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

Criticisms of the Fable

THIS section — a supplement to chapter 5 of my introduction — analyses significant aspects of the arguments of some representative critics of Mandeville. Paul Sakmann’s Bernard de Mandeville und die Bienenfabel-Controverse (Freiburg, Leipsic, and Tübingen, 1897) contains additional outlines of the arguments of Mandeville’s opponents and may serve as a further supplement. I have taken the opportunity offered here for incidental explanation of Mandeville’s positions.

William Law’s Remarks upon a Late Book, Entituled, the Fable of the Bees.1 17242

This is the ablest of all the replies to Mandeville, and in some ways to be ranked, as literature, with the Fable. It is a masterpiece of controversial writing. Law was the opposite of a relativist; Mandeville’s pyrrhonism, which made ethics a matter of taste and custom, and goodness an affair of the passions, was abhorrent to him. To Law, ethical truths were as immutable and definite as mathematical ones.

. . . moral Virtue . . . is Truth and Reason, consider’d in relation to Actions; and the difference between one Action and another, is as immutable and eternal, as the difference between one Line and another, and can no more be destroy’d.

As things are different by their own proper Natures, independant of our Wills, so Actions have their own peculiar Qualities from themselves, and not from our Thoughts about them. In these immutable Qualities of Actions, is founded, the fitness and reasonableness of them, which we can no more alter, than we can change the Proportions or Relations of Lines and Figures (p. 23).

Here, Sir, is the Noble and Divine Origin of moral Virtue, it is founded in the immutable Relations of Things, in the Perfections and Attributes of God, and not in the Pride of Man, or the Craft of cunning Politicians (p. 26).

This was Law’s ultimatum, the declaration of inalienable difference from Mandeville, the rejection by an absolutist of anything smacking of relativity in ethics. Virtue is of divine, not human origin; its criteria are fixed and simple, not subject to the differences and mutability of purely human decisions. With this as his basis and bias, Law now attacked Mandeville in more detail. And first, animated by the desire to have his rules of eternal validity, he attacked the account which Mandeville had given of the origin of virtue. He took literally the allegory in which Mandeville described the foisting of virtue upon people through the playing of politicians upon their pride: ‘ . . . the Moral Virtues are the Political Offspring which Flattery begot upon Pride’ (Fable i. 51). He had, of course, no trouble in demonstrating that virtue is no such deliberate invention, nor arbitrary imposition from without.

Were not the first Principles and Reasons of Morality connatural to us, and essential to our Minds, there would have been nothing for the moral Philosophers to have improv’d upon (pp. 19–20).

However, Mandeville would have been the first to admit that his allegory was not to be taken literally and that the growth of morality was a gradual one.1 ‘Of course,’ he would have answered, ‘there were always in men the germs of morality, for they were always the slaves of pride.’ 2

On scriptural grounds3 also, Law attacked Mandeville’s account of the origin of morality, arguing that the rules of virtue are direct revelations from God.

He then left this phase of Mandeville’s thought for the kindred matter of Mandeville’s anti-rationalistic reduction of all human conduct to the interplay of passions.

That we are rational Beings, [Law maintained (p. 28)] is as plain, as that we have Bodies, and bodily Senses. As there is no Man so refin’d and elevated, but gives frequent Proof, that He is subject also to Instincts and Passions; so there is no one so addicted to an Animal Life, as to shew no Signs of an higher Principle within him.

And (pp. 4–5),

If Man had nothing but Instincts and Passions, he could not dispute about them; for to dispute is no more an Instinct, or Passion, than it is a Leg, or an Arm.

Law here, however, was not quite facing Mandeville’s main point. The important thing to Mandeville was not that man lacks reason, but that this reason, for all its powers of logic, cannot transcend the sub-rational desires, of which, according to Mandeville, it is merely the able servant.

Law turned now from Mandeville’s empiricism to Mandeville’s contrary assertion that all the passions and their doings which he had shown so useful to humanity are nevertheless wicked. This is the matter on which Law concentrated the greatest dialectical effort, and yet the paradox is that the position he here attacked was the development of a rigorism which he shared with Mandeville. It was one of Law’s most cherished doctrines that goodness was ‘being virtuous upon Principle, and thro’ a Love of Goodness’ (p. 32) because of one’s duty to God. In the Serious Call Law’s rigorism was so extreme that he would not allow that a good man might ever act directly from a desire for pleasure. Yet Law could not abide the paradox which Mandeville drew from this rigorism — that under it virtue was impracticable and happiness wicked. Our conduct, argued Law, is not rendered evil by the fact that our passions play their part in it:

An Action is virtuous, because it is an Obedience to Reason, and the Laws of God; and does not cease to be so, because the Body is either form’d by Use, or created by Disposition, easy and ready for the Performance of it (p. 37).

Nor need our constant desire for happiness bar us from virtue. On the contrary,

. . . Happiness is the only reasonable End of every Being. . . . he who thro’ long habits of Goodness, has made the Practice of Virtue to have less of Self-denial in it, is the most virtuous Man (p. 33).

To believe otherwise would be to deny that God, who does right in accord with his nature and desire, is good (p. 33). Thus, by this attempted truce, Law tried to hold off the embarrassing consequences Mandeville had inferred from the rigoristic code. It should be noted, however, that fundamentally Law was not deserting the creed of his Serious Call: happiness to him could never be the direct incentive to good conduct unless, perhaps, when a man was so perfected that he derived his happiness from obeying the impersonal dictates of duty; no other type of happiness could ever be a legitimate direct end of action, though it might be a secondary motive or concomitant.

It may seem at first that, in his vindication of natural motives, Law was making a telling point against Mandeville’s ethics. He was, however, really once more agreeing with it. Mandeville would have had no objection to admitting that a man so exercised in doing good from a mere rational desire of being virtuous as to take pleasure in it was the best man. Law and Mandeville were in absolute harmony as to their ideal. But Mandeville devoted the greater part of his work to a demonstration that this ideal is never realized. God may do good in this manner, but mere man, never. It was specifically with regard to the impossibility of realizing the ideal which he and Law both professed that Mandeville told his brilliant parable of small beer (Fable i. 235–8). Man as he really is, in contradistinction to man as the moralists tell us he should be, never does act as the moralists would have him.

If it be urg’d [said Mandeville (i. 134)], that if there are not, it is possible there might be such [virtuous] People; I answer that it is as possible that Cats, instead of killing Rats and Mice, should feed them, and go about the House to suckle and nurse their young ones; or that a Kite should call the Hens to their Meat, as the Cock does, and sit brooding over their Chickens instead of devouring ’em; but if they should all do so, they would cease to be Cats and Kites; it is inconsistent with their Natures, and the Species of Creatures which now we mean, when we name Cats and Kites, would be extinct as soon as that could come to pass.

The disagreement, then, between Law and Mandeville was not in their formal creeds, but in their belief as to the practicability of these creeds.

And this kind of disagreement in agreement ran throughout all their thought. The immutable criteria of right and wrong to which Law clung, Mandeville ridiculed. He admitted that virtue was action in accordance with them, but believed that the search for them was a ‘Wild-Goose-Chace’. It was the object of the Fable to demonstrate the inevitable absence of what the William Laws deemed necessary.

Small wonder, then, that Law was so excited by Mandeville. It was no consolation to have Mandeville admit, between roars of laughter, that the world was a wicked place, since he allowed of no escape from it. Such agreement was worse than none at all. To Law, the evil in the world was not something to be calmly accepted; it was the spur to find something higher to hold to. Law’s despair of this world was a force which drove him to a belief in immutable moral criteria free from worldly taint, by cleaving to which he could escape the evil of the world. It made him cling closer to a belief in the existence of a divine perfection which would supply what the world lacked, and in whose shelter the world might be defied.

In other words, the recognition of preponderant evil demands the complementary recognition that there is a way of escaping that evil. A man with Law’s views of the world had to find such salvation. But Mandeville denied all possibility of escape. Consequently, the more Mandeville insisted on the wickedness of the world, the more horrible to Law it was. It was as if Mandeville had kept shouting gleefully, ‘Yes, we are all drowning; we are strangling in a sea of iniquity, but nobody will throw us a rope, and we couldn’t catch it if some one did’.

The real crux of the matter is that Mandeville and Law were speaking from the most opposite temperaments. Under their superficial agreement, their whole feeling towards the world was different. Law really felt the distrust of the world which Mandeville only announced; Mandeville did not feel it at all. Wicked or not, the world was a good place to him. Leslie Stephen half summed this matter up when he stated as Mandeville’s motto, ‘You are all Yahoos . . ., and I am a Yahoo; and so — let us eat, drink, and be merry’.1 This statement would be complete with the qualification that Mandeville did not really feel that men are Yahoos; he simply recognized facts which caused people of another temperament to call men that. But, to Law, the facts which Mandeville recognized with such equanimity, and the existence of anything besides which Mandeville denied, did mean that man was really a Yahoo. These facts were, therefore, insupportable to Law, and he refused to believe that they are the whole story. He thought he saw a higher truth behind them. It was, therefore, against Mandeville’s vision, or, rather, against the basal attitude towards the world which allowed Mandeville to be satisfied with this vision, and not against his formal creed, that Law really rebelled.

Richard Fiddes’s General Treatise of Morality. 17241

Fiddes was representative of that large class of clergymen who, though orthodox, were thoroughly permeated by the philosophy of the period which had made the deists. His natural bent was not to a religion derived from revelation, but to one arrived at by the human reason. He acknowledged revelation, to be sure, but rather as a short cut to truth than as a necessity (pp. 272–4, 449 sqq.). Since his stress on the other-worldly element in religion was comparatively so faint, he was not so outraged by Mandeville as Law was. In fact, he was one of the most civil of Mandeville’s contemporary opponents. He found himself forced to admit the truth of almost every fact that Mandeville insisted upon (pp. xix and lxxx), but he contrived to wriggle out of Mandeville’s conclusions. Fiddes allowed that Mandeville’s reduction of human actions, whether apparently virtuous or not, to selfish passion had foundation, but he argued that, nevertheless, people might act in accord with the desired ideal of virtue. To show this, Fiddes first protested against the bias which, he urged, led Mandeville, where a motive was hidden, always to posit a selfish one:

Now where several Motives may be reasonably assigned for any Action, it is more human, more just, and equitable, to ascribe it to the best Motives . . . (p. xx).

In the next place, Fiddes pleaded what might be called the argument from divinity: God would not, he maintained, make demands upon us for virtuous conduct which we could not fulfil (pp. xcii-xcv and cv-cviii).

Fiddes was clear-sighted enough to recognize that the paradoxical consequences Mandeville deduced as to the necessity of vice depended on his unqualified ascetic rigorism; and Fiddes attacked this rigorism. There is no reason, he urged, why an action should be vitiated because a man takes pleasure in it (p. xxii); nor are all natural passions necessarily bad (pp. xxvi-xxvii). To distinguish between good and evil passions, and in general to oppose Mandeville, Fiddes invoked a modified utilitarianism (pp. lx-lxiii, xcv-xcviii, cii). In this way he attempted to evade Mandeville’s inferences as to the equal depravity of all conduct naturally possible to men. But Fiddes’s utilitarianism was, after all, for practical purposes only: utility to him was the index of virtue; the basal ethical sanction of conduct was that it was ‘Obedience to the supreme Legislator’ (p. xcix). Indeed, for all his practical utilitarianism, Fiddes was so far a rigorist as to hold it unlawful ‘to commit a Sin, though he might, thereby, save the Commonwealth’ (ibid.). Thus Fiddes exemplified, in a less startling manner, the combination of the empirical and rigoristic attitudes which Mandeville himself embodied.

John Dennis’s Vice and Luxury Publick Mischiefs. 17241

John Dennis was one of those who imagine that making a syllogism is the same as stating a truth. The world was a table of classifications to him, in which A was always A and never shaded into B. ‘And how is it possible for any Man to conceive a Ciceronian Jack-pudding?’ he asked in one of his critical works.2 ‘Never was any Buffoon eloquent, or wise, or witty, or virtuous. All the good and ill Qualities of a Buffoon are summ’d up in one Word, and that is a Buffoon.’ The remark is typical. Dennis thought of importance only that phase of things which could be formulated; it was the generalization and not the concrete instance that interested him. He was an extreme rationalist. In his criticism of poetry, this took the form of a great stress on the importance to a poet of a thorough knowledge of the ‘rules’; in his attack on Mandeville, it appeared in his statement that

Thought is certainly the only Source of every human Action, as thinking rightly is the only Source of every thing that is rightly done.1

One may imagine the feelings with which he regarded Mandeville, who maintained that men never act reasonably from their principles, but that reason is the most utter tool of their passions, and who intensified the anti-rationalism of this statement by a complete denial that those nice generalizations and principles of which Dennis was so fond could ever be of more than the merest pragmatic value. Indeed, along with Law, Dennis was by nature the most contrasted of all types to Mandeville. Just as the mystic Law abhorred Mandeville’s happy-go-lucky empiricism because it opposed a religious escape from this world of contrarieties and evanescence, so Dennis must have hated it because it equally opposed an escape from such a world through the reason.

Dennis, however, did not know that this was a main reason for his fighting Mandeville. He arranged his attack on the most elaborate syllogistic lines. His heavy artillery was the following logical sequence: The original social contract is the basis of the English government; it is only the explicit oath which the sovereign takes to observe the good of his country, and the implicit one of the people to obey him, which make English civilization possible. Now, the keeping of these oaths depends on the sanctity which oaths in general have for people. This sanctity, like all other good (p. 48), is dependent upon their religion. Anything, therefore, which disturbs this religion shakes the reliability of these oaths, and therefore all English civilization. But Mandeville threatens this religion. Ergo, the Fable of the Bees has shaken the foundations of the Kingdom (pp. ix sqq.).2

Most of the time Dennis did not comprehend the matters he was attempting to refute. He understood Mandeville’s statement that private vices are public benefits as if Mandeville were using his terms with the ordinary connotations. But, of course, what Mandeville meant by private vice was not something practically disadvantageous to the individual, but something wrong according to rigoristic morality.

Dennis especially attacked Mandeville’s defence of luxury as a public benefit. This he did partly under a misconception as to what Mandeville meant by luxury — correlative to his error as to what Mandeville implied by vice — but largely, also, because of a real difference of attitude. Dennis believed in a Spartan state. He ransacked history to furnish examples of nations undone by the refinements of civilization, predicted the ruin of England, and pointed to the originating national debt as one of the luxury-engendered instruments of this impending calamity (e. g., pp. 25–8, 51 sqq.).

Only for a moment did Dennis have a glimpse of the fact that Mandeville’s paradox depended on his initial rigoristic definition. This transient insight was in the matter of Mandeville’s denominating as luxury everything not essential to the barest needs of life. And as Dennis attempted to distinguish between luxurious and legitimate excess, it is interesting to note that he was impelled to grasp for an instant at a utilitarian criterion (pp. 52–4).

George Bluet’s Enquiry. . . . In which the Pleas Offered by the Author of the Fable of the Bees . . . are considered. 17251

This is by far the most painstaking of the answers to Mandeville.

Although I do not intend in this section to consider matters of practical policy, it is worth recording that Bluet’s book contains able criticism of Mandeville’s economic theories and of certain other practical aspects of his teaching.

A great part of Bluet’s attack was based, like that of almost all the controversialists, on a too literal interpretation of Mandeville. But, being one of the very ablest of these contenders, he made a more effective use of his misinterpretation. How foolish, he argued, were the politicians, who, according to Mandeville, brought virtue into being, if vice is for the good of the community. And, likewise, how stupid of our present magistrates to discourage wickedness, since this evil is our only salvation (p. 22). In this way, Bluet seized upon Mandeville’s statement that the laws should be enforced, and that vices should be punished when they become prejudicial to the state, to accuse him of inconsistency. Why punish such actions? he asked, since the more vicious the acts, the greater the good to be expected from them.

The answer is that, when Mandeville spoke of virtue, he meant so-called virtue, which was to him simply a rearrangement of vicious passions; so that he could advocate the usefulness of such virtue without denying the need of vice, since such virtue is vice. And when he advocated the suppression of vices inimical to society he was in opposition only to the theory that all vice is desirable, which he had never seriously maintained. Mandeville’s position was that some vice may by dexterous management be made useful, and that this fraction of vice so used is indispensable as the world is constituted.

Bluet, however, also had sight of more real issues in the Fable. He attacked the rigorism by which Mandeville could, after showing the necessity and practical benefit of the passions, call them evil, thus being able to make the paradox that vices are virtues. He refused to accept Mandeville’s rigoristic definition of virtue and vice, on which, he saw, the Fable was built (Enquiry, p. 25). To the rigoristic demand for a complete perfection in morals, from which Mandeville inferred that our so-called good qualities are ethically futile because they have always some alloy of imperfection (Fable i. 56 and 254), Bluet answered (p. 111),

. . . Piety to Parents is not the less a Virtue, because it may chance that a Highwayman has relieved his Parents in Distress; nor (to put it yet stronger) would be the less a Virtue in itself, though it should chance that a Man robb’d for this very Purpose. For if all his other Qualities were answerable to this Regard to his Parents, he would not have robb’d, but have acted in all Things like a good Man.

The passions in general, said Bluet, are not intrinsically evil, and their necessity to conduct is, therefore, no insuperable barrier to virtue (pp. 73–4). Indeed ‘the Pleasure of doing an Action’ is not only a legitimate stimulus; it ‘is the only Motive human Nature can act upon’ (p. 85). But how know whether a passion or an action is good or bad? Mandeville’s rigoristic code condemned all natural conduct equally. To make the necessary distinctions, Bluet, like Law and Fiddes, had recourse to a utilitarian touchstone (pp. 36–8). This utilitarianism he elsewhere in his book (p. 115) crystallized into the form known as ‘theological’ utilitarianism, in which the rewards or penalties of the future life enter into the calculation of benefits.

But Bluet also saw that the rigorism which he condemned in Mandeville was only on the surface. Bluet realized that Mandeville’s real sentiments were that the passions whose management makes a state great and happy are justly to be encouraged and sympathized with; that his rejection of them was merely verbal and superficial, and that he would much regret it if the world were run according to rigoristic morality.

’Tis only to disguise his main Design [said Bluet (pp. 13–14)], that he employs his ingenious Raillery in ridiculing Fools, who only strive

To make a great an honest Hive,

that is, for endeavouring at what is impossible to obtain. His real Sentiments appear, when he calls the grumbling Hive Rogues and Fools, for having by their impertinent Prayers procur’d in Fact such a State and Condition [of ascetic virtue], and consequently such Ruin and Poverty. The Knaves are actually turned honest, a Curse which the great and good Gods sent them in their Vengeance as the greatest they could inflict . . . .

And again (p. 92),

He does not . . . blame his grumbling Hive for taking improper Methods to root out Vice, but for rooting it out at all . . . . What a fine consistent System of Ethicks is this!

In this demonstration of Mandeville’s inconsistencies, however, Bluet was objecting to a dualism of which he also was a victim. As Mandeville superimposed a rigoristic system on an attitude which Bluet rightly felt to be anti-rigoristic, so Bluet assailed Mandeville’s rigorism while, all the time, Bluet cherished the basal rigoristic principle: ‘ . . . nothing can make a Man honest or virtuous but a Regard to some religious or moral Principles’ (Enquiry, p. 139)— precisely the rigoristic position from which Mandeville was arguing when he asserted that our so-called virtues were really vices, because not based only on this regard to principle. Thus the author of the Enquiry is still another illustration of the mingling of contradictory criteria which the Fable itself embodies.

Berkeley and Hervey. 1732.

Hervey’s Some Remarks on the Minute Philosopher was an attack upon Berkeley’s Alciphron: or, the Minute Philosopher, which was an attack on the Fable of the Bees; yet both attacks agreed in one detail, a point which was one of the most telling of all the criticisms passed upon Mandeville’s book. Hervey put it thus (pp. 45–7):

I would have said, that his [Mandeville’s] endeavouring to show, that People do Actions they have reason to be proud of, from Motives, which if nicely scrutinized, they would have reason to be ashamed of, will never contribute to the multiplying such Actions . . . .

If it could be proved, that Herostratus, who fired the Temple of Ephesus, and Decius, who threw himself, for the sake of his Country, into the Gulph that open’d in Rome, acted both from the same Motive, and were equally influenced by the Vanity of being mentioned in History, and perpetuating their Names to Posterity . . .; if this, I say, could be demonstrated, I would be glad to ask the Author of the Fable of the Bees, whether he thinks it would promote and encourage that Virtue call’d the Love of one’s Country, to shew that the most renown’d Patriot in Antiquity, and the most infamous Incendiary, were in the same Way of Thinking, and actuated by the same Passion?

Berkeley stated this same objection as to the practical dangers of Mandeville’s theory of human nature, whether true or not, when he said ironically, in answer to it,

It should seem then that Plato’s fearing lest youth might be corrupted by those fables which represented the gods vicious was an effect of his weakness and ignorance.1

And it must be added that Mandeville himself admitted the value of deceiving men into goodness.2

This argument is a crucial one; it embodies an essential difference between ‘tough-minded’ thinkers such as Mandeville, and ‘tender-minded’ ones like Berkeley. The latter combine an exalted ideal of virtue and humanity with a distrust of actual virtuousness and people. As a result there arises a dual tendency — first, always to subordinate the demands of the actual which they distrust to the ideal that they worship, which makes them rigorists in morality; and, secondly, for their own comfort to persuade themselves into believing that their ideal is to be found actually embodied, and is, indeed, the natural thing to expect. It may seem a self-contradiction that a distrust of actual humanity should be bound up with the belief that this distrusted humanity embodies the ideal in comparison with which it is contemned, but it is, none the less, a fact. It is a manifestation of the general tendency to believe that what is desired either actually exists or can be brought to pass. On this account, therefore, Berkeley could at once deny that men were so far from the ideal as Mandeville asserted them to be, and, at the same time, in the argument quoted above, betray his complete want of confidence in this humanity by maintaining that they were so untrustworthy that they would be unable to withstand the deleterious effects of Mandeville’s disillusionizing doctrines. The matter comes, finally, to this paradox, that the Berkeleys not only resented the denial by Mandeville of their superlative conception of man, but felt such distrust of this supposedly exalted creature that they feared for the practical ill effects which would follow men’s conviction that they were not divine, but the creatures of selfish passions.

Mandeville realized the nature of the gulf between himself and Berkeley. In his reply to the Bishop’s book, he wrote (Letter to Dion, p. 48),

You, Sir, think it for the Good of Society, that human Nature should be extoll’d as much as possible: I think, the real Meanness and Deformity of it to be more instructive.

The fact is that the cynical Mandeville, who spent his life telling how bad people were, really felt enormously more confidence in them than the uncynical Berkeley; and this is why he was able to call them so many bad names and still be happy. ‘Use every man according to his deserts, and who should ’scape whipping?’ asked Hamlet. And because he had Berkeley’s and not Mandeville’s temperament, he was rendered miserable by this. But Mandeville said, ‘Treat every one as he deserves, and who shall escape hanging?’ and continued on perfectly good terms with everybody. He did not believe that men need, in order to be tolerable, to live up to the ideal deserts that Hamlet and Berkeley insisted upon. That is why he refused to flatter them into morality, and why he analysed motives in the way which Hervey thought so dangerous. Mandeville had no such fear of people as to feel the necessity of deceiving either himself or them as to their real nature. Indeed, one might say that he abused mankind as we whimsically give bad names to good friends.

Adam Smith and John Brown. 1759 and 1751

Adam Smith’s brilliant criticism is summed up in this culminating paragraph:

It is the great fallacy of Dr. Mandeville’s book to represent every passion as wholly vicious which is so in any degree and in any direction. It is thus that he treats every thing as vanity which has any reference either to what are or to what ought to be the sentiments of others: and it is by means of this sophistry that he establishes his favourite conclusion, that private vices are public benefits. If the love of magnificence, a taste for the elegant arts and improvements of human life, for whatever is agreeable in dress, furniture, or equipage, for architecture, statuary, painting and music, is to be regarded as luxury, sensuality and ostentation, even in those whose situation allows, without any inconveniency, the indulgence of those passions, it is certain that luxury, sensuality and ostentation are public benefits: since, without the qualities upon which he thinks proper to bestow such opprobrious names, the arts of refinement could never find encouragement, and must languish for want of employment. Some popular ascetic doctrines which had been current before his time, and which placed virtue in the entire extirpation and annihilation of all our passions, were the real foundation of this licentious system. It was easy for Dr. Mandeville to prove, first, that this entire conquest never actually took place among men; and, secondly, that, if it was to take place, universally, it would be pernicious to society, by putting an end to all industry and commerce, and in a manner to the whole business of human life. By the first of these propositions he seemed to prove that there was no real virtue, and that what pretended to be such was a meer cheat and imposition upon mankind; and by the second, that private vices were public benefits, since without them no society could prosper or flourish.1

Notice here that Adam Smith did not fall into the vulgar error of thinking that Mandeville was confounding the practical effects of vice, and calling all vice equally beneficial to society, but that he attacked Mandeville for making all actions equally reprehensible from a moral standpoint. Briefly, he condemned Mandeville’s moral nihilism, the absence of any criterion to distinguish between moral good and evil except the impracticable and repulsive one of identifying virtue with complete self-denial.

A similar indictment of Mandeville was drawn up by John Brown in his Essays on the Characteristics. He, also, recognized that Mandeville took advantage of an ethical system which,

contending for the permanent Reality of Virtue, and, not content to fix it on its proper Basis, attempts to establish certain absolute and immutable Forms of Beauty [or virtue], without Regard to any further End . . . . [Mandeville], intent on destroying the permanent Reality of Virtue and Vice, and perceiving how Weak a Basis the noble Writer [Shaftesbury] had laid for their Establishment, after proving this to be imaginary, as wisely as honestly infers, there is no real one in Nature (Essays, ed. 1751, p. 145).

This, according to Brown, was the cause of the absence of definite criteria in Mandeville; this is the reason why Mandeville maintained that in morals there is no greater certainty than in the matter of whether fashionable society will prefer broad-brimmed or narrow-brimmed hats (see Fable i. 327–8).

But Brown went further; he tried to supply the deficiency which he and Smith found in Mandeville by offering utility as the missing test of moral truth. He set up ‘the great End of public Happiness . . . as the one, uniform Circumstance that constitutes the Rectitude of human Actions’ (pp. 140–1). By this means he thought to restore to ethics that certainty of which Mandeville attempted to rob it, without setting up the rigoristic creed which drove Mandeville into this theft.

There are visible in this controversy, roughly speaking, two main kinds of criticism. The first is that of men like Law and Berkeley, who may be termed the religious-minded. What they objected to primarily in Mandeville was his refusal to recognize the existence of anything above human experience. They rebelled at the manner in which he made morality an affair of the passions and denied the existence of any absolute standards of right and wrong. The fact that Mandeville formally admitted the necessity for action in accord with such standards did not reconcile these critics to him. It simply enraged them the more, since Mandeville admitted their creed only in order to show its impracticability. As a result, they usually, in their anguish, threw logic to the winds, and criticized him for the most inconsistent reasons. The same men would attack not only his basal empiricism, but his acceptance of the rigoristic ethics in which they themselves believed. Appalled at the result of his adoption of their own code, they turned upon it to rend themselves. They complained because he called human nature bad; but they really objected because he felt such utter reliance upon it. They felt what he said and said what he felt. The paradoxes in Mandeville’s book were at least equalled by those in the minds of his readers.

On the other hand were critics like Adam Smith and John Brown. These men were not roused to anger by Mandeville’s empiricism, for they largely shared it. Still, as it happens, they objected to his teachings for reasons which superficially resemble the objections of men like Law. They condemned the rigorism which caused Mandeville to identify self-gratification with vice, and his failure to offer practical criteria according to which to determine moral values. Mandeville had simply said — although he did not really feel this — that all things were equally vicious. Smith and Brown, however, objected to Mandeville’s asceticism for a very different reason from that of the other type of critic. Law and Bluet, for instance, combated Mandeville’s asceticism because they felt that he did not really believe it; but Smith and Brown objected because they thought that he did. The latter wished a scheme of morals in which man should be the measure of all things, and his happiness the end of conduct. In this respect they were in harmony with what is really basic in Mandeville’s thought. They were simply refining away that part of Mandeville which is out of keeping with his own true trend. It may be said, then, that the more they refuted Mandeville, the more they agreed with him.

The attack of such critics as Smith and Brown upon Mandeville’s pyrrhonism, or denial of final criteria, was, also, like their attack on his asceticism, only in superficial agreement with the similar attack of thinkers like Law. Both types of critics agreed in demanding some standard of moral values. But, whereas Fiddes and Law would have set up a code of divine origin whose ultimate sanction was not utilitarian, the other critics wished a standard which should be quite relative to human needs. Brown, for instance, offered definitely a utilitarian scheme of ethics. But, in this, as in their attack on Mandeville’s formal asceticism, thinkers of Smith’s type were bringing out what is latent in Mandeville, and attacked him because they did not realize that, under his superficial difference, he was really at one with them, Mandeville, as is noted above (i. lviii-lxi), being at bottom as utilitarian as John Brown. Here too, then, the effect of this class of critics was not so much a refutation of Mandeville’s teachings as a development of them.

1 References apply to the editions of 1724, 1725, and 1726.

2 Advertised in the Whitehall Evening Post for Thurs., 16 Jan., to Sat., 18 Jan. 1724, as ‘On Monday next will be publish’d’, and in the Post-Boy for Sat., 18 Jan., to Tues., 21 Jan., as ‘This Day is publish’d’.

1 On this point, see above, i. lxiv-lxvi.

2 This is precisely what he does say in his Origin of Honour, p. 40.

3 See above, ii. 197, n. 3, where Law’s arguments are cited.

1 Stephen, Essays on Freethinking and Plainspeaking (N.Y., 1908), p. 280. Also in Stephen’s History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1902) ii. 34.

1 Advertised as ‘This Day is publish’d’, in the London Journal for 29 Feb. 1724. Only the preface deals specifically with Mandeville. That Mandeville had read Fiddes’s book is shown by the Letter to Dion (1732), p. 46.

1 Advertised as ‘This Day will be deliver’d to the Subscribers’, in the Post-Boy for 7–9 Apr. 1724.

2 See On the Genius and Writings of Shakespeare, in Eighteenth Century Essays on Shakespeare, ed. Gregory Smith, p. 33.

1 Vice and Luxury Publick Mischiefs, p. xxvi.

2 Cf. the reasoning in the presentment of the Grand Jury quoted in Fable i. 384.

1 Concerning my reasons for assigning this anonymous book to George Bluet (known also as George Blewitt and Thomas Bluett), see my article ‘The Writings of Bernard Mandeville’, in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology for 1921, xx. 461, n. 61. For various references in the present edition to Bluet’s book see the index to commentary.

1 See Berkeley, Works, ed. Fraser, 1901, ii. 75.

2 See, for example, his Origin of Honour, p. 86.

1 Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), pp. 485–6.

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:00