Bernard de Mandeville

From New World Encyclopedia

Western Philosophers
Eighteenth-century philosophy
(Modern Philosophy)
Name: Bernard de Mandeville
Birth: January 19, 1670 (Rotterdam in the Netherlands)
Death: 1733
School/tradition: Classical economics
Main interests
Political philosophy, ethics, economics
Notable ideas
the unknowing cooperation of individuals, modern free market, division of labour
Influences Influenced
William Petty Adam Smith

Bernard de Mandeville (1670 – 1733), was a philosopher, political economist and satirist. Born in the Netherlands, he lived most of his life in England and wrote most of his works in English.

He was known for The Fable of the Bees (1714), which was first published as a 433-line poem in 1705; by the sixth edition of 1729 it had become a treatise. Mandeville depicted a hive full of bees, each going about its business in its own way, and suggested that vice and fraud were as much a part of their success as industry and virtue. All of these, he said, are necessary for a market-based society to flourish; vice and greed are among the qualities of the egoistic individuals who make up such a society. Mandeville examined the way in which private vices, such as vanity, luxury, and the desire for material possessions and fashion, benefit the public by creating a market for commercial and industrial products. The book was remarkably witty and appealing, and it sparked considerable discussion among moralists and economists. Berkeley and Hutcheson spoke out against its sarcastic and cynical implications, but its ideas influenced Adam Smith and anticipated the doctrine of conspicuous consumption later promulgated by the American economist and sociologist, Thorsten Veblen.


Bernard de Mandeville was born in 1670, at or near Rotterdam in the Netherlands, where his father practiced as a physician. The exact date of his birth is uncertain, but he was baptized on November 20, 1670. On leaving the Erasmus school at Rotterdam, he showed his ability in an Oratio scholastica de medicina (1685), and at Leiden University in 1689, he produced a thesis De brutorum operationibus, in which he advocated the Cartesian theory of automatism among animals. In 1691 he took his medical degree, giving as his inaugural disputation, a thesis entitled, De chylosi vitiate. He moved to England to learn the language and succeeded so well that many refused to believe he was a foreigner. His father had been banished from Rotterdam in 1690 for involvement in the Costerman tax riots; this may have been one reason for Mandeville’s decision to move to England.

Mandeville settled in London, and in 1699 married an Englishwoman, with whom he had two children. As a physician he was well respected, and his literary works brought in a good income. His conversational abilities won him the friendship of Lord Macclesfield (Chief Justice, 1710-1718) who introduced him to Joseph Addison, described by Mandeville as "a parson in a tye-wig." Mandeville’s first literary works in English were burlesque paraphrases from the seventeenth century French poet, Jean de La Fontaine, and the seventeenth century French writer Paul Scarron. Mandeville died of influenza on January 21, 1733, at Hackney.

Works and Thought

Fable of the Bees

In 1705 he published a poem of two hundred doggerel couplets under the title The Grumbling Hive, or Knaves Turn'd Honest. In 1714 this poem was republished as an integral part of the Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits, consisting of a prose commentary, called Remarks, and an essay, An Enquiry into the Origin of Moral Virtue. In 1723 a later edition appeared, including An Essay on Charity and Charity Schools, and A Search into the Nature of Society. It was vigorously attacked by, among others, Bishop Berkeley and William Law, author of The Serious Call, and in 1729 was made the subject of a prosecution for its “immoral tendencies.”

The book was primarily written as a political satire on the state of England in 1705, when the Tories were accusing John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, and the ministry of advocating the Trench War for personal reasons. The edition of 1723 was represented as a nuisance by the Grand Jury of Middlesex, denounced in the London Journal by Theophilus Philo-Britannus, and attacked by many writers. The most notable of these was Archibald Campbell (1691-1756), in his Aretelogia (published as his own by Alexander Innes in 1728; afterward by Campbell, under his own name, in 1733, as Enquiry into the Origin of Moral Virtue). The Fable was reprinted in 1729, a ninth edition appeared in 1755, and it has often been reprinted in more recent times. Berkeley attacked the book in the second dialogue of the Alciphron (1732) and John Brown criticized it in his Essay upon Shaftesbury's Characteristics (1751).


Mandeville's philosophy gave great offense at the time, and has always been stigmatized as false, cynical and degrading. His main thesis is that the actions of men cannot be divided into lower and higher. The concept of a “higher life” of man is a mere fiction introduced by philosophers and rulers to simplify government and the relations within society. In fact, virtue (which he defined as "every performance by which man, contrary to the impulse of nature, should endeavor the benefit of others, or the conquest of his own passions, out of a rational ambition of being good") is actually detrimental to the commercial and intellectual progress of the state. It is the vices (the self-regarding actions of men) which, by means of inventions and the circulation of capital in connection with luxurious living, stimulate society into action and progress.

Private Vice, Public Benefit

Mandeville arrives at a contemporaneously vile conclusion: vice as a necessary condition for economic prosperity. His viewpoint seems even more severe when juxtaposed with that of Adam Smith. Both Smith and Mandeville believe that individuals’ collective actions bring about a public benefit. However, Smith believes in a virtuous self-interest which results in invisible cooperation, and saw no need for external guidance of this impulse in order to achieve public benefit. Mandeville believes that it is vicious greed which leads to invisible cooperation, if properly channeled. Mandeville’s idea of the proper channeling of greed is a marked departure from Adam Smith’s laissez-faire attitude. Mandeville calls for politicians to ensure that the passions of man will result in a public benefit. It is his stated belief in the Fable of the Bees that "Private Vices by the dextrous Management of a skilful Politician may be turned into Publick Benefits” (Mandeville, 369).

In the Fable Mandeville shows a society possessed of all the virtues "blest with content and honesty," falling into apathy and utterly paralyzed. The absence of self-love (cf. Hobbes) is the death of progress. The so-called higher virtues are mere hypocrisy, and arise from man’s selfish desire to consider himself superior to the brutes, or lower creatures. "The moral virtues are the political offspring which flattery begot upon pride." He arrives at the paradox that "private vices are public benefits."

Among other things, Mandeville argues that the basest and vilest behaviors produce positive economic effects. A libertine, for example, is a vicious character, and yet his spending will employ tailors, servants, perfumers, cooks, and distressed women. These persons, in turn, will employ bakers, carpenters, and the like. Therefore, the rapaciousness and violence of the base passions of the libertine benefit society in general. Similar satirical arguments were made by the Restoration and Augustan satirists.

The Division of Labour

Mandeville was an early describer of the division of labor, and Adam Smith makes use of some of his examples. Mandeville says:

…But if one will wholly apply himself to the making of Bows and Arrows, whilst another provides Food, a third builds Huts, a fourth makes Garments, and a fifth Utensils, they not only become useful to one another, but the Callings and Employments themselves will in the same Number of Years receive much greater Improvements, than if all had been promiscuously follow’d by every one of the Five…In Watch-making, which is come to a higher degree of Perfection, than it would have been arrived at yet, if the whole had always remain’d the Employment of one Person; and I am persuaded, that even the Plenty we have of Clocks and Watches, as well as the Exactness and Beauty they may be made of, are chiefly owing to the Division that has been made of that Art into many Branches. (The Fable of the Bees, Volume two).


While Mandeville probably had no intention of subverting morality, his views of human nature were cynical and degrading. Another of his works, A Search into the Nature of Society (1723), appended to the later versions of the Fable, also startled the public mind. His last works, Free Thoughts on Religion (1720) and An Enquiry into the Origin of Honour and the Usefulness of Christianity (1732) did little to reassure his critics. The aspect of Mandeville’s work which most closely approximates modern views is his account of the origin of society. His theories can be compared with Henry Maine's historical inquiries (Ancient Law). He endeavors to show that all social laws are the crystallized results of selfish aggrandizement and protective alliances among the weak. Denying any form of moral sense or conscience, he regards all the social virtues as evolved from the instinct for self-preservation, the give-and-take arrangements between the partners in a defensive and offensive alliance, and the feelings of pride and vanity artificially fed by politicians, as an antidote to dissension and chaos.

Mandeville's ironic paradoxes are interesting mainly as a criticism of the "amiable" idealism of Shaftesbury, and in comparison with the serious egoistic systems of Hobbes and Helvétius. Mandeville had considerable philosophic insight. His work is often disregarded because his thinking was mainly negative or critical, and, as he himself said, he was writing for "the entertainment of people of knowledge and education." He can be credited with removing obstacles for the coming utilitarianism.

A List of His Works

  • Typhon: a Burlesque Poem (1704)
  • Aesop Dress'd, or a Collection of Fables writ in Familiar Verse (1704)
  • The Planter's Charity (1704)
  • The Virgin Unmasked (1709, 1724, 1731, 1742), a work in which the coarser side of his nature is prominent
  • Treatise of the Hypochondriack and Hysterick Passions (1711, 1715, 1730) admired by Johnson (Mandeville here protests against speculative therapeutics, and advances fanciful theories of his own about animal spirits in connection with "stomachic ferment": he shows a knowledge of Locke's methods, and an admiration for Thomas Sydenham).
  • The Fable of the Bees (1714)
  • Free Thoughts on Religion (1720)
  • A Modest Defence of Publick Stews (1724)
  • An Enquiry into the Causes of the Frequent Executions at Tyburn (1725)
  • The Origin of Honour and the Usefulness of Christianity in War (1732).

Other works attributed, wrongly, to him are The World Unmasked (1736) and Zoologia medicinalis hibernica (1744).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

Primary Sources

  • Mandeville, Bernard. The Fable of the Bees: Or Private Vices, Publick Benefits. Liberty Classics, 1989.
  • Mandeville, Bernard, and E.J. Hunder. The Fable of the Bees: And Other Writings, Abridged Ed edition. Hackett Publishing Company, 1997.

Secondary Sources

  • Bain, M.A. Alexander. Moral Science: A Compendium Of Ethics. Kessinger Publishing, 2004.
  • Robertson, John M. Pioneer Humanists. University Press of the Pacific, 2004.
  • Stephen, Leslie. History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century. Thoemmes Press, 1997.
  • Tufts, James Hayden. The individual and his relation to society as reflected in British ethics (University of Chicago Contributions to philosophy). The University of Chicago Press, 1898.

External links

All links retrieved September 29, 2023.

General Philosophy Sources


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