1902 Encyclopedia > Bernard de Mandeville

Bernard de Mandeville
Philosopher, political economist and satirist

BERNARD DE MANDEVILLE, (1670-1733), is generally known as an ethical writer of debasing and degrading tendency, but he was at least as much of a humorist as a philosopher, and set up as an analyst of " what is," repeatedly disavowing all pretensions as a lawgiver of " what ought to be." He was a foreigner by birth, a native of Rotterdam, where his father practised as a physician for thirty years. A remarkably eloquent school-boy exercise, De Medicina Oratio Scholastica, was printed for him at Rotterdam in 1685. He studied for six years at Leyden, and took his degree in medicine in 1691, his inaugural thesis being De Ghylosi Vitiata. Immediately afterwards he came over to England "to learn the language," which he did to some purpose, writing it with such mistery as to throw doubts upon his foreign extraction. He settled in London as a physician. The Fable of the Bees is the general title of the miscellaneous work by which he is known to fame. This work includes the fable proper, The Grumbling Hive, or Knaves Turned Honest (some two hundred doggerel couplets, published as a sixpenny pamphlet and pirated as a halfpenny sheet in 1705); Remarks on the fable and An Inquiry into the Origin of Moral Virtue, added to the edition of 1714; An Essay on Charity Schools, and A Search into the Origin of Society, added to the edition of 1723. Owing to a curious misprint in an edition published after Mandeville's death, a wrong date is commonly assigned to the Grumbling Hive, and the contemporary point of it consequently missed. It appeared during the heat of the bitterly contested elections of 1705, when the question before the country was whether Marlborough's war with France should be continued. The cry of the high Tory advocates of peace was that the war was carried on purely in the interests of the general and the men in office ; charges of bribery, peculation, hypocrisy, every form of fraud and dishonesty, were freely east about among the electors. It was amidst this excitement that Mandeville sought and found an audience for his grimly humorous paradox that "private vices are public benefits,"— that individual self-seeking, ambition, greed, vanity, luxury, are indispensable to the prosperity and greatness of a nation. " Fools only strive to make a great an honest hive." The bees of his fable grumbled as many Englishmen were disposed to do,—" cursed politicians, armies, fleets," whenever there came a reverse, and cried, " Had we but honesty ! " Jove at last in a passion swore that he would " rid the bawling hive of fraud," and filled the hearts of the bees with honesty and all the virtues, strict justice, frugal living, contentment with little, acquiescence in the insults of enemies. Straightway the flourishing hive declined, till in time only a small remnant was left ; this took refuge in a hollow tree, " blest with content and honesty," but destitute of arts and manufactures. The Grumbling Hive was in fact a political Jeu d'esprit, full of the impartial mockery that might be expected from a humorous foreigner, and with as much ethical theory underlying it as might be expected from a highly educated man in an age of active ethical speculation. The underlying theory was made explicit in the Remarks and the Inquiry into the Origin of Moral Virtue, published in 1714. But his purpose in dwelling on the text that private vices are public benefits was still rather the invention of humorous paradoxes than the elaboration of serious theory. Dr Johnson, who owned that Mandeville "opened his views into real life very much," considered that the fallacy of his argument lay in his defining neither vices nor benefits. . But such a criticism as this overlooks the hinge on. which all Mandeville's paradoxes turn. He does define virtue and vice very precisely, in accordance with the current orthodoxy of the time. He " gives the name of virtue to every performance by which man, contrary to the impulse of nature, should endeavour the benefit of others, or the conquest of his own passions, out of a rational ambition of being good"; while "everything which, without regard to the public, man should commit to gratify any of his appetites" is vice. His paradoxical humour has ample scope in tracing how much vice and how little virtue there is in the world, when the terms are thus strictly defined. He finds self-love (a vice by the definition) masquerading in many virtuous disguises, lying at the root of asceticism, heroism, public spirit, decorous conduct,—at the root, in short, of all the actions that pass current as virtuous. These actions are not virtuous by the definition, because not performed solely " out of a rational ambition of being good." " This is the way," Dr Johnson says, " to try what is vicious, by ascertaining whether more evil than good is produced by it on the whole." Mandeville would at once have admitted this, but his definition com-pelled him, in determining virtue and vice, to consider also the motive. And having regard to the motive, " the nearer we search into human nature, the more we shall be convinced that the moral virtues are the political offspring which flattery begot upon pride." Man, " an extraordinary selfish and headstrong as well as a cunning animal," has been induced to subordinate his own appetites to the good of others, by the dexterous management of politicians and moralists, who have worked upon his pride to persuade him that self-indulgence is worthy only of the brutes, and altogether " unbecoming the dignity of such a sublime creature as himself." When Mandeville, in the 1723 edition of the fable, applied his analysis of self-regarding motives to the institution of charity schools, at that time a highly fashionable form of munificence, a great outcry was made against his doctrines; his book was presented to the justices by the grand jury of Middlesex as being of an immoral and pernicious tendency, and a copy was condemned to be burnt by the common hangman. Mandeville's defence of himself was that his remarks were " designed for the entertainment of people of knowledge and education," and that his inquiry could hardly be intelligible except to those accustomed to matters of speculation; and he claimed that he had " diverted persons of great probity and virtue and unquestionable good sense." The truth is that, to be rightly understood, the prose part of Mandeville's fable must be read in connexion with Lord Shaftesbury's ethical writings; the intention to ridicule the amiable but somewhat feebly reasoned theories of that moralist is most apparent in the Search into the Origin of Society, but many lurking references may be detected elsewhere. If Mandeville were taken seriously, he would certainly be open to the charge of conveying the impression that those who restrain their appetites and sacrifice personal interests for the public good make fools of themselves, and are the dupes of a designing society. But his main purpose seems to have been to entertain himself and others at the expense of more serious but less quick-witted theorizers.

Besides his political and philosophical parerga, Mandeville wrote, in 1711, a medical treatise, Of the Hypochondriack and Hysterich Passions—their symptoms, causes, and cures. The treatise is in the form of a dialogue, and is "interspersed with instructive discourses on the real art of physic itself, and entertaining remarks on the modern practice of physicians and apothecaries." In this, with the same entertaining style and clear and subtle judgment, he protests against and ridicules speculative therapeutics, and pleads for patient diagnosis and careful observation and record of facts. His own theories about the animal spirits and their connexion with "the stomachic ferment" are fanciful enough, but he shows an intimate acquaintance with the scientific methods of Locke, and a warm admiration for Sydenham. The Virgin Unmasked; Free Thoughts on Religion, the Church, and National Happiness; An Inquiry into the Causes of the frequent Executions at Tyburn; An Inquiry into the Origin of Honour, and Usefulness of Christianity in War—are titles of other works of Mandeville ; but all that is characteristic of him as a thinker and humorist may be found in the Fable of the Bees. (W. M.)

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