Bernard Mandeville Critical Essays

Introduction

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Bernard Mandeville 1670-1733

English poet, satirist, and nonfiction writer.

Described by Benjamin Franklin in his Autobiography as “a most facetious, entertaining companion,” Mandeville is best known for his provocative writings about society, morality, and religion. In such works as The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits (1714), he used satire to convey his belief that vice as well as virtue is vital to a healthy society. Mandeville's writings were assailed by some of the most prominent thinkers of the day, though, later critics have shown, some, such as David Hume and Adam Smith, were significantly influenced by his views.

Biographical Information

Little is known about Mandeville's life. He was born in the Netherlands, possibly in Rotterdam or nearby Dort (present-day Dordrecht). Public records show that he was baptized in Rotterdam in 1670. He attended the Erasmian School in Rotterdam and then studied philosophy and medicine at the University of Leyden. He received a Doctor of Medicine degree at Leyden in 1691. Shortly afterwards, he immigrated to England, where he lived for the remainder of his life. In 1693 he was charged with practicing medicine without a license; though he never applied for a license, he appears to have continued practicing medicine. In 1699 he married an Englishwoman, and the couple had two children. Mandeville published a number of medical studies and satirical works—including over thirty pieces contributed to the magazine The Female Tatler between 1709 and 1710—before the publication in 1714 of The Fable of the Bees. Although the first edition of this work attracted little attention, the second, expanded, edition in 1723 caused an uproar. The book's publisher was charged in court as a “public nuisance” for issuing such an immoral book. (It was published without Mandeville's name on it, so he was not charged.) It was attacked by such notable figures as John Dennis, Alexander Pope, Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding. Mandeville defended his work in A Vindication of the Book, from the Aspersions contain'd in a Presentment of the Grand-Jury of Middlesex, and an abusive Letter to Lord C., which was issued as a pamphlet (now lost) in 1723 and included in the third edition of The Fable of the Bees the following year. In 1732 George Berkeley directed an attack on Mandeville and other freethinkers in Alciphron; or, The Minute Philosopher; Mandeville defended himself in A Letter to Dion, Occasion'd by his Book call'd Alciphron, or The Minute Philosopher, published later the same year. Mandeville died on 21 January 1733.

Major Works

Mandeville's works cover a wide range of genres and subjects. In the poem Typhon: or The Wars Between the Gods and Giants (1704), he lampoons the gods and heroes in the classical epics of Homer and Virgil. In the prose work The Virgin Unmask'd, (1709) he offers a dialogue between an unmarried aunt and her inexperienced niece on the potential temptations and dangers a young woman faces in her encounters with men. Mandeville's contributions to the The Female Tatler, advanced his ideas on human nature, and his position on this subject appears in its most developed form in The Fable of the Bees, which demonstrates the author's belief that vices are as important as virtues if human society is to flourish, and his conviction that any attempt to create a thoroughly virtuous society would therefore be disastrous. The poem The Grumbling Hive: or, Knaves Turn'd Honest, which was first published in 1705, is the centerpiece of the collection. In this verse fable, Mandeville describes a hive of bees that is thriving and productive as whole, despite the fact that its individual members are given to a variety of vices analogous to those in human society. When Jove replaces the vices with virtues, the hive starts to degrade in a number of ways and eventually deteriorates completely as a functioning unit. Mandeville's other major works of social criticism include Free Thoughts on Religion, the Church, and National Happiness (1720), in which he condemns the excesses of organized religion throughout history; A Modest Defence of Publick Stews (1724), in which he wryly advocates the legalization of prostitution; and An Enquiry into the Origin of Honour, and the Usefulness of Christianity in War (1732), which concludes that Christian beliefs and morality have no place during a time of war.

Critical Reception

During his lifetime, Mandeville was viewed as a controversialist and came under repeated attacks from critics. The second edition of The Fable of the Bees, in particular, was denounced as blasphemous and immoral. Modern critics generally view Mandeville's works as complex responses to the social and political pressures of his time, which was witnessing the decline of absolutism and the rise of commercialism. As M. M. Goldsmith and others have argued, Mandeville shows that the health of a society based on commerce requires that virtues and vices must coexist. In such a world, these and other scholars have noted, traditional definitions of ethics and morality are overturned and even divorced from religion. It is from this starting point that much modern criticism of Mandeville proceeds. M. R. Jack has sought to delineate the conception of religion that underlies Mandeville's works. Robert H. Hopkins has proposed that Mandeville exposes the religious and ethical compromises that are made in a society based on money and commerce. E. G. Hundert has argued that The Grumbling Hive demonstrates that “commercial societies seem naturally to entail forms of artifice and imposture which should be understood as the moral price of commercial prosperity.” J. A. W. Gunn has investigated Mandeville's view of politics in a commercial society. Other critics, including Louis Schneider, have attempted to form a clearer picture of Mandeville in the absence of substantial biographical information. Hector Monro has gone so far as to assemble multiple portraits derived from the observations of his contemporaries and their diverse reactions to his works.