Saturday, January 30, 2010

Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of The Bees (1723)

I first learned of Mandeville when reading Jonathan Israel's Radical Enlightenment, a history of the 17th century ideas that largely spawned with Baruch Spinoza and later found political institutionalization in the United States of America. Mandeville, like Spinoza, was Dutch, but emigrated to England where he practiced medicine and wrote a few treatises about society and human nature. Born toward the end of Spinoza's life, Mandeville found his intellectual groove toward the end of John Locke's life and while David Hume was but a child. Jonathan Israel's description of Mandeville piqued my curiosity. Mandeville apparently roused the ire of those who spoke from the English pulpit, as well as government, and his book The Fable of The Bees was condemned as a nuisance by a British grand jury.

The Fable is not an easy read because of the period vernacular and literary style. And to my surprise, the "fable," originally published in 1705 as "The Grumbling Hive," is as much of a statement about political economy and global trade anticipating Adam Smith 70 years into the future as it is a statement about society and human nature. Yet a particular understanding of human nature is implicit in The Grumbling Hive, which Mandeville later detailed in a series of "Remarks," added to this book in the 1723 edition. Don't look for a scientific explanation of the social insects such as E.O Wilson's Superorganism, which is discussed in the post of November 4, 2009. Mandeville's bees are the working and employer classes of early 18th century England, a prosperous nation that is nevertheless corrupted by Vices (Mandeville's word for "sloth, lust, avarice and pride"). Halfway through the fable, God (on behalf of those within the hive who preach for a virtuous society) rids the hive of these Vices and "fraud departs," "hipocrasie is flung down," debtors pay their debts, and government ministers live within their means. The consequence of a purely virtuous society, however, is that the hive becomes less prosperous and ultimately the hive collapses. In Mandeville's view, "Vice nursed ingenuity, which joined with Trade and Industry, had carried Life's conveniences, its real pleasures, comforts, ease to such a height, the very poor lived better than the rich before, and nothing could be added more."

By Vice, Mandeville does not merely contemplate crimes and immoral activity, but, more generally, individuals merely acting in their self-interest. He sometimes refers to this as self-love or pride. As Jonathan Israel explains, "Mandeville's republicanism, deism, and libertinism are thus all parts of a larger philosophical vision of man driven by egotistical impulses, always seeking his own individual self-preservation and advancement, but gradually becoming accustomed, through a protracted civilizing process, to management by lawmakers and statesmen whose chief expertise lies in their ability to regulate and restrain man's self-seeking drives by playing on man's insecurity and fear." For Mandeville, so-called Virtues are more often than not actually driven by Vices such as Pride, such as the case of charitable gift passed on by a testamentary instrument where one is motivated to preserve the memory of his own name after death.

In regards to national wealth and prosperity, Mandeville anticipates Adam Smith because individual egotistical activity collectively operates to improve the welfare of the nation (hive) and the persons (bees) within. Suspending egotistical behavior and supplanting it with acts of charity, saving, and self-denial will only diminish the general welfare. In regards to political theory, Mandeville falls in the tradition of Niccolo Machiavelli, examining society and the polity as it is rather than deriving a philosophy from a set of first principles. Mandeville, like Machiavelli, seems to be interested in "a well-ordered republic" that does not have to resort to extra-constitutional measures to preserve itself. Jonathan Israel summarizes Mandeville's view that "governments maintain themselves through their power to conserve themselves," which implies a stable political system that changes via consensus and wisdom.

Science and experimental research in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries has brought us a long way from the philosophical mind experiments of 17th and 18th Enlightenment period. We now know, and this is documented in recent books like Wilson's Superorganism (November 4, 2009 post), Gazzaniga's Human (Sept 27, 2009 post), and Iaccoboni's Mirroring People (Sept 18, 2009 post), as well as several other books cited in these prior posts, that there are human biological characteristics that underlie reciprocal or cooperative behavior and certain moral values such as The Golden Rule. Humans are not entirely egotistical from a biological imperative. While the few social insect societies forming superorganisms identified by Wilson seem to be the exception to a biological imperative based on self-preservation rather than rule, reciprocal behavior in humans and other species is not, as Mandeville suggests, so easily separated from self-preservation and the Vice of self-interest. Mandeville thus remains relevant for this point, which is at the heart of both of his Enlightenment social philosophy and political economic views.

Mandeville drew the ire of the early 18th century pulpit because he questioned the sincerity of motivations that were undertaken in the name of charity. The Fable of The Bees contains An Essay on Charity and Charity Schools. The Grumbling Hive did not draw critical comment when it was first published in 1705, but with the edition of The Fable incorporating the Essay on Charity and Charity Schools in 1723, the attacks on Mandeville began in earnest. The authorities (secular and non-secular) who promoted charitable giving and saving in the name of self-denial were probably motivated by their self-interest to see that The Fable was declared a nuisance.