In what way should we approach this startling claim? Is Bernard Mandeville simply a cynical philosopher degrading humanity and encouraging depravity? If private vices do in fact lead to public benefits what effects will this have on religion, economy, and morality? These questions, among many others, can only be approached with a firm understanding of what Mandeville constitutes as vice and virtue, and what the reader considers public paradise. There exists a certain dualism in Mandeville's philosophy that complicates many readings of the text, and most certainly a deeply ironic nuance that leaves many readers scratching their heads and amuses countless others.
The Fable of the Bees begins with a doggerel poem entitled The Grumbling Hive: or, Knaves turn'd Honest. It is from this verse that Mandeville will draw out his remarks, which make up the majority of the entire publication. One might inquire as to why Mandeville even uses the analogy of the hive. Aside from the first few lines, there exist few other references to bees in the first half of the poem.
[...] While Mandeville provides the reader with a definition of virtue and vice on the personal level defined by motive or intent, Kaye points out the “dual morality” that exists in his idea of public advantage. If personal virtue or vice is determined based on motive, it seems paradoxical that public benefit or detriment be determined by consequence. Kaye argues, “Mandeville decided upon the public results of private actions according to utilitarian standards. [ ] But he judged the private actions themselves according to an anti-utilitarian scheme” (xlviii-xlix). [...]
[...] The 18th century philosopher, Adam Smith, argued against Mandeville stating: is thus that he treats everything as vanity which has any reference either to what are or to what ought to be the sentiments of others: and it is by means of this sophistry that he establishes his favorite conclusion, that private vices are public benefits” (Smith 485-6). Mandeville anticipates this type of criticism and argues in Search into the Nature of Society” against Shaftesbury who “looks upon Virtue and Vice as permanent Realties that must ever be the same in all Countries and all Ages” (324). [...]
[...] The conclusion of the poem contains the lines: “THEN leave Complaints: Fools only strive To make a Great an Honest Hive. T' enjoy the World's Conveniences, Be fam'd in War, yet live in Ease, Without great Vices, is a vain EUTOPIA seated in the Brain.” (Mandeville 36) Thus, a prosperous society is one in which citizens, whether bees or humans, seek out their private vices. As pointed out by F. B. Kaye in the introduction to the text, Mandeville presents us with a definition that attempts to merge two distinct theological notions of virtue—one ascetic, the other rationalistic. [...]
using our reader.