Bernard Mandeville Essay - Critical Essays

Mandeville, Bernard


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.

Principal Works

The Pamphleteers: A Satyr (poetry) 1703

Some Fables after the Easie and Familiar Method of Monsieur de la Fontaine (poetry) 1703; expanded as Æsop Dress'd; or a Collection of Fables Writ in Familiar Verse, 1704

Typhon: or The Wars Between the Gods and Giants; A Burlesque Poem in Imitation of the Comical Mons. Scarron (poetry) 1704

*The Grumbling Hive; or, Knaves Turn'd Honest (poetry) 1705

A Treatise of the Hypochondriak and Hysterick Passions, Vulgarly Call'd the Hypo in Men and Vapours in Women; In which the Symptoms, Causes, and Cure of those Diseases are set forth after a Method intirely new (dialogue) 1711

Wishes to a Godson, with Other Miscellany Poems (poetry) 1712

The Virgin Unmask'd: or, Female Dialogues Betwixt an Elderly Maiden Lady, and Her Niece, On several Diverting Discourses on Love, Marriage, Memoirs, and Morals, &c. of the Times (dialogue) 1709; revised as The Mysteries of Virginity, 1714

The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits (poetry and prose) 1714; enlarged in 1723 and again in 1724

The Mischiefs that Ought Justly to be Apprehended from a Whig-Government (dialogue) 1714

Free Thoughts on Religion, the Church, and National Happiness (nonfiction) 1720

A Modest Defence of Public Stews: or, an Essay upon Whoring, As it is now practis'd in these Kingdom (pamphlet) 1724

An Enquiry into the Causes of the Frequent Executions at Tyburn: and a Proposal for some Regulations concerning Felons in Prison, and the Good Effects to be expected from them (pamphlet) 1725

The Fable of the Bees. Part II. By the Author of the First (dialogues) 1729

An Enquiry into the Origin of Honour, and the Usefulness of Christianity in War (dialogue) 1732

A Letter to Dion, Occasion'd by his Book call'd Alciphron, or The Minute Philosopher (letter) 1732

The Fable of the Bees. 2 vols. [edited by F. B. Kaye] 1924

*This work was later included in The Fable of the Bees.


Hector Monro (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Monro, Hector. “The Two Mandevilles” and “The Real Mandeville?” In The Ambivalence of Bernard Mandeville, pp. 1-24; 249-67. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.

[In the following essays, Monro discusses two very contradictory but equally plausible interpretations of Mandeville and finds such ambiguity consistent with the philosophical view evident throughout his work that the world is ultimately indefinable and unknowable.]


Mandeville is not an obscure writer, but it has nevertheless been found possible to interpret him in two diametrically opposed ways. On one view, he is a pious Christian, an ascetic, and an...

(The entire section is 16761 words.)

M. R. Jack (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Jack, M. R. “Religion and Ethics in Mandeville.” In Mandeville Studies: New Explorations in the Art and Thought of Dr. Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733), edited by Irwin Primer, pp. 34-42. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1975.

[In the following essay, Jack examines Mandeville's “naturalistic” view of religion and ethics as having psychological rather than theological bases.]

At the beginning of his full-length work on religion entitled Free Thoughts on Religion, the Church, and National Happiness, Mandeville defines religion as “an Acknowledgment of an Immortal Power.”1 He later says that “Men of Sense, and good Logicians” have...

(The entire section is 4059 words.)

Robert H. Hopkins (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Hopkins, Robert H. “The Cant of Social Compromise: Some Observations on Mandeville's Satire.” In Mandeville Studies: New Explorations in the Art and Thought of Dr. Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733), edited by Irwin Primer, pp. 168-92. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1975.

[In the following essay, Hopkins argues that, despite the attacks of many of his contemporaries, Mandeville in his satires was censuring many of the same things they were, stressing “how much in common Mandeville had with some of his illustrious adversaries in attacking the same satiric targets.”]

Let any Man observe the Equipages in this Town; he shall find the greater...

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Louis Schneider (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Schneider, Louis. “Bernard Mandeville: Observations in Lieu of a Biography.” In Paradox and Society: The Work of Bernard Mandeville. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1987, pp. 29-66.

[In the following essay, Schneider, provides an outline of Mandeville's life, thought, and literary activity.]

Material for a life of Mandeville is scant and a biography of him of any considerable scale is not feasible. One may make certain inferences about his character or personal traits from his work. Although this is a somewhat precarious enterprise, it is not entirely unrewarding. The effort to discover something of his character also will suggest intellectual...

(The entire section is 16791 words.)

M. M. Goldsmith (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Goldsmith, M. M. “Bernard Mandeville and the Virtues of the Dutch.” Dutch Crossing 48 (autumn 1992): 20-38.

[In the following essay, Goldsmith discusses the impact that Mandeville's Dutch heritage may have had on his viewpoints, literary style, and subject matter.]

Little is known about the life of Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733), author of The Fable of the Bees: or Private Vices, Publick Benefits. Until recently all that was available concerning that part of his life which he spent in his native Holland was a few bald facts about his family background and his education. He was baptized in Rotterdam on 20 November 1670.1 His...

(The entire section is 6941 words.)

E. G. Hundert (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Hundert, E. G. “A World of Goods.” In The Enlightenment's Fable: Bernard Mandeville and the Discovery of Society, pp. 175-218. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Hundert examines Mandeville's “unsettling observation” throughout his satires “that the technical operations of the market could be seen to govern even the most intimate aspects of civilized living.”]

When, early in his literary career, Mandeville wrote The Grumbling Hive, he satirized his contemporaries for trumpeting their commitment to classical or Christian ideals of virtue while glorying in recent English prosperity. Employing the beehive as a...

(The entire section is 17617 words.)

J. A. W. Gunn (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Gunn, J. A. W. “‘State Hypochondriacks’ Dispraised: Mandeville versus the Active Citizen.” In Mandeville and Augustan Ideas: New Essays, edited by Charles W. A. Prior, pp. 16-34. Victoria, Canada: English Literary Studies, University of Victoria, 2000.

[In the following essay, Gunn analyzes Mandeville's distanced and detached perspective on public affairs.]

Mandeville as a thinker has always resisted easy labelling; were this not so, his place as a continuing focus for scholarly attention would be less easy to understand. Especially susceptible to exaggeration and plain misreading is his role as the apparent advocate of individual self-seeking. As I...

(The entire section is 8295 words.)

M. M. Goldsmith (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Goldsmith, M. M. “Mandeville's Pernicious System.” In Mandeville and Augustan Ideas: New Essays, edited by Charles W. A. Prior, pp. 71-84. Victoria, Canada: English Literary Studies, University of Victoria, 2000.

[In the following essay, Goldsmith analyzes the validity of the claims by his detractors that Mandeville was promoting immorality and irreligion in The Fable of the Bees.]

Bernard Mandeville's The Fable of the Bees caught the attention of virtually every thinker of note in the eighteenth century.1 The book was widely attacked for irreligion and immorality; contemporary periodicals commented on the stir it made.2 When...

(The entire section is 6047 words.)

M. M. Goldsmith (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Goldsmith, M. M. “Private Vices.” In Private Vices, Public Benefits: Bernard Mandeville's Social and Political Thought, second ed., pp. 33-49. Cybereditions, 2002.

[In the following excerpt, Goldsmith analyzes Mandeville's theory of society, which “justified the activities of those who sought only their private good or pleasure—what many called vice.”]

But something could be said against the ideology of public virtue. And it was, by Bernard Mandeville, an immigrant Dutch physician who had settled in London.1

Mandeville began his literary career writing verses. His first published work seems to have been The...

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Further Reading


Cook, Richard I. Bernard Mandeville. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1974, 174 p.

Valuable biographical and critical study.


Daniel, Stephen H. “Myth and Rationality in Mandeville.” Journal of the History of Ideas 47, no. 4 (October-December 1986): 595-609.

Argues that Mandeville's works can be understood only when the author's use of myth is considered.

Dykstal, Timothy. “Commerce, Conversation, and Contradiction in Mandeville's Fable.Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 23 (1994): 93-110.

Detailed analysis of...

(The entire section is 414 words.)