After studying philosophy and medicine at the University of Leyden and practicing briefly in Holland, Mandeville traveled to England to learn the language. By 1699, he had married an English woman, settled in London, and specialized in nervous and gastric disorders. Mandeville published a medical text entitled A Treatise of the Hypochondriack and Hysterick Passions (1711), several fables, and occasional verse, but his major publications were prose commentaries on individual and social morality.
Mandeville’s most significant literary work, The Fable of the Bees, expanded and changed form with each new edition. As early as 1703, Mandeville wrote several short fables in the style of La Fontaine. In 1705, he published the long poem The Grumbling Hive; or, Knaves Turn’d Honest, which he described as “a story told in doggerel.” This pamphlet publication was popular enough to be pirated, but the poem received much more attention in 1714 when it reappeared as part of The Fable of the Bees; or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits. Along with the poem, this volume contained twenty prose “remarks” (extensive commentaries on individual lines) and the essay “An Enquiry into the Origin of Moral Virtue.” A subsequent edition (1723) offered still more “remarks” and two additional essays—”An Essay on Charity and Charity-Schools” and “A Search into the Nature of Society.” A further accretion, published as part 2 of The Fable of the Bees (1729), included six dialogues between Horatio and Cleomenes. The later character speaks for Mandeville and defends the ideas in The Fable.
The ambiguous subtitle of The Fable merely identifies two qualities—vices and benefits. This juxtaposition introduces Mandeville’s major topic throughout the evolving work but does not specify his moral position. The initial story of the grumbling hive obviously portrays humans in the guise of bees. Here, in clear opposition to the benevolence of Lord SHAFTESBURY, selfish passions govern all actions. Individual bees display envy, vanity, and lust, but the entire hive is a paradise. For example, vanity stimulates desires for luxury items, such desires promote industry and trade, and the flourishing economy produces a happy and prosperous society. When Jove responds to hypocritical complaints by turning the hive honest, many desires wane, the economy fails, and the society reverts to a more primitive state. Thus, Mandeville’s fable does not declare that individual vices are equal to public benefits. It apparently suggests that clever political leaders can use moral flaws to increase public good. Indeed, the extended title of the 1714 edition states that “Human Frailties” may “be turn’d to the Advantage of the Civil Society” and thereby “made to supply the place of Moral Virtues.” Even though Mandeville was a physician, his primary aim was to diagnose the ills of society and not to suggest cures. One significant departure from this stance was his A Modest Defence of Publick Stews (1724). After the Middlesex County Grand Jury declared The Fable a public nuisance (for allegedly supporting whoring), Mandeville presented a detailed plan for public management of prostitution. This piece (with its title recalling Jonathan SWIFT’s A Modest Proposal) may be at least partly ironic. Because of such irony throughout Mandeville’s works, many of his statements are subject to divergent interpretations. Some regard him as a pious moralist who attacks hypocrisy by pointing out ignoble motives behind apparently beneficent acts. Others see him as a cynic who argues that virtue simply does not exist, or even a libertine who actually sanctions vice. Although Mandeville’s values may be hard to pin down, his works clearly anticipate later concepts in psychology (like Freud’s notion of the id) and applications of modern political theory (like “sin taxes”).
Bibliography Chiasson, E. J., “B. M.: A Reappraisal,” PQ 49 (October 1970): 489–519; Cook, R. I., B. M. (1974); Harth, P., “The Satiric Purpose of The Fable of the Bees,” E-CS 2 (1969): 321–40; Munro, H., The Ambivalence of B. M. (1975)