Born in the environs of Rotterdam in 1670, Bernard Mandeville obtained a medical degree from the University of Leiden in 1691. After settling in London, he began working as a physician treating nervous disorders while pursuing a modest literary career. In 1723, however, following several attempts to censor his chef d'oeuvre (masterpiece), The Fable of the Bees; Or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits, Mandeville unexpectedly became early eighteenth-century London's most infamous observer of changing societal and economic realities. The Fable, which insists that the motive force driving the increasingly liberal market economy was self-interest rather than a benevolent civic humanism, generated a scandal that lasted throughout the eighteenth century, eliciting replies from some of the most significant Enlightenment figures, including Francis Hutcheson, Bishop Berkeley, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Adam Smith, and Immanuel Kant. Until his death from influenza in 1733, Mandeville continually retooled the Fable's central position to counter the continual attacks from his moralist and civic humanist critics, who insisted that public virtues, not “private vices,” were the cement of human society. Whereas Mandeville's contemporaries traditionally depicted his work as an inaugural, unapologetic vindication of a laissez-faire economy, it targets, on the contrary, moralists who, although appalled by Mandeville's depiction of the inherent viciousness of new market economy, continue to reap its benefits. Rather than a vindication of the new forms of liberal self-interest, Mandeville's work, functioning as a critique of early eighteenth-century ideology, instead focuses on the manner in which many supposed moralists employ a discourse of virtue as an instrument in view of their own self-interested ends.
Mandeville's literary career began in 1703 with a pro-Whig political satire as well as translations and imitations of La Fontaine's fables. After trying his hand at several more political and burlesque satires, Mandeville wrote the satirical poem that would lead to his literary infamy, first published in 1705 as “The Grumbling Hive: Or, the Knaves Turn'd Honest.” Following the 1711 publication of his medical work, A Treatise of the Hypochondriak and Hysterick Passions, Mandeville added twenty explanatory prose “Remarks” and the crucial philosophical treatise “An Enquiry into the Origin of Moral Virtue” (a text that Adam Smith suggests served as the conceptual foundation of Rousseau's Discourse on the Origin of Inequality) to this poem, which was republished in 1714 under the title The Fable of the Bees: Or, Private Vice, Publick Benefits. Still, the work remained virtually ignored until, following its third augmentation and republication in 1723, the Grand Jury of Middlesex attempted to censor the work, claiming that it sought “to run down Religion and Virtue as prejudicial to Society, and detrimental to the State; and to recommend Luxury, Avarice, Pride and all vices as necessary to Public Welfare” (quoted in Hundert 1997, xv). Although never resulting in censorship, the cases piqued the public interest and ultimately transformed The Fable of the Bees into a national phenomenon and the name Mandeville, often referred to as Man-devil, into a lightning rod for debates concerning the changing vision of the relation between morality and economy.
Other significant works, such as A Modest Defense of Public Stews, in which he argues for state-sponsored houses of prostitution or his “An Essay on Charity and Charity-Schools” (reviled by Karl Marx) in which he attacks schools designed to educate the working poor, walk a fine line between advocacy and critique. It is for this reason that Mandeville is often misunderstood. The criticism directed at Mandeville resulted from his appearing to be a champion of the underlying selfish viciousness driving the new market economy. Understanding the critical thrust of his project relies on reading it in relation to his intellectual predecessors, especially Pierre Nicole, Pierre Bayle, and La Rochefoucauld. As E. J. Hundert has demonstrated unambiguously, Mandeville's Fable appropriates the French Augustinian skeptical arguments of these late-seventeenth-century philosophers and adapts them to the contours of London's new market realities. The section of the Fable titled “A Search into the Nature of Society” gives a concise articulation of Mandeville's central position: society is the continuation of the self-seeking animal appetite transposed into the social world, so society is founded grounded on a paradox that Kant, referring to Mandeville, will eventually call “unsocial sociability.” Lawgivers must convince everyone that it is beneficial to repress individual appetites and do so only to advance self-interested ends by attaining what Mandeville refers to (long before Marx's English translators) as a “general equivalent,” which is an imaginary reward that takes the place of immediate satisfaction. In this way, however, virtue functions as yet one more mechanism, routed through the laws of the nation and custom, for pursuing one's self-interest.
Kant, Immanuel, Marx, Karl, Self-Interest, Smith, Adam
After studying philosophy and medicine at the University of Leyden and practicing briefly in Holland, Mandeville traveled...
Bernard Mandeville, a Dutch physician who settled in London shortly after earning his degree in medicine at the University of Leyden, is best...