Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


The bees may be regarded as superior to the human race in this, that from their own substance they produce another which is useful; while, of all our secretions, there is not one good for anything; nay, there is not one which does not render mankind disagreeable.

I have been charmed to find that the swarms which turn out of the hive are much milder than our sons when they leave college. The young bees then sting no one; or at least but rarely and in extraordinary cases. They suffer themselves to be carried quietly in the bare hand to the hive which is destined for them. But no sooner have they learned in their new habitation to know their interests than they become like us and make war. I have seen very peaceable bees go for six months to labor in a neighboring meadow covered with flowers which secreted them. When the mowers came they rushed furiously from their hive upon those who were about to steal their property and put them to flight.

We find in the Proverbs attributed to Solomon that “there are four things, the least upon earth, but which are wiser than the wise men — the ants, a little people who lay up food during the harvest; the hares, a weak people who lie on stones; the grasshoppers, who have no kings and who journey in flocks; and the lizards, which work with their hands and dwell in the palaces of kings.” I know not how Solomon forgot the bees, whose instinct seems very superior to that of hares, which do not lie on stone; or of lizards, with whose genius I am not acquainted. Moreover, I shall always prefer a bee to a grasshopper.

The bees have, in all ages, furnished the poet with descriptions, comparisons, allegories, and fables. Mandeville’s celebrated “Fable of the Bees” made a great noise in England. Here is a short sketch of it:

Once the bees, in worldly things,

 Had a happy government;

And their laborers and their kings

 Made them wealthy and content;

But some greedy drones at last

 Found their way into their hive;

 Those, in idleness to thrive,

Told the bees they ought to fast.

 Sermons were their only labors;

 Work they preached unto their neighbors.

In their language they would say,

 “You shall surely go to heaven,

 When to us you’ve freely given

Wax and honey all away.”—

 Foolishly the bees believed,

 Till by famine undeceived;

When their misery was complete,

 All the strange delusion vanished!

 Now the drones are killed or banished,

And the bees again may eat.

Mandeville goes much further; he asserts that bees cannot live at their ease in a great and powerful hive without many vices. “No kingdom, no state,” says he, “can flourish without vices. Take away the vanity of ladies of quality, and there will be no more fine manufactures of silk, no more employment for men and women in a thousand different branches; a great part of the nation will be reduced to beggary. Take away the avarice of our merchants, and the fleets of England will be annihilated. Deprive artists of envy, and emulation will cease; we shall sink back into primitive rudeness and ignorance.”

It is quite true that a well-governed society turns every vice to account; but it is not true that these vices are necessary to the well-being of the world. Very good remedies may be made from poisons, but poisons do not contribute to the support of life. By thus reducing the “Fable of the Bees” to its just value, it might be made a work of moral utility.”

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25