V. OF BEES AND MEN

Two minor figures stop us on our way to David Hume.

Bernard Mandeville was a London physician of French ancestry and Dutch birth, who published in 1705 a sixpenny ten-page pamphlet in rollicking verse, The Grumbling Hive. Its theme was a paradox: that the prosperity of the hive is due to the vices of the individual bees—to their selfish greed, reproductive ecstasy, and collective pugnacity. Applying the paradox to the human hive, the impish doctor held that the wealth and strength of the state depend not upon the virtues of its citizens but upon those vices which grumbling moralists foolishly condemn. For let us imagine what would happen if all acquisitiveness, vanity, dishonesty, and pugnacity were suddenly to end—if men and women ate only so much food as they required, wore only so much clothing as would suffice to protect them against the elements, never cheated or injured one another, never quarreled, always paid their debts, scorned luxuries, and were faithful to their mates. At once the whole society would come to a standstill: the lawyers would starve, the judges would be left without cases or bribes, doctors would waste away for lack of patients, winegrowers would go bankrupt, taverns would fail for lack of tipplers, millions of artisans producing fancy foods, ornaments, raiment, or houses would be thrown out of work, no one would want to be a soldier; soon the society would be conquered and enslaved.

The doggerel form of The Grumbling Hive debarred it from influence. Piqued, the vain, acquisitive, pugnacious doctor reissued it in 1714, and again in 1723, as The Fable of the Bees, repeatedly enlarged with prefaces, notes, and commentaries that expanded ten pages into two volumes. This time England and France listened, for these appendages constituted one of the most biting analyses of human nature ever written.

Mandeville took the third Earl of Shaftesbury as literally his pièce de résistance, for the Earl had interpreted human nature with optimistic eloquence, and had assumed in man an innate “sense of right and wrong … as natural to us as natural affection, and being a first principle in our constitution.”67 Pretty nonsense, answered Mandeville; human nature, before education and moral training, makes no distinction between virtue and vice, but is governed solely by self-interest. He agreed with the theologians that man is by nature “evil” [lawless]; but instead of threatening men with hell, he complimented them on the clever adaptation of individual vice to social good. So private prostitution protects public chastity;68 the greed for products and services stimulates invention, supports manufactures and trade; great fortunes make possible philanthropy and massive art. While the theologians preached austerity Mandeville defended luxury, and argued that the desire for luxuries (i.e., anything but the bare necessities of life) is the root of industry and civilization; remove all luxury, and we would be savages again. While the moralists were supposed to condemn war, it was by the ability to wage war, said Mandeville, that a nation survived, for most states were beasts of prey.

He saw no morality in nature. Good and bad are words applicable to social or antisocial actions in man; but Nature herself pays no heed to our words or homilies; she defines virtue as any quality that makes for survival; and in our prejudiced terms the world of nature is a scene of voracity, lust, cruelty, slaughter, and meaningless waste. Yet out of that awful struggle, Mandeville thought, man had evolved language, social organization, and moral codes as instruments of social cohesion and collective survival. Praise and blame are not warranted by nature, but they are justified as means by which, appealing to man’s vanity, fear, and pride, we may encourage in others forms of action advantageous to ourselves or the group.

Nearly everybody who heard of Mandeville berated him as a cynical materialist. Voltaire, however, agreed with him on the beneficence of luxuries, and the laissez-faire physiocrats of France applauded his view that if human greed is let alone it will make the wheels of industry hum. The whimsical doctor would probably have admitted that his paradox “Private vices are public goods” was largely a play upon words too loosely defined. “Vices” like acquisitiveness, amorousness, pugnacity, and pride were once “virtues” in the primitive struggle for existence; they became vices only when carried in society beyond social good; they became public benefits through being controlled by education, public opinion, religion, and law.

How different from this scandalous doctor was Francis Hutcheson! Born in Ireland of a Presbyterian minister, he diverged from the paternal groove and opened a private academy in Dublin. There, conscious of his obligation to turn young savages into citizens, he wrote an Inquiry concerning Moral Good and Evil (1725), in which he defined a good citizen as one that promoted the general good; and (anticipating verbatim utilitarian Bentham’s formula) he described the general good as “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.”69 Promoted to the chair of moral philosophy in the University of Glasgow, he troubled the Presbytery by defending the right of private judgment, the legitimacy of pleasure, and “the ingenious arts of music, sculpture, painting, and even the manly diversions.”70 He did not share Mandeville’s pessimistic conception of human nature. He admitted the faults and sins of men, their wild passions and violent crimes; “but the greatest part of their lives is employed in offices of natural affection, friendship, innocent self-love, or love of country.” And he added a wholesome caution to historians:

Men are apt to let their imaginations run out upon all the robberies, piracies, murders, perjuries, frauds, massacres, assassinations they have ever either heard of, or read in history; thence concluding all mankind to be very wicked; as if a court of justice were the proper place for making an estimate of the morals of mankind, or an hospital of the healthfulness of a climate. Ought they not to consider that the number of honest citizens and farmers far surpasses that of all sorts of criminals in any state; … that it is the rarity of crimes, in comparision of innocent or good actions, which engages our attention to them, and makes them to be recorded in history; while incomparably more honest, generous domestic actions are overlooked, only because they are so common; as one great danger, or one month’s sickness, shall become a frequently repeated story, during a long life of health and safety.71

Here was a healthy mind!

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