The Fable of the Bees or Private Vices, Publick Benefits, by Bernard Mandeville


Mandeville’s Thought

§ 1

IT is difficult to know whether the reader who discovers Mandeville is most struck at first by the freshness of his style or by the vitality of his thought. If, however, the thought be the thing which impresses, it does so largely because couched in a style in which the most idiomatic and homely vigour is combined with sophisticated control of rhythm and tone — a style at once colloquial and rhetorical, retaining all the easy flow of familiar speech and yet with a constant oratorical note,1 and never failing to make even the most abstruse analysis so concrete as to strike beyond the intellect to the sympathies. No style of the age has retained more of the breath of life. It is more forceful and vivid than Addison’s, and, though it lacks Swift’s compression, it has more unction and more colour. Abounding in wit and humour, rich yet clear, equally adapted to speculation and to narrative, it offers a medium for popular philosophic prose lacking only in the quality of poetry.2

Yet, paradoxically, the very power of Mandeville’s style has helped to make the Fable of the Bees a much misunderstood book. Mandeville put his unconventional point of view in such vigorous, downright, and uncompromising terms that he literally frightened a large proportion of his readers into misunderstanding him. The very title-page of his book —Private Vices, Publick Benefits— was enough to throw many good people into a kind of philosophical hysterics which left them no wit to grasp what he was driving at. Besides, despite the apparent clarity which Mandeville’s unusual articulateness allowed him to impart, his thought, since it dealt often with some of the profundities of ethical speculation, cannot be fully grasped unless related by the reader to a certain background of theory and observation.

A perspective can be gained from an analysis of a certain phase of contemporary thought — a phase well represented by the Deists. The Deists show on analysis a curious dual nature. On the one hand, they were a part of the great empirical movement that produced Bacon and Locke, and was to produce Hume. They believed in a world ordered by natural law, and in the inference of knowledge concerning this world by observation of its workings. In so far, therefore, they appealed, empirically, to experience. On the other hand, they had faith in a cosmogeny and an ethics of divine origin and of eternal and universal truth and applicability. According to this view, the search for truth was an attempt to discover the divine ordinances, and a true ethics the correct formulation of the will of God. The method by which the Deists contrived to believe at once both in the divine origin of truth and virtue, and in its basis in observation and experience, was by postulating the inevitable agreement of the will of God with the results of man’s rational speculation.1 To them, therefore, there was no conflict between reason and religion, private judgement and revelation.

But the forces which the Deists had managed temporarily to reconcile were capable of almost infinite mutual repulsion. On the one hand, as soon as men come to realize the contradictory nature of the data of experience and the irreconcilability of the appreciations of the experiencers, the appeal to experience may easily tend towards undermining faith in the absolute validity of our conceptions of truth and virtue. The appeal may lead, in other words, towards a belief in the relativity of all our views, a belief which, intensified, becomes philosophical anarchism, or a denial of the possibility of any final criteria whatever. On the other hand, the religious conception that the laws of nature are the will of God is essentially anti-relativistic, for laws of divine origin are true irrespective of the opinions of conflicting observers — are of universal and absolute validity. — Similarly, in ethics, the stress on experience leads naturally to some such relating of moral codes to human convenience as utilitarianism; whereas the belief that moral codes have a divine sanction transcending the test of experience tends, on the contrary, to a moral absolutism which, though it does not necessarily lead to, may not inconsistently foster asceticism. Thus deism coupled in one creed a conception capable of leading to the most extreme relativism with one holding the potentiality of the most rigorous and uncompromising absolutism.

The Deists, as we have seen, held these forces in equilibrium by assuming the identity of the dictates of reason and the will of God. And this was a general position for the rationalists of the age.1 But it was not the only method of handling the inevitable problem of the relation of individual inquiry and traditional religion. Another, and opposite, method was seen in that scepticism — especially prevalent in the Renaissance — of which Montaigne’s Apologie de Raimond Sebond was an example.1 The Sceptics argued that reason and religion were antithetical. Religion offers us absolute truth; but, they argued in detail, the human reason is incapable of reaching such final truth: its conclusions are never more than relative. Having elaborated thus far the conflict between reason and religion, the Sceptics then proceeded to resolve the discord. Since, they said, reason is impotent to give us truth, reason itself, by its very impotence, shows us the need of religion to furnish us the truths we cannot find elsewhere. Thus the Sceptics developed elaborately the potential antithesis between reason and religion while yet holding them in unstable equilibrium.

Of the two chief methods of dealing with this fundamental problem of the relation of private judgement and traditional religion it was the second which Mandeville’s great thought-ancestor chose as the main theme on which to write his variations. Pierre Bayle2 (1647–1706) spent his prolific genius demonstrating with gusto the essential disconcordance between revealed religion and any appeal to experience, contrasting all the absolutism inherent in the one with all the relativism latent in the other.

With Bayle the appeal to experience led to a relativism so extreme as to approach a thoroughgoing philosophical anarchism. ‘ . . . I am sure’, he said, ‘that there are very few good Philosophers in our Age, but are convinced, that Nature is an impenetrable Abyss, and that its Springs are known to none, but to the Maker and Director of them.’1 This scepticism as to the possibility to human endeavour of attaining absolute truth is general throughout his work.2 On the other hand, Bayle took pains to impress on his readers that religion demands precisely that finality which is unattainable from experience. Immediately after his statement that ‘Nature is an impenetrable Abyss’, he definitely stated that this doctrine is ‘dangerous to Religion; for it ought to be grounded upon Certainty . . . .’

But he was not satisfied with elaborating the conflict merely between reason and religion. Passing from the world of concepts to the world of actual conduct, he paralleled the opposition between reason and religion by the opposition of human nature in general to the demands of religion. Christianity, said Bayle, is ascetic, ordaining that we subdue our natural desires because they are due to the ‘Dominion of Original Sin, and . . . our corrupt Nature’.3 But humanity will not submit itself to such a discipline. Even if man could be made to sincerely profess Christianity, yet his nature would prevent his following his faith, for man does not act according to the principles he professes, but ‘almost always follows the reigning Passion of his Soul, the Biass of his Constitution, the Force of inveterate Habits, and his Taste and Tenderness for some Objects more than other’ (Miscellaneous Reflections i. 272). Small wonder, then, that Bayle should conclude that ‘the Principles of Religion are little pursued in the World . . .’ (Misc. Refl. i. 285).

Thus Bayle insisted on the incompatibility of religion not only with reason but with human nature in general. But Bayle did not on this account reject the religion he had thus opposed to humanity. He accepted it — at least outwardly — and with it, therefore, a code and an attitude with which his whole temper was out of harmony and which his normal manner of thinking discredited.

Bayle thus shows a paradoxical dualism in his scheme of things. He is an extreme relativist, yet he announces that the religion he professes demands finality; he reduces conduct, even the most beneficial, to the following of some dominant desire, yet he denounces desire as wicked. What he has shown true and good from a worldly point of view he condemns according to the other-worldly criterion. Now, in one way, there is nothing new about this. Long before Ecclesiastes, moralists were insisting that the good things of this world are vanity; that what is good from one point of view is wicked from a higher. Really, however, there is an essential difference between this and the attitude of Pierre Bayle. With the prophets, the paradox was that the things denounced should ever be thought good; with Bayle, that things so frankly true and useful should have to be looked upon as bad. Verbally, there may not seem much difference; philosophically, there could hardly be greater disparity between attitudes. In the latter case, the duality hid a fundamental worldliness which was eventually to crack the other-worldly moulds into which it was temporarily forced, as the incompatibility of the two elements was made more evident. The incongruity of the two attitudes held concurrently is clear in Bayle; but it is in Mandeville that it becomes most definite.

1 See for a good instance the last paragraph of Remark O.

2 Mandeville’s style is at its best, it seems to me, in the first volume of the Fable, the Executions at Tyburn, and parts of the Letter to Dion and of the Origin of Honour. (Part II of the Fable is stylistically not so good: its more ‘polite’ and artificial manner sacrifices some of the raciness and movement of Part I, and the effect of the dialogue form of remark and answer has caused some loss of the rhythmic sweep of phrase so satisfying in vol. i.)

The student of style would do well to note Mandeville’s skill in rhythm and balance. To take an example almost at random, note how in the paragraph on i. 235–6 — especially in the last two sentences — the sentences are divided into balancing parts, each part being in turn composed of antiphonal elements. Such parallel structure in the rhythmic texture of his prose is an outstanding trait of Mandeville’s style, and is so skilfully employed as never to be monotonous. — One might note, too, the exuberant generosity with which Mandeville throws in illustrative matter, as if from sheer joy in a visualizing faculty which can supply so many apposite and vivid details.

About Mandeville’s conscious artistry see above, i. xxxv, n. 4.

1 Thus Toland wrote ‘ . . . no Christian . . . says Reason and the Gospel are contrary to one another’ (Christianity not Mysterious, 2nd ed., 1696, p. 25; and compare pp. xv and 140–1). Thomas Morgan argued, ‘The moral Truth, Reason, or Fitness of Things is the only certain Mark or Criterion of any Doctrine as coming from God, or as making any Part of true Religion’ (Moral Philosopher, ed. 1738, p. viii). Tindal spoke of ‘Natural Religion; which, as I take it, differs not from Reveal’d, but in the manner of its being communicated: The One being the Internal, as the Other the External Revelation of the same Unchangeable Will of a Being, who is alike at all Times infinitely Wise and Good’ (Christianity as Old as the Creation, ed. 1730, p. 3; cf. also pp. 103–4 and 246–7). Compare also Thomas Chubb, Ground and Foundation of Morality Considered (1745), pp. 40–1.

1 For example, see Samuel Clarke, Sermons (1742) i. 457 and 602, Locke, Works (1823) vii. 145, and Thomas Burnet, Theory of the Earth (1697), pref., sign. a.

1 Other examples were G. F. Pico della Mirandola’s Examen Vanitatis Doctrinae Gentium (1520), Cornelius Agrippa’s De Incertitudine et Vanitate Scientiarum (1530), Francisco Sanchez’s Quod Nihil scitur (1581), La Mothe le Vayer’s Discours pour montrer, que les Doutes de la Philosophie Sceptique sont de Grand Usage dans les Sciences (Oeuvres, Dresden, 1756–9, vol. 5 2), and Jerome Hirnhaim’s De Typho Generis Humani (1676). — Cf. P. Villey, Les Sources & l’Evolution des Essais de Montaigne (1908) ii. 324.

2 For Bayle’s influence on Mandeville see below, i. ciii-cv.

1 Historical and Critical Dictionary (1710) iv. 2619, art. ‘Pyrrho’, n.b. I cite Bayle’s Dictionary and his Miscellaneous Reflections, Occasion’d by the Comet in English, because Mandeville used them in translation. That Mandeville used an English translation of the Dictionnaire is shown by the citations from it in his Free Thoughts. For instance, compare Free Thoughts (1729), p. 223, lines 11–15, with the Dictionary (1710) i. 72, col. 1 of notes, in the article ‘Acontius’, n. f, lines 25–9 of the note. For the evidence that Mandeville used an English translation of the Pensées Diverses . . . a’ l’ Occasion de la Comète, see below, i. 99, nn. 1 and 2, 167, n. 1, and 215, n. 2.

2 For another example see Oeuvres Diverses (The Hague, 1727–31) ii. 396, in the Commentaire Philosophique sur ces Paroles de Jesus-Christ, Contrains-les d’entrer.

3 Miscellaneous Reflections (1708) i. 296. Cf. Continuation des Pensées Diverses, §124: ‘Les vrais Chretiens, ce me semble, se considéreroient sur la terre comme des voïageurs & des pélerins qui tendent au Ciel leur véritable patrie. Ils regarderoient le monde comme un lieu de bannissement, ils en détâcheroient leur coeur, & ils luteroient sans fin & sans cesse avec leur propre nature pour s’empêcher de prendre goût à la vie périssable, toûjours attentifs à mortifier leur chair & ses convoitises, à réprimer l’amour des richesses, & des dignitez, & des plaisirs corporels, & à dompter cet orgueil qui rend si peu suportables les injures.’ However, Bayle’s identification of Christianity and self-mortification is usually more an implicit assumption than an explicitly stated doctrine.

§ 2

It was in 1714, in an atmosphere contradictorily charged with the fanatical agitation of religious prophets and strange sects prophesying Armageddon, with the rationalism of the Deists, and with an adumbrating scientific attitude, that Mandeville issued the sensational volume in which these contemporary contradictions were caught up and juxtaposed in brilliant and devastating paradox.

The book is introduced by a short, rhymed allegory of a bee-hive. Mandeville describes the dishonesty and selfishness in this hive. Merchants, lawyers, doctors, priests, judges, statesmen — all are vicious. And yet their wickedness is the stuff out of which is made the complicated social mechanism of a great state, where are seen

Millions endeavouring to supply

Each other’s Lust and Vanity . . . (Fable i. 18).

Thus every Part was full of Vice,

Yet the whole Mass a Paradise . . . (i. 24).

The bees, however, are not satisfied to have their viciousness mixed with their prosperity. All the cheats and hypocrites declaim about the state of their country’s morals and pray the gods for honesty. This raises the indignation of Jove, who unexpectedly grants the hive its wish.

BUT, Oh ye Gods! What Consternation,

How vast and sudden was th’ Alteration! (i. 28).

As Pride and Luxury decrease,

So by degrees they leave the Seas . . . .

All Arts and Crafts neglected lie;

Content, the Bane of Industry,

Makes ’em admire their homely Store,

And neither seek nor covet more (i. 34–5).

In this way, through the loss of their vices, the hive at the same time lost all its greatness.

Now comes the moral:

THEN leave Complaints: Fools only strive

To make a Great an Honest Hive.

T’ enjoy the World’s Conveniencies,

Be fam’d in War, yet live in Ease,

Without great Vices, is a vain

Eutopia seated in the Brain.

Fraud, Luxury and Pride must live,

While we the Benefits receive . . . .

So Vice is beneficial found,

When it’s by Justice lopt and bound;

Nay, where the People would be great,

As necessary to the State,

As Hunger is to make ’em eat (i. 36–7).

Then, in the series of prose essays which follows, Mandeville elaborated the thesis of the poem on the bee-hive, that vice is the foundation of national prosperity and happiness. Now, by this he did not mean simply that all evil has a good side to it, and that this good outweighs the evil. His paradox turned, instead, on his definition of virtue. This definition was a reflection of two great contemporary currents of thought — the one ascetic, the other rationalistic. According to the first — a common theological position — virtue was a transcending of the demands of corrupt human nature, a conquest of self, to be achieved by divine grace. According to the second, virtue was conduct in accord with the dictates of sheer reason.1 Mandeville adopted both of these conceptions, and, amalgamating them, declared those acts alone to be virtuous ‘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’ (i. 48–9). Thus, he combined an ascetic with a rationalistic creed. No contradiction was involved, for to Mandeville, in accord with much contemporary thought (see below, i. cxxii, n. 1), purely rational conduct was action in no wise dictated by emotion or natural impulse; and, therefore, both aspects of Mandeville’s definition equally proclaimed all conduct vicious which was not the result of a complete denial of one’s emotional nature — true virtue being unselfish and dispassionate. — This blend of asceticism and rationalism in Mandeville’s definition I shall hereafter refer to as ‘rigorism’.

Now, when Mandeville came to examine the world in the light of this formula, he could find no virtue: he discovered, search as he would, no actions — even the most beneficial — dictated entirely by reason and quite free from selfishness. The affairs of the world are not managed in obedience to any such transcendent view of morality. If all actions were to cease except those due to unselfishness, the pure idea of good, or the love of God, trade would end, the arts would be unnecessary, and the crafts be almost abandoned. All these things exist only to supply purely mundane wants, which, according to Mandeville’s analysis, are all at bottom selfish. From the standpoint, therefore, of his rigoristic formula, everything was vicious. It was, accordingly, merely an obvious deduction that, since all is vicious, even things beneficial to us arise from vicious causes, and private vices are public benefits.

The matter can also be put in this way. Mandeville decided upon the public results of private actions according to utilitarian standards.1 That which is useful, that which is productive of national prosperity and happiness, he called a benefit. But he judged the private actions themselves according to an anti-utilitarian scheme, whereby conduct was evaluated, not by its consequences, but by the motive which gave it rise. In this case, only such deeds were virtuous as sprang from motives which fulfilled the demands of rigorism; the actual effect of conduct on human happiness made no difference. Mandeville himself was aware of the presence in his book of this dual morality of consequence and motive: ‘ . . . there is an Ambiguity in the Word Good which I would avoid; let us stick to that of Virtuous . . .’, he said (ii. 109). And throughout the Fable he has been rather careful to use the words virtuous or vicious when applying the rigoristic criterion to motive, and other words when applying the utilitarian criterion to conduct. The paradox that private vices are public benefits is merely a statement of the paradoxical mixing of moral criteria which runs through the book.

Mandeville, then, like Bayle, has elaborated the obvious incompatibility of the ascetic ideal of morality with any utilitarian standard of living, and of the rationalistic ideal of conduct with a true psychology. By juxtaposing the contrary standards he has achieved a reductio ad absurdum of one or the other. Many people would say, of course, that Mandeville had demonstrated the absurdity of the rigoristic creed. They would say, If it be vice by which the good of the world is achieved, by all means let us be vicious, for viciousness of this kind is not wickedness but virtue. Mandeville, however, again like Bayle, did not accept this aspect of the reduction to absurdity; he did not admit that the usefulness of vice abolishes its wickedness. ‘When I say that Societies cannot be rais’d to Wealth and Power, and the Top of Earthly Glory without Vices, I don’t think that by so saying I bid Men be Vicious . . .’ (i. 231). Neither, however, in spite of the passage just cited, did he accept the other aspect of the reduction; he did not say that, since national prosperity is based on viciousness, we should cease to endeavour to gain this prosperity and should live lives of self-mortification. Although he held this up as the ideal of conduct, he argued equally forcibly that this ideal is quite impossible of achievement. What he really advised is the abandonment of the attempt

To make a Great an Honest Hive.

Since you will be wicked in any case, he said, whether your country is prosperous or not, you might as well be wicked and prosperous.

. . . if Virtue, Religion, and future Happiness were sought after by the Generality of Mankind . . ., it would certainly be best, that none but Men of good Lives, and known Ability, should have any Place in the Government whatever: But to expect that this ever should happen . . . is to betray great Ignorance in human Affairs. . . . The best of all then not being to be had, let us look out for the next best . . .’ (ii. 335).

So Mandeville outlined methods by which to achieve national happiness, but always with the proviso that all this happiness is wicked; that, if it were only possible, it would be better to abandon it. In this way, he managed to maintain with consistency that public benefits are and must be based on private vices.

Perhaps it may seem to some as if Mandeville must have been either a very dull or a very perverse man not to have seen that he had achieved a practical reductio ad absurdum of the rigoristic attitude and should therefore have abandoned a creed which he had found so irreconcilable with experience. To such as think this I point to the example of Bayle, who exhibited a similar phenomenon, and remind the reader that Mandeville’s rigorism was an adaptation of a contemporary point of view both popular and respected, a view-point not yet extinct.1 Long after Mandeville, for instance, a position as rigorous as that of the Fable of the Bees was taken by Kant, who, like Mandeville, refused the name of ‘moral’ to actions dictated by personal preference, reserving the name for conduct motivated by impersonal devotion to abstract principle.2 Indeed, some such rigorism whereby principle is made completely superior to circumstance is latent in the morality of almost everybody. The ordinary man who says that right is right regardless of the consequences is taking the rigoristic position that it is obedience to principle, and not results, which determines right, and it needs only a development of this attitude to make him also maintain that private vice may become public good. Place this average man in a position where if he does not tell a lie a great public calamity will come about. Now, in so far as he believes that right is independent of its consequences, he must believe that the lie would remain vicious in spite of all the good it would do the State. He must therefore in a sense believe that private vice (here, the lie) is a public benefit. In so far, indeed, as any one refuses to believe that, in morals, circumstances alter cases, he can be forced into Mandeville’s paradox. — I stress this particular matter for two reasons. The first is to vindicate Mandeville from the charge of obtuseness in the position which he took. The second is to show the still living interest of his thought.

1 The representativeness of these opinions is discussed below, i. cxxi, n. 1, and cxii, n. 1.

1 I use the term ‘utilitarian’ in a looser sense than that in which specialists in philosophy ordinarily employ it. I intend by it always an opposition to the insistence of ‘rigoristic’ ethics that not results but motivation by right principle determines virtuousness. To have used the technical vocabulary of the philosophical specialist would have needlessly hampered the reader trained in other fields; and, besides, my non-technical use of the term parallels the condition of ethical thought in Mandeville’s day, when utilitarian theory had not yet taken to itself the more specific connotation it now has, but corresponded simply to an ethics whose moral touchstone was results and not abstract principle.

For like reasons I have used loosely, though, I hope, not irrelevantly, certain other terms, such as ‘relativism’ and ‘absolutism’.

1 For further instances see below, i. cxxi, n. 1, and 238, n. 1.

2 Cf. Kant, Gesammelte Schriften (Berlin, 1900–) iv. 397 sqq., in Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten.

§ 3

But which of the two contrary attitudes whose simultaneous presence had produced the Mandevillian paradox was really the one sympathetic to Mandeville? Did he really feel that only those actions were good which were done in accord with the dictates of a transcendent morality, or did he believe that the natural desires, whose need to society he had shown, were good? Should we call him ascetic or utilitarian, worldly or unworldly? Was he basally rigoristic or what, for lack of an exact term, I shall call ‘empirical’, meaning thereby that combination of qualities here opposed to ‘rigorism’? The question is crucial: and I believe it can be answered positively. Mandeville was fundamentally an empiricist, and an intense one. He shrinks from what transcends human experience: ‘ . . . all our knowledge comes à posteriori, it is imprudent to reason otherwise than from facts’, he says (ii. 261). He will admit Revelation, formally, but in such a way as to suggest that he does so only to avoid trouble with the authorities; and he then proceeds to negate the admission by denying the existence of even one instance of a man according his life with Revelation. Virtue? Honour? Charity? are not these of a transcendent sanctity? Certainly not, he would answer if thus asked; they have their roots in human nature and desire, and are as relative to the forces of nature as is the cultivation of a tulip. Those who best understand man, he believes, take him for what he is, ‘the most perfect of Animals’ (i. 44).

Mandeville’s adoption of the ascetic, other-worldly formula is entirely arbitrary. It is simply a final twist given to his thought after it has been worked out in harmony with the opposite or empiric viewpoint. It is a suit of clothes made for some one else which he has put on the living body of his thought. It is a kind of candle-snuffer with which he has covered the light of his real persuasion, and has no more of the real flame of his genius than a candle-snuffer of candle-flame. The rigoristic qualification —‘But all this of which I have shown the necessity is wrong’— is added to his thought as one adds a new twist to the ending of an already concluded story. Mandeville’s feeling is throughout anti-ascetic. He rejoices in destroying the ideals of those who imagine that there is in the world any real exemplification of the transcendent morality which he formally preaches. He is delighted to find that the rigoristic creed which he has adopted is an absolutely impracticable one. His real bias appears constantly. Of Cleomenes, who serves as his avowed spokesman (see ii. 21) in Part II of the Fable, he declares (ii. 18) that he has a ‘strong Aversion to Rigorists of all sorts’. And he states that, ‘As to Religion, the most knowing and polite Part of a Nation have every where the least of it . . .’ (i. 269 and 308). Furthermore, he betrays his fundamental antipathy to the rigorism he outwardly espouses, by associating it with something he has definitely repudiated — the doctrine of ‘passive obedience’ (see below, i. 233, n. 1).

His very adoption of rigorism is in a way a means of satisfying his dislike of it. The stress he places on the irreconcilability of this rigorism with all the manifestations of civilization indirectly gratifies his disrelish of the former, just as his insistence on the absurdity of the biblical miracles from a scientific point of view satisfies his repugnance to them in the very act of apparently embracing them (cf. below, ii. 21, n. 2). Thus a man unwillingly doing another a favour may console himself by dwelling on his self-abnegation. In addition, the very intensity of the rigorism which Mandeville adds to his thought is a means of discounting the rigorism. By making his ethical standards so exaggeratedly rigorous, he renders them impossible of observance, and therefore can and does discard them for the ordinary affairs of the world.

True rigorists and transcendentalists have always sensed the fundamental disharmony between Mandeville’s real tendencies and his arbitrary asceticism; they have known that the latter was artificial and have detested him. Mandeville lacks one essential of a true believer in the insufficiency of the purely human: he does not believe in the existence of a superior something in comparison with which humanity is insignificant. He is lacking in any religious feeling or idealism. His rejection of all absolute laws and knowledge, his insistence on the animal facts of life — these are not the result of any rigoristic distrust of nature as it is, but of such complete faith in it that he feels no need for any beliefs by which to attempt to lift himself above it. When he says (i. 231), ‘If I have shewn the way to worldly Greatness, I have always without Hesitation preferr’d the Road that leads to Virtue’, he is simply not to be believed. — Indeed, the empiric bias so pervades Mandeville’s book that it has been considered a deliberate satiric attempt to reduce the rigoristic attitude to absurdity.

The empiricism is so dominant and the rigorism so arbitrary in Mandeville’s thought that there is, in fact, an air of probability about this diagnosis. I do not, however, believe that Mandeville was attempting any conscious reductio ad absurdum of rigorism, whether or not he has achieved it. The rigoristic twist in his thought is too consistent for this supposition; it appears in all his major works,1 and seems to have become a part of his mind. The coupling of contradictory attitudes was, moreover, a prominent feature of the thought of the age 2 and still produces quite undeliberately the Mandevillian paradox. In addition, it furnished Mandeville with a protection against the wrath of the orthodox: he could, at will, point to the orthodox side of his teachings —‘I have always without Hesitation preferr’d the Road that leads to Virtue’; and, since people tend honestly to believe what makes them most comfortable, he must have had a real incentive to maintain his rigorism as more than a mere pose. But the rigorism is certainly not in keeping with his natural tendencies. That is the important thing to remember.

Mandeville’s philosophy, indeed, forms a complete whole without the extraneous rigorism. The best way, then, to know him thoroughly is to understand the details of the ‘empirical’ aspect of his thought. Once we have found what, from this point of view, Mandeville thinks desirable, we have only to add the rigoristic qualification, ‘But all this is vice’, and we shall understand the Fable.

1 It is noticeable in the Virgin Unmask’d (1709) and dominant in the Letter to Dion (1732). See especially the preface to the Origin of Honour (1732).

2 For examples in addition to the already-mentioned case of Bayle, see below, i. cxxi, n. 1 — the citations from Esprit and Bernard.

§ 4

Discounting, then, the superficial rigorism, we may define Mandeville’s ethics as a combination of philosophical anarchism in theory with utilitarianism in practice. Theoretically, he admitted no final criterion for conduct whatever: ‘ . . . the hunting after this Pulchrum & Honestum is not much better than a Wild-Goose-Chace . . .’ (i. 331). There is no such thing as a summum bonum. All such principles of conduct as honour are chimeras (i. 198). The inevitable differences between men render it impossible that any definite agreement should ever be reached as to what is really desirable. Shall we say that the pleasurable or useful shall form our ideal? Why, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. From any different standpoint, ‘ . . . a Man that hates Cheese must call me a Fool for loving blue Mold’ (i. 314). If it were argued that there is disagreement here because one of the two is mistaken as to what really constitutes pleasure, Mandeville would answer that the objection was entirely arbitrary. A man’s real pleasures are what he likes (i. 147–8); one cannot go behind this. One cannot, therefore, discover any really definite and final agreement between men as to what shall constitute a summum bonum or criterion according to which to plan a system of morality.

In the Works of Nature, Worth and Excellency are as uncertain [as the comparative value of paintings): and even in Humane Creatures what is beautiful in one Country is not so in another. How whimsical is the Florist in his Choice! Sometimes the Tulip, sometimes the Auricula, and at other times the Carnation shall engross his Esteem, and every Year a new Flower in his Judgment beats all the old ones. . . . The many ways of laying out a Garden Judiciously are almost Innumerable, and what is called Beautifulin them varies according to the different Tastes of Nations and Ages. In Grass Plats, Knots and Parterre’s a great diversity of Forms is generally agreeable; but a Round may be as pleasing to the Eye as a Square: . . . and the preeminence an Octagon has over an Hexagon is no greater in Figures, than at Hazard Eight has above Six among the Chances. . . . In Morals there is no greater Certainty (i. 327–30).

This radical philosophical anarchism, like the rigorism to which it formed so paradoxical a companion, was largely a reaction to contemporary rationalistic thought. In the one case as in the other, Mandeville was endeavouring to prove the impossibility of certain existing ideals. As he had confronted the current rigoristic standards with the demonstration that human nature rendered them unattainable, so he faced the current belief that the laws of right and wrong must be ‘eternal and immutable’1 with the observation that, in point of fact, they are temporary and variable.

Nevertheless, Mandeville’s pyrrhonism was not by any means so extreme as it might at first seem. He has exaggerated his opinions. He himself, protesting against a too literal reading of some of his statements, says quite definitely (ii. 221–2) that

A Man of Sense, Learning and Experience, that has been well educated, will always find out the difference between Right and Wrong in things diametrically opposite; and there are certain Facts, which he will always condemn, and others which he will always approve of: . . . and not only Men of great Accomplishments, and such as have learn’d to think abstractly, but all Men of midling Capacities, that have been brought up in Society, will agree in this, in all Countries and in all Ages.

No one, in point of fact, could write a book in which practical suggestions were offered if he really thought in accord with the extreme anarchism outlined in the last paragraphs.

And, indeed, Mandeville seems, in practice, not even a mild anarchist, but a thoroughgoing utilitarian. As a matter of fact, he is both a philosophical anarchist and a utilitarian. There is not here the contradiction there may at first seem to be, for utilitarianism need not be the hard-and-fast setting up of some particular form of welfare as the goal of conduct, but may be simply the ideal of satisfying the various differing desires and needs of the world as much as possible.1 To say that welfare, or pleasure, or happiness should be the end of action does not mean the limiting of this welfare, pleasure, or happiness to one particular kind, but may allow the satisfaction of as many kinds as there are people. It offers no fatal opposition to pyrrhonism, then, for under it, as well as under pyrrhonism, a man could enjoy blue mould without forbidding his neighbour to eat truffles. Indeed, anarchism in the realm of theory accords very well with utilitarianism in the world of practice, and always has so accorded.

Mandeville’s utilitarianism is marked. It not only underlies his position, but is given explicit expression.

Every Individual [he says] is a little World by itself, and all Creatures, as far as their Understanding and Abilities will let them, endeavour to make that Self happy: This in all of them is the continual Labour, and seems to be the whole Design of Life. Hence it follows, that in the Choice of Things Men must be determin’d by the Perception they have of Happiness; and no Person can commit or set about an Action, which at that then present time seems not to be the best to him (ii. 178).

. . . It is manifest, that when we pronounce Actions good or evil, we only regard the Hurt or Benefit the Society receives from them, and not the Person who commits them (i. 244).

. . . there is not one Commandment in it [the Decalogue], that has not a regard to the temporal Good of Society . . . (ii. 283; cf. also ii. 282).

In his Modest Defence of Publick Stews (ed. 1724, pp. 68–9), he states his utilitarianism most succinctly:

. . . it is the grossest Absurdity, and a perfect Contradiction in Terms, to assert, That a Government may not commit Evil that good may come of it; for, if a Publick Act, taking in all its Consequences, really produces a greater Quantity of Good, it must, and ought to be term’d a good Act. . . . no sinful Laws can be beneficial, and vice versa, . . . no beneficial Laws can be sinful.

If we look at the Fable in this light, we shall see that, even in places which at first seem out of keeping with it, the utilitarian standard has been applied. ‘Private Vices, Publick Benefits’— does this mean that everything is a benefit since everything is vicious? Not at all. Vices are to be punished as soon as they grow into crimes, says Mandeville (i. 10). The only vice to be encouraged is useful vice (i. e., that which the non-rigoristic would not call vice at all). Harmful vice is crime, and to be discouraged. In other words, the real thesis of the book is not that all evil is a public benefit, but that a certain useful proportion of it (called vice) is such a benefit (and, as I indicated earlier, is on that account not really felt to be evil, though still called vicious). There is here a definite application of the utilitarian standard.

This point can hardly be over-emphasized. Much nonsense has been uttered concerning Mandeville’s believing everything equally valuable and his attempting to encourage wholesale vice, and crimes such as theft and murder. And this although he wrote a whole book1 on how to make the prevention of crime more efficacious. Mandeville never urged that all vice was equally useful to society; this misapprehension drew from him protest after protest.1 All he maintained was that, viewed from his arbitrary rigoristic point of view, all actions were equally vicious. But practically, if not always theoretically, he was a utilitarian.

1 As, for example, in Tillotson, Works (1820) vi. 524, Locke, Works (1823) vii. 133, Samuel Clarke, Works (1738) ii. 609, Shaftesbury, Characteristics, ed. Robertson, 1900, i. 255, and Fiddes, General Treatise of Morality (1724), p. lviii.

1 Let me remind the reader that my use of the term ‘utilitarianism’ is non-technical; see above, i. xlviii, n. 1.

1 Enquiry into the Causes of the Frequent Executions at Tyburn, 1725.

1 See, for instance, his Letter to Dion and Fable i. 404.

§ 5

Having considered the objective phase of Mandeville’s ethics, let us now examine its subjective side. What feelings cause men to be moral, and how are these feelings related to one another? We have already noted the untranscendental nature of Mandeville’s anatomy of society, and his analysis of the world’s activity into the interplay of purely human ‘passions’ and wants. These various passions and wants, it remains to add, he found to be so many manifestations of self-love, and all the actions of men so many naïve or deliberate efforts to satisfy that self-love.

ALL untaught Animals are only sollicitous of pleasing themselves, and naturally follow the bent of their own Inclinations, without considering the good or harm that from their being pleased will accrue to others (i. 41).

But such a state of things could not comfortably go on. So wise men

thoroughly examin’d all the Strength and Frailties of our Nature, and observing that none were either so savage as not to be charm’d with Praise, or so despicable as patiently to bear Contempt, justly concluded, that Flattery must be the most powerful Argument that cou’d be used to Human Creatures (i. 42–3).

They therefore organized society in such a fashion that those who acted for the good of others were rewarded through their pride, and that those who lacked this regard for others were punished through their shame. ‘ . . . the Moral Virtues’, concluded Mandeville (i. 51), therefore, ‘are the Political Offspring which Flattery begot upon Pride.’

To develop more exactly Mandeville’s conception of the selfish basis of moral conduct, we may divide the motivation of good acts by selfish emotion into two varieties. First, there is the good which may be done by a savage. If any one should see a ‘nasty over-grown Sow’ crunching the bones of an innocent infant, he would naturally try to rescue it (i. 255–6). But this would be a selfish act in spite of its good social consequences, for the rescuer was acting to relieve his own compassion. In like manner, people give alms to beggars, not from unselfishness, but ‘from the same Motive as they pay their Corn-cutter, to walk easy’ (i. 259). The natural acts, therefore, are selfish. Secondly, there is the good which may be done by an educated man, who does not obey his impulses naïvely like a savage. It is here that Mandeville was most adroit. Through an analysis of human nature of extraordinary subtlety and penetration, he proceeded to reduce all apparent self-mortification and sacrifice, where there is no reward in view, to love of praise or fear of blame.

The Greediness we have after the Esteem of others, and the Raptures we enjoy in the Thoughts of being liked, and perhaps admired, are Equivalents that over-pay the Conquest of the strongest Passions . . . (i. 68).

The very desire not to appear proud he reduced to pride, for the true gentleman takes pride in never appearing proud.1 All apparent virtue, therefore, educated or naïve, is fundamentally selfish, being either the satisfaction of a natural, and hence selfish, impulse, or of the selfish passion of pride.

There are several things to be borne in mind in connexion with Mandeville’s reduction of all action to open or disguised selfishness. The first is that he did not deny the existence of those impulses which are commonly called altruistic. He merely argued that the philosopher can go behind this apparent unselfishness. He was rather explaining altruism than explaining it away. Nor, in the second place, was he accusing mankind of deliberate hypocrisy. One of his main contentions was that, for want of self-knowledge, almost all men deceive themselves. Their apparent altruism may be honest, he maintained: they simply do not realize that it springs from selfishness. Such self-deception is, he held, the most normal of psychological phenomena, for men’s convictions, and, indeed, reason itself, are the playthings of emotion. It is one of Mandeville’s basal beliefs that our most elaborate and judicial philosophizings are only a rationalization of certain dominant desires and biases: ‘ . . . we are ever pushing our Reason which way soever we feel Passion to draw it, and Self-love pleads to all human Creatures for their different Views, still furnishing every individual with Arguments to justify their Inclinations’ (Fable i. 333).2 This conception Mandeville developed, in the Fable, Free Thoughts, and Origin of Honour, with a completeness and subtlety beyond that of any predecessor or contemporary, and not matched till present-day psychology attacked the problem.1

Another important point in Mandeville’s tracing of morality and society to some form of egoism is that his description of the invention of virtue and society by lawgivers and wise men who deliberately imposed upon man’s pride and shame is a parable and not an attempt at history. This fact, which is often misapprehended, is important enough to demand special consideration. All that Mandeville was attempting to show by his allegory of the growth of society and morality was the ingredients that make it up, and not the actual process of growth. He did not mean that ‘politicians’ constructed morality out of whole cloth; they merely directed instincts already predisposed to moral guidance.

How unanimous soever, therefore, all Rulers and Magistrates have seem’d to be in promoting some Religion or other, the Principle of it was not of their Invention. They found it in Man . . . (Origin of Honour, p. 28).

Nor did he mean that society was organized overnight. To miss this point would be to miss an essential element in Mandeville, which is his precocious feeling for evolution. In a day which lacked historical perspective, he had a real feeling for the gulf of time and effort which divides us from the primitive: ‘ . . . it is the Work of Ages to find out the true Use of the Passions . . .’ (ii. 319). Even in the allegory itself he took precautions that the reader should not understand him too literally. ‘This was (or at least might have been) the manner after which Savage Man was broke . . .’, he qualified (i. 46). And he was careful to add that the law-givers were and are as much deceived as the rest of mankind.

I would have no body that reflects on the mean Original of Honour complain of being gull’d and made a Property by cunning Politicians, but desire every body to be satisfied, that the Governors of Societies . . . are greater Bubbles to Pride than any of the rest (i. 220–1).

But it is in Part II, which he wrote largely to correct misconceptions caused by the deliberately paradoxical Part I, that Mandeville most stressed the gradualness of evolution.1 A great part of the volume is devoted to tracing the growth of society in a surprisingly scientific manner, and completely contradicts the literal interpretation of the allegory in the earlier portion of Part I.

Among the things [evidences of civilization] I hint at [he said (ii. 321–2)], there are very few, that are the Work of one Man, or of one Generation; the greatest part of them are the Product, the joynt Labour of several Ages. . . . By this sort of Wisdom [ordinary intelligence], and Length of Time, it may be brought about, that there shall be no greater Difficulty in governing a large City, than (pardon the Lowness of the Simile) there is in weaving of Stockings.

There are other similar passages,1 in which Mandeville demonstrated a vision and grasp of the origin and growth of society unique in his day.

However, the important thing to realize for the understanding of Mandeville is not so much his conception of the evolution of morals and society as the configuration of the passions on which it is based — always, Mandeville maintained, selfish.

1 Concerning the historical background of this conception of the moral implications of pride, see below, i. xci-xciii.

2 Concerning the historical background of Mandeville’s anti-rationalism, see below, i. lxxviii-lxxxvii.

1 In other ways, also, Mandeville anticipated some of the most recent developments of psychology. The fundamental position of the Fable— that so-called good arises from a conversion of so-called evil — is really a form of one of the chief tenets of psycho-analysis — that virtues arise through the individual’s attempt to compensate for original weaknesses and vices. Mandeville also forestalled another Freudian position when he argued (Fable ii. 271 sqq.) that the naturalness of a desire could be inferred from the fact of a general prohibition aimed at it, and the strength of the desire, from the stringency of the prohibition. And the psycho-analytic theory of the ambivalence of emotions was anticipated by Mandeville in his Origin of Honour, pp. 12–13 (see below, i. 67, n. 1).

1 Mandeville’s more scientific formulation of his position in Part II and the Origin of Honour seems due partly to the attacks on him (cf. below, ii. 185, n. 1, and 197, n. 2); and, possibly, the full implications of his position were not quite clear to him when he first enunciated it in 1714 (cf. below, i. lxxii).

Mandeville pointed out three main stages in the development of society: the forced association of men to protect themselves from wild animals (Fable ii. 240–2), the association of men to protect themselves from each other (ii. 266–8), and the invention of letters (ii. 269). As other causes of the evolution of society, he instanced division of labour (ii. 141–3 and 284), the growth of language (ii. 285 sqq.), the invention of implements (ii. 319–20), and the invention of money (ii. 348–50). This development was furthered through the inevitable existence of the emotion of ‘reverence’, although this emotion by itself would have been of little force (ii. 201–5 and 231). In addition, Mandeville noted that savage religion is animistic and based on fear (ii. 207–12), and he analysed the mental reactons of children in order to explain the psychology of savages (i. 209–10).

1 See for examples Fable ii. 186–7, 200, and 287.

§ 6

Such is the general philosophic background of Mandeville’s thought. Against this background he outlined theories on a great variety of practical matters, notably concerning economics. Some of these theories are considered in the next chapter of this introduction. The present chapter being devoted to interpretation, we are here occupied only with those doctrines about which misunderstanding has arisen. One of those tenets was a celebrated economic fallacy with which Mandeville’s name has been closely connected.

The Fire of London was a Great Calamity [wrote Mandeville (i. 359)], but if the Carpenters, Bricklayers, Smiths, and all, not only that are employed in Building but likewise those that made and dealt in the same Manufactures and other Merchandizes that were Burnt, and other Trades again that got by them when they were in full Employ, were to Vote against those who lost by the Fire; the Rejoicings would equal if not exceed the Complaints.

And, he added (i. 364):

A Hundred Bales of Cloth that are burnt or sunk in the Mediterranean, are as Beneficial to the Poor in England, as if they had safely arriv’d at Smyrna or Aleppo, and every Yard of them had been Retail’d in the Grand Signior’s Dominions.

The theory took another form in Mandeville’s statement (i. 355–6) that,

It is the sensual Courtier that sets no Limits to his Luxury; the Fickle Strumpet that invents new Fashions every . . .; the profuse Rake and lavish Heir . . .: It is these that are the Prey and proper Food of a full grown Leviathan. . . . He that gives most Trouble to thousands of his Neighbours, and invents the most operose Manufactures is, right or wrong, the greatest Friend to the Society.

This is what economists call the ‘make-work fallacy’, the belief that it is the amount of industry, and not the amount and quality of the goods produced, that measures a nation’s prosperity. Mandeville’s name has been so intertwined with this theory that now sane and intelligent critics — like Leslie Stephen1 — believe that Mandeville would have welcomed a succession of London fires and absurd extravagance on the part of everybody. That is what happens when serious people read a whimsical book. Mandeville did not mean these silly things. It should be remembered that the Fable of the Bees was a professedly paradoxical work, and not always to be taken literally. The passages from which I have quoted formed part of Mandeville’s general paradoxical assertion that good is based upon evil: he was substantiating this by showing that there is nothing bad which has not some compensations attached to it. He was also demonstrating, in accord with the general thesis of the book, that it is not ascetic virtues, such as a hoarding frugality, which make a nation prosperous.

He most explicitly denied the false meanings that have been read into him.

Should any of my Readers draw Conclusions in infinitum from my Assertions that Goods sunk or burnt are as beneficial to the Poor as if they had been well sold and put to their proper Uses, I would count him a Caviller . . . (i. 364).

And again (i. 249):

. . . whoever can subsist and lives above his Income is a Fool.

What he believed was that ‘Goods sunk or burnt’, and foolish extravagances, are beneficial to the class of workers which will have increased occupation in supplying the extra demands. And where he did argue that losses and extravagances are good for the state, it should be remembered that he was considering not an ideal state where people would spend for useful things what they now do for follies, but an actual, imperfect state of actual, imperfect people, where the abolishing of extravagance would mean a curtailment of demand and production. Mandeville, that is, was not trying to show the ideal way to make a state wealthy, but the way it often actually is made so.1

One other article in Mandeville’s economic creed demands attention here — his notorious attack upon the charity-schools. Mandeville’s case against them was, briefly, as follows: Nobody will do unpleasant work unless he is compelled to by necessity. There is, however (i. 311), ‘Abundance of hard and dirty Labour’ to be done. Now, poverty is the only means of getting people to do this necessary work: men ‘have nothing to stir them up to be serviceable but their Wants, which it is Prudence to relieve, but Folly to cure’ (i. 194). National wealth, indeed, consists not in money, but (i. 287) in ‘a Multitude of laborious Poor’. Since, therefore, it would be ruinous to abolish poverty, and impossible to do away with unpleasant labour, the best thing to do is to recognize this fact, and help adapt the poor to the part they have to play. But charity-schools, by educating children above their station and thus leading them both to expect comforts they will not have and to loathe occupations they must engage in, are subversive of the future happiness and usefulness of the scholars:

. . . to divert . . . Children from useful Labour till they are fourteen or fifteen Years old, is a wrong Method to qualify them for it when they are grown up.1

Finally, he attacked the schools on the ground that they interfered with the natural adjustment of society:

. . . proportion as to Numbers in every Trade finds it self, and is never better kept than when no body meddles or interferes with it.2

The gusto of Mandeville’s assault on the charity-schools, and his incidental attack on what he termed the ‘Petty Reverence for the Poor’ (i. 311), is apt to impress the modern reader as almost incredibly brutal. But that is because the Essay is judged from a humanitarian point of view which hardly existed in Mandeville’s time. Seen in historical perspective, there is nothing unusually harsh in Mandeville’s position. The age was not interested in making the labourer comfortable, but in making his work cheap and plentiful.3 Sir William Petty was no friendlier than Mandeville to the poor when he termed them ‘the vile and brutish part of mankind’; 4 even so ardent an upholder of the rights of man as Andrew Fletcher urged that labourers be returned to a condition of slavery; 5 and Melon, too, advised slavery.1 The truth is that, although Mandeville’s attack on the charity-schools caused great scandal at the time,2 his adversaries were really as little desirous as Mandeville to lessen the labourer’s work or raise his wages.

Mandeville, indeed, was perhaps more considerate of the condition of the labourer than was the average citizen, for he felt at least the need of answering what could be urged on the other side:

I would not be thought Cruel, and am well assured if I know any thing of myself, that I abhor Inhumanity; but to be compassionate to excess where Reason forbids it, and the general Interest of the Society requires steadiness of Thought and Resolution, is an unpardonable Weakness. I know it will be ever urged against me, that it is Barbarous the Children of the Poor should have no Opportunity of exerting themselves, as long as God has not debarr’d them from Natural Parts and Genius more than the Rich. But I cannot think this is harder, than it is that they should not have Money as long as they have the same Inclinations to spend as others (i. 310).

It should be remembered, also, that Mandeville believed the lot of the hard-working poor need not be a sad one:

Was impartial Reason to be Judge between real Good and real Evil, . . . I question whether the Condition of Kings would be at all preferable to that of Peasants, even as Ignorant and Laborious as I seem to require the latter to be. . . . what I urge could be no injury or the least diminution of Happiness to the Poor. . . . by bringing them up in Ignorance you may inure them to real Hardships without being ever sensible themselves that they are such (i. 316–17).

In view of this apology and the fact that his views rested on the current economic attitude, such complaint as was made against his brutality may be taken as due really to his having omitted the flavouring of sentiment and moralizing with which his contemporaries sweetened their beliefs; they were scandalized at his downrightness of statement, which here, as elsewhere, was able to make a current creed obnoxious by the mere act of stating it with complete candour.

1 Essays on Freethinking and Plain Speaking (N. Y., 1908), pp. 272–4, and History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1902) ii. 35.

1 It should be remembered also that Mandeville considered the poor happy and useful not in so far as made more wealthy, but more ignorant and hard-working. Concerning this point, see what follows in this section.

1 Fable i. 409. See especially also i. 287–90.

2 Fable i. 299–300. Cf. below, i. cxxxix-cxl.

3 Cf. J. E. Thorold Rogers, Six Centuries of Work and Wages (1909), p. 489.

4 Economic Writings, ed. Hull, i. 275, in Political Arithmetick.

5 Fletcher, Political Works (1737), pp. 125 sqq., in Two Discourses concerning the Affairs of Scotland; Written . . . 1698. Fletcher argued incidentally that ‘provisions by hospitals, alms-houses, and the contributions of churches or parishes, have by experience been found to increase the numbers of those that live by them’ (p. 129).

1 Essai Politique sur le Commerce (1761), pp. 53–4.

2 See below, ii. 419 sqq., under the early years of the list of references there, for notice of attacks on Mandeville’s arguments against charity-schools.

§ 7

One other important aspect of the Fable will be considered here — and that is the relation of Mandeville to Shaftesbury. In both parts of the book Mandeville used Shaftesbury as a sort of ‘horrible example’, the epitome of everything with which he disagreed. When Mandeville, however, produced the Grumbling Hive in 1705, and wrote the Fable around this little satire in 1714, there is no reason to suppose that he had so much as read Shaftesbury. The Fable contained no mention of Shaftesbury till 1723.1 Mandeville, apparently, grew more and more conscious of the implications of his own position, relating it to other systems more fully as he expanded the Fable, and by 1723, when he began his systematic attack on the Characteristics, had realized that, as he put it, ‘two Systems cannot be more opposite than his Lordship’s and mine’ (i. 324).

Now, at first, a reader who is aware of certain resemblances between Shaftesbury and Mandeville may wonder just why their two systems show such an antithesis. Shaftesbury, for example, joined with Mandeville in decrying philosophical systems,1 and agreed that private advantage harmonizes with the public good. These agreements, however, are really superficial. Although Shaftesbury declaimed against system-makers, he was himself notorious for his system. Indeed, he saw the world as so perfectly and beautifully co-ordinated a piece of divine mechanism that he denied the very existence of evil, on which Mandeville built his philosophy.2 And, whereas to Mandeville the totality to which each particular act contributed so perfectly was the actual work-a-day world, to Shaftesbury it was the universe from the point of view of the Whole. Their entire emphasis, too, was different. Shaftesbury said, Consider the Whole and the individual will then be cared for; Mandeville said, Study the individual and the Whole will then look after itself. To Shaftesbury, also, the coincidence of public and private good was due to an enlightened benevolence, whereas to Mandeville it was the result of narrow self-seeking — Mandeville believing men completely and inevitably egoistic, Shaftesbury thinking them endowed with altruistic and gregarious feeling (see below, i. 336, n. 1). This is a fundamental distinction, for Mandeville’s whole conception of the rise and nature of society was determined by his belief in the essential egoism of human nature, and Shaftesbury’s, by his faith in the actuality of altruism.1

The main distinction, however, between the two men cannot be made clear till one point has been allowed for: both men are remarkable for philosophies the apparent meaning of which is not the real meaning. Mandeville held on the surface that there is only one method of being virtuous — self-mortification from purely rational and unselfish motives; but essentially he believed that virtue is relative to time and place, that man is fundamentally irrational, and that he is unalterably selfish (cf. above in this chapter). Shaftesbury, on the other hand, because of his advice to follow nature, has often been thought to have advocated the virtue of obeying impulse and gratifying one’s own desires; but he really meant something very different. His ‘Nature’ was the whole divine scheme of creation — a thing of unalterable and perfect law, to follow which meant the subjection to it of all individual wills and differences; his was the Stoic following of ‘Nature’ and essentially rationalistic and repressive.2 Thus, Mandeville is on the surface an absolutist, a rationalist, and an ascetic, but is basally a relativist, an anti-rationalist, and a utilitarian; whereas Shaftesbury is superficially a relativist and spokesman for impulse, but is really an absolutist and a rationalist. The opposition between the two men, therefore, was double, for not only did the superficial aspects of their beliefs conflict, but the basal attitudes which motivated their thought were equally opposed.1 Each affords an inverse summary of the other.

With some such summary of Mandeville’s philosophy I shall close this discussion, for the reading of hundreds of estimates of Mandeville’s thought has impressed me with the fact that it is as important to explain what Mandeville did not mean as what he meant. A recollection of the following negative propositions, already elaborated in this chapter, will save the reader some perplexity.

Mandeville did not believe that all vice is a public benefit; he held the converse — that all benefits are based on actions fundamentally (according to his rigoristic definition ) vicious.

He did not believe that one could never tell right from wrong.

He did not believe that virtue was arbitrarily ‘invented’.

He did not deny the existence of the sympathetic emotions such as compassion, but merely refused to term them unselfish.

He did not deny the existence of what is usually termed virtue, but only maintained that it was not true virtue.

He did not believe that all extravagance and waste were good for the State.

He did not believe that vice should be encouraged, but merely that some vices ‘by the dextrous Management of a skilful Politician may be turned into Publick Benefits’ (i. 369).

And, finally, although his book is, as Dr. Johnson remarked, ‘the work of a thinking man’,1 and of great insight and shrewdness, he did not intend it to be taken as literally as a treatise on the calculus, but designed it also for what it successfully achieves, ‘the Reader’s Diversion’ (i. 8).

1 Mandeville’s first references to the Characteristics occur in his Free Thoughts (1720), pp. 239–41 and 360, and are favourable. The earliest references in the Fable occur in Remark T and the Search into the Nature of Society, both of which first appeared in 1723.

1 ‘The most ingenious way of becoming foolish is by a system’ (Shaftesbury, Characteristics, ed. Robertson, 1900, i. 189).

2 Cf. Characteristics i. 245–6

1 To prevent confusion here and elsewhere, it should be noted that Mandeville did not consider man an unsocial animal. He believed emphatically that man was happiest in society and well adapted to it; but he held that it was his egoism which made him social beyond other animals.

2 The special sense in which Shaftesbury employed the term ‘nature’, and the fact that to follow it implied not self-indulgence, but self-discipline, is clear, for instance, in the last clause of the following passage: ‘Thus in the several orders of terrestrial forms a resignation is required, a sacrifice and mutual yielding of natures one to another. . . . And if in natures so little exalted or pre-eminent above each other, the sacrifice of interests can appear so just, how much more reasonably may all inferior natures be subjected to the superior nature of the world! . . .’ (Characteristics, ed. Robertson, ii. 22). In like manner, Shaftesbury speaks of the need of disciplining our disposition ‘till it become natural’ (i. 218). Note that ‘become’. The essentially repressive nature of Shaftesbury’s ethics is evident also in such a passage as ‘If by temper any one is passionate, angry, fearful, amorous, yet resists these passions, and notwithstanding the force of their impression adheres to virtue, we say commonly in this case that the virtue is the greater; and we say well’ (i. 256). Cf. Esther Tiffany, ‘Shaftesbury as Stoic’, in Pub. Mod. Lang. Ass. for 1923, xxxviii. 642–84.

1 Mandeville, in his Letter to Dion (1732), p. 47, offered a sort of summary of their disagreement: ‘I differ from my Lord Shaftsbury entirely, as to the certainty of the Pulchrum & Honestum, abstract from Mode and Custom: I do the same about the Origin of Society, and in many other Things, especially the Reasons why Man is a Sociable creature, beyond other Animals.’

Leslie Stephen makes an interesting comparison between Mandeville and Shaftesbury in his History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1902) ii. 39–40.

1 Johnsonian Miscellanies, ed. Hill, 1897, i. 268.

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