Bernard de Mandeville, (born November 1670, Rotterdam, Neth.—died Jan. 21, 1733, Hackney, London, Eng.), Dutch prose writer and philosopher who won European fame with The Fable of the Bees.
Mandeville graduated in medicine from the University of Leiden in March 1691 and started to practice but very soon went abroad. Arriving in England to learn the language, he “found the Country and the Manners of it agreeable” and settled in London. In 1699 he married an Englishwoman, with whom he had two children. His professional reputation in London was soon established, and he attracted the friendship and patronage of important persons.
Mandeville’s first works in English were burlesque paraphrases from the 17th-century French poet Jean de La Fontaine and the 17th-century French writer Paul Scarron.
His most important work was The Fable of the Bees, a poem originally published in 1705 under the title The Grumbling Hive, or Knaves Turn’d Honest (two hundred doggerel couplets). In The Grumbling Hive Mandeville describes a bee community thriving until the bees are suddenly made honest and virtuous. Without their desire for personal gain their economy collapses and the remaining bees go to live simple lives in a hollow tree, thus implying that without private vices there exists no public benefit.
The 1714 edition of The Fable of the Bees, was subtitled Private Vices, Publick Benefits and consisted of a preface, the text of The Grumbling Hive, an “Enquiry into the Origin of Moral Virtue,” and “Remarks” on the poem. The 1723 edition included an examination of “The Nature of Society” and provoked a long controversy. The 1729 edition remodeled the entire argument to suit Mandeville’s philosophical commitment but nevertheless retained something of the original purpose of diverting readers.
Mandeville’s argument in The Fable, a paradoxical defense of the usefulness of “vices,” is based on his definition of all actions as equally vicious in that they are all motivated by self-interest. Yet while the motives must be vicious, the results of action are often socially beneficial, since they produce the wealth and comforts of civilization.
Mandeville’s philosophy gave great offence at the time, and has always been stigmatised as false, cynical and degrading. His main thesis is that the actions of men cannot be divided into lower and higher. The higher life of man is a mere fiction introduced by philosophers and rulers to simplify government and the relations of society. In fact, virtue (which he defined as “every performance by which man, contrary to the impulse of nature, should endeavour the benefit of others, or the conquest of his own passions, out of a rational ambition of being good”) is actually detrimental to the state in its commercial and intellectual progress. This is because it is the vices (i.e., the self-regarding actions of men) which alone, by means of inventions and the circulation of capital (economics) in connection with luxurious living, stimulate society into action and progress.
Mandeville is today generally regarded as a serious economist and philosopher. His second volume of The Fable of the Bees in 1729 was a set of six dialogs that elaborated on his socio-economic views. His ideas about the division of labor draw on those of William Petty, and are similar to those of Adam Smith. Mandeville says:
“When once Men come to be govern’d by written Laws, all the rest comes on a-pace. Now Property, and Safety of Life and Limb, may be secured: This naturally will forward the Love of Peace, and make it spread. No number of Men, when once they enjoy Quiet, and no Man needs to fear his Neighbour, will be long without learning to divide and subdivide their Labour…
Man, as I have hinted before, naturally loves to imitate what he sees others do, which is the reason that savage People all do the same thing: This hinders them from meliorating their Condition, though they are always wishing for it: 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…
The truth of what you say is in nothing so conspicuous, as it is 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 poem suggests many key principles of economic thought, including division of labor and the invisible hand, seventy years before these concepts were more thoroughly elucidated by Adam Smith. Two centuries later, John Maynard Keynes cited Mandeville to show that it was “no new thing … to ascribe the evils of unemployment to … the insufficiency of the propensity to consume”, a condition also known as the paradox of thrift, which was central to his own theory of effective demand.