Bernard Mandeville and Adam Smith


Portrait Convener

Leanne Stokoe, Newcastle University





Full transcript and citations here.


click to download…

  • Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees or Private Vices, Publick Benefits, 3rd edn. (1723), ed. by F. B. Kaye, 2 vols (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1988).
    • ‘The Grumbling Hive, or Knaves Turn’d Honest’ (pp. 66-74), ‘The Introduction’ (p. 76) ‘An Enquiry into the Nature of Moral Virtue’ (pp. 77-83) and ‘Remarks’ A, B, and C (pp. 84-95).
  • Adam Smith,
    • On Sympathy’ in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), vol. 1 of The Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith, ed. by D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie, in (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976-87).
    • Of Systems of Political Economy’, in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), vol. 2 of The Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith, ed. by R. L. Campbell and A. S. Skinner, 2 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976-87).

Further resources

  • In Our Time episode (BBC Radio1) on Adam Smith. Listen here

Introduction to reading

During the age of Enlightenment (c. 1650-1785), integrity was seen as synonymous with the inherently rational and benevolent propensities of human beings. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), John Locke declares that the individual is a ‘conscious thinking thing […] which is sensible of pleasure and pain, and so is concerned for itself, as far as that consciousness extends’. This view of the self as a composite of its sensory experiences and its ‘consciousness’ of others is developed by Locke’s successors. For instance, David Hume’s Treatise on the Principle of Human Nature (1739-40) describes the mind as comprising ‘vivid and intense chimeras’, which recombine sense impressions in a way that resists ‘conclusions concerning matter of fact’. Yet this session explores how two figures from either end of the eighteenth century challenge the idea that acting with integrity depends upon subordinating the self to such a rational interpretation of human nature.

Opening by investigating the career of Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733), the workshop focuses on contemporary writers who not only challenge this separation of integrity from self-interest, but also analyse its relationship to socio-economic progress. Reading Mandeville’s most famous work, The Fable of the Bees (1714), the session investigates its controversial paradox that ‘private vice’ is the catalyst to ‘public benefit’. It also examines Mandeville’s belief that to align social improvement with a rational kind of integrity is to seek a ‘vain utopia’ that disregards humanity’s essential nature. Drawing attention to the Fable’s allegory of worker bees who must choose between a ‘virtuous’ yet primitive existence, or a prosperous yet corrupt society, we will focus on Mandeville’s contributions to eighteenth-century legal debates, as well as to the emerging discipline of political economy. By pointing to his sceptical view of ‘civilisation’ and the way that it teaches an artificial code of morality, the session questions whether Mandeville rejects integrity entirely or re-orientates it in an alternative direction. We will also examine Mandeville’s wider experimentation with poetry and prose, focusing on his concept of readership. The publication of his poem, The Grumbling Hive, or Knaves Turn’d Honest in 1705 was received as little more than a novelty. Yet when this was amalgamated with extensive prose expansions in 1714, it was denounced by the leading politicians and philosophers of the day. We will discuss why these two ‘versions’ of Mandeville’s ideas were interpreted in such different ways, as well as examine his authorial intentions.

The second part of the session will investigate the transformation of Mandeville’s belief in ‘the necessity of vice’ during the Scottish Enlightenment. Whilst Mandeville distrusts rational enquiry for what he sees as its suppression of human selfishness, he maintains that such propensities remain ‘vile’, notwithstanding their beneficial side-effects. In contrast, we will explore the ways in which Mandevillean notions of integrity are redefined in the writings of Adam Smith (1723-1790). Smith’s admiration for what he calls the ‘kernel of truth’ in Mandeville’s doctrines informs his reinterpretation of self-interest in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and The Wealth of Nations (1776). Through investigating Smith’s conviction that individuals can ‘only’ imagine the ‘situation’ of others through their own interests, we will address how his work aligns Mandevillean morality with human sympathy. Furthermore, by tracing insufficiently-studied parallels between Smith’s moral outlook and his seminal text on political economy, the session will explore the extent to which his definition of self-interest shapes his ideas about national prosperity. Investigating Smith’s imaginative approach to the self and its impact upon his metaphor of ‘the invisible hand’, we will discuss how he reconceptualises Mandevillean ‘vice’ into a virtuous humanity that inspires ‘unintentional’ national advantages. The workshop will also address how this construction of economic metaphors extends Mandeville’s interest in literary form, particularly the way that Smith’s fascination with rhetoric underpins his fusion of moral philosophy with economics.

We will conclude by exploring the legacy of Mandevillean and Smithian definitions of integrity in the early nineteenth century, a period in which this term is viewed with increasing scepticism following the failure of 1790s ideals. Whilst the rise of Benthamite utilitarianism incorporates this optimistic view of self-interest to facilitate ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’, Romantic-era writers like William Godwin (1756-1836) and William Hazlitt (1778-1830) question whether such a humanity can bring about an egalitarian system of government. By exploring such diverse attitudes towards human nature, the session will consider to what extent ‘integrity’ can be seen as a shifting concept during this era, as well as its influence upon the contemporary socio-economic, political and aesthetic spheres.


2 Responses to Bernard Mandeville and Adam Smith

  1. We have no meeting in December and start again on January 30th with Leanne Stokoe leading a session on Mandeville and Adam Smith. Leanne’s introduction and all the readings are available via the website.

  2. Adam Kelly says:

    Wow, what a fantastic introduction. Can’t wait for the meeting!

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