The Fable of the Bees

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The title page of the 1705 edition of Bernard de Mandeville's Fable of the Bees.

The Fable of The Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits is a book by Bernard Mandeville, consisting of the poem The Grumbling Hive: or, Knaves turn’d Honest, along with prose discussion of the poem. The poem was published in 1705, and the book first appeared in 1714.[1] The poem 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.[2] Two centuries later, John Maynard Keynes cited Mandeville to show that it was "no new thing ... to ascribe the evils of unemployment to ... the insufficiency of the propensity to consume",[3] a condition also known as the paradox of thrift, which was central to his own theory of effective demand.

At the time, however, it was considered scandalous. Keynes noted that it was "convicted as a nuisance by the grand jury of Middlesex in 1723, which stands out in the history of the moral sciences for its scandalous reputation. Only one man is recorded as having spoken a good word for it, namely Dr. Johnson, who declared that it did not puzzle him, but 'opened his eyes into real life very much'."[4]

It was also reported that:

Mandeville gave great offense by this book, in which a cynical system of morality was made attractive by ingenious paradoxes. ... His doctrine that prosperity was increased by expenditure rather than by saving fell in with many current economic fallacies not yet extinct.[5] Assuming with the ascetics that human desires were essentially evil and therefore produced "private vices" and assuming with the common view that wealth was a "public benefit", he easily showed that all civilization implied the development of vicious propensities....

Leslie Stephen, in Dictionary of National Biography, quoted by Keynes 1964, pp. 359–560.

The poem[edit]

The poem had appeared in 1705 and was intended as a commentary on England as Mandeville saw it. Keynes described the poem as setting forth "the appalling plight of a prosperous community in which all the citizens suddenly take it into their heads to abandon luxurious living, and the State to cut down armaments, in the interests of Saving".[6]

A Spacious Hive well stock'd with Bees,
That lived in Luxury and Ease;
And yet as fam'd for Laws and Arms,
As yielding large and early Swarms;
Was counted the great Nursery
Of Sciences and Industry.
No Bees had better Government,
More Fickleness, or less Content.
They were not Slaves to Tyranny,
Nor ruled by wild Democracy;
But Kings, that could not wrong, because
Their Power was circumscrib'd by Laws.

The "hive" is corrupt but prosperous, yet it grumbles about lack of virtue. A higher power decides to give them what they ask for:

But Jove, with Indignation moved,
At last in Anger swore, he'd rid
The bawling Hive of Fraud, and did.
The very Moment it departs,
And Honesty fills all their Hearts;

This results in a rapid loss of prosperity, though the newly virtuous hive does not mind:

For many Thousand Bees were lost.
Hard'ned with Toils, and Exercise
They counted Ease it self a Vice;
Which so improved their Temperance;
That, to avoid Extravagance,
They flew into a hollow Tree,
Blest with Content and Honesty.

The poem ends in a famous phrase:

Bare Virtue can't make Nations live
In Splendor; they, that would revive
A Golden Age, must be as free,
For Acorns, as for Honesty.

Prosaic expansions[edit]

The poem attracted little attention. The 1714 work, however, quickly achieved notoriety, being understood as an attack on Christian virtues. What it actually means remains controversial down to the present day. Mandeville did say:

What Country soever in the Universe is to be understood by the Bee-Hive represented here, it is evident from what is said of the Laws and Constitution of it, the Glory, Wealth, Power and Industry of its Inhabitants, that it must be a large, rich and warlike Nation, that is happily govern'd by a limited Monarchy. The Satyr therefore to be met with in the following Lines upon the several Professions and Callings, and almost every Degree and Station of People, was not made to injure and point to a particular Persons, but only to shew the Vileness of the Ingredients that all together compose the wholesome Mixture of a well-order'd Society; in order to extol the wonderful Power of Political Wisdom, by the help of which so beautiful a Machine is rais'd from the most contemptible Branches. For the main Design of the Fable, (as it is briefly explain'd in the Moral) is to shew the Impossibility of enjoying all the most elegant Comforts of Life that are to be met with in an industrious, wealthy and powerful Nation, and at the same time be bless'd with all the Virtue and Innocence that can be wish'd for in a Golden Age; from thence to expose the Unreasonableness and Folly of those, that desirous of being an opulent and flourishing People, and wonderfully greedy after all the Benefits they can receive as such, are yet always murmuring at and exclaiming against those Vices and Inconveniences, that from the Beginning of the World to this present Day, have been inseparable from all Kingdoms and States that ever were fam'd for Strength, Riches, and Politeness, at the same time.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau commented on The Fable of the Bees in part one of his Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men (1754):

Mandeville sensed very well that even with all their morality men would never have been anything but monsters if nature had not given them pity in support of reason; but he did not see that from this quality alone flow all the social virtues he wants to question in men. In fact, what are generosity, clemency, humanity, if not pity applied to the weak, to the guilty, to the human species in general?

Economic views[edit]

Mandeville is today generally regarded as a serious economist and philosopher.[7] He produced a second volume of The Fable of the Bees in 1729,[8] with an extensive set of dialogues that set out his economic views. His ideas about the division of labor draw on those of William Petty, and are similar to those of Adam Smith.[9] Mandeville says:

When once Men come to be govern’d by written Laws, all the rest comes on a-pace. Now Property, and Safety of Life and Limb, may be secured: This naturally will forward the Love of Peace, and make it spread. No number of Men, when once they enjoy Quiet, and no Man needs to fear his Neighbour, will be long without learning to divide and subdivide their Labour...

Man, as I have hinted before, naturally loves to imitate what he sees others do, which is the reason that savage People all do the same thing: This hinders them from meliorating their Condition, though they are always wishing for it: But if one will wholly apply himself to the making of Bows and Arrows, whilst another provides Food, a third builds Huts, a fourth makes Garments, and a fifth Utensils, they not only become useful to one another, but the Callings and Employments themselves will in the same Number of Years receive much greater Improvements, than if all had been promiscuously follow’d by every one of the Five...

The truth of what you say is in nothing so conspicuous, as it is in Watch-making, which is come to a higher degree of Perfection, than it would have been arrived at yet, if the whole had always remain'd the Employment of one Person; and I am persuaded, that even the Plenty we have of Clocks and Watches, as well as the Exactness and Beauty they may be made of, are chiefly owing to the Division that has been made of that Art into many Branches. (The Fable of the Bees, Volume two).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Fable of The Bees-Liberty Fund
  2. ^ Smith does not cite Mandeville in "Wealth of Nations", but Edwin Cannan, editor of the 1904 edition, notes in several places where Smith appears to have been influenced by Mandeville. See notes in Smith 1904 at pp. 3, 10, 12, 14, and 102. Adam Smith was familiar with Mandeville's work early on, as he discusses it in his Theory of Moral Sentiments: Part VII, Section II, Chapter 4 (‘Of licentious systems’); online.
  3. ^ Keynes 1964, ch. 23, sec. vii, p. 358.
  4. ^ Keynes 1964, p. 359.
  5. ^ Stephen's "current economic fallacies not yet extinct" refers to Mercantilism.
  6. ^ Keynes 1964, p. 360.
  7. ^ Vandenberg, Phyllis; DeHart, Abigail. "Bernard Mandeville (1670–1733): Influence on Economic Theory". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved February 3, 2015.
  8. ^ Bernard Mandeville, F. B. Kaye (ed.), The Fable of the Bees: Of Private Vices, Publick Benefits, with a Commentary Critical, Historical, and Explanatory (1924), Volume One, "Prefatory Note" p ix
  9. ^ The Wealth of Nations, Glasgow Edition, footnote to p. 27, section I.ii.3


Further reading[edit]

  • F. B. Kaye (ed.), The Fable of the Bees (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924). Critical edition in two volumes

External links[edit]