A book by the Anglo-Dutch social philosopher Bernard Mandeville. It consists of the satirical poem The Grumbling Hive: or, Knaves turn’d Honest, which was first published anonymously in 1705; a prose discussion of the poem, called “Remarks”; and an essay, An Enquiry into the Origin of Moral Virtue. In 1723, a second edition was published with two new essays.
|The title page of the 1714 edition of Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees|
In The Grumbling Hive, Mandeville describes a bee community that thrives until the bees decide to live by honesty and virtue. As they abandon their desire for personal gain, the economy of their hive collapses, and they go on to live simple, “virtuous” lives in a hollow tree. Mandeville’s implication—that private vices create social benefits—caused a scandal when public attention turned to the work, especially after its 1723 edition.
Mandeville’s social theory and the thesis of the book, according to E. J. Hundert, is that “contemporary society is an aggregation of self-interested individuals necessarily bound to one another neither by their shared civic commitments nor their moral rectitude, but, paradoxically, by the tenuous bonds of envy, competition and exploitation”. Mandeville implied that people were hypocrites for espousing rigorous ideas about virtue and vice while they failed to act according to those beliefs in their private lives. He observed that those preaching against vice had no qualms about benefiting from it in the form of their society’s overall wealth, which Mandeville saw as the cumulative result of individual vices (such as luxury, gambling, and crime, which benefited lawyers and the justice system).
Mandeville’s challenge to the popular idea of virtue—in which only unselfish, Christian behaviour was virtuous—caused a controversy that lasted through the eighteenth century