Mandeville’s Early Life and Education
Bernard Mandeville (1670–1733) was born in Rotterdam, then a part of the Netherlands. His father was a prominent physician.
Mandeville’s family was of French Huguenot origin. However, his forebears had been established in the Low Countries for several generations already by the time of our author’s birth.
Mandeville attended the Erasmus private, college-preparatory school in Rotterdam (the great humanist’s native city). His precocity may be judged by his 1685 school-leaving address, which was entitled, Oratio scholastica de medicina [Scholastic Oration on Medicine].
Mandeville attended Leiden University, where in 1689 he wrote a thesis entitled, De brutorum operationibus [On the Workings of the Brutes]. In this treatise, he supported Descartes’s contention that animals are nothing but automata, lacking all feeling.
Mandeville obtained his medical degree in 1691.
A short time after becoming a physician, Mandeville moved to England, ostensibly to learn the language. He apparently had a gift for languages, as it is reported that he was sometimes taken to be a native Englishman. In any case, his literary works were composed directly in English.
His father was banished from Rotterdam in 1693, allegedly for his involvement in tax riots. It is not known for certain whether his father’s troubles were a motive for Mandeville’s own relocation to the safety of England.
Mandeville rose to prominence in his adopted country, both as a physician and as a man of letters.
Mandeville was a prolific author, writing on a wide variety of subjects—from literature to medicine to politics to religion and philosophy—and in several different genres, including poems, satires, open letters, literary essays, and scholarly treatises. But he was not primarily a writer on political economy—a discipline that did not yet exist.
In 1714, Mandeville published the one work for which he is known to posterity, which is also the only work of his which treats of what we would now term political economy: The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits.
The central idea of the Fable of the Bees was actually contained in a poem—”The Grumbling Hive, or Knaves Turn’d Honest”—that Mandeville had published nine years before, in 1705.
The poem was reproduced in the 1714 book, along with a running commentary called “Remarks” and a separate treatise entitled, “An Enquiry into the Origin of Moral Virtue.” A later edition published nine years later, in 1723, included two new treatises, “An Essay on Charity and Charity Schools” and “A Search into the Nature of Society.”
The Fable of the Bees was not primarily a work of political economy. Rather, it was mainly a political satire.
However, the central idea contained in the poem and the book flowered into one of the most powerful ideas in the history of economic thought.
The main idea contained in the Fable of the Bees is that the individual pursuit of private interests is the engine which leads to economic growth and prosperity for all of society.
In other words, human beings are like the bees. The industry of each of us, going about our own business, is what supports a flourishing hive.
This idea is obviously reminiscent of the concept of the “invisible hand” advanced by Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations some 60 years later, in 1776.
It is known that Smith read Mandeville carefully, as did other major writers of the Scottish enlightenment, including Francis Hutcheson and David Hume, as well as the French philosophes, notably Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
While this idea may appear anodyne to us today, Mandeville’s book was condemned as immoral, cynical, and scandalous in its time.
Mandeville did not hide his scorn for organized religion and for what he considered to be the misguided philosophy, which attributed greater practical social benefits to earnest displays of piety than to even the lowest carnal pursuits of some by which others earned their daily bread.
In expanding upon his theme of “private vices, public benefits,” Mandeville waxed eloquent upon the variety of the burgeoning urban life of his time. Adam Smith also discerned in Mandeville’s text the kernel of the crucial concept of the division of labor.
Mandeville’s Work on Political Economy
The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits (two volumes) (1714; second edition, 1723).
Selected Works about Mandeville
Balsemão Pires, Edmundo and Joaquim Braga, eds., Bernard de Mandeville’s Tropology of Paradoxes: Morals, Politics, Economics, and Therapy (2015).
Cook, Richard I., Bernard Mandeville (1974).
Goldsmith, M.M., Private Vices, Public Benefits: Bernard Mandeville’s Social and Political Thought (1985).
Hilton, Phillip, Bitter Honey: Recuperating the Medical and Scientific Context of Bernard Mandeville (2011).
Horne, Thomas A., The Social Thought of Bernard Mandeville: Virtue and Commerce in Early Eighteenth-Century England(1978).).
Hundert, E.J., The Enlightenment’s Fable: Bernard Mandeville and the Discovery of Society (1994).
Law, William, Remarks upon a Late Book, Entituled, The Fable of the Bees (1724).
Munro, D.H., The Ambivalence of Bernard Mandeville (1975).
Primer, Irving, ed., Mandeville Studies: New Explorations in the Art and Thought of Dr. Bernard Mandeville(1975).
Schneider, Louis, ed., Paradox and Society: The Work of Bernard Mandeville (1987).