The World is Being Ruined by Virtue
Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733) remains one of the most influential philosophers ever to come out of The Netherlands. He became famous with The Fable of the Bees. Private Vices, Publick Benefits, on the basis of which he is now regarded as one of the founding fathers of liberalism.
Mandeville is commonly dismissed as either a cynic or an optimist, who believed that egotism in and of itself would lead to greater prosperity. In actual fact he was a realist. As a practising doctor who moved to England in 1693, he understood that few people are able to curb their passions and cravings. In any case, if everyone led a virtuous and ascetic life, the result would be social stagnation; it is only because of greed, ambition and vanity that people are prompted to think up new ideas.
Unlike Adam Smith, Mandeville did not believe in an ‘invisible hand’ that would ensure society automatically developed in the right direction. He believed that an important task of governments was to steer people’s egotistical passions. With this in mind he wrote A Modest Defence of Publick Stews, in which he claims that attempts to combat prostitution are so hopeless that the government would do better to take over the running of brothels. This would also make it easier to prevent undesirable consequences such as rape and venereal disease.
Like Spinoza and Machiavelli, Mandeville did not prescribe what people ought to be like but described how they actually are. From his profession he knew all about human weaknesses and was in a position to observe society with a clinical eye. In the Christian country that was the England of his day, his non-moralising essays won him innumerable enemies, who consistently referred to him as ‘Man-Devil’.
The fiercely incisive manner in which Mandeville attacks hypocrisy is impressive and deeply gratifying. Voltaire, unsurprisingly, reacted with particular enthusiasm to The Fable of the Bees. He produced his own poetic version of the same argument, Le Mondain, with its famous last line: ‘For paradise on earth is where I am.’
This first volume of Mandeville’s Collected Works includes the opening poem and the three main essays of The Fable of the Bees, as well as the argument for public brothels. The importance of the Collected Works lies primarily in the fact that translator Arne Jansen has brought together all Mandeville’s writings and further illuminated them with substantial introductions and notes, making accessible the legacy of one of the most remarkable and original Enlightenment thinkers.