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Bernard Mandeville

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By:Thomas Fleming | August 02, 2011

 

Bernard Mandeville was a Dutch physician (b. 1670 in Rotterdam), who moved to England, apparently to learn the language.  In 1704 he published a poem of doggerel couplets, The Grumbling Hive, which he included in his 1714 book, The Fable of the Bees, Or, Private Vices, Public Benefits.  It is one of those rare books whose title conveys, as we shall see, the pitch of the argument.  His apparent praise of libertines and expressions of contempt for virtue naturally inspired attacks from prominent men, and even today few libertarians are candid enough to endorse his views.

 

What Mandeville's agenda was, I don't know.  Some have seen his motives as satiric--poking fun at holier-than-thou politicians, but I think we have to take him at face value, at least, in arguing that economic vitality is better encouraged by vice than by  virtue.  In his psychology, he was both an anti-rationalist and an egoist:  that human beings do what they do  for selfish and irrational reasons is hardly an original concept, but Mandeville, with the coldness of a good physician, carries it to the nth degree.

To go deeper than this, we have to look at the text, which is available online at the Liberty Fund's site.  Let us begin with the poem, "The Grumbling Hive."  Observe that the bees, before affecting virtue, live in a happy discontented state under a constitutional monarchy that is neither tyranny nor "wild democracy."  It is an exuberant and amoral society of makers and users, buyers and sellers:

Vast Numbers throng’d the fruitful Hive;

Yet those vast Numbers made ’em thrive;

Millions endeavouring to supply

Each other’s Lust and Vanity;

 

In his prose reflections (Enquiry into the Origin of Moral Virtue), Mandeville clearly expresses an egotist point of view.  All animals, unless subjected to discipline, seek to satisfy their appetites, while moralists and legislators have labored--mostly in vain--to teach human animals restraint.  Rather than using coercion, wise legislators have relied more on flattery, on establishing  a moral hierarchy.  At the bottom are libertine proles who are governed by their appetites; while at the top are sublime and virtuous creatures who subject their desires to moral discipline.  For this task, religion was required.

Although Mandeville lays great stress on the formation of moral correctness through praise and flattery, his argument is really the argument of Plato's uncle Critias:  By nature we ruthlessly pursue our own interest, but the weak have invented religion and morality to prevent the great men from having their way.  The pursuit of power is natural, while law, morality, and religion are mere conventions.

Before condemning Mandeville's skepticism, let us at least look at his assumptions.  In everything he writes, he is a hedonist-individualist.  The human race consists of more intelligent animals, each one seeking to fulfill its desires and tamed only by a coercive system of flattery and religion.  However, if we strip away the hypocrisy and let the good times roll, we shall all be richer and happier.

Is any of this true?

Are any animals actually individualists?  If we follow Darwin and the sociobiologists, the answer is absolutely not.  As the novelist Samuel Butler once put it brilliantly: a chicken is simply an egg's way of creating more eggs.  In other words, though group selection is probably an untrue theory, what matters is the genetic stock.

It is interesting that Mandeville uses a hive of bees for his allegory.  Of all creatures, the social insects are the less prone to individualism.  Genetically, the workers are more or less clones, and they devote themselves selflessly to feeding the young and defending the Queen.  The hive is really the perfect model for a socialist state.  One wouldn't expect Mandeville to know this, but even someone who had read the fourth book of Vergil's Georgics would have second thoughts about even a fanciful treatment of bees as self-seeking individualists.

Among animals of larger brains, a great deal of time and energy is consumed by taking care of the offspring, and as we go up the ladder from mice to dogs to baboons to chimpanzees, children require more and more care.  When we reach humans, whose larger brain requires them to be born premature, the care is much greater than what is required even for chimpanzees, and the more civilized the humans, the more care and education the kids need.

Man born into a family is compelled to sustain society--that is Hume's answer to individualism and the social contract.

But let us suspend the reality test, for a moment, and suppose it does not matter whether man is wired to lives as a rootless individualist or as a member of a community.  Mandeville seems to assume that human happiness is reducible to the satisfaction of desires and that an increase in prosperity makes us happier.  However, he does not actually say what happiness is.  Naturally, most (nearly all of us) would prefer, as Aristotle takes for granted,  wealth over poverty, just as we prefer health to disease, life to death, and the fulfillment of our carnal needs (food, sex, shelter) to starvation, celibacy, and exposure to the elements, but is there something for which we would sacrifice any or all of these lesser goods?

A Christian would answer "salvation," and the pagan Aristotle would almost agree.  We need friends and family to fulfill our  social nature, and the misery of our children or fellow-citizens affects us.  We also need wealth, he says, to be able to provide leisure, and leisure to be able to cultivate our minds so that we may fulfill our highest nature in contemplating the Good (which Christians identify with God).  These people--and I have named only two groups to which we could add Taoists and Confucianists and Hindus and Buddhists--would laugh at Mandeville for confusing ends with means.  Yes, most of us (those who are not ascetic saints) would prefer wealth to poverty, but only in order to be able to lead the lives we believe we ought to

 

 

[To be continued..]

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