Language, Ethics, and Economics, 9 November

Philosophical Subcategories = EPISTEMOLOGY; ETHICS; POLITICS:
Bees and . . . Language, Ethics, and Economics:

The honeybee, hive, and human society: economic and political:

The honeybee and the hive have served–both historically and philosophically–as metaphors for a kaleidoscopic array of social, economic, and political concepts, descriptions, and utopian hopes. This material can, of course, be approached from numerous angles and positions but I thought a very useful one to adopt for the November meeting was Bernard Mandeville’s controversial early eighteenth-century economic and moral polemical poem, The Grumbling Hive: or Knaves Turn’d Honest which very quickly expanded into a comprehensive and much reprinted book of additional and copious remarks and essays, under the title of The Fable of the Bees or Private Vices , Public Benefits. (see the relevant monthly blog pages for more textual information and analyses).

The titles and subtitles of this important work, in particular, reveal the approach taken and the reasons for the ensuing and longlived uproar from moralists, clergymen, philosophers and economists.

Very simply, Mandeville’s thesis was that when a hive of bees–and by extension, human society–decides that virtue, benevolence and honesty must and should prevail in all cases over vice and passionate behaviour, then commercial and prosperous society will collapse into a stationary and simple economy of few bees and greatly reduced production.

Such relentless satire and scepticism offended both the economic mercantilists– who theoretically believed in the preference and utility of amassing bullion and money via exports rather than imports; that all luxury imports must thus be a drain on home resources as well as finance, and should therefore be strongly (hypocritically?) discouraged–but also two contrasting moralist camps of the time.

These were: one, severe and ascetic moral discipline and the pursuit of virtue known as moral rigorism; and two, the third Lord Shaftsbury’s popular and celebrated doctrine of natural benevolence which posited that man is naturally altruistic and well-intentioned, even virtuous, just as long as reason is permitted to check anti-social tendencies and passions. The latter camp was known, unsurprisingly, as benevolism.

As expected, Mandeville’s pre-Freudian stress on the passions (he was a medical specialist of nervous disorders) and vices, as constituting the fundamental engine of economic prosperity and the catalyst for the creation of overall social and political wellbeing, still causes concern and dissent today, as it did then. And our group discussion proved to be no exception!

Nevertheless, philosophical relativism in this current secular postmodernist period has certainly seemed to produce more tolerance and flexibility of thinking–although not exclusively so when one translates Mandeville’s social and economic descriptions into modern consumer capitalism and liberal traditionalism.

For example, I also mentioned, in passing, Machiavelli’s legacy of political pragmatism, as, in my opinion, this remains clearly evident in the present climate of neoliberalism, privatisation, and corporate economic practices. These approaches, like Machiavelli’s, tend to stress authority, order and stability over morality, social justice, and thus meaningful “free” choice.

Due mainly to Jack Grassby’s absence from these two final group discussions arising from illness–from which we are happy to say he has since made a full recovery–we did not get around to further discussing the crucual role of verbal language in communication and epistemology–or rather, in the case of the bees, its absence. (Lacan will, alas, have to wait another time!)

Honeybees, of course–as we discovered in the earlier discussion on consciousness and intelligence, do communicate with each other, and in a highly variegated and sophisticated manner, via chemical pheromones, tactile and kinetic movements, and elecro-magnetic sensitivities, etc. Karl Von Frisch’s pioneering and classic experimentations in these respects–particularly the phenomenon of the “circular” and “waggle” dances that honeybees, returning from foraging, make in order to very accurately inform their companions as to the exact geographical whereabouts of the choicest nectar-bearing plants and flowers–were once again discussed briefly. (see the discussion material in month three)


Hi everybody: here is all you will need–and more– to be able to meaningfully join in the discussion on November 9th on Bernard Mandeville and his 1723 vastly influential and highly controversial Fable of the Bees or Private Vices, Public Benefits, originally published, in 1705, as a doggerel verse poem under the intriguing title of The Grumbling Hive: or, Knaves Turn’d Honest. This can be supplemented by anything from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, but especially Part II, Chap. XVII, and/or Plato’s The Republic , especially Book II. Sections 1: “First Principles of Social Organization”; and 2: “Civilized Society”.


Blogg post from Jack Grassby kindly sent to me on 10th November:

Thank you, Peter, for another interesting discussion – and for your clear and comprehensive introduction. This identified the two possible forms of society – a vice (and virtue?) free society which is static and uncreative (the Bees); or a vice (and virtue) laden society which is dynamic and creative (the human).

For me, the difference is the consequent of the human facility for language due to the distinctive architecture of the human brain. I wish there could have been time to discuss the ways in which language is the genesis of our ethics, values and beliefs (not to mention our economic system) and what, in consequence, is their ontological and epistemological status. We can see in the concept of social ‘vice’ an echo of the Christian story of Adam and Eve and The Fall, and we can recognise an expression of the classical philosophical question – to what extent does our psyche, with its concepts values an beliefs, arise from the innate function of the brain ( nature), and to what extent is it the consequence of some external influence (nurture). We can see this question answered in the ‘inner’ nature mode by Kant with his categorical imperative; with Hegel and his rational freedom; and with Freud and his ego, super ego and id. On the other hand, we can see an answer in the ‘outer’ nurture mode by Nietzsche, Heidegger and Marx. Nietzsche asserted that ‘we only continue to believe in God because of our grammar’, and Marx famously asserted ‘ our ideology does not produce our material reality, our material reality produces our ideology’. This question of the genesis (and the ontological and epistemological status) of our ethics and ideologies should prove a useful introduction for the final Bees discussion on Politics and Social Theory.

Best regards, Jack

Texts for the Group Discussion:

Article from Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies,
v.32, issue 3, 2009, pp.307-319

William Law and The Fable of the Bees
by Andrew Starkie

The Abstract: “Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees (1723), an influential work of moral and economic theory was decried as a libertine publication. The response of William Law to Mandeville, Remarks on the Fable of the Bees (1724), attacked the work on both the rational and the rhetorical level. Despite his reputation as a pious High-Churchman, Law was as adept as his opponent at employing the fashionable rhetoric of wit and irony. He appealed to Newtonian and Lockean ideas, and made alliance with Low-Church and Whig moralists in articulating a realist moral philosophy in opposition to Mandeville’s libertinism.”

Selections from the Phillip Harth edition of: The Fable of the Bees by Bernard Mandeville
Penguin edition, 1970
Introduction (excerpt), by Phillip Harth, editor pp.26-46
Preface (Mandeville) pp.53-59
Introduction & An Enquiry into the Origin of Moral Virtue (Mandeville) pp.76-95

The Revolt of the Bees: Wherein the Future of the Paper Hive is Declared (Edited by Aaaron Levy and Thaddeus Squire, 2005)

We will also be examining the historical and changing natures of the epistemelogical notion of information gathering, the assessment of knowledge, and the archiving of cultural publications, manuscripts, and artifacts, following metaphorical examples drawn from the activities and lifestyle of the honeybee and various representations of the hive as an inspirational concept.

The predominant source for this will be exhibition documents of The Revolt of the Bees: Wherein the Future of the Paper-Hive is Declared, edited by Aaron Levy and Thaddeus Squire, being an exhibition at The Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Pennsylvania, on display January-March, 2005.

These dozen pages of the brief texts exhibited in glass cases (vitrines) have been posted in the section for the 14th December discussion (Politics and Social Theory). Meantime, here are a few edited extracts which impinge more directly on November’s meeting–-although the entire set will also remain very relevant to our final meeting on the hive as a metaphor for social utopias.

The Revolt of the Bees and the Paper Hive

Exhibition Description:

“The Revolt of the Bees, Wherein the Future of the Paper Hive is Declared” is an exhibition that proposes a new culture of memory and archiving in the true spirit of the beehive. It takes as its starting point the assumption that modern memory is first of all archival, and that the beehive and the paper hive (an archive or library) both fancy themselves utopias in which modern memory is stored up, as honey or as knowledge. The exhibition is comprised of eleven lessons [and the preface] extracted from a larger examination of beehive metaphors in the rare book and manuscript collections of the University of Pennsylvania. These lessons envision the archive of the future as an organisation open to the infinite possibilities of its own becoming–an organization that is comfortable with its status as a living organism as well as with its own ultimate fragility and finitude. . .

Unlike the Futurists, who presupposed that radical change necessitates destructive procedures, The Revolt of the Bees translates the incendiary desires and ‘charred fingers’ of the Futurists into a purely conceptual framework and extreme metaphor of transformation as a way of rethinking our cultural obsession with permanence in all is forms . . . This exhibition explores theories of curatorial innovation and approaches curatorial practice as an evolving and future-orientated field, prompting questions such as how one might renew or reinvent an archival collection by constructing a new genealogy around a historical concept, and to whom or what the curator is ultimately responsible.

Vitine 4: The Hive desires to reproduce

‘Mr. Huber was aware of the dilemma into which he would be thrown by making the Queen Bee and the Drone copulate in the Hive; and he therefore gives her a roving commission to search the woods for her paramour.’–Robert Huish, A treatise on the nature, economy, and practical management of bees, London, 1817

‘In regard to the work now offered to the Public, ‘ Robert Huish explains [in the above work], ‘my aim has been. . . to render this Country independent of all foreign supply of the Produce of the Bee.’ Huish acknowledges the biological imperative of bees to sustain their species and, by extension, the agricultural imperative of aparian practices to the sustenance of the nation-state. Common bee-keeping practice at the time mandated killing the hive to harvest the honey. This essentially destructive agricultural practice, as well as states of general mismanagement, kept England dependent on imported honey. Huish envisioned that with proper management the productivity of domestic bee stocks could be made sufficient to meet or exceed demand, thus eliminating the dependence of England on foreign economies. . .

Among his many technical and methodological innovations aimed at countering ignorance and improper bee-keeping practices, Huish invented the hive that bears his name, from which honey combs can be extracted without killing the bees or hindering production and reproduction. Though Huish set out to develop more enlightened and technologically advanced methods for promoting apiculture by mitigating the negative effects of human intervention, his approaches to maximizing productivity remain fundamentally dependent upon positive intervention.

Contemporary practices, as exemplified by the archive and the internet, also tend toward unbridled abundance through processes of multiplication and accumulation, yet nevertheless require a degree of cultivation. The perpetuation of this dynamic process depends on a degree of prudent intervention, wherein carefully gag[u]ed barriers, orders and containments are constantly created and destroyed in the interest of sustaining the enterprise as a whole.

Vitrine 5: The Hive desires sustainability

‘The larvae, it appears, are esteemed a delicacy; for the historian tells us, that ‘when roasted and seasoned with salt, they have the taste and flavour of sweet almonds.’–Francois Huber in James Duncan, Bees: comprehending the uses and economical management of the honey-bee, London, 1852

For Francois Huber, in memoirs reprinted [in the above work], the tireless exploration of new culinary frontiers results in humankind becoming an apivorous or bee-eating threat to the hive. Around the time of Huber’s publication [see above], it was still widely accepted that the beekeeper must destroy the hive to harvest the honey and prevent the dreaded idea of Britain being overrun with bees. The success and sustainability of apiculture depended on balancing agricultural production with ongoing destruction of the animal suppliers.

Concerns about sustainability permeate our culture and our landscapes: [witness the proliferation of national libraries, museums, and the exponential growth of the Internet. [However]. . . it is arguable that contemporary libraries and museums are predicated on an almost pathololgical fear of the destruction of knowledge. They mitigate and postpone this threat through the ongoing creation and recreation of cultural memory in the form of heterogeneous archival and discursive practices. [But surely a delicate balance must always be maintained between conservation and destruction] . . . in the conviction that there can be no culture without some memory, and that memory, if not in origin, then in posterity, is a fundamentally shared and collective experience [?].

Vitrine 8: The Hive is cunning and mercurial

‘The Robbing-BEE, or Thief, boldly discovers his Purpose, as soon as he comes near the Hive, which he intends to assault, with a loud threatening Noise, proclaiming their Destruction if they shall resist.’–John Gedde, The English apiary, or, The compleat bee-master, London, 1721

Among the many threats faced by the hive, John Gedde [in the work above], describes the phenomenon of the robber-bee, whose devious assault threatens the integrity and productivity of the hive. Unlike other accounts in his time that call attention to external threats to the hive by other species, Gedde calls attention to threats from within their own species. Invariably, the hive’s ability to overcome this threat is dependent upon it being equally aggressive in its tactics of vigilance and defense. The sustainability and productivity of the enterprise of the robber-bee and that of the hive is dependent upon the successful deployment of tactical cunning. . .

In the Modernist avant-garde, ideas of duplicity and cunning may be read positively to suggest alternative modes of cultural engagement. Today, in the increasingly perceived absence of established traditions, practices that are predicated on, and in turn encourage, more reciprocally cunning and mercurial tactics of engagement, are more productive and provoking than ever. Richard Sennett . . . argues for a more anarchic museum experience that, rather than imparting knowledge, actively involves the spectator by presenting something to be judged. Engaging the spectator in a constant process of judgment makes possible a productively cunning and mercurial relationship between artists, organizations, and audiences.”

And here we return to very much where we started with Rudolf Steiner and avant-garde art and Joseph Beuys as this “exhibition takes as its emblematic image a photograph from 1977 of Joseph Beuys alongside his Honey Pump in the Workplace. This remarkable machine, constructed by the artist in the Fridericianum in Kassel, Germany for Documenta 6, pumped nearly 300 pounds of honey through a network of pipes traversing the exhibition building. As is the case with many of the rare books displayed in this exhibition, Beuys’ project is a microscopic metaphor for a utopian social system in which members of a well-ordered cooperative work together to cultivate, cleanse and restore life and society through the production and dissemination of honey and knowledge. ‘The blood that circulates in the body,’Beuys argued, ‘does the same work that the bee does in the bee-hive.’ ‘The person’, he similarly claimed, “is practically a swarm of bees as well, a bee-hive in fact.’” [from the exhibition preface]

Compare that with this from Steiner’s final December 22, 1923, lecture:

“You can really see, by looking at the escaping swarm of bees, an image of the human soul flying away from the body. Oh gentlemen, this is a grand sight to behold! There’s only a slight difference, in that the human soul has never reached the point of developing its powers sufficiently to create these little creatures. Within us there is continually the tendency to want to do this; we want to become many tiny creatures. We actually have within ourselves a tendency to continually want to change the form of things inside our bodies so that they become like crawling bacilli or bacteria, or like little bees, but we suppress this process before it happens.” (Bees by Rudolf Steiner, trans. Thomas Braatz, Anthroposphic Press, 1998, 156-157)]

Plato: The Republic (Translator, H.D.P.Lee: Penguin Books, 1955), Sections 368-374, pages 102-109

Plato’s “City of Pigs”:

H.D.P.Lee, in the above book, makes the following astute editorial comments by way of summary and clarification of the sections of Book II which deal:

a) With the first principles that Socrates and Glaucon and his brother Adeimantus can agree on as constituting a theoretical “simple life” based on the minimal necessities of life. (Glaucon afterwards protests that this is scarcely better than a “City of Pigs”–by virtue of its lacking all the luxuries of assumed civilised life);

b) With the much more preferable constituents of a civilised political, economic and social life, more populous, and with luxuries added via surplus production.

Starting from the two basic principles that men are not self-sufficient and therefore need to live together in society via mutual aid and also that it is better and much more efficient that everyone should concentrate on their particular aptitudes, (such aptitudes differing between everybody from birth–no allowance being made here for early socialisation and education),

a) “Socrates deals with first with what we should call the economic structure of society, though in a very simple form. He finds five main economic classes or functions: (1) Producers, agricultural or industrial, (2) Merchants, (3) Sailors and Shipowners etc., (4) Retail traders, (5) Wage-earners or manual labourers.

(Slaves are not mentioned, but their existence, it is clear, from elsewhere, is assumed. Plato would regard them as appendages to the classes he has defined rather than a separate class on their own.)

Socrates sketches, by way of a conclusion, the [kind of] life that the simplest form of society, organized on these lines, would lead. Though he professes to regard this primitive society as the ideal, the description is commonly regarded as an ironic parody of the ‘simple life’ theories of Plato’s day.” (op.cit., page 100)

[Socrates’ actual sketch of this vegetarian bucolic society is too delicious not to quote in full:

” So let us first consider how our citizens, so equipped, will live. They will produce corn, wine, clothes, and shoes, and will build themselves houses. In the summer they will for the most part work unclothed and unshod, in the winter they will be clothed and shod suitably. For food they will prepare wheat-meal or barley-meal for baking or kneading. They will serve splendid cakes and loaves on rushes or fresh leaves, and will sit down to feast with their children on couches of myrtle and bryony; and afterwards they will drink wine and pray to the gods with garlands on their heads, and enjoy each other’s company. And fear of poverty and war will make them keep the numbers of their families within their means.”]

b) “I say”, interrupted Gaucon, “that’s pretty plain fare for a feast, isn’t it?”

“You’re quite right, ” said I. ” I had forgotten; they will have a few luxuries. Salt, of course, and olive oil and cheese, and different kinds of vegetables from which to make various country dishes. And we must give them some dessert, figs and peas and beans, and myrtle-berries and acorns to roast at the fire as they sip their wine. So they will lead a peaceful and healthy life, and expect to die at a ripe old age, leaving their children to do the same in their turn.”

“Really, Socrates”, Glaucon commented, “you might be catering for a community of pigs!”

“And how would you do it, Glaucon?” I asked.

“Give them the ordinary comforts”, he replied. “Let them sit on chairs and eat off tables, and have normal civilized food.”

“All right”, I said, ” I understand. We are to study not only the origins of society, but also society when it enjoys the luxuries of civilzation. Not a bad idea, perhaps . . . For though the society we have described seems to me to be the true norm, just as a man in health is the norm, there’s nothing to prevent us, if you wish, studying one whose temperature luxury has raised. Such a society will not be satisfied with the standard of living we have described.” (The Republic, op.cit., pp 105-107)

So Socrates then “proceeds to add to society the refinements of civilization, and so to multiply the number of trades and occupations and to greatly increase the population. The increase in wealth and population will lead, inevitably, to war [via an addiction for territorial expansion and general aquisitiveness– which Socrates wryly observes to be the source of “most evil, individual or social”, p. 108] . . . “which means that we shall need a new class of soldiers to fight for us (the principle of specialization demands that they should be a separate class).

These soldiers or ‘Guardians’ Plato will develop into the ruling class of his state: they retain their military function but their function as governors soon overshadows it. Plato’s profession to regard the civilized society of this chapter (which would have seemed quite normal to the ordinary Athenian) as unhealthy is not merely ironic; the rest of The Republic contains, in effect, the reforms he proposes in order to reduce it to health. . . From this point onwards Plato’s main preoccupation is with the Guardian class (later to be subdivided into two); the producers, merchants, and others, who carry on the day-to-day economic life of society, are hardly mentioned again. Plato is concerned with government, and his interest therefore is almost entirely confined to the governing class.” (Lee, 106 and 109)

So: no surprises there then!

Niccolo Machiavelli: The Prince (Translator, George Bull: Penguin Books, 1961)

Like Plato’s utopian political quest for a real-life enlightened philosopher-king before him, that of Niccolo Machiavelli, as exemplified in his notorious book, The Prince, was doomed to practical failure. As Machiavelli lay dying in 1527, and despite Rome having just been sacked, the Medici government overthrown, and a second Florentine republic proclaimed, this last attempt of his beloved city to regain its civic liberty was doomed to be finally vanquished three years later by the intervention of Charles V, who helped the pope restore the Medici. Thus, Machiavelli’s dying eyes, it could be imagined, beheld the spectacle of the imminent total ruin of Italy.

However, if The Prince failed in its primary propagandistic and programmatic purpose, it succeeded in an even greater task, that of the foundation of a new science of statesmanship for which modern thought is very much indebted. This is due to the fact that the same passion which had inspired Machiavelli to exhort the liberation of Italy, also urged him to provide the invoked–if unsuitable–redeemer with a political system adequate to his enterprise. And like Plato’s theoretical dialogue, The Republic, this has withstood the practical vicissitudes of time and the march of historical political events.

The highly influential novelty of Machiavelli’s political system–which dominates all modern political and historical thinking to this very day–consists in the fact that he was the very first to view history and society as consisting in purely human and natural facts and secular terms, entirely free from supernatural and providential influence. Machiavelli conceived his system from a new Renaissance humanistic and scientific perspective and utilised a rational and inquisitive method; by so doing, he disentangled politics from its hitherto restraints of theology.

Like Mandeville to come, Machiavelli regarded politics as one thing and religion as quite another, and, although (as far as I am aware), he says nothing at all about economics per se (since this had yet to be conceived as a separate philosophical and quasi-scientic discipline), his shift in emphasis and viewpoint did introduce the ensuing and contentious ethical debate between private morality and the public benefits– or statesmanship.

Like Hobbes, a century and a half later–as we shall see below–Machiavelli’s starting point was the assumption that men, like nature, are subject to immutable laws and that men are always the same everywhere, being animated by the same passions that lead them fatally to the same decisions, acts and results. He states this unequivocably in another work, also written to “show the use that may be derived from history in politics”, The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy [Book III, 43].

From this assumption of unchanging human nature, Machiavelli derives two major conclusions:

1) that one can foresee the course of political developments by mediating upon the cycles and phases of historical events; and

b) essential to a statesman is not only the “experience of modern events and constant study of the past” but also the ability to exploit this knowledge in actual political actions. This is what is familiar to us today as historical and political “pragmatism”. Yet it was entirely innovative in Machiavelli’s day.

The Prince is a lucid and perfect–yet baldly unsentimental– exposition of the best way to exploit the lesson of history in politics. For, when undertaking his enterprises, the prince must turn to means imposed by the practices of other statesmen, above all, contemporaries. So urgent indeed was the subject of his treatise that, contrary to his usual custom of deriving examples from antiquity, Machiavelli rarely departed from contemporary history, to which belongs the personage most inspiring to The Prince, namely, Cesare Borgia. The image of the duke was transformed by Machiavelli’s passion: Borgia provided both the personification of his political ideas and the clue to the problem of morality in politics. How?

By a course of bloodshed and treason, Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI, under the title of Duke Valentino of Romagna, had, in 1503, ruthlessly slaughtered the hostile tyrants, Vitellozzo Vitelli, Oliverotto da Fermo, Signor Pagolo, and Duke di Gravina Orsini; and Machiavelli, in Romagna on official ambassadorial business, had witnessed this first-hand. It greatly impressed him, and while watching the duke engaged in a desperate struggle to become master of Romagna, Machiavelli first conceived his idea of a science of statecraft separated from and independent of traditional moral considerations. He was even sufficently moved to write a book specifically about this event after returning from Romagna and which, rather than giving an exact historical account, attempted to objectively establish the relation between an act of treason and bloodshed, and the tranquility that followed.

Machiavelli was convinced that that such criminal immorality necessarily arose from the urgent need to restore peace and order, and was thus vital to the prosperity of the state. Further, although the duke resorted to a cruel strategem, he had also clearly demonstrated that he had a prudent and marvelous talent for carrying out and accomplishing his plan and was therefore to be admired: Valentino had succeeeded, in Machiavelli’s view, in extirpating the most abominable tyrants of Romagna, and then managed to form a government that re-established order, tranquility, and prompt administration of justice among the inhabitants of the province–who, in turn, began to prosper and conceive affection for the new ruler. More importantly for political ethics, perhaps, Machiavelli also believed that, had Valentino shown any hesitation whatsoever, he would never have achieved the prosperous welfare of his state.

The lasting significance of all this is that from this single historical consideration, Machiavelli deduced that statecraft has ways and means of its own, which are entirely different from the ways and means of private morality.

Further, when the end is the welfare of the state there must be never be vaccilation, but daring adoptation of those measures which are demanded by the nature of events. Such measures will always be justified when the ends are obtained. This is the reversal of traditional theological morality concerning ends and means and its coldblooded and logical ruthlessness is what we instinctively find so repellent, not only in The Prince but also to some extant also in Plato’s The Republic and certainly in Hobbes’s Leviathan, as we shall soon see.

Put another way, Machiavelli firmly believed that he who achieves public good deserves as a prince everlasting glory, even if as a man he may be condemned for his cruelty. But when a prince hesitates, and through such hesitation damages his state, he must be considered wicked and incapable, even if the cause for being irresolute was a good one and as a private man he deserves the highest praise. This part of the theory, as we know, caused Machiavelli to be accused throughout the centuries of cruelty and immorality. But his accusers obviously failed to understand the autonomy of politics, which is the greatest novelty of his system.

From all that has been said above then, it is evident that, according to Machiavelli, politics not only is something detached from morality, but actually has a morality of its own. (We must also add here that this tradition underpins our view of both politics and economics to this very day– even though it is far too often assumed and exclaimed that these are quite different concepts. We too easily forget that, philosophically-speaking, politics and economics were part of the very same subsystem, namely, political economy or moral philosophy. Adam Smith, who is regarded, via his Wealth of Nations (1776), as the originator of the modern science and specialism of economics, held, after all, the Chair of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University, as he wrote his seminal tome.)

And so to close: with The Prince, we end up with the perennial philosophical problem of description versus prescription, of trying to move from an “is” factual statement to an “ought” proposition of value. This came to dominate moral philosophy. (Just witness a friend of Adam Smith, the philosopher David Hume’s later and much-publicised sceptical concerns in regard to both empiricism and causation and a priori rationalism).

There is little doubt that Machiavelli himself was aware of the fact that he was entering a road never before trod by anyone which “may lead me into trouble and difficulty, but may also be paved with gold” (Discourses, I, Pref). However, it should also be mentioned in his favour that he never seemed to prize cruelty in itself; instead, he sometimes seemed to regret having to depart from traditional moral principles. Nevertheless, he also strongly concluded that both objective observation of reality and careful study of the past, showed that men are “wicked, ungrateful, prone to dissimulation, afraid of danger, greedy of gain” (The Prince, XVII). Therefore, he believed that in public affairs it is rarely possible to respect the moral principles required of private individuals, “because human conditions do not allow it.”

Significantly, Hobbes was to agree with this assessment in every way and, like Machiavelli, was only concerned with the effective reality of things; life as it ought to be remained outside their spheres of consideration. (Mandeville would also repeatedly state very much the same thing in his much-reworked Fable, as we shall also soon come to appreciate).

Finally, all three men, plus Plato, were in total agreement that there is nothing superior to the state, that this is to be considered the highest achievement of man and the elaborate creation of his free will; and that one must love the state more than his or her own soul. Moreover, no consideration of justness or unjustness, of cruelty or pity, of praise or shame, is to interfere with the decision of saving the state and preserving its freedom.

This, in my view, is no less than proto-Hegelanism–and, what is more–by inference and logical comparison–if honeybees could speak, they would surely say exactly the same thing about the hive and their so-industrious honey-gathering activities.

Bernard Mandeville and The Fable of the Bees: or Private Vices and Public Benefits (1705-24) . (Edited with an introduction by Phillip Harth: Chivers-Penguin Library Edition, Middlesex, England, 1970)

Phillip Harth in his excellent introduction to the Chivers-Penguin edition of the Fable [see above for details], makes the following pertinent observation:

“Intellectual works which have won lasting recognition usually owe their importance to the influence they have exerted, at least for a time, on sympathetic readers. . . A few intellectual works, however, owe their importance far more to the controversy they excited and the opprobrium they earned than to any proselytes they were able to win. One thinks particularly of three works of this kind whose nororiety is the best measure of their influence: The Prince, Leviathan, and The Fable of the Bees.

By acting as irritants which contemporary readers found impossible to ignore, each of these books stimulated men to re-examine their ways of thought in order to justify their exasperation. In England, indeed, for a period of 200 years the authors of these three books appeared as successive embodiments of the Faust legend. Machiavelli for the Elizabethans, Hobbes for the subjects of Charles II, and Mandeville for eighteenth-century Englishmen became, each in his turn, a continuing figure of the perverse seeker after knowledge who serves the Father of Lies. . .

John Wesley, reading The Fable of the Bees for the first time, wrote in his journal: ‘Till now I imagined there had never appeared in the world such a book as the works of Machiavel. But de Mandeville goes far beyond it.’ To an anonymous eighteenth-century poet, indeed, his contemporary was Anti-Christ: ‘And, if GOD-MAN Vice to abolish came,/Who Vice commends, MAN-DEVIL be his Name.'”

This is the on-going moral, economic, and religious bruhaha we shall be examining in our next two group discussions, by concentrating on Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, but also briefly noting , in passing, the other two writers’ influence in the background–for all three have this in common: a cynical and negatively-realistic view of human nature in which self-regard is uppermost over self-denial and human vice seems just as important, if not, indeed, more important, than virtue, both as motivation and empirical fact, in human social and economic behaviour.

In short, psychological factors, irrational and passionate, and not just rational and considered ones, are regarded by all three as driving ethical, economic and political society. Honeybees and men are thus seen as basically selfish and the hive or the State as, concomitantly, prosperous and efficiently sociable: hence the delicious paradox of Mandeville’s subtitle, Or Private Vices, Public Benefits.

Such was the duration of the outrage caused by Mandeville’s work, both at home and abroad, that: “Seventy-five years after the appearance of the Fable, even Edward Gibbon [of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire fame], for all his hostility towards cherished beliefs, could find no greater commendation of William Law, the friend of his family, than that “on the appearance of the fable of the Bees he drew his pen against the licentious doctrine that private vices are public benefits, and morality as well as Religion”, he added, “must joyn in his applause.”–Memoirs of My Life, ed. Georges A. Bonnard (London, 1966), p.22, cited in Harth’s aforementioned introduction to the Chivers-Penguin edition, 1970, pp.13-14.


Our major question then for the November group discussion is: Where exactly do ethics and economics intersect and for what purpose?

The full extract of Manderville’s poem below is taken from a website of Maarten Maartensz: which I have edited for relevance and brevity. My editorial comments and additions are in square brackets : [ . . .]

The full text of the poem is also available at

HomePhilosophyMandeville – Fable of the Bees

1. What follows is the original 1705 text of one of the best and smartest satires ever written, by the Dutch Englishman Bernard Mandeville. In short, his thesis about the true causes of social welfare, social progress, riches and benefits is that these are all based on the human vices: People work out of greed, are polite out of self-interest and hypocrisy, keep the law from cowardice – and so on.

You get his basic argument in the form of a – didactic – poem. This may need a moment or two of getting used to, but Mandevile was a great writer, and the poem is quite amusing. Judge for yourself:

As Sharpers, Parasites, Pimps, Players, Pick-Pockets, Coiners, Quacks, Sooth-Sayers, [50] And all those, that, in Enmity With down-right Working, cunningly Convert to their own Use the Labour Of their good-natur’d heedless Neighbour: These were called Knaves; but, bar the Name, [55] The grave Industrious were the Same. All Trades and Places knew some Cheat, No Calling was without Deceit.

Mandeville also made a lot of remarks to his poem, in several editions.

2. The present edition of the poem of the Fable of the Bees (as it is known) has been on my site now since 2002. In the summer of 2009 I have uploaded my edition of Mandeville’s texts that he included in his editions of the Fable of the Bees.

Mandeville’s prose is as good (or even better) as his poetry, and in fact addresses many fundamental issues of morality and ethics (the two are empatically not the same: check the links, and also Normal Features of Moral Norms, all in my Philosophical Dictionary).

My source for this text is the excellent Liberty Foundation, where one can find many fine editions of many classical texts somehow concerned with human liberty in human society, and specifically these pages there concerning Mandeville and the Fable of the Bees.

That edition is very well done, and has some good introductions, many textual notes, and numbers relating to the original pagination of the edition they present, that I have mostly skipped, removed or not included, because I am especially interested in Mandeville’s own text in a readable edition, rather than in a scholarly one.

However, [all this material is very useful] if you are interested in Mandeville, especially in his personal background and in the criticism of his contemporaries, who were scandalized, tried to get him convicted by the law, styled him ‘Man-Devil’, and tried to answer him, almost always either without really understanding what he had written or else without wanting to understand him–though there were a few exceptions here, such as Bishop Berkeley and Bishop Butler.

By and large, and considering only well-known Englishmen who lived since Mandeville, only Dr. Johnson and John Maynard Keynes seem to have really appreciated his wit, courage, and insight into human beings and indeed Keynes devoted some four pages to Mandeville’s ideas in [his] “The General Theory of Empoyment, Interest and Money” [and Mandeville’s work was perhaps also the source for Keynes’s famous observation that we must avow that the moral drives of Classical Capitalism are the ignoble passions such as avarice and envy, but that this cannot be addressed yet for perhaps a hundred years–and certainly not until wealth has generally been created via its unfettered operations].

At the time of writing, I have not yet added my notes to Mandeville’s prose, but I have added links to Mandeville’s prose remarks to passages in his poem.

Also, readers interested in Mandeville should note that there [is still] a good edition of both the poem and the prose in Penguin Classics: Bernard Mandeville – The Fable of the Bees, edited with an introduction by Philipp Hart, first printed in 1970, and with a second edition in 1989.

This is a fine edition too, also with a good introduction by Hart, and with the same textual content as [remains on] my site now since the end of July 2009, but it is not quite the same edition of the same texts as I use, though the differences will be mostly of importance to specialists in Mandeville.

[Please also note that there is another excellent 1934 edition, edited and with a very full intoduction by Douglas Garman, and published by Wishart & Company, London, which has the added benefit of Mandeville's The First Dialogue between Horatio, Cleomenes, and Fulvia, being the first of six Dialogues that Mandeville first published in 1729, also under the title of The Fable of the Bees, but as Part II, which is very different in style and satiric effect.]

3. Although there are quite a few things I don’t quite agree with Mandeville, he seems to have been one of the few moralists who were willing to seriously consider the facts about the Yahoos [that] style themselves as Rational Animals, and are mostly halfly correct.

Maarten Maartensz last update: Apr 21 2011

The Grumbling Hive: or, Knaves Turn’d Honest

By Bernard Mandeville

Edited by Jack Lynch

Note on the text: The text is transcribed from the 1705 edition of The Grumbling Hive.

A SPACIOUS Hive well stock’d with Bees, That lived in Luxury and Ease; And yet as fam’d for Laws and Arms, As yielding large and early Swarms; Was counted the great Nursery [5] Of Sciences and Industry. No Bees had better Government, More Fickleness, or less Content. They were not Slaves to Tyranny, Nor ruled by wild Democracy; [10] But Kings, that could not wrong, because Their Power was circumscrib’d by Laws.

These Insects lived like Men, and all Our Actions they perform’d in small: They did whatever’s done in Town, [15] And what belongs to Sword, or Gown: Tho’ th’Artful Works, by nible Slight; Of minute Limbs, ‘scaped Human Sight Yet we’ve no Engines; Labourers, Ships, Castles, Arms, Artificers, [20] Craft, Science, Shop, or Instrument, But they had an Equivalent: Which, since their Language is unknown, Must be call’d, as we do our own. As grant, that among other Things [25] They wanted Dice, yet they had Kings; And those had Guards; from whence we may Justly conclude, they had some Play; Unless a Regiment be shewn Of Soldiers, that make use of none. [30]

Vast Numbers thronged the fruitful Hive; Yet those vast Numbers made ’em thrive; Millions endeavouring to supply Each other’s Lust and Vanity; Whilst other Millions were employ’d, [35] To see their Handy-works destroy’d; They furnish’d half the Universe; Yet had more Work than Labourers. Some with vast Stocks, and little Pains Jump’d into Business of great Gains; [40] And some were damn’d to Sythes and Spades, And all those hard laborious Trades; Where willing Wretches daily sweat, And wear out Strength and Limbs to eat: Whilst others follow’d Mysteries, [45] To which few Folks bind Prentices; That want no Stock, but that of Brass, And may set up without a Cross; As Sharpers, Parasites, Pimps, Players, Pick-Pockets, Coiners, Quacks, Sooth-Sayers, [50] And all those, that, in Enmity With down-right Working, cunningly Convert to their own Use the Labour Of their good-natur’d heedless Neighbour: These were called Knaves; but, bar the Name, [55] The grave Industrious were the Same. All Trades and Places knew some Cheat, No Calling was without Deceit.

The Lawyers, of whose Art the Basis Was raising Feuds and splitting Cases, [60] Opposed all Registers, that Cheats Might make more Work with dipt Estates; As were’t unlawful, that one’s own, Without a Law-Suit, should be known. They kept off Hearings wilfully, [65] To finger the retaining Fee; And to defend a wicked Cause, Examin’d and survey’d the Laws; As Burglars Shops and Houses do; To find out where they’d best break through. [70]

Physicians valued Fame and Wealth Above the drooping Patient’s Health, Or their own Skill: The greatest Part Study’d, instead of Rules of Art, Grave pensive Looks, and dull Behaviour; [75] To gain th’Apothecary’s Favour, The Praise of Mid wives, Priests and all, That served at Birth, or Funeral; To bear with th’ever-talking Tribe, And hear my Lady’s Aunt prescribe; [80] With formal Smile, and kind How d’ye, To fawn on all the Family; And, which of all the greatest Curse is, T’endure th’Impertinence of Nurses.

Among the many Priests of Jove, [85] Hir’d to draw Blessings from Above, Some few were learn’d and eloquent, But Thousands hot and ignorant: Yet all past Muster, that could hide Their Sloth, Lust, Avarice and Pride; [90] For which, they were as famed, as Taylors For Cabbage; or for Brandy, Sailors: Some meagre look’d, and meanly clad Would mystically pray for Bread, Meaning by that an ample Store, [95] Yet lit’rally receiv’d no more; And, whilst these holy Drudges starv’d, Some lazy Ones, for which they serv’d, Indulg’d their Ease, with all the Graces Of Health and Plenty in their Faces. [100]

The Soldiers, that were forced to fight, If they survived, got Honour by’t; Tho’ some, that shunn’d the bloody Fray, Had Limbs shot off, that ran away: Some valiant Gen’rals fought the Foe; [105] Others took Bribes to let them go: Some ventur’d always, where ’twas warm; Lost now a Leg, and then an Arm; Till quite disabled, and put by, They lived on half their Salary; [110] Whilst others never came in Play, And staid at Home for Double Pay.

Their Kings were serv’d; but Knavishly Cheated by their own Ministry; Many, that for their Welfare slaved, [115] Robbing the very Crown they saved: Pensions were small, and they lived high, Yet boasted of their Honesty. Calling, whene’er they strain’d their Right, The slipp’ry Trick a Perquisite; [120] And, when Folks understood their Cant, They chang’d that for Emolument; Unwilling to be short, or plain, In any thing concerning Gain: For there was not a Bee, but would [125] Get more, I won’t say, than he should; But than he dared to let them know, That pay’d for’t; as your Gamesters do, That, tho’ at fair Play, ne’er will own Before the Losers what they’ve won. [130]

But who can all their Frauds repeat! The very Stuff, which in the Street They sold for Dirt t’enrich the Ground, Was often by the Buyers sound Sophisticated with a Quarter [135] Of Good-for-nothing, Stones and Mortar; Tho’ Flail had little Cause to mutter, Who sold the other Salt for Butter.

Justice her self, famed for fair Dealing, By Blindness had not lost her Feeling; [140] Her Left Hand, which the Scales should hold, Had often dropt ’em, bribed with Gold; And, tho’ she seem’d impartial, Where Punishment was corporal, Pretended to a reg’lar Course, [145] In Murther, and all Crimes of Force; Tho’ some, first Pillory’d for Cheating, Were hang’d in Hemp of their own beating; Yet, it was thought, the Sword the bore Check’d but the Desp’rate and the Poor; [150] That, urg’d by mere Necessity, Were tied up to the wretched Tree For Crimes, which not deserv’d that Fate, But to secure the Rich, and Great.

Thus every Part was full of Vice, [155] Yet the whole Mass a Paradice; Flatter’d in Peace, and fear’d in Wars They were th’Esteem of Foreigners, And lavish of their Wealth and Lives, The Ballance of all other Hives. [160] Such were the Blessings of that State; Their Crimes conspired to make ’em Great; And Virtue, who from Politicks Had learn’d a Thousand cunning Tricks, Was, by their happy Influence, [165] Made Friends with Vice: And ever since The worst of all the Multitude Did something for the common Good.

This was the State’s Craft, that maintain’d The Whole, of which each Part complain’d: [170] This, as in Musick Harmony, Made Jarrings in the Main agree; Parties directly opposite Assist each oth’r, as ’twere for Spight; And Temp’rance with Sobriety [175] Serve Drunkenness and Gluttonny.

The Root of evil Avarice, That damn’d ill-natur’d baneful Vice, Was Slave to Prodigality, That Noble Sin; whilst Luxury. [180] Employ’d a Million of the Poor, And odious Pride a Million more Envy it self, and Vanity Were Ministers of Industry; Their darling Folly, Fickleness [185] In Diet, Furniture, and Dress, That strange, ridic’lous Vice, was made The very Wheel, that turn’d the Trade. Their Laws and Cloaths were equally Objects of Mutability; [190] For, what was well done for a Time, In half a Year became a Crime; Yet whilst they alter’d thus their Laws, Still finding and correcting Flaws, They mended by Inconstancy [195] Faults, which no Prudence could foresee.

Thus Vice nursed Ingenuity, Which join’d with Time; and Industry Had carry’d Life’s Conveniencies, It’s real Pleasures, Comforts, Ease, [200] To such a Height, the very Poor Lived better than the Rich before; And nothing could be added more:

How vain is Mortals Happiness! Had they but known the Bounds of Bliss; [205] And, that Perfection here below Is more, than Gods can well bestow, The grumbling Brutes had been content With Ministers and Government. But they, at every ill Success, [210] Like Creatures lost without Redress, Cursed Politicians, Armies, Fleets; Whilst every one cry’d, Damn the Cheats, And would, tho’ Conscious of his own, In Others barb’rously bear none. [215]

One, that had got a Princely Store, By cheating Master, King, and Poor, Dared cry aloud; The Land must sink For all its Fraud; And whom d’ye think The Sermonizing Rascal chid? [220] A Glover that sold Lamb for Kid.

The last Thing was not done amiss, Or cross’d the Publick Business; But all the Rogues cry’d brazenly, Good Gods, had we but Honesty! [225] Merc’ry smiled at th’Impudence; And Others call’d it want of Sence, Always to rail at what they loved: But Jove, with Indignation moved, At last in Anger swore, he’d rid [230] The bawling Hive of Fraud, and did. The very Moment it departs, And Honsty fills all their Hearts; There shews ’em, like the Instructive Tree, Those Crimes, which they’re ashamed to see? [235] Which now in Silence they confess, By Blushing at their Uglyness; Like Children, that would hide their Faults, And by their Colour own their Thoughts; Imag’ning, when they’re look’d upon, [240] That others see, what they have done.

But, Oh ye Gods! What Consternation, [illeg.] vast and sudden was the Alteration! In half an Hour, the Nation round, Meat fell a Penny in the Pound. [245] The Mask Hypocrisie’s [illeg.] down, From the great [illeg.] And some, in [illeg.] known, Appear’d like Strangers in their own. The Bar was silent from that Day; [250] For now the willing Debtors pay, Even what’s by Creditors forgot; Who quitted them, who had it not. Those, that were in the Wrong, stood mute, And dropt the patch’d vexatious Suit. [255] On which, since nothing less can thrive, Than Lawyers in an honest Hive, All, except those, that got enough, With Ink-horns by their Sides trooped off.

Justice hang’d some, set others free; [260] And, after Goal-delivery, Her Presence be’ng no more requier’d, With all her Train, and Pomp retir’d. First marched ‘some Smiths, with Locks and Grates, Fetters, and Doors with Iron-Plates; [265] Next Goalers, Turnkeys, and Assistants: Before the Goddess, at some distance, Her cheif and faithful Minister Squire Catch, the Laws great Finisher, Bore not th’imaginary Sword, [270] But his own Tools, an Ax and Cord; Then on a Cloud the Hood-wink’d fair Justice her self was push’d by Air: About her Chariot, and behind, Were Sergeants, ‘Bums of every kind, [275] Tip-Staffs, and all those Officers, That squeese a Living out of Tears.

Tho’ Physick liv’d, whilst Folks were ill, None would prescribe, but Bees of Skill; Which, through the Hive dispers’d so wide, [280] That none of ’em had need to ride, Waved vain Disputes; and strove to free The Patients of their Misery; Left Drugs in cheating Countries grown, And used the Product of their own, [285] Knowing the Gods sent no Disease To Nations without remedies.

Their Clergy rouz’d from Laziness, Laid not their Charge on Journey-Bees; But serv’d themselves, exempt from Vice, [290] The Gods with Pray’r and Sacrifice; All those, that were unfit, or knew, Their Service might be spared, withdrew; Nor was their Business for so many, (If th’Honest stand in need of any.) [295] Few only with the High-Priest staid, To whom the rest Obedience paid: Himself, employ’d in holy Cares; Resign’d to others State Affairs: He chased no Starv’ling from his Door, [300] Nor pinch’d the Wages of the Poor: But at his House the Hungry’s fed, The Hireling finds unmeasur’d Bread, The needy Trav’ler Board and Bed.

Among the King’s great Ministers, [305] And all th’inferiour Officers The Change was great; for frugally They now lived on their Salary. That a poor Bee should Ten times [illeg.] To ask his Due, a [illeg.] Sun, [310] And by some well [illeg.] To give a Crown, or ne’er be [illeg.] Would now be called a down-right [illeg.] Tho’ formerly a Perquisite. All Places; managed first by Three, [315] Who watch’d each other’s Knavery, And often for a Fellow-feeling, Promoted, one anothers Stealing, Are happily supply’d by one; By which some Thousands more are gone. [320]

No Honour now could be content, To live, and owe for what was spent. Liveries in Brokers Shops are hung, They part with Coaches for a Song; Sell Stately Horses by whole Sets; [325] And Country Houses to pay Debts.

Vain Cost is shunn’d as much as Fraud; They have no forces kept Abroad; Laugh at the Esteem of Foreigners, And empty Glory got by Wars; [330] They fight but for their Country’s Sake, When Right or Liberty’s at Stake.

Now mind the glorious Hive, and see, How Honesty and Trade agree: The Shew is gone, it thins apace; [335] And looks with quite another Face, For ’twas not only that they went, By whom vast Sums were Yearly spent; But Multitudes, that lived on them, Were daily forc’d to do the same. [340] In vain to other Trades they’d fly; All were o’re-stocked accordingly.

The Price of Land, and Houses falls Mirac’lous Palaces, whose Walls, Like those of Thebes, were raised by Play, [345] Are to be let; whilst the once gay, Well-seated Houshould Gods would be More pleased t’expire in Flames, than see; The mean Inscription on the Door Smile at the lofty Ones they bore. [350] The Building Trace is quite destroy’d, Artificers are not employ’d; No Limner for his Art is famed; Stone-cutters, Garvers are not named.

Those, that remain’d, grown temp’rate, strive, [355] So how to spend; but how to live; And, when they paid the Tavern Score, Resolv’d to enter it no more: No Vintners Jilt in all the Hive Could wear now Cloth of Gold and thrive; [360] Nor [illeg.]; such vast sums advance, For Burgundy and [illeg.]; The Courtier’s gone, that with his Miss Supp’d at his House on Christmass Peas; Spending as much in two Hours stay, [365] As keeps a Troop of Horse a Day.

The Haughty Chloe; to live Great, Had made her Husband rob the State: But now she sells her Furniture, Which the Indies had been ransack’d for; [370] Contracts the expensive Bill of Fare, And wears her strong Suit a whole Year: The slight and fickle Age is past; And Cloaths, as wel as Fashions last. Weavers that ioyn’d rich Silk with [illeg.], [375] And all the Trades subordinate, Are gone. Still Peace and Plenty reign, And every thing is cheap, tho’ plain; Kind Nature, free from Gard’ners Force, Allows all Fruits in her own Course; [380] But Rarities cannot be had, Where Pains to get ’em are not paid.

As Pride and Luxury decrease, So by degrees they leave the Seas, Not Merchants now; but Companies [385] Remove whole Manufacturies. All Arts and Crafts neglected lie; Content the Bane of Industry, Makes ’em admire their homely Store, And neither seek, nor covet more. [390]

So few in the vast Hive remain; The Hundredth part they can’t maintain Against th’Insults of numerous Foes; Whom yet they valiantly oppose; Till some well-fenced Retreat is found; [395] And here they die, or stand their Ground, No Hireling in their Armies known; But bravely fighting for their own; Their Courage and Integrity At last were crown’d with Victory. [400] They triumph’d not without their Cost, For many Thousand Bees were lost. Hard’ned with Toils, and Exercise They counted Ease it self a Vice; Which so improv’d their Temperance, [405] That to avoid Extravagance, They flew into a hollow tree, Blest with content and Honesty.


THEN leave Complaints: Fools only strive To make a Great an honest Hive. [410] T’enjoy the World’s Conveniencies, Be famed in War, yet live in Ease Without great Vices, is a vain Eutopia seated in the Brain. Fraud, Luxury, and Pride must live; [415] {Whilst] we the Benefits receive. Hunger’s a dreadful Plague no doubt, Yet who digests or thrives without? Do we not owe the Growth of Wine To the dry, crooked, shabby Vine? [420] Which, whist its [Schutes] neglected [st]ood, Choak’d other Plants, and ran to Wood; But blest us with his Noble Fruit; As soon as it was tied, and cut: So Vice is beneficial found, [425] When it’s by Justice [lopt], and bound; Nay, where the People would be great, As necessary to the State, At Hunger is to make ’em eat. Bare Vertue can’t make Nations live [430] In Splendour; they, that would revive A Golden Age, must be as free, For Acorns, as for Honesty.

Mandeville has [for a longtime] struck me as almost the only Dutchman, next to Erasmus and Multatuli, who really understood men and women on average, and was not afraid to write it out.

Readers who are interested in realities, not delusions, concerning human psychology (on average) and human motivation (on average) should consult modern writers like Orwell, Goffman, Milgram and Zinoviev, who belong to the few willing and able to face the facts about human nature, on average, and might be interested in checking out my “A fundamental problem in ethics and morals“, that addresses these facts and that problem.

Leviathan: Or The Matter, Form, And Power Of A Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical And Civil, by Thomas Hobbes (Everyman’s Library. No. 691, J.M.Dent & Sons Ltd: New York, 1914/1970), 87-90

Mandeville and Hobbes’s Leviathan, Chap. XVII

The reasons for the unparalled reaction we have noted above by such as William Law and his friend, the historian Edward Gibbon–to name but two amongst legions–were basically twofold: Mandeville defended vice and luxury as constituting the motor of economic growth via increased consumption of both goods and services; and he also denied any constructive role to virtue in social and economic efficency, baldly stating that religion was one thing and trade (or economics) quite another. He thus angered religionists– but also the mercantilist economists of his day.

William Law was much more concerned with the religious and ethical side of the argument and we will be examining this in class next time via Starkie’s article. Here, however, I would like to concentrate upon the economic and social cohesion/growth side.

A good place to begin is with Hobbes’s Leviathan as Starkie, at the end of the above article neatly terms Mandeville’s outlook as constituting “repackaged Hobbism” and we need to be clear about what this means if we are to understand both thrusts of Mandeville’s attack in The Fable of the Bees during these last two discussions on political economy.

Hobbes emphatically believed that mankind’s passionate and irrational nature–whereby, in his thesis, self-love inevitably leads to violent and destructive anarchy in an unregulated state of nature lacking consensual/contractual civil direction–meant that civilised society and peace and prosperity–which allows the exercise of what he considered to be immutable Laws of Nature–is only possible via absolutist and authoritarian governmental control.

At first sight, Mandeville seems to support this bleak outlook in both The Grumbling Hive and the prose essay in the later The Fable of the Bees, namely, An Enquiry into the Origin of Moral Virtue, as well as in the copious expanded Remarks of this 1714 second edition of the original poem. However, when we look a little more closely, Mandeville, in the verse fable, is very specific in describing “a flourishing beehive which is like the England of his own day in every respect, even to the unique advantage of being ‘happily governed by a limited Monarchy.'”[Harth’s Introduction, pages 15-16]. Nevertheless, Mandeville also makes his central thesis– that the happiness and prosperity of the hive depends on the plethora of vices and crimes he minutely describes– abundantly clear: “Thus every Part was full of Vice,/Yet the whole Mass a Paradice,” which anticipates his later and more famous epithet of “Private Vices, Publick Benefits”, previously mentioned above.

To make this paradox explicit, we need to realise that Mandeville, unlike Hobbes, asserts that all such human vices and nefarious practices and immorality, originating in turn from human passions, actually create “full employment, which is the basis of national prosperity, and a brisk trade, which is necessary to its continuance. . . The commision of crime, for example, is responsible for keeping whole multitudes at work: lawyers, gaolers, turnkeys, sergeants, bailiffs, tipstaffs, locksmiths, ‘and all those Officers,/That squeeze a Living out of Tears.’ As for the vices of luxury, avarice, prodigality, pride, envy, and vanity displayed by the more respectable members of the community, these promote trade by creating wants which it is the business of merchants, tradesmen, and manufacturers to supply.” (Harth, Introduction, 17).

Furthemore, Mandeville dramatically reverses the moral lesson expected in such moral fables, whereby the immoral and viscious are punished for their crimes, by making the knaves hypocritically and successfully beseech divine intervention to help them become honest: the result being that the “ensuing absence of crimes that create employment and of vices that foster trade, [means that] the professions decay, commerce dwindles, thousands of unemployed emigrate, and the hive’s prosperity comes to an end.” (Harth, op.cit). The corrupt bees are thus forced “to accept as a blessing the honest poverty which is their secret aversion. ‘Then leave Complaints’ advises the ‘Moral’ to the poem, ‘Fools only strive/To make a great an honest Hive.’

As Mandeville was to explain later, the satire of The Grumbling Hive was written ‘to expose the Unreasonableness and Folly of those, that desirous of being an opulent and flourishing People, and wonderfully greedy after all the Benefits they can receive as such, are yet always murmuring at and exclaiming against those Vices and Inconveniences, that from the beginning of the World to this present day, have been inseperable from all Kingdoms and states that ever were fam’d for Strength, Riches and Politeness at the same time.” (Harth, 18)

In other words, without such vice, a state might well be happy but it will necessarily be small and economically uncompetitive [the vision and ideal, one might say, of the Tao rather than that of modern Capitalism].

We will, hopefuly, be discussing further in class how Mandeville set such thinking in the context of the Mercantalist economic assumptions of his day which required close Governmental oversight, intervention and regulation–all of which are so alien to our contemporary neoliberal laissez-faire market notions–but we must first be very clear that he regarded mixing ethics with economics as anathema. Witness, Harth, in his Introduction one last time:

“Mandeville, however, has nothing but contempt for the popular notion that economics and morality are natural allies. ‘Religion is one thing and Trade is another’, he declares in A Search into the Nature of Society’ [added to the 1723 third edition of The Fable of the Bees]. So far are these two from any harmonious alliance that they actually contradict each other. The ideals proclaimed by religion and morality, he insists in remark Q, would, if adopted, produce a ‘State of slothful Ease and stupid Innocence’ incompatible with national prosperity, since ‘all the Cardinal Virtues together won’t so much as procure a tolerable Coat or a Porridge Pot among ’em’.

It is a popular fallacy, he points out in Remark M, to suppose ‘that without Pride or Luxury, the same things might be eat, wore, and consumed, the same number of Handicrafts and Artificers employ’d, and a Nation be every way as flourishing as where those Vices are the most predominant.’ A people must choose between moral virtue and economic greatness, Mandeville insists without presuming to direct their choice, and having decided in favour of one alternative, they ought not to lament the absence of the other.” (op.cit, 23)

Finally, we have seen briefly above that Plato assumed two things as being fundamental to any society–even a simple one as described in his “City of Pigs” in Part Two of The Republic–namely, mutual need and differences of aptitude among mankind which necessitate specialisation and division of labour. Not so Thomas Hobbes, who takes the diametrically opposite view that both primitive society (the familiar State of Nature concept) and his Commonwealth or Civitas (comparable to Plato’s evolved Civilised Polis after luxuries have been introduced), are entirely artificial and in no way natural. Hobbes also, unlike Mandeville’s effective use of the imagery of the beehive to illustrate human societal organisation, regards bees as wholly different to mankind and the hive thus wholly irrelevant as a guide to human social and political organization. Hobbes stresses the crucial role of human verbal language in this:

“It is true, that certain living creatures, as Bees, and Ants, live sociably with one another, (which are therefore by Aristotle numbered amongst Politicall creatures;) and yet have no other direction, than their particular judgements and appetites; nor speech, whereby one of them can signifie to another what he thinks expedient for the common benefit: and therefore some man may perhaps desire to know, why Man-kind cannot do the same. To which I answer,

First, that men are continually in competition for Honour and Dignity, which these creatures are not; and consequently amongst men there ariseth on that ground, Envy and hatred, and finally Warre; but amongst these not so.

Secondly, that amongst these creatures, the Common good differeth not from the Private; and being by nature enclined to their private, they procure thereby the common benefit. But man, whose Joy consisteth in comparing himselfe with other men, can relish nothing but what is eminent.

Thirdly, that these creatures, having not (as man) the use of reason, do not see, nor think they see any fault, in the administration of their common business: whereas amongst men, there are very many, that thinke themselves wiser, and abler to govern the Publique, better than the rest; and these strive to reforme and innovate, one this way, another that way; and thereby bring it into Distraction and Civill warre.

Fourthly, that these creatures, though they have some use of voice, in making knowne to one another their desires, and other affections; yet they want that art of words, by which some men can represent to others, that which is Good, in the likeness of Evill; and Evill, in the likeness of Good; and augment, or diminish the apparent greatnesse of Good and Evill; discontenting men, and troubling their Peace at their pleasure.

Fiftly, irrationall creatures cannot distinguish betweene Injury, and Damage; and therefore as long as they be at ease, they are not offended with their fellowes: whereas Man is then most troublesome, when he is most at ease; for then it is that he loves to shew his Wisdome, and controule the Actions of them that governe the Common-wealth.

Lastly, the agreement of these creatures is Naturall; that of men, is by Covenant only, which is Artificiall; and therefore it is no wonder if there be somewhat else required (besides Covenant) to make their Agreement constant and lasting; which is a Common Power, to keep them in awe, and to direct their actions to the Common Benefit.” ( Hobbes, Leviathan, Part II, Chap. XVII, 88-89)

Mandeville also believes the educational and controlling role of artful government to be crucial for the continuing consumptive stability and prosperous growth of the state for he concludes his essay A Search into the Nature of Society with the following words: “Private Vices by the dextrous management of a skilful Politician may be turn’d into Public Benefits”– but, as we have seen, he arrived at this conclusion by quite a different argument from Hobbes. So: are these two separate conclusions the same thing?

Hobbes, as we have seen, regarded human language as the major problem and stumbling block of sociability and politics, whereas Mandeville saw it as the cultural, rhetorical, and, above all, political key to success and prosperity. In our own day, Postmodernism, ever since Wittgenstein as we know, appears to have left us with only words in order to philosophise and to make sense of the world. So are these very useful, efficient, or even helpful? Is the pen mightier than the sword or is Thrasymachus, in Plato’s The Republic, correct after all, in insisting that “might is always right”? And does this therefore support, or perhaps, vindicate, Machiavelli, for his political pragmatism and cynicism expressed in The Prince?

These are the sort of questions we shall try to examine in our next group discussion on Sat. 9th November. See you all then, bright and early (10:30 a.m, at the Lit & Phil!

Hemlockian 34 (Peter Tooth)


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