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

Note on the phrase ‘Private Vices, Publick Benefits’

This conception was adumbrated by Montaigne: ‘De mesme, en toute police, il y a des offices necessaires, non seulement abiects, mais encore vitieux: les vices y trouuent leur rang & s’employent à la cousture de nostre liaison, comme les venins à la conseruation de nostre santé. . . . Le bien public requiert qu’on trahisse & qu’on mente et qu’on massacre . . .’ (Essais, Bordeaux, 1906–20, iii. 2–3). Charron put it that ‘Premierement nous sçavons, que souuent nous sommes menés & poussés a la vertu & a bien faire par des ressorts meschans & reprouués, par deffaut & impuissance naturelle, par passion, & le vice mesmes’ (De la Sagesse, Leyden, 1656, i. 246; bk. 2, ch. 3). Bayle wrote, ‘Les erreurs, les passions, les préjugez, & cent autres défauts semblables, sont comme un mal nécessaire au monde. Les hommes ne vaudroient rien pour cette terre si on les avoit guéris . . .’ (Oeuvres Diverses, The Hague, 1727–31, ii. 274; and cf. iii. 361 and 977 sqq.). There is an interesting parallel to Mandeville’s phrase in The City Alarum, or the Weeke of our Miscarriages (1645), p. 29: ‘ . . . most men being ambitious, and affecting the repute of opulent, many from whom the Magistrate exacts too much, chuse rather to pay, then proclaime the slendernesse of their fortunes. So that vice it selfe supports vertue, and reall profit is reaped from wealth imaginary.’

I have cited only passages exhibiting some kinship in expression to Mandeville’s epigram. The general idea, however, of the possible usefulness of vice was frequently anticipated in the numerous seventeenth-century discourses on the passions. In these treatises it was shown how the passions, although vicious in themselves, could none the less be converted into virtues. Some of these works — Pierre Nicole’s De La Charité, & de l’Amour propre (Essais de Morale, vol. 3) is an example — continued to term the passions vicious despite their practical utility. Lay works also preached this moral. Thus Fontenelle wrote, ‘Avez-vous de la peine à concevoir que les bonnes qualités d’un homme tiennent à d’autres qui sont mauvaises, et qu’il seroit dangereux de le guérir de ses défauts?’ ((Œuvres, Paris, 1790, i. 367, in Dialogues des Morts); and an anonymous English work argued that ‘What the generality of men take for Virtues, are only Vices in Masquerade’ (Laconics: or, New Maxims of State and Conversation, ed. 1701, pt. 2, maxim 53; p. 43). See, also, the citation from La Rochefoucauld (above, i. cv) and from Rochester (below, i. 219, n. 1). Another, related, type of work held that the passions may become the ingredients of genuine virtue, but nevertheless showed at the same time much of the theological belief that the passions are in their nature of the world, the flesh, and the devil. For instances of such writings one might cite J. F. Senault’s De l’Usage des Passions (1643), Malebranche’s Recherche de La Vérité (cf. ed. Paris, 1721, iii. 18), and W. Ayloffe’s Government of the Passions, according to the Rules of Reason and Religion (1700). In these studies of the emotions — especially in the first-mentioned type — there lay implicit the paradox that vices may be benefits. — Concerning this whole matter of the psychologizing of virtue into vice cf. above, i. xlvii-xlix, lxxxvii-xciii, and below, ii. 404, n. 1.

These anticipations, however, unlike Mandeville, usually put little stress on the social implications of the value of vice, being content to show how the individual could transmute the evil passions of his nature into personal virtue.

As part of the background for Mandeville’s phrase there should be considered also the common ‘optimistic’ belief that somehow good springs from evil (see below, i. 57, n. 1).

For Mandeville’s own explanation of his phrase see below, i. 412, n. 1.

Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53