Bernard Mandeville and the Fable of the Bees

Bernard Mandeville’s – The Fable of Bees

On November 15, 1670, Dutch philosopher, political economist and satirist Bernard Mandeville was born. He became famous for The Fable of the Bees, a satire that suggests many key principles of economic thought, including division of labor and the “invisible hand“, seventy years before these concepts were more thoroughly elucidated by Adam Smith.

Not very much is known about the life of Bernard Mandeville. He probably grew up in Rotterdam, Netherlands and was the son of a physician. He enrolled at Leiden University and produced his thesis De brutorum operationibus in 1689. In it, Mandeville advocated the Cartesian theory of automatism among animals. He received his degree in medicine in 1691 and his disputation was titled De chylosi vitiata. He became a well known and respected physician and produced several literary works as well, which were considered just as successful.

The Grumbling Hive was probably published in 1705 and in 1714, it was again published under the famous name of The Fable of The Bees: or, Private Vices, Public Benefits. Next to the mentioned poem, a detailed discussion is included in the book. It consists numerous key principles of economic thought, such as the division of labour and the famous invisible hand. Mandeville describes a well working community of bees until the bees suddenly turn into honest and virtuous beings. Their community collapses due to the lack of the desire for personal benefits.

Mandeville explained that vice was necessary for economic prosperity, which was a quite scandalous point of view. Mandeville and also Adam Smith expressed that individual’s collective actions may lead to a public benefit. However, Smith believed in a virtuous self-interest which results in invisible co-operation and that there was no need for someone to garner the benefit. Mandeville however thought that politicians had to ensure that the people’s passions really resulted in public benefits. Back in the day, Mandeville’s ideas were seen as degrading in concerns of the human nature.

At yovisto, you may be interested in a video lecture on Adam Smith and the Wealth of Nations by Professor James Paradis.

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