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Bert Tells What He Reads
   In-depth comment on the Fable of the Bees,
Bernard Mandeville, London 1723 (author B.H.)

It being in the interest then of the very worst of them, more than any, to preach up public-spiritedness, that they might reap the fruits of the labour and self-denial of others, and at the same time indulge their own appetites with less disturbance, they agreed with the rest to call everything which, without regard to the public, man should commit to gratify any of his appetites, vice; if in that action there could be observed the least prospect, that might either be injurious to any of the society, or even render himself less serviceable to others. And to give the name of virtue, to every performance, by which man, contrary to the impulse of nature, should endeavour the benefit of others, or the conquest of his own passions out of a rational ambition to be good.
(consensus definition of virtue and vice, in: Mandeville, Origin of Moral Virtue)




Contents:   Virtue's Origin   Poor Bees    Wise Bees    The Humbling Strife

A Fundamentalist Definition of Virtue

In Mandeville's Chapter Origin of Moral Virtue man is considered to be ruled by passions, like Thirst, Hunger, Lust, Greed, Luxury, Avarice (a list of those occurring in The Grumbling Hive follows below). You commit a vice if you let a passion rule your acts rather than be led by your concern for others. Indulging your passions may hurt others. Contrary to vices, actions of virtue (Honesty, Frugality, Content, Fairness, Temperance, Sobriety), according to the consensus definition topping this page, never indulge passions; they are acts of self-denial resulting from "conquering" passions "out of a rational ambition of being good". Evading analysis of the origin of genuine virtue right from the start, Mandeville observes carefully how we learn to counterfeit virtue. We do so by conquering passions with other passions. Counterfeit virtue is ruled not by self-denial and the "rational ambition of being good"  but by rewards set by educators and society on virtue, such as the passion Pride boosted by Praise; and by the passion to stay clear of Scorn causing Shame and the more serious and painful punishments set for vice. So the world is densely littered with counterfeit virtue: counterfeit Honesty, Frugality, Content, Fairness, Temperance, Sobriety & cet. The reader gets no similar treatment of real virtues. Mandeville repeatedly claims they are scarce. That of course makes us even more hungry for the few examples he may have found, as well as to learn what is "rational ambition of being good", if it is not a passion according to unanimous definition.

Unanimous? Unfortunately for Mandeville, in London, Lord Shaftesbury put forward a non-self-denial definition of virtue. In the Fable, Mandeville's Cleomenes tries to shut that door by deeming the Lord at variance with "all the ancients", a rare calling by Mandeville on authorities, whose ideas of virtue are elsewhere in the book ridiculed along with those of everybody else.

By creating a discourse of passions and calling "counterfeit" all passion-induced display of virtue, and real virtue a mysterious and unexplained ambition-not-a-passion "to be good", Mandeville's consensus defined real virtue at inestimable distance from London.

A Generous Definition of Vice, aiming for a Good Harvest...

Mandeville expects from his notions ("cui bono") "that in the first place the people who continuously find fault with others, by reading them, would be taught to look at home, and examining their own consciences, be made ashamed of always railing at what they are more or less guilty of themselves" and, "those who are so fond of the ease and comforts, and reap all the benefits that are the consequence of a great and flourishing nation, would learn more patiently to submit to those inconveniences, which no government on earth can remedy, when they should see the impossibility of enjoying any great share of the first, without partaking likewise in the latter".
Since Mandeville assumes the reader "finding fault with others" to be naturally convinced that the world is full of hypocrisy, and hence is eager to join him in telling others to look at home, he hoped for, and got, enthusiastic supporters while raging around London laying bare vices of all sorts. At first sight even a chicken without head should have no problems to find vices all over, their being liberally defined, by the same unanimous social consensus ranging from "the very worst" to the very best :

"everything which, without regard to the public, man should commit to gratify any of his appetites....if in that action there could be observed the least prospect, that might either be injurious to any of the society, or even render himself less serviceable to others",.


...blocked by Virtue, whatever that may be, in the Gratification of its Appetite

The "consensus" definition is not made to make a vice of every indulging of a passion. If you are perfectly sure it is not detrimental to the public in any way, neither diminishes your capabilities of servicing others, indulging  passion is no vice (which, of course, does not in the least make it a virtue). That burden of proof seems inhumanly heavy and vice's victory seems assured. But then everything suddenly becomes much more difficult: the "consensus" definition also suggests that some vices are more vicious than others. Some vices can even "do little or no harm". Passions like Avarice and Pride are truly vicious, the passion Pity, however, "bears the greatest resemblance to virtue". Yet, "whoever acts from it as a principle, what good so ever he may bring to society, has nothing to boast of  but that he has indulged a passion that has happened to be beneficial to the public". Indulging passion has chance effects only. At other times Pity may even be a vice, for instance where it destroys the honour of virgins, corrupts judges and where your child would benefit from a punishment you refuse to give out of Pity. The almsgiver should beware: a rich prodigal loving to gratify his temper by relieving an object of compassion with what to himself is a trifle "has no virtue to boast of". If he wants to be virtuous he should absolutely make sure he parts with value from no other motive than his "love of goodness". By definition, indulging a passion is never a virtue, not even when the passion is Pity.
Mandeville stops here and, spotting it or not, I am happy to stay out of that, now takes care to be silent as a grave about the devastating predicament to which he was heading. First of all, our actions are not at all proven vicious for their making others pitiful in whoever's mind. Pity is only a passion. Second, the thing is not about Pity alone but perfectly general: denying a man, dying for it, his sexual gratification may, or may not be a vice for a virgin. People called the loftiest of mankind with no exception reckon it a virtue, and by his positioning of the "honour of virgins" in the above Mandeville suggests the same, but neither how lofty people are called, nor how they in their turn call the virgin, proves it a virtue, since, within all estimable distances of London, everyone may well, nay, is extremely likely to be hindered in virtuous judgement by passion and counterfeit. The same holds if our virgin denies the man some old bread, even though he is dying for it, because we should not deal here with subtly balancing passions like his Hunger, our Pity, her Sacrifice of giving this trifle and what wretched, vile and sordid passions prevent that hateful vicious little bitch from parting with some bloody old bread. No! No invocation of any passion whatsoever! To judge virtuously whether something is vice, we should stay strong, commit pure and perfect self-denial or we are generally and totally unable ever to identify even only one single vice. The mysterious proper, virtuous reasons to call "vicious" such acts as for instance occurring in the Grumbling Hive:

Fickleness, Lust, Vanity, Luxury, Ease, Wealth, Lavishness, Cheating, Deceiving, raising Feuds and splitting Cases, defending a wicked Cause, value Fame, assuming Grave pensive Looks, dull Behaviour, Praise, Sloth, Avarice, Pride, taking Bribes, stay at Home for Double Pay, Robbing, Boasting, slipp'ry Tricks, Cant, Frauds, Crimes, Drunkenness, Gluttony, Prodigality, Envy, selling Lamb for Kid, Extravagance

must, by definition (consensus definition) just like mysterious genuine virtue, originate from totally outside the realm of passions. Let me exercise further in that direction, so timely shunned by Mandeville, and ask how commiserating prodigals ambitious to acquire something to boast about could, say in a training session, be taught to redirect their minds from counterfeit to genuine virtue, considering that the physical act of delving the coin and handing it over to the object remains absolutely the same, and the training only changes the image of the object in the prodigal's mind from that of  "weak" compassion to that of "strong" True Charity: the training consists of acquiring the moral strength yielding immunity to passion until, Mandeville writes, "malice and most severe strokes of fortune can do no more injury to a mind stripped [by virtue] of fears, than a blind horse can do in an empty barn". Would not his trainees be disappointed with the result? Mandeville's virtue definitions bring virtuous mankind, or at least virtuous London, or at least those virtuous of his London readers, whether genuinely virtuous or counterfeit, as far as he succeeds in catching them unawares, in a tragic predicament: those who counterfeit virtue in order to have something to boast about have it not, by definition. Those who then decide to have themselves trained to genuine self-denying virtue have something to boast about but desire it not, by definition. And do we have other reasons for transforming our minds from counterfeit virtue into real virtue or, for that matter, vice-versa, that could tip the scale? Nothing whatsoever! Since we of course are supposed to ignore with disdain any imperfect, bad, partial or other low quality counterfeit and exclusively deal with perfect counterfeit, for every material matter genuine and counterfeit virtue are six of one and half a dozen of the other. By definition! If Jove in line 233 would have introduced perfectly counterfeit honesty, the Hive would not with any delay have arrived at its hollow tree.

Mandeville's "consensus" definition of "vice" and "virtue" irrelevant to his well taken message!

Virtues may be acquired by reward, punishment, learning, copying, but so do vices.  Virtues and vices, such as charity and robbery, are techniques. Learning techniques involves conquering passions: to acquire charity you have to conquer greed, to learn robbery one needs to suppress fear.  Some techniques are labeled "vicious", quite some carry no label at all (walking, talking, driving a horse), some count as "virtuous". This tells you which techniques yield Recognition, Respect and Admiration.  But be aware of whose circles you are in, for, as Mandeville carefully explains: whether or not some technique is admired, and called virtue, or the exact opposite, scorned, thought shameful, and a vice, all that depends on the society and circles you frequent.

"the pulchrum&honestum vary as modes and customs vary" ... "Everyone lives to hear the thing well spoken of, that he has a share in. Even bailiffs, gaol-keepers and the hangman himself would have you think well of their functions; nay, thieves and house-breakers have a greater regard to those of their fraternity than they have for honest people."

So Mandeville, to our relief and relaxation, realizes that there is no society-wide consensus ranging from the very worst to the very best about what to call vice and what virtue; that acquisition of control, no matter whether it serves to acquire a vice or a virtue, is inspired by passions and meant to serve them - irrespective of who uses which particular vice-virtue distinction; that in case your aims require control over the passions of others, a larger part of your effort will be learning the ideas your counterparts have of vice and virtue, which are always partly and often entirely different from your own. That if you want them to work for you, buy your commodities, rob them, admire you for your "virtue" or even vote for you, you must, in order to succeed, whoever calls your aims virtuous or vicious, grasp and master their technically relevant passions, in the state into which they have differently been civilized than yours.
The substance of Mandeville's Fable of the Bees is how the conflict of passions within and between individuals shapes and orders society; how passions are morally and technically dealt with in the different types of morality of the different social groups, professions & cet. society is divided in; and how they yield or fail to yield public benefits. All questions about what generally is to be called virtue and vice, and how these concepts should universally be defined are eccentric to this substance. But even though such a - nowadays common - denial of universal morality could equally well have shocked Mandeville's London targets of satire, virtuously putting everything on its proper place would have made the Fable a far less entertaining book.

All Should Be Equal...

At times, Mandeville's social recommendations indeed sound egalitarian: "Would you render a society of men strong and powerful...divide the land...possessions will make them covetous...let property be inviolably secured and privileges equal to all men; suffer nobody to act but what is lawful, and everybody to think what he pleases, ...[to make a] country where everybody may be maintained that will be employed..." (Remark Q). In The Grumbling Hive, money spent on the vice of Luxury creates employment and wealth "To such a Height, the very Poor, Lived better than the Rich before"

...but some Should Stay More Equal Than Others...

But in Remark Y Mandeville introduces a caveat, and sets a limit on the desirability of the spread of gratification of his pet vice to the poor. He even calls it a "prudent" limit. Prudence! A virtue! Here endorsed by the author in person, because this particular use of this particular virtue is  in the public interest on this particular occasion, because the spreading of luxury to the working poor would prompt them to work less and thus cause poverty of the nation.

Nowadays, the common thought is that a wage rate increase will boost the supply of labour. In the 18th century, however, the working day for the poor was extremely long and the poor were thought (and observed) to prefer using a wage rise not to increase their income, but to increase their leisure, which was as a rule painfully too scarce to take proper care of household and children.

Remark Y: It is prudence to relieve the poors' wants but folly to cure them. Curing them would yield wage rises and reduction of labour hours, the source of national wealth. To summarize the entire line of argument: foreign luxury can undo a country. The height of it is never seen but in nations that are vastly populous, and there only in the upper part of it, and the greater that is the larger still in proportion must be the lowest, the basis that supports all: the multitude of the working poor. Continued in An Essay on Charity and Charity Schools: Schooling the children of the poor is detrimental to the nation. Lack of education and Ignorance, a necessary ingredient of society, preserve the Innocence and Honesty of the poor. Hence the knowledge of the poor should be confined to the work they have to do, which requires no education. Going to school in comparison to working is idleness not preparing the young poor for their future. You might, like Czar Peter the Great, have your people trained in Holland to be craftsmen, when there is a shortage; but nowadays in England we have too many craftsmen, and a shortage of poor. Hence Charity, schooling the poor, is detrimental to the nation, and simply another example of how virtue, the ambition of being good, is dangerous and harmful to the public. Moreover, we need to maintain the poor numerous, for they are the nation's source of cannon fodder in war Remark L: Luxury rendering us too weak for war is not a serious danger for the nation, because: "...a variety of labours in every great nation require a vast multitude, in which there are always loose, idle, extravagant fellows enough to spare for an army"

...And Yet Others Are Wise...

So, we have the poor, the greater part of society, with no share in the public benefit but some bare survival options: labouring in peace and fighting in war. Then, we have that "upper part" of society that should (apart from some "lopping and binding") not be hindered viciously to indulge its passions, for that is a benefit to the nation. And then there is a third group, curious, colourful and very mixed: the wise. In the poem The Grumbling Hive there are no wise, but in his comments and elaborations Mandeville attributes "The Origin of Moral Virtue" to: "lawgivers and other wise men", "moralists and philosophers", "those that have undertaken to civilize mankind", "skillful politicians", "the skillful management of wary politicians", "cunning men", "sagacious moralists". Sometimes Mandeville seems at first sight not so positive about their achievements: by manipulating Pride and Shame and by introducing Fear of punishments  they make those three passions conquer others and the virtue of their owners counterfeit. They came up with proposals to introduce frugality, temperance, courtsies and things like that, by linking such virtues up to Pride by means of Praise, stimulating parents to "hug their children almost into pieces" at the least display of them. The wise have done a seriously lousy job by turning, through chastity and marriage, the passions of sexual Lust and procreation into an "adulterated appetite", dangerous to mental health because thus people have been made vulnerable to subconscious repression of the whole thing altogether. In general, the stupidity of the wise of the past was to introduce virtue in the upper class, or counterfeit virtue, which is the same for any practical purpose, and suppress vice, that ultimate blessing.
Yet, a new generation of the wise will remain vital to guard society, for of "all of the famous states and empires the world has had to boast of hitherto, none ever came to ruin whose destruction was not principally owing to the bad politics, neglects, or mismanagement of the rulers". Society will always need "the Dexterous Management of a Skillful Politician" (A Search into the Nature of Society, repeated in: A Vindication of the Book) in order to have Justice cherish and stimulate the "dry, crooked, shabby vine" of upper class society vice ("Private Vices, Publick Benefits"), making it yield a good harvest by "lopping and binding" it. After this, I flatter myself to have demonstrated that Mandeville's cui bono statement is too modest in omitting this; that he provides the wise with a new political strategy of not conquering - which he carefully showed to be harmful to the public benefit -, but instead lopping and binding the private vices of the upper classes into an optimal benefit for the public.
That means the aim of the smart politician is not virtue; that he is not striving to guide the greatest numbers to heaven and loose the least possible to hell; that virtue is not even instrumental to the interests of the "public" or the "nation"; that he just lops and binds vices to make them become public benefits. Why would he do so? What are the passions of the smart politician, and how should we morally judge him?

...But Not Equally Wise!

So far for theory. For Mandeville also encountered the real men responsible for the maintenance of morals of English society of Mandeville's time. An entirely different sort! Mandeville's accusers at the Grand Jury of the County of Middlesex, submitting his book for prohibition, whose brains, Mandeville judges with entertaining eloquence, are insufficient even to grasp the Fable's content, let alone they be fit to meet the standards for sagaciously, cunningly, smartly, wisely, warily and skillfully managing the morals of society (A Vindication of the Book). Mandeville, by claiming to write only for "men of candor and capacity",  the "the few that can think abstractly and have their minds elevated above the vulgar", "men of sense", did flatter me enough at least to buy the book and put it on my shelf, taking great care it would be clearly visible from my visitor's chair. Mandeville's low, nay, pitifully substandard judicial accusers maintained that he was not, to say the least, only read by the wise, and that his book fuelled existing vicious tendencies in society,

Whilst other Millions were employ'd,
To see their Handy-works destroy'd:

for in the decades, yes, centuries to come, entire swarms of scholars in philosophy and economics got generously lodged in handsome hives to industriously bleach Vice in Mandeville's message and render an acceptable social philosophy of liberal free market society, creating for tiny poor egalitarian swarms in hollow trees the job of voluminously, nobly and virtuously uncover it once more.

So I enjoy'd this game of chess.
I hope I cleared some of the mess,
'nd with stern philos'phy from my shelf,
Made a good mess of it myself.

I thank you all for clicking me,
- an idle but industrious bee,
and hope that no harm you did see
in how I use the time I'm free