The Fable of the Bees

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Now, by this he did not mean simply that all evil has a good side to it, and that this good outweighs the evil. His paradox turned, instead, on his definition of virtue. This definition was a reflection of two great contemporary currents of thought—the one ascetic, the other rationalistic. According to the first—a common theological position—virtue was a transcending of the demands of corrupt human nature, a conquest of self, to be achieved by divine grace.

According to the second, virtue was conduct in accord with the dictates of sheer reason. Thus, he combined an ascetic with a rationalistic creed. No contradiction was involved, for to Mandeville, in accord with much contemporary thought see below, i. Now, when Mandeville came to examine the world in the light of this formula, he could find no virtue: he discovered, search as he would, no actions—even the most beneficial—dictated entirely by reason and quite free from selfishness.

The affairs of the world are not managed in obedience to any such transcendent view of morality. If all actions were to cease except those due to unselfishness, the pure idea of good, or the love of God, trade would end, the arts would be unnecessary, and the crafts be almost abandoned. From the standpoint, therefore, of his rigoristic formula, everything was vicious. It was, accordingly, merely an obvious deduction that, since all is vicious, even things beneficial to us arise from vicious causes, and private vices are public benefits.

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The matter can also be put in this way. Mandeville decided upon the public results of private actions according to utilitarian standards. But he judged the private actions themselves according to an anti-utilitarian scheme, whereby conduct was evaluated, not by its consequences, but by the motive which gave it rise. In this case, only such deeds were virtuous as sprang from motives which fulfilled the demands of rigorism; the actual effect of conduct on human happiness made no difference.

And throughout the Fable he has been rather careful to use the words virtuous or vicious when applying the rigoristic criterion to motive, and other words when applying the utilitarian criterion to conduct. The paradox that private vices are public benefits is merely a statement of the paradoxical mixing of moral criteria which runs through the book. Mandeville, then, like Bayle, has elaborated the obvious incompatibility of the ascetic ideal of morality with any utilitarian standard of living, and of the rationalistic ideal of conduct with a true psychology.

By juxtaposing the contrary standards he has achieved a reductio ad absurdum of one or the other. Many people would say, of course, that Mandeville had demonstrated the absurdity of the Edition: current; Page: [ l ] rigoristic creed. They would say, If it be vice by which the good of the world is achieved, by all means let us be vicious, for viciousness of this kind is not wickedness but virtue. Mandeville, however, again like Bayle, did not accept this aspect of the reduction to absurdity; he did not admit that the usefulness of vice abolishes its wickedness.

Neither, however, in spite of the passage just cited, did he accept the other aspect of the reduction; he did not say that, since national prosperity is based on viciousness, we should cease to endeavour to gain this prosperity and should live lives of self-mortification. Although he held this up as the ideal of conduct, he argued equally forcibly that this ideal is quite impossible of achievement. What he really advised is the abandonment of the attempt. Since you will be wicked in any case, he said, whether your country is prosperous or not, you might as well be wicked and prosperous.

The Fable of the Bees Revised

So Mandeville outlined methods by which to achieve Edition: current; Page: [ li ] national happiness, but always with the proviso that all this happiness is wicked; that, if it were only possible, it would be better to abandon it. In this way, he managed to maintain with consistency that public benefits are and must be based on private vices.

Perhaps it may seem to some as if Mandeville must have been either a very dull or a very perverse man not to have seen that he had achieved a practical reductio ad absurdum of the rigoristic attitude and should therefore have abandoned a creed which he had found so irreconcilable with experience.

The ordinary man who says that right is right regardless of the consequences is taking the rigoristic position that it is obedience to principle, and not results, which determines right, and it needs only a development of this attitude to make him also maintain that private vice may become public good.

Place this Edition: current; Page: [ lii ] average man in a position where if he does not tell a lie a great public calamity will come about. Now, in so far as he believes that right is independent of its consequences, he must believe that the lie would remain vicious in spite of all the good it would do the State.

He must therefore in a sense believe that private vice here, the lie is a public benefit. The first is to vindicate Mandeville from the charge of obtuseness in the position which he took. The second is to show the still living interest of his thought. But which of the two contrary attitudes whose simultaneous presence had produced the Mandevillian paradox was really the one sympathetic to Mandeville? Did he really feel that only those actions were good which were done in accord with the dictates of a transcendent morality, or did he believe that the natural desires, whose need to society he had shown, were good?

Should we call him ascetic or utilitarian, worldly or unworldly? The question is crucial: and I believe it can be answered positively. Mandeville was fundamentally an empiricist, and an intense one. He will admit Revelation, formally, Edition: current; Page: [ liii ] but in such a way as to suggest that he does so only to avoid trouble with the authorities; and he then proceeds to negate the admission by denying the existence of even one instance of a man according his life with Revelation.

Certainly not, he would answer if thus asked; they have their roots in human nature and desire, and are as relative to the forces of nature as is the cultivation of a tulip. It is simply a final twist given to his thought after it has been worked out in harmony with the opposite or empiric viewpoint. It is a suit of clothes made for some one else which he has put on the living body of his thought.

It is a kind of candle-snuffer with which he has covered the light of his real persuasion, and has no more of the real flame of his genius than a candle-snuffer of candle-flame. He rejoices in destroying the ideals of those who imagine that there is in the world any real exemplification of the transcendent morality which he formally preaches.

He is delighted to find that the rigoristic creed which he has adopted is an absolutely impracticable one. His real bias appears constantly. Of Cleomenes, who serves as his avowed spokesman see ii.

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His very adoption of rigorism is in a way a means of satisfying his dislike of it. The stress he places on the irreconcilability of this rigorism with all the manifestations of civilization indirectly gratifies his disrelish of the former, just as his insistence on the absurdity of the biblical miracles from a scientific point of view satisfies his repugnance to them in the very act of apparently embracing them cf.

Thus a man unwillingly doing another a favour may console himself by dwelling on his self-abnegation.

The Fable of the Bees Tells the Story of Society

In addition, the very intensity of the rigorism which Mandeville adds to his thought is a means of discounting the rigorism. By making his ethical standards so exaggeratedly rigorous, he renders them impossible of observance, and therefore can and does discard them for the ordinary affairs of the world. Mandeville lacks one essential of a true believer in the insufficiency of the purely human: he does not believe in the existence of a superior something in comparison with which humanity is insignificant.

He is lacking in any religious feeling or idealism. His rejection of all absolute laws and knowledge, his Edition: current; Page: [ lv ] insistence on the animal facts of life—these are not the result of any rigoristic distrust of nature as it is, but of such complete faith in it that he feels no need for any beliefs by which to attempt to lift himself above it. When he says i. I do not, however, believe that Mandeville was attempting any conscious reductio ad absurdum of rigorism, whether or not he has achieved it. The rigoristic twist in his thought is too consistent for this supposition; it appears in all his major works, 1 and seems to have become a part of his mind.

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

The coupling of contradictory attitudes was, moreover, a prominent feature of the thought of the age 2 and still produces quite undeliberately the Mandevillian paradox. But the rigorism is certainly not in keeping with his natural tendencies. That is the important thing to remember. There is no such thing as a summum bonum.

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All such principles of conduct as honour are chimeras i. The inevitable differences between men render it impossible that any definite agreement should ever be reached as to what is really desirable. Shall we say that the pleasurable or useful shall form our ideal? If it were argued that there is disagreement here because one of the two is mistaken as to what really constitutes pleasure, Mandeville would answer that Edition: current; Page: [ lvii ] the objection was entirely arbitrary.

One cannot, therefore, discover any really definite and final agreement between men as to what shall constitute a summum bonum or criterion according to which to plan a system of morality. In the Works of Nature, Worth and Excellency are as uncertain [as the comparative value of paintings : and even in Humane Creatures what is beautiful in one Country is not so in another.

How whimsical is the Florist in his Choice! Sometimes the Tulip, sometimes the Auricula, and at other times the Carnation shall engross his Esteem, and every Year a new Flower in his Judgment beats all the old ones.

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