Mandeville’s Fable: Pride, Hypocrisy and Sociability 
by Robin Douglass.
Princeton, 249 pp., £30, May 2023, 978 0 691 21917 2
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The​ Presbyterian ministers of my Ayrshire childhood never harangued their congregations, and were almost to a man – they were all men – mellow and avuncular. Authority figures policed behaviour – all the way down to disciplining boys who walked around with hands in pockets or shirt-tails hanging out – but nobody propounded moral values; ethics tended to be intuited rather than paraded. Far worse than any actual offence was to ‘clype’ – to tell tales about the transgressions of others – just as it was not the done thing to boast about our own occasional good deeds. I have found the recent tendency towards ostentatious virtue-signalling unsettling. Why strive so hard to communicate good character, outside the confines of a job interview or a first meeting with prospective in-laws? Humblebragging in itself is, I suppose, innocuous, but much less so the sustained and coercive judgmentalism of social media.

The work of the early 18th-century paradox-monger Bernard Mandeville supplies a devastating corrective to the fashion for unctuous grandstanding. Notorious in his own day as a cynical anti-moralist, Mandeville possessed a prophetic insight into the deformations of the social media age. The psychological traits we now parse as effects of Instagram and Twitter consumption, he recognised as deep-laid elements in our lives as social beings. Although 21st-century terms like virtue-signalling and ethical narcissism were outside his vocabulary, Mandeville knew the phenomena intimately. A connoisseur of hypocrisy and self-deception, he perceived that all good deeds are tinged with self-regard. Pride – ‘the vast esteem we have for our selves’ – lies at the root of our supposed virtue. Our motives are never pure.

Mandeville also skewers the motives of non-virtue-signallers, however, unmasking the feelings of secret superiority that accompany such reticence. We merely deceive ourselves into thinking we might not be showing off. The seeming contrast between sanctimonious exhibitionists and the quietly smug is no contrast at all. Both groups are equally motivated by pride; the only difference lies in the subtlety of execution. According to Robin Douglass, Mandeville understood that ‘secretly concealing the outward display of our pride from others’ is pride’s ‘most sophisticated manifestation’. He knew that people felt the ‘pleasure of being esteemed by a vast majority, not as what they are, but what they appear to be’. In his reading, every one of us is a sleekit – and self-deceiving – attention-seeker: we brim over with self-admiration and spin our vainglory as altruistic and other-serving. Centuries before Facebook, he perceived the way that as social beings we constantly curate the profiles we disclose to the wider world and to ourselves.

Mandeville was born in Rotterdam in 1670. His father, Michael, was a physician, and Bernard followed in his footsteps, studying medicine and philosophy at Leiden. His thesis in 1691 concerned the effects of digestion on mental processes. This early interest in psychology persisted, and he chose hypochondria and hysteria as his specialisms. In the early 1690s he moved to England, possibly thanks to the vexed political atmosphere of Rotterdam, which forced his father to move his practice to Amsterdam. In London, Mandeville married, practised medicine without a licence and embarked on a literary career. He published an English translation of La Fontaine’s Aesopian free verse fables, and a mock epic influenced by another 17th-century French writer, Paul Scarron.

These influences are evident in Mandeville’s most famous work, The Fable of the Bees. It started out as a short poetic fable with the title The Grumbling Hive (1705), and then snowballed, with later editions including commentaries on the poem and essays on related themes. He published the first version of The Fable of the Bees, with extended glosses on the poem, in 1714, but it was only half the size of the completed project. The 1723 edition – the first to generate public outcry, over his critique of charity schools as nurseries of virtue – contained even more essays, and the final edition of 1724 also included Mandeville’s ‘Vindication’ of his book. A sequel, Fable of the Bees Part II, which took the form of a set of dialogues, arrived at the end of 1728. A further sequel, An Enquiry into the Origin of Honour, was published in 1732, the year before Mandeville’s death. These accumulating components seem, at first sight, to be clearly distinguished. But it’s less obvious where the doctor’s neutral, non-moralising examination of the human animal and its psyche ends, and the satirist’s delighted excoriation of human sham begins – and whether the two approaches can in fact be disentangled. Though The Fable of the Bees is saggy and unstructured, the tone throughout retains a deadpan uncertainty. The natural philosopher’s disturbing calculus of our propensity to counterfeit and dissimulate also seems to carry subversive tints of the sort associated with his contemporary Jonathan Swift.

The Grumbling Hive provides an allegorical account of a thriving early 18th-century economy, in the form of a colony of heavily anthropomorphised bees. Christian and Stoic moralists recommended virtuous austerity, but Mandeville depicts its opposite, showing in his insect world ‘Millions endeavouring to supply/Each other’s lust and vanity’. But it transpires that this is far from a dystopia. Rather, vice ‘nursed ingenuity’ in every quarter, and ‘Luxury/Employ’d a million of the poor.’ Fickleness and fashion in diet, furniture and dress constitute ‘the very wheel that turn’d the trade’. No profession, calling or craft, including medicine and the Church, ‘was without deceit’, but this doesn’t matter, because every cheat, crime and moral failing ultimately serves the greater good of prosperity: ‘Thus every part was full of vice/Yet the whole mass a Paradise.’

But the bees start to moralise, and curse the deceit, vanity and envy that underpin the life of the hive. The deity grants their wish, and rids ‘the bawling hive of fraud’. The result is a minor catastrophe. Lawyer bees are redundant because debtor bees pay their creditors at the appointed time. Jailer bees are no longer needed, nor are swarms of artisan and builder bees: without immoral spurs to getting and spending, ‘All arts and crafts neglected lie.’ The hive declines, and eventually, ‘to avoid extravagance’, the bees ‘flew into a hollow tree’. Mandeville then advertises the so-called moral of his tale: ‘Fraud, luxury and pride must live/Whilst we the benefits receive.’ The commentaries and essays in The Fable of the Bees spell out this lesson in much more detail, providing insights into the warped psychology of human sociability.

Contemporary commentators regarded Mandeville, as they did earlier thinkers like Machiavelli and Hobbes, as a dangerous and disruptive threat to conventional morality. The first decades of the 18th century in England witnessed repeated brouhahas about the rise of infidelity, deism and other insidious heresies. However, Mandeville’s ideas presented a novelty of a still more dangerous sort, according to the dramatist and man of letters John Dennis. Heretics misconstrued religion, but did not set out to overturn the moral order. Mandeville, however, presented himself as ‘a serious, a cool, a deliberate champion’ of vice and luxury; a new kind of intellectual renegade such as ‘has never been heard of before in any nation, or any age of the world’. One anonymous 18th-century poet thought Mandeville was the antithesis of Christ: ‘if GOD-MAN vice to abolish came/Who vice commends, MAN-DEVIL be his name.’

As Douglass notes, Mandeville no longer possesses this diabolic notoriety. In so far as his work still holds a place in the public imagination, it is distorted into a precocious paean of praise to laissez-faire capitalism. His paradoxical conflation of the way private vices unexpectedly generate public benefits means that we tend to see him as a psychologist of the passions underpinning the free market; an early champion of the theories of unregulated spontaneous order that we now associate with Hayek; an amoral apologist for greed-is-good hyper-capitalism. Indeed, Mandevillian economics might acquire a fresh and disturbing relevance for societies attempting to wean themselves off overconsumption. Where would we be without waste? Will the circular economy of recycling, hand-me-downs and making do lead to another empty hive?

Attempts to shoehorn Mandeville into the disciplinary history of economics, Douglass contends, are misconceived. Not only do they take one strand of his thought for the whole, they also miss crucial counter-arguments in his account of the way humans become sociable. Douglass asks us to see Mandeville as a theorist of moral and social norms who is concerned with the question of how the human animal with its ineradicable passions came to be socially domesticated in the first place. Mandeville’s answer was intricate and multi-stranded, drawing on both a conjectural history of the origins of society and a series of hypotheses about the way the passions – and particularly pride – are repurposed for the overall good of society. Mandeville, Douglass notes, thought that humans became sociable by a process of ‘fermentation’, ‘analogous to that by which grapes become wine’.

Mandeville saw human sociability as a consequence of society, not its cause. It seemed far from obvious what had enabled the bestial savagery of pre-social man to be transmuted into lasting communal cohesion. Our innate will to dominate others should have produced endless conflict rather than co-operation. Why had this not been the case? In part, Mandeville argued, wily lawgivers had devised policies that turned human frailties to public advantage, ‘in the happy contrivance of playing our passions against one another’. Our passions can’t be extinguished, merely redirected. In an ancient and surprisingly successful policy of Whac-A-Mole, early legislators managed to suppress, divert and – ultimately – refashion certain human appetites in the interest of the community. Once rechannelled, the ‘imperfections’ of humankind worked to reinforce sociability. The craving for the esteem of those around us leads us to feign virtues such as modesty and honesty. These counterfeits win the approval of others, but they also – a welcome unintended result – help knit envious, competitive individuals into the social fabric. A benign spiral of social education perpetuates itself. The happily ‘taught animal’ eventually acquired the sophisticated arts of politeness, an unregulated system of self-control which functions by way of complex, interrelated mechanisms of flattery and emulation. These tame our unsociable impulses, while also, with a twist of subtle indirection, furthering our irresistible lust for social recognition. Etiquette and manners serve to disguise our worst instincts – but they don’t vanquish them. In this sense, sociability remains a holding operation, characterised by multiple everyday compromises. Society, Mandeville concluded, was a ‘most beautiful superstructure’ built on the ‘rotten and despicable foundation’ of human flaws.

Mandeville reckoned that ‘it is impossible we could be sociable creatures without hypocrisy.’ By this he meant specifically the capacity to transform our selfishness, will to dominate and desire for esteem into something more acceptable. Hypocrisy is a universal, lifelong ‘habit … by the help of which, we have learned from our cradle to hide even from ourselves the vast extent of self-love’. Our true inner selves would be insufferable if they were revealed in their nakedness; indeed, they would horrify and depress us, which is why they need to be cloaked in self-deception. Hypocrisy, in Douglass’s deft encapsulation of Mandeville’s theories, is ‘a feature, not a bug, of our moral practices’.

But should we take this apparent champion of insincerity at face value? Where did he stand in relation to the Christian norms of his own society? Though Mandeville provides a cynical picture of flawed but socially educable humanity, he leaves open the question of whether we reached this state after a fall from a state of innocence in the Garden of Eden. As Douglass notes, Mandeville takes humanity as he sees it, advancing a naturalistic account of human nature, one that happens to mesh with Christian theology but doesn’t depend on it.

Douglass identifies another disturbing purveyor of paradoxes, the erudite and evasive Dutch-based French Protestant exile Pierre Bayle, as the chief influence on Mandeville’s ideas. Bayle won notoriety for his Pensées diverses sur la comète (1682), in which he countered the orthodox consensus that a society of atheists was an impossibility; the prevailing assumption was that, since they lacked any belief in the existence of punishment in the afterlife, atheists could not be trusted to behave decently. On the contrary, Bayle argued, history recounts the lives of several virtuous atheists. It is character and temperament, not belief or unbelief, that determine whether a man lives virtuously. Bayle then adds a further disturbing paradox. Religious believers are often roused to extreme passions in defence of their beliefs. A society of atheists – cushioned by happy indifference from violent idolatries and fanaticisms – might be more peaceful and law-abiding than a society of Christians. Bayle continues to defy easy interpretation, a Christian ironist whose criticism of prevailing fatuities seems to verge on an apology for atheism. Similarly, the deeper purpose of Mandeville’s exposure of the ‘bluster’ of contemporary moralism remains obscure.

The quest for a straight answer is perhaps misconceived. While Douglass makes a persuasive case for taking Mandeville seriously as a philosopher, beyond the substantive content of his arguments lies the question of the way The Fable of the Bees should be treated as a text. Its strange publication history and sprawling additions (including the inexplicable and controversial essay on charity schools) suggest it is the achievement of an improvisational bricoleur. There’s also the issue of genre. The dominant strain of satire in early 18th-century England was Menippean, notionally indebted to the third-century bc Cynic Menippus of Gadara, whose works were said to have been chaotically formless, fusing verse and prose and defying all conventions of genre, as well as being equally indiscriminate in their attacks on the ancient philosophical schools and their speculative systems.

Although Menippus’ satires are lost, a Menippean model survived in the work of Lucian, a Hellenised Syrian satirist of the second century ad, whose collected works were published in London in 1710-11, in a four-volume translation which incorporated a Life of Lucian by John Dryden. Lucian exercised a huge influence on late 17th and early 18th-century English satire; on Swift, Pope and Prior, as well as a host of lesser-known figures, including Charles Cotton, Tom Brown and William King. Among the most conspicuous features of early 18th-century Menippean satire was the cod scholarly apparatus. Mandeville’s generically unstable Fable, with its core tale written in verse and its flabbily unstructured prose commentaries, was decidedly Menippean in form. More significantly, there is a Menippean dislike of speculative systems in Mandeville’s Treatise of the Hypochondriack and Hysterick Diseases (1711), which attacks the arrogance of physicians who attempt to spin fanciful theories from the comfort of their closets rather than attend to patients. Unlike, say, the severity of Juvenal or the indulgence of Horace, Menippean satire didn’t take a clear position on the matter at hand: losing one’s intellectual compass was the point of the exercise. Yet even this indeterminacy seems reductive. Mandeville somehow escapes even the exiguous to non-existent constraints of the Menippean: beneath the satire and provocation, the natural philosopher’s illusionless observations of the human-animal-in-society persist.

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