The many paradoxes of Bernard Mandeville

  • Themes: History, Philosophy

Bernard Mandeville was a satirist not a moralist; a humourist not a philosopher; an enemy of do-gooding reformers who was himself a do-gooding reformer.

An Angel Leading a Soul into Hell. Follower of Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450 –1516).
An Angel Leading a Soul into Hell. Follower of Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450 –1516). Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Robin Douglass, Mandeville’s Fable: Pride, Hypocrisy, and Sociability (Princeton University Press, £80)

Does Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733) matter? He is best known for The Fable of the Bees (1714-29), especially that work’s claim that private vices produce public benefits. Thus extravagance and greed lead to economic growth, and Mandeville is often read as an early theorist of commercial society. Mandeville was (following Hobbes) a firm defender of egoism: we only act in what we take to be our own self-interest, so virtue, as conventionally understood is (without the aid of divine grace, says Mandeville, as a sop to his critics) impossible. Mandeville thus seeks to replace Christian morality with a secular account of how self-interested behaviour can serve society as a whole. Hayek thought Mandeville was one of the first important theorists of ‘spontaneous order’: the order that can result from the uncoordinated actions of many individuals, and Mandeville certainly thought this was how language was constructed. Mandeville mattered to his contemporaries: Butler, Hutcheson, Hume and Smith were all concerned to argue against him, insisting that human behaviour was not always selfish, and Mandeville was widely and carefully read in France, by Rousseau, Diderot, and Voltaire among others.

Robin Douglass’s interesting and provocative book does not survey the full range of Mandeville’s arguments. Instead it focusses on a single, central topic: Mandeville’s account of how selfish individuals, prone to anger, lust, and greed, manage to make each other fit for a life in society. The answer, Mandeville argues, lies in pride. Pride, since it is inherently competitive, might seem like an anti-social passion, and was traditionally regarded as a vice. Pride, Mandeville claims, leads us to think unduly well of ourselves: pride and shame are the product of what he calls ‘self-liking’ and we might call ‘self-esteem’. In order to think well of ourselves we have to behave in ways that will win the approval of others, and so we counterfeit the sociable virtues: honesty, modesty, politeness, industry, and so forth. Indeed, if we are to think well of ourselves we must also persuade ourselves that we really have those virtues. Thus Mandeville portrays society as riddled with two forms of deception: in the first place, we cynically counterfeit virtue in order to win the approval of others; in the second place we succeed in self-deception, and persuade ourselves that we really deserve our own self-liking.  To counterfeit virtue in this way we have to believe in it. Thus true virtue, which requires self-denial, is unobtainable; but society would not be possible unless we came to believe in and fake this impossible ideal.

It’s a natural follow-up to this theory that Mandeville sought, in what Douglass calls his ‘historical turn’, to provide a conjectural account of how human beings, born as selfish animals, came to develop into social beings. On Mandeville’s account the evolution of human society resulted partly from the emergence of spontaneous order of the Hayekian sort, and partly from the cunning inventions of politicians and priests. Here it seems to me that he tends to underestimate the originality of Mandeville’s enterprise. Plenty of later thinkers – Hume, Smith, and Rousseau, for example – produced sophisticated conjectural histories. And natural lawyers such as Grotius and Pufendorf had produced brief sketches of how humankind might have developed from savagery to civilisation (though such sketches were always constrained by the need to defer to biblical history); but Mandeville seems to have been the first to grasp that a secular account of moral philosophy and social order must be melded with a plausible history of humanity.

This is an admirable book, and Douglass carries his considerable learning lightly. But there is another respect in which (it seems to me) he misses Mandeville’s remarkable originality – for it is odd that, having so successfully outlined Mandeville’s account of pride, he fails to see just how peculiar it is. There was a long tradition before Mandeville of debunking accounts of human behaviour as inspired by lofty principles. Machiavellian reason of state theorists acknowledged that rulers claimed to be motivated by honour, justice, and hereditary right; but, in practice, they maintained, their actions were entirely governed by self-interest or reason of state. Hobbes, La Rochefoucauld, Nicole, and Bayle had, before Mandeville, argued that apparently disinterested behaviour, such as love, friendship, and courage, was actually motivated by self-interest, glory, and pride. But their accounts were fundamentally reductionist: the lover thinks that all that matters to them is the happiness of the loved one, when actually it is their own happiness they are after. This isn’t hypocrisy; it’s a form of confusion that results from an unwillingness to recognise how selfish our motives are.

Mandeville draws on this line of argument, but he is not a reductionist. He does not merely teach us to see through our apparently noble sentiments to discover the self-gratification that underlies them. Rather, he acknowledges that we are, simultaneously, both selfish and social creatures. All our behaviour involves self-gratification, but it is essential that we both counterfeit and believe in self-denial. Our capacity to idealise, to engage in self-liking and to imagine self-denial, is essential for the ordering of society. The philosopher’s task is thus not simply to rip off the mask of virtue and show the vice that lies behind it (an enterprise illustrated in the frontispiece to La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims); it is rather to improve the working of idealisation and thus increase the benefits society draws from it.

Mandeville, for example, believed that lawyers and doctors claim to be furthering the interests of their clients, but their behaviour is in fact crudely self-interested. Mandeville, a doctor himself, specialised in hypochondria and hysteria, and his book on the subject, published in 1711, contains a withering account of the medical profession, one worthy to be set alongside La Mettrie’s L’ouvrage de Pénélope, ou Machiavel en médecine (1748‒50). But Mandeville and La Mettrie were not concerned, as so many were, simply to argue that doctors should be avoided because they did more harm than good; both believed that if the self-gratifying drives of the medical professionals could be redirected, a better medicine could result. Doctors could only practice the tricks of their trade because their patients were naive; if patients became more discerning doctors would have to deliver better value. This is a good example of how Mandeville did not believe that spontaneous order was necessarily good order. For centuries the medical profession had successfully cheated its clients; the market in medicine hadn’t worked to the patients’ benefit. But once the laziness and hypocrisy of the profession had been exposed one might hope to establish a new order, in which doctors were nudged into producing efficacious therapies. Thus Mandeville, like cunning politicians and priests through the ages, sought to establish a congruence between self-gratifying motives and idealised outcomes. Medicine, indeed society as a whole, can be reformed; but human nature cannot.

Read this way Mandeville seems to me a theorist of foremost importance — even more important than Douglass takes him to be. His account of the workings of pride, while being couched in terms of hypocrisy and counterfeiting, implies a recognition of the workings of the unconscious: we have conscious motivations, and motivations which continue to work below the level of consciousness, even after their existence has been exposed by the theorist. In Shakespeare’s plays Machiavellian characters such as Richard III turn to the audience and, in soliloquies, declare their hidden motives. Mandevillian men and women are not simply hypocritical deceivers of the sort that fascinated Renaissance audiences; they deceive themselves just as much as they deceive others.

Many years ago I was taught by Richard Tuck, who remarked to me that he didn’t understand the concept of self-deception. Who, he asked, is deceiving whom? Could Mandeville have answered his question? Certainly his theory implies a non-unitary concept of the self. There is an interesting moment in his book on hypochondria when (considering the unwilled male erection) he remarks that one has to understand that there is more than one soul. The phenomenon, he says, merely requires an Aristotelian distinction between vegetative, animal, and rational souls – but he noticeably stops short of saying this is a full classification of the types of soul. Strikingly, his account, like Freud’s, allows for an individual to have souls in conflict with each other. Hume’s account of the self, by contrast, denies the presence of a unitary soul, but replaces it merely with an empty stage, not a multiplicity of selves. Mandeville, who specialised in mental illness, understood, as Hume did not, that our minds play tricks upon us.

If Mandeville is as important as Douglass believes him to be, and even perhaps as important as I take him to be, why has that importance not previously been recognised? Why did the smartest of eighteenth-century philosophers attack crude caricatures of his thinking, and not the sophisticated theory that Douglass reconstructs? I can see three answers to this question.

First, there is a problem of vocabulary: the key terms which I have relied on to give an account of his thinking – unconscious, idealisation, self-gratification – are not terms he uses, and he does not invent equivalents. He does not even use the term ‘psychology’. His argument is thus partially concealed by the paucity of his vocabulary, and he is too conservative an author to try to remedy this by inventing a new language.

Second, there is a problem of what we might call paradigm deficiency. Hume, for example, announced himself to be a disciple of Newton. He was going to seek out the hidden principles of the mind that produce the society with which we are familiar, as Newton had found in gravity a principle for explaining physical effects with which we are already familiar. But all the paradigms available to a thinker such as Mandeville were reductionist; none provided a model for how to theorise the doubleness of human nature, the way in which human beings are simultaneously both apes and language-inventing, idealising social beings.

Third, there is the problem of genre. Mandeville is a satirist and a humourist. Douglass still thinks it necessary to argue that it is not inappropriate to take him seriously as a philosopher. Mandeville’s own social status was peculiar: a Dutchman, practising medicine in England without a licence, and an unbeliever who refused to attack religious belief. It was and is all too easy to assume that what he offered was simply a reworking of arguments to be found elsewhere, in more respectable or more (apparently) sophisticated authors.

Mandeville thus seems to be an important exception to what has become the paradigmatic principle underlying history of philosophy as it is currently practised: the principle that philosophical texts successfully communicate what they intend to say to the readers the author originally had in mind, a principle which has been best elaborated by Quentin Skinner. If Douglass is right, Hume and Smith didn’t fully grasp Mandeville’s intentions. If I am right, Douglass hasn’t fully grasped them, and indeed there is a sense in which Mandeville had difficulty getting clear in his own mind what he was doing. This shouldn’t surprise us. Writers struggle to make themselves understood, and to work out what it is they want to say. One of the merits of Douglass’s book is that he is very clear about what he wants to do, and he says what he has to say without deviation or repetition. It is perhaps a little churlish to complain that this inevitably means that the essence of Mandeville as an author and a thinker escapes him, for Mandeville specialises in the indirect, not the direct. He is a satirist not a moralist; a humourist not a philosopher; an enemy of do-gooding reformers who is himself a do-gooding reformer. He loves a paradox, and wrote at length against those who saw mathematics as the model for medicine: doctors have to deal not with abstractions, but with real patients in all their complexity.

Douglass is right: Mandeville is an important philosopher; but in bringing out his importance he loses sight of both the man and the writer, and, by treating him as a philosopher, he overlooks something fundamental that distinguishes Mandeville from the rest of the Enlightenment. Compare Mandeville to Rousseau: Rousseau adopts Mandeville’s account of how we constantly find ourselves at odds with ourselves, obsessed with what others think of us, incapable of authenticity. But Rousseau believes this internal conflict can, in principle, be resolved; Mandeville knows it cannot, for it is an inescapable consequence of socialisation. Our aspirations are always unrealisable; we always deceive ourselves; we are, no matter how polite and civilised, always self-gratifying animals. There are all sorts of ways in which we can improve society, but we cannot escape from the fundamental contradictions in which we are trapped. Carl Becker’s famous book The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (1932) argued that the Enlightenment believed that we can be redeemed through reason. Mandeville, and Mandeville alone, understood that we are beyond redemption. Philosophy cannot save us.


David Wootton