Mandeville, Bernard

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Mandeville, Bernard (1670-1733): Dutch-British Philosopher

Born in or near Rotterdam and trained at the famous medical school in Leyden, Bernard Mandeville moved in the mid-1690s to London, where he established a medical practice and published works that eventually earned notoriety for their unconventional moral views. In choosing to study medicine, Mandeville followed in the footsteps of his father and great-grandfather. He produced two dissertations at the University of Leyden, the first (1689) a philosophical argument for the Descartes’ mechanistic conception of animals and the second (1691) a medical analysis of gastrointestinal functions and disorders. As a physician in London, Mandeville apparently had a small but wealthy clientele, since he specialized in the kinds of nervous disorders (variously known as vapors, spleen, hypochondria, and hysteria) to which the social elite were prone.

Mandeville wrote with ironic skepticism about many topics. In the first decades of the eighteenth century, Mandeville made an initial bid for a literary reputation with collections of Hudibrastic verse. The octosyllabic couplets of Some Fables after the Easy and Familiar Method of Monsieur de la Fontaine (1703, expanded and reissued the next year as Aesop Dress’d), Typhon, or the War Between Gods and Giants: A Burlesque Poem in Imitation of the Comical Mons. Scarron (1704), The Grumbling Hive: Or, Knaves Turn'd Honest (1705), and Wishes to a Godson (1712) treat topics ranging from romantic love to virtue and the heroic ideals of epic poetry with burlesque irreverence. Mandeville's first prose work in English, The Virgin Unmask'd" (1709), is a dialogue in which an elderly spinster--perhaps modeled after Astell, Mary--advises her niece to remain unmarried, arguing with wit and intelligence not only that marriage is an oppressive and often abusive trap for women, but also that women deserve better education to prepare them to be independent. In his next work, A Treatise of the Hypochondriack and Hysterick Passions (1711), Mandeville turned to medical topics but continued with the dialogue form, this time involving a physician and two patients. The empirical polemics in the preface and the physician's statements encourage reliance on experience and experimentation rather than the medical hypotheses and authorities of the past.

In his political writings, Mandeville's ironic postures make it difficult to label him Whig or Tory. The Pamphleteers: A Satyr (1703) is a defense of the revolutionary settlement of 1689. Mandeville's thirty-two contributions to a Tory journal, The Female Tatler (November 1709 through March 1710) ridicule Steele, Richard's Whiggish advocacy of virtuous commercialism. The Mischiefs that Ought Justly to be Apprehended from a Whig-Government (1714) is a dialogue asserting the role of Providence in the deposition of the Catholic Stuarts and the ascendance of the Protestant Hanoverians. Free Thoughts on Religion, the Church, and National Happiness (1720) defends the Whig government while presenting an argument for religious freedom, attacking the clergy for its hypocrisy and political designs, and rejecting the divine-right argument for monarchic absolutism.

The most famous and controversial of Mandeville's works is The Fable of the Bees, or Private Vices, Public Benefits. It attracted little attention when first published as The Grumbling Hive in 1705, then reprinted in 1714 with prose "Remarks" and a prefatory essay on morality. The 1723 edition, however, provoked the Grand Jury of Middlesex to indict it as a public nuisance and printed condemnations continued until the middle of the century. This edition, with added remarks and two essays on the development of society and the economic inadvisability of charity and charity schools, was followed by a series of works that further articulated and refined the basic premise of The Fable: society benefits from the selfishness and vanity of human nature. In A Modest Defence of Publick Stews (1724), Mandeville proposes government regulation of prostitution, arguing that men's inability to control their desires makes abolition of the trade impractical and that regulation would diminish the spread of disease and corollary crimes such as abortions, adultery, and rape. A year later, Mandeville published An Enquiry into the Frequent Executions at Tyburn (1725), arguing that crime might be reduced by laws changing the ways criminals are prosecuted and punished. In 1728, a second volume of The Fable appeared. Two final works appeared in 1732. An Enquiry into the Origin of Honour, a dialogue, suggests that the conception of honor evolved as a political expedient for inducing naturally self-interested humanity to become self-denying for the sake of the state, and that this secular doctrine has become more useful to nations' interests than is Christianity. A Letter to Dion--a response to Berkeley, George's Alciphron (1732), which ridiculed Mandeville's moral philosophy--claims that Berkeley exaggerated and misrepresented Mandeville's beliefs.

Mandeville's philosophy, an implied rebuttal of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of 's view that human nature inclines toward the good, led some to label him "Man-Devil," but his writings influenced many important figures of the period, among them Defoe, Daniel, Pope, Alexander, Fielding, Henry, Johnson, Samuel, Hume, David, Hutcheson, Francis, and Smith, Adam. The qualities of his writing--the consistent irony, the wry skepticism, the unflinchingly blunt assessment of human folly and vice, the anticlericalism, the advocacy of political and religious tolerance, and the scientific emphasis on rational empiricism--place Mandeville in a line of thinkers and writers that include some of the leading figures in the Seventeenth Century as well as in the Enlightenment: Moliere and Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de , Gibbon, Edward and Hume, David, Descartes and Kant, Immanuel.

Further Reading:

E. G. Hundert, The Enlightenment's Fable: Bernard Mandeville and the Discovery of Society. 1994.

Irwin Primer, ed., Mandeville Studies: New Explorations in the Art and Though of Dr. Mandeville, 1975


Glen Colburn


Morehead State University

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