The Fable of the Bees; or, Private Vices Public Benefits by Bernard Mandeville.
Though Mandeville was in his day a writer of considerable note, it is probable enough that he is known only by name to the great majority of modern readers. He was a Dutch physician, born in 1670. He afterwards settled in England, and passed the greater part of his life here. His reputation, such as it is, depends upon the works named at the foot of this article.
The Fable of the Bees was originally published in 1714, but was first brought out in its present shape in 1723. It excited a good deal of attention, and the publisher was presented by the Grand Jury of Middlesex, as the ringleader of a class of persons who published books and pamphlets 'almost every week against the sacred articles of our holy religion.' The Grand Jury observed upon this: 'We are justly sensible of the goodness of the Almighty that has preserved us from the plague which has visited our neighbouring nation . . . but how provoking it must be to the Almighty that his mercies and deliverances extended to this nation, and our thanksgiving that was publicly commanded for it, should be attended with such flagrant impiety.'
This led to a vindication of the book which Mandeville published shortly afterwards, and in 1728 he brought out a second part of the work in three dialogues. With the first part, and the Essay on Charity Schools which is appended to it, it forms an octavo volume, which has been several times reprinted, and more than once attacked. The most conspicuous of Mandeville's opponents were William Law (the mystic), Hutcheson, and Bishop Berkeley. He died in 1733, in his sixty-third year.
The minor writers of a period often illustrate, part at least, of its intellectual tendencies, better than those who have a greater reputation. They seize upon special points, they write with less reserve and moderation than men of a higher order, they apply particular principles in a more unsparing manner, and they suggest to their readers, in a broad and naked form, the existence of questions the connection of which with the views of greater writers might not otherwise have been apparent. This is particularly true of Mandeville, whose real claim to notice is, that he presses to its extreme consequences a moral paradox, founded upon a narrow view of the philosophy which gave so much of its characteristic colour to the thought of the eighteenth century. He was, or supposed himself to be, a disciple of Hobbes and Locke, and especially of Hobbes; and the interest of his speculations lies in the question whether it is true, that the consequences which he connected with their principles really follow from them or not.
The Fable of the Bees is a poem of 433 rather doggerel octosyllabic lines, which sets forth how
A spacious hive, well stocked with beesthrove as long as vices nourished in it, and wasted away to nothing when it was miraculously made virtuous. The lawyers, the physicians, the clergy, the soldiers, the merchants, all prospered by various forms of cheating—
That lived in luxury and ease,
Thus every part was full of vice,Luxury
Yet the whole mass a Paradise.
Employed a million of the poor,When every one became honest the lawyers were not needed, the physicians were reduced to a handful, most of the shops were shut up. The population dwindled, foreign enemies overpowered the small remainder by numbers, notwithstanding their courage, and at last the whole hive so diminished that the remnant 'flew into a hollow tree,' being unable any longer to fill their 'vast hive.'
And odious pride a million more.
This performance is followed by an inquiry into the origin of moral virtue, a series of remarks on the particular sentiments put forward in the poem, and an essay on Charity Schools, of each of which we will say a few words.
The inquiry into the origin of virtue consists of an analysis of the nature of virtue and vice. Virtue, says Mandeville, is the name of 'every performance by which man, contrary to the impulse of nature, endeavours the benefit of others, or the conquest of his own nature, out of a rational ambition of being good.' Vice is 'everything which, without regard to the public, man commits to gratify any of his appetites.' These names were imposed upon actions of this class by 'lawgivers and other wise men that have laboured for the establishment of society,' and who 'have endeavoured to make the people they were to govern believe that it was more beneficent for everybody to conquer than indulge his appetites, and much better to mind the public than what seemed his private interest.'
These wise men, however, were unable to provide such a sanction as would set their scheme in motion, but after reflection they 'justly concluded that flattery must be the most powerful argument that could be used to human creatures.' They then exalted the dignity of human nature, and 'having by this artful way of flattery insinuated themselves into the hearts of men, began to instruct them in the notions of honour and shame,' and accordingly 'divided the whole species into two classes—the abject low-minded people,' who cared only for themselves, and the 'lofty high-spirited creatures,' who cared for the public and the dignity of human nature. Thus '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.'
In the notes to The Fable of the Bees itself, which follow this inquiry, Mandeville works out in detail the hints which are conveyed in the poem, and labours to prove that all cases of apparent virtue may be resolved into cases of the gratification of pride, or something else which usually goes by the name of vice; and that these vices, as they are called, are the source of all the real grandeur, happiness, and prosperity of a great and magnificent State.
It is difficult to seize the general scope of the argument, but upon examination it will be found to resolve itself into the following propositions: Virtue, in the sense of a habit of acting for the benefit of others, or the conquest of our own nature, contrary to the impulse of nature, does not exist. The notion that it does exist, and that it promotes the happiness and greatness of States, is a useful delusion, propagated by politicians for the purposes of civil government.
Vice, in the sense of the habit of acting without regard to the public, and for the gratification of our own appetites, is the true source of public happiness and greatness.
Nevertheless, the pretence that virtue, and not vice—using those words in the senses above explained —is always and everywhere to be followed, is essential to the general prosperity, and ought by all means to be maintained by all who care for that prosperity.
Towards the end of the notes on The Fable of the Bees, he states his theory pretty shortly.
'I lay it down as a first principle that in all societies, great or small, it is the duty of every member of it to be good; that virtue ought to be encouraged, vice discountenanced, the laws obeyed, and the transgressors punished. After this I affirm that . . . we shall find that human nature, since the fall of Adam, has always been the same. ... I never said or imagined that man could not be virtuous as well in a rich and mighty kingdom as in the most pitiful commonwealth; but I own it is my sense that no society can be raised into such a rich and mighty kingdom, or, so raised, subsist in their wealth and power for any considerable time, without the vices of man. . . . When I say that societies cannot be raised to wealth and power, the top of earthly glory, without vices, I do not think that by so saying I bid men be vicious, any more than I bid them be quarrelsome or covetous, when I affirm that the profession of the law could not be maintained in such numbers and splendour if there was not abundance of too selfish and litigious people.'Further on he says,
'Would you banish fraud and luxury, prevent profaneness and irreligion, and make the generality of the people charitable, good, and virtuous? Break down the printing presses, melt the founts, and burn all the books in the island . . . suffer no volume in private hands but a Bible; knock down foreign trade, prohibit all commerce with strangers, and permit no ships to go to sea that ever will return, beyond fisher boats. Restore to the clergy, the king, and the barons their ancient privileges, prerogatives, and possessions. Build new churches, and convert all the coin you can come at into sacred utensils; erect monasteries and almshouses in abundance, and let no parish be without a charity school. Enact sumptuary laws, and let your youth be inured to hardship; inspire them with the most nice and most refined notions of honour and shame, of friendship, and of heroism, and introduce amongst them a great variety of imaginary rewards. . . . By such pious endeavours . . . the greatest part of the covetous, the discontented, the restless and ambitious villains would leave the land. Vast swarms of cheating knaves would abandon the city. . . . The sinful, overgrown Jerusalem, without famine, war, pestilence, or compulsion, would be emptied in the most easy manner. . . . The happy reformed kingdom would by this means be crowded in no part of it, and everything necessary for the sustenance of man be cheap and abound,' etc. etc.We have been obliged to omit a good deal of sarcasm and other matter to get the solid part of this theory within compass. Compressed in the highest degree, it comes to this. If men really cared for virtue they would live otherwise than they do. What they really like and pursue is pleasure, and that is opposed to virtue. The answer to it, given in the fewest possible words, is that the writer confounds the proposition that prosperity produces vice, with the proposition that vice produces prosperity.
Two observations arise upon this which are sufficient to show the utter folly of Mandeville's speculations, and in particular to disconnect him from the great writers of whom he has sometimes been supposed to be a disciple. The first observation is, that his view of virtue and vice is altogether different from theirs, and is wrong in itself. The second is, that his political economy, his view of the way in which public prosperity may be promoted, is puerile.
Virtue means a habit of acting upon rules which, if universally observed, would produce general happiness. Vice means a habit of acting against those rules. But there is no more necessary connection between virtue, and acting contrary to the impulse of nature, or with a view to self-conquest, than there is between vice, and the gratification of appetite. It may happen, and in point of fact it generally does happen, that there is no opposition between the happiness of the individual and the happiness of the community, or between the present gratification and the future advantage of the individual himself. It is pleasant to eat one's dinner, and it is also wholesome to do so. It is the general interest of all the letters of the alphabet as well as of A, that A should be healthy, wealthy, and wise.
The necessity for self-denial and self-sacrifice is occasional and exceptional. It must no doubt be provided for when it occurs; but it is possible to conceive a perfectly virtuous man who never in the whole course of his life should have to deny himself in any one particular or to do anything unpleasant. The general practical coincidence between a desire to promote our own interest and a desire to promote the general interest no doubt affords in all cases an opportunity for the remark that there is no such thing in the world as a wish to promote the public interest as an end in itself; but a thousand familiar instances may be given of conduct for which it is impossible to account on purely selfish grounds, and there is obviously no reason why a desire to promote the public welfare should not be as much a real element in human nature as any other desire. Men are continually absorbed in ideal objects, sometimes very absurd ones.
It is a matter of everyday experience that people will utterly forget themselves and their own interests in almost any undertaking—the study of an out-of-the-way corner of science and literature, the exploration of a remote country, or indeed almost anything. Almost every one takes an interest more or less in matters which in no way affect himself. We are all glad or sorry at this or that victory or defeat, or at the passing or rejection of this or that law, though we may be perfectly conscious all the while that they will not affect our personal interests in any perceptible degree.
How then does the supposition that most men care more or less for the general good—that is, that they are more or less virtuous—contradict the rest of our experience? and how is it inconsistent with the fact that they also care intensely for things directly affecting their own comfort? I may care for others as well as for myself. Mandeville's theory is as absurd as if he had argued that a man could not possibly like mutton because he liked beef better. Indeed, the only persons against whom his sarcasms have any point at all, are those, if any such there be, or ever were, who contend that virtue ought to be the motive of every human action, and that every action done to gratify an individual desire is of necessity vicious. It shows great ignorance of human nature to suppose either that any one thinks thus, or that all the flattery of all the politicians that ever lived could lead any one to suppose that he thought thus.
The second error that runs through every part of The Fable of the Bees, and the notes to it, is an error in political economy. Mandeville's whole theory rests on the principle that the wealth of a nation is increased by luxury—that it would be poorer if there were no waste, and if every one were frugal and industrious. This is like saying that the way to have a cake is to eat it. It is self-evident that if we all worked as hard as we do now, and spent half as much, and invested our savings in reproductive labour, the wealth of the country and its military power and population would be increased beyond all calculation. Nothing but want of available capital, want of confidence, want of honesty, want of industry, and the prevalence of all sorts of wasteful extravagance, prevents us from making every part of the United Kingdom as fruitful as a garden, and making it capable of supporting in plenty perhaps twice its present population. All this, however, is so well established by modern political economy, that it would be mere waste of time to insist upon it.
The notes on The Fable of the Bees are followed by an essay on Charity Schools, which is curious as supplying perhaps the first specimen of a way of writing about popular education which prevailed down to our own times, and of which a careful observation may still detect some faint echoes. Education, says Mandeville, would unfit the poor for hard work. It would make them discontented and insubordinate. They are much too well off as it is, and are continually raising their demands. Servants are becoming proud and insolent, and consider themselves the equals if not the superiors of their masters.
This is all commonplace enough, but the peculiarity of Mandeville is the naked way in which he gives his reasons for wishing to see the poor perpetually kept down to the very lowest level, and never allowed to rise above it. 'In a free nation where slaves are not allowed of, the surest wealth consists in a multitude of laborious poor. To make the society happy, and people easy under the meanest circumstances, it is requisite that great numbers of them should be ignorant as well as poor. Knowledge both enlarges and multiplies our desires, and the fewer things a man wishes for, the more easily his necessities may be supplied.'
Elsewhere he says, 'Abundance of hard and dirty labour is to be done, and coarse living to be complied with. Where shall we find a better nursery for those necessities than the children of the poor? . . . These are truths that are undeniable, yet I know few people will be pleased to have them divulged; what makes them odious is an unreasonable vein of petty reverence for the poor that runs through most multitudes, and more particularly in this nation, and this arises from a mixture of pity, folly, and superstition. It is from a lively sense of this compound that men cannot endure to hear or see anything said or acted against the poor, without considering how just the one or insolent the other. So a beggar must not be beat though he strikes you first. Journeymen tailors go to law with their masters, and are obstinate in a wrong cause, yet they must be pitied; and murmuring weavers must be relieved, and have fifty silly things done to humour them, though in the midst of their poverty they insult their betters, and on all occasions appear to be more prone to make holiday and riots than they are to working or sobriety.'
A sufficient answer to this may be found in the observation that Mandeville seems to have had no other notion of public prosperity than the power and brilliancy of a small minority, supported by the misery or contented degradation of a mass of slaves. He does not appear to have regarded the happiness and virtue of the most numerous class of society as an object which it was possible to obtain, or which would have been desirable if it had been possible.
Mandeville's Search into the State of Society is a repetition and expansion of the argument of The Fable of the Bees. Its object is to analyse all that is usually called virtue, into cases of what is usually called vice— courage becomes vanity, good manners hypocrisy, and so on; but the whole gist of the essay lies in two short passages.
'The sociableness of man arises only from these two things—namely, the multiplicity of his desires, and the continual opposition he meets with in his endeavours to gratify them. . . . Neither the friendly qualities and kind affections that are natural to man, nor the real virtues he is capable of acquiring by reason of self-denial, are the foundation of society; but that which we call evil in this world, moral as well as natural, is the grand principle that makes us sociable creatures, the solid basis, the life and support of all trades and employments without exception.'The second part of The Fable of the Bees is thrown into the form of dialogues, in which the doctrines of the first part are developed by Horatio and Cleomenes. The most remarkable distinctive feature of this part of the case is the attempt which Mandeville makes to give an air of strict orthodoxy to his views. 'Cleomenes,' he tells us in his preface, 'was fully persuaded, not only of the veracity of the Christian religion, but likewise of the severity of its precepts.' He 'believed the Bible to be the word of God without reserve, and was entirely convinced of the mysterious as well as historical truths that are contained in it.' Cleomenes, moreover, 'was of opinion that, of all religious virtues, nothing was more scarce or more difficult to acquire than Christian humility, and that to destroy the possibility of ever attaining it, nothing was so effectual as what is called a gentleman's education.'
The same tone runs through all .the dialogues. Orthodoxy and disbelief are in all ages close allies in the opinion of a large class of influential writers. Montaigne, Pascal, Bayle, and many others have shown this temper in different ways, as it is shown in our own days by men who differ from each other as widely as Mr. Mansel and Dr. Newman.
Mandeville's peculiar variety of that way of thinking may be thrown into the following propositions:-Christian virtue is different in kind from worldly morality, and stands on its own foundation.
The facts on which the Christian history of the fall and redemption of man stands differ generically from other facts, and stand on their own foundations.
If Christian morals prevailed in practice, the world would be either a monastery or a garden of Eden— a place destitute of all science, art, and trade.
Worldly morality is only vice in disguise. The play of the vices of men against each other produces splendour, wealth, and knowledge—the lust of the eye, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life.
Of course this admits of being put into a highly orthodox shape, and of being backed up with every sort of theological argument; but it is impossible to read the book without feeling that Mandeville did not really believe one word of what he said about the divinity of Christianity, though there are here and there passages which look almost as if he had talked and written himself into a sort of sincerity on the subject, or at least into unconscious insincerity. The matter, however, is not worth minute examination, for though the style has considerable merit in regard to force and simplicity, Mandeville himself, his theories and his satire, are perhaps as disgusting as any productions which have attracted much permanent attention.
Low as is our estimate of Mandeville, there is, we think, something to be learnt from him, for he certainly does raise, in an effective though one-sided and shallow way, one of the great problems of morality. He proves triumphantly that it is possible to present cases of what are usually called virtue, as cases of what are usually called vice; and, contemptible as his political economy certainly is, it cannot be denied that it is difficult to imagine a perfectly innocent world, which would be human, and would not be very stupid. The difficulty, however, lies in seeing how men could be prosperous without being tempted into vice. There is no difficulty in seeing how superhuman strength and prudence might conduce at once to a maximum of happiness and an absence of vice.
On Mandeville's principles, the worse men are, the wiser and happier they ought to be in their collective capacity. What is the solution of this difficulty? How can we reconcile self-sacrifice and self-denial with the doctrine that happiness is the object of morals? Yet, if happiness is not the object of morals, how can we form any scheme of morality, or, having formed one, affirm that in fact any such thing as morality exists?
We will try to throw into a connected form some propositions which collectively furnish a sort of answer to these questions. Their full development, defence, and illustration would require a volume.
Morality is a system of rules affecting human conduct. Some are negative (Do not lie), some positive (Be industrious).
The object which these rules are intended to promote is general happiness.
Acts which conform to them are virtuous, and those which break them are vicious acts.
Men are impelled to act by their passions, which are neither good nor bad in themselves, but which cause both good and bad actions according to circumstances. All passions cause both good and bad actions. Some (e.g. benevolence—the pleasure of pleasing) generally cause good actions; and others (malevolence—the pleasure of hurting) generally cause bad actions; hence they are often called good and bad passions respectively, but this is incorrect.
Men whose passions are so regulated and proportioned, as habitually to cause them to observe or break the rules of morality, are virtuous or vicious men respectively.
The habitual practice of the positive and negative rules of morality tends to produce a cast of character which is called, emphatically, virtue or goodness. A man who made the attainment of this cast of character the object of his whole life, would be an ideally virtuous man when it was attained.
The necessity for self-control and self-sacrifice arises from the fact that human passions are so arranged that, in order to gratify some, others must be disappointed. Those which are popularly, but incorrectly, called bad passions, give more frequent occasion for the exercise of self-control and self-sacrifice, than those which are popularly called good passions (e.g. the love of sensual pleasure, as compared with benevolence). As all acts are caused by some passion or other, acts are not bad because they gratify passion, or good because they disappoint passion. Almost all acts gratify some passions and disappoint others; (giving charity gratifies benevolence and disappoints love of money).
The question why moral rules should be observed, and why virtue should be sought, is independent of these principles.
So is the question, How we may know in what virtue and morality consist.
So is the question, How we do, in fact, think and feel towards virtuous and vicious men or acts, and how we ought to think and feel towards them—i.e. what way of thinking and feeling towards them would contribute to the general advantage.
It is obvious that, if these principles are at all like the truth, the whole of Mandeville's views are one-sided, incoherent, and altogether false and partial.
Saturday Review, April 20, 1867.