married there. He published a dialogue on his speciality, A Treatise of the Hypocondriack and Hysterick Diseases (1711; enlarged in 1730), but even before this work appeared he had begun a second career as a satirist and wit, an anatomist of individual and social behavior.

Among Mandeville’s early poems, translations, and dialogues—all published anonymously—was The Grumbling Hive: Or, Knaves Turn’d Honest (1705), a pamphlet describing in verse a thriving, vicious beehive: “Millions endeavouring to supply / Each other’s Lust and Vanity” ([1714–1729] 1957, volume 1, p. 18). Each part is vicious, but the whole hive is wealthy and powerful. It is a dissatisfied, grumbling hive until, miraculously reformed, it becomes virtuous, contented, and, consequently, impoverished and depopulated. Since vice is as much a cause of greatness as hunger is of eating, “fools only strive / To make a Great an Honest Hive”; proponents of the Golden Age “must be as free, / For Acorns, as for Honesty” (ibid., volume 1, pp. 36-37). In 1714 Mandeville explained the poem in “An Enquiry Into the Origin of Moral Virtue” and twenty “Remarks,” entitling the now substantial work The Fable of the Bees: Or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits. In 1723 he expanded the work again, enlarging the “Remarks” and adding “An Essay on Charity and Charity-schools” and “A Search Into the Nature of Society.” A second volume, The Fable of the Bees, Part II (a series of explanatory dialogues), appeared in 1729. Mandeville reiterated and corrected his views in An Enquiry Into the Origin of Honour, and the Usefulness of Christianity in War (1732).

Mandeville’s outrageous paradox—“private vices, publick benefits”—involves a series of suggestive explanations. The vices of luxury (unnecessary consumption), pride (vain and fashionable display), greed, envy, and avarice (self-interest in various forms) all contribute to prosperity. To supply the luxury of a scarlet coat requires many manufacturing and trading operations—an extensive division of labor (see [1714] 1957, volume 1, pp. 356-358; volume 2, pp. 142, 284). A nation that restricts the consumption of foreign luxuries to achieve frugality will instead reduce its own prosperity because the countries that export those luxuries will no longer be able to import its own goods (ibid., volume 1, pp. 107-116). Mandeville’s descriptions of the economic benefits of vice, crime, and (limited) natural disaster approach the modern concept of a self-regulating economic system (ibid., volume 1, pp. 85-89, 359-364). Among the benefits of the scheme proposed in A Modest Defence of Publick Stews is a self-regulating supply of prostitutes (1724, pp. 64-65).

Although his objections to meddling with trade make Mandeville a forerunner of laissez-faire ([1714] 1957, volume 1, pp. 299-300; volume 2, p. 353), he advocated not only that private property be secured, justice be impartially administered, and trade, agriculture, and fishery be promoted but also that the government manage taxes and prohibitions to maintain a favorable balance of trade (ibid., volume 1, pp. 115-117, 197, 248-249). Private vices may be made public benefits through skillful management by a wise politician (ibid., volume 1, p. 169).

Mandeville’s argument was annoying because he insisted that vices are not the consequences of social decadence but rather the very motives on which a flourishing, civilized, powerful society depends; simultaneously, he insisted that these vices are obviously incompatible with virtue (or Christianity), which requires a self-denying endeavor to benefit others or to be good (ibid., volume 1, pp. 48-49; volume 2, pp. 16-19, 109-110). Not only is virtue contrary to human instinct; but society is not, as Shaftesbury had argued, based on man’s natural sociability. Society is founded on the difficulty men have in gratifying their appetites (self-preservation) and is made possible by their susceptibility to praise (self-love) and their capacity for hypocrisy. Men have been socialized by politicians and moralists who, by flattery, have produced the moral virtues, especially honor and shame, and thus induced men to conform to the fashionable social code, profess virtue, and disguise their passions even though they cannot conquer them. But Mandeville’s functional analysis of social institutions does not depend upon the existence of mythical dexterous politicians, for, as he explains, morality, language, government, arts, and sciences—all social institutions—are “the joynt Labour of many Ages” (ibid., volume 2, pp. 128, 238-243, 266-269, 285-290, 318-323; 1732, p. 41).

The Fable’s vigorous wit and social satire, like the similar mockery of Erasmus and La Rochefoucauld, was intended to encourage men to examine their own motives instead of censuring others. Especially in his Free Thoughts on Religion (1720), Mandeville followed Bayle in skeptically arguing for toleration and against priestcraft, in particular clerical politics. He pointed out that most men believe about God what they have been taught from infancy, but few men live according to their professed beliefs. Atheists, whether abstruse philosophers or aristocratic libertines, are few and harmless (1720, pp. 4-6).

Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees was widely read in the eighteenth century. Berkeley denounced it for libertinism and atheism; Francis Hutcheson objected to its egoistic reduction of morality. Hutcheson’s pupil Adam Smith rejected Mandeville’s moral theory but was influenced by the general tendencies of the Fable toward laissez-faire economics and the description of the division of labor. Luxury was a widely discussed eighteenth-century problem; Voltaire’s treatment of it is derived from the Fable. Both Hume and Rousseau mention Mandeville; both are indebted to him.

M. M. Goldsmith

[For the historical context of Mandeville’s work, see the biographies of Descartesand Hobbes; for discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, see Laissez-faire;and the biographies of Hume; Rousseau; Smith, Adam.]


1705 The Grumbling Hive: Or, Knaves Turn’d Honest. London: Ballard. → Later incorporated into The Fable of the Bees.

(1711) 1730 A Treatise of the Hypocondriack and Hysterick Diseases. 3d ed. London: Tonson. → First published as A Treatise of the Hypocondriack and Hysterick Passions.

(1714) 1957 The Fable of the Bees: Or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits. Edited by F. B. Kaye. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon. → The introduction and notes by Kaye include a biography, a critical and historical evaluation, and an annotated bibliography.

(1720) 1723 Free Thoughts on Religion, the Church, and National Happiness. London: Brotherton.

(1724) 1740 A Modest Defence of Publick Stews: Or, an Essay Upon Whoring, as It Is Now Practis’d in These Kingdoms. London: Scott & Browne.

1732 An Enquiry Into the Origin of Honour, and the Usefulness of Christianity in War. London: Brotherton.


Maxwell, J. C. 1951 Ethics and Politics in Mandeville. Philosophy 26:242–252.

Rmobertson, John M. 1907 Pioneer Humanists. London: Watts. → See especially pages 230–270 on “Mandeville.”

Rosenberg, Nathan 1963 Mandeville and Laissez-faire. Journal of the History of Ideas 24:183–196.

Stephen, Leslie (1876) 1949 History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century. 3d ed. 2 vols. New York: Smith. → A paperback edition was published in 1962 by Harcourt.

Viner, Jacob 1958 Introduction to Bernard de Mandeville, A Letter to Dion (1732). Pages 332–342 in Jacob Viner, The Long View and the Short: Studies in Economic Theory and Policy. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Bernard Mandeville

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Bernard Mandeville

The English satirist and moral philosopher Bernard Mandeville (ca. 1670-1733) is famous as the author of The Fable of the Bees.

Bernard Mandeville was probably born in Rotterdam, Holland, the son of a prominent doctor. In 1685 he entered the University of Rotterdam and in 1689 went on to study medicine at the University of Leiden, where he received his medical degree in 1691. Afterward he went to England to "learn the language" and set up practice as a physician. However, he had very few patients and after a short time virtually gave up medicine to devote himself exclusively to his writings.

Mandeville's best-known work is The Fable of the Bees, or Private Vices, Publick Benefits (1714), originally published as a poem, "The Grumbling Hive, or Knaves Turned Honest" (1705). This was intended at first to be a political satire on the state of England in 1705, when the Tories accused the ministry of favoring the French war for their own personal gains. In the later version, however, enlarged to two volumes, Mandeville, in agreement with T. Hobbes, declares that men act essentially in terms of egoistical interests, in contrast to the easy optimism and idealism of Shaftesbury. The material concerns of individuals are the basic force behind all social progress, while what rulers and clergymen call virtues are simply fictions that those in power employ to maintain their control. Francis Hutcheson and Bishop Berkeley wrote treatises opposing Mandeville's views. Others, including Adam Smith, as some interpreters claim, were affected in a more positive way by Mandeville's ideas.

In some of his other works Mandeville shows an intelligent and open interest in controversial and, for the time, scandalous subjects, such as whoring and the execution of criminals. On some issues, however, Mandeville seems strangely callous. In "An Essay on Charity and Charity Schools" he objects to educating the poor because the acquisition of knowledge has the effect of increasing desires and thereby making it more difficult to meet the needs of the poor. Moreover, he seems to regard even wars as valuable to the economic development of a nation since by destroying houses and property laborers are provided an opportunity to replace the destroyed goods.

On the basis of his views Mandeville is usually placed in the moral-sense school. Some interpreters insist that he is the forerunner of the doctrine of utilitarianism.

Further Reading

The most readily available edition of Mandeville's The Fable of the Bees, or Private Vices, Publick Benefits, with a critical, historical, and explanatory commentary, is by F. B. Kaye (2 vols., 1714; repr. 1924). See also The Cambridge History of English Literature, vol. 9 (1912), and Cecil A. Moore, Backgrounds of English Literature, 1700-1760 (1953). □

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