20 January 2009
Virtue in Mandeville’s Egoistic ‘Theory’ of Human Nature
Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733), an immigrant Dutch physician who settled in London, had a marked influence on the thought of the eighteenth-century. His spectre seemed to haunt the minds of the eighteenth-century moralists as that of Hobbes during the preceding age. According to A.O. Hirschman, “the idea of harnessing the passions of men, of making them work toward the general welfare” (17) was put forward at great length by Mandeville.
Mandeville’s best-known work The Fable of the Bees was originally published as a poem “The Grumbling Hive, or Knaves Turned Honest” in 1705. It was published as a six-penny pamphlet, but was soon pirated and sold for a half-penny. It consisted of over 400 verses of considerable rude vigour and effective wit. This was “intended at first to be a political satire on the state of England in 1705, when the Tories accused the ministry of favouring the French war for their own personal gains” (Encyclopedia of World Biography 192).
In 1714, it was republished with additional essays and notes under the title, The Fable of the Bees, or Private Vices and Public Benefits. The essays consisted of an ‘Introduction’ and “An Enquiry into the Origin of Moral Virtue” besides a preface giving an interesting history of the work. In 1723, a second edition was issued with two additional essays, “On Charity and Charity Schools” and “A Search into the Nature of Society”. Two new “Remarks” were also introduced. The outcry against his doctrines had now assumed such definite shape that Mandeville was constrained to answer it. Thus we have the third edition in 1724 with a “Vindication of the Book from the Aspersions contained in a Presentment of the Grand Jury of Middlesex and an Abusive Letter to Lord C--”.
The bees in “The Grumbling Hive” are Englishmen:
They are not Slaves to Tyranny,
Nor ruled by wild Democracy;...