On the Necessity of Hunger in
Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees
Society’s survival depends on quantity and likewise, it depends on vanity, which is a preoccupation with the quantification that causes comparison in life. By vanity, society can, according to the morals outlined in Mandeville’s Fable, find not an ideal comfort, but a logical one. This logical comfort will be compared to the ideal comfort, for which an examination of the Fable of the Bees will manifest a revelation of a system of political thought. Mandeville proposes through his verse, a notion consistent with his contemporaries, but revolutionary in its blatant implications and presentation.
“HOW Vain is Mortal Happiness/ . . . that Perfection here below/Is more than Gods can well bestow”, Mandeville begins his distinction between what he calls Mortal Happiness and Perfection (Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees, 28-29). What this distinction is and what it becomes in the throes of a society are the underlying themes of the economy expounded by Mandeville in his poem. “ . . . Good Gods, Had we but Honesty!” continues Mandeville, asserting the falsity of the whole affair, the vanity of the ordeal and its contrived dichotomous atmosphere (Mandeville, 29). The necessity of so staggering a dichotomy is expressed in the mere opening words of the quote, “HOW Vain is” it begins; that How is not only capitalized but in all capitals adds to the shuddering resonance it carries.
“BUT, Oh ye Gods! What Consternation,/How vast and sudden was th’ Alteration!” (Mandeville, 30). Here, man creates the distinction between himself and the Gods he creates to amplify his implied distinct existence. Revolving around exclusivity, it is an economy not of give and take, but of self-inflicted isolation:
“THIS was the State’s Craft, that maintain’d/The Whole of which each Part complain’d:/This, as in Musick Harmony,/Made Jarrings in the main agree;/Parties directly opposite,/Assist each other, as ‘twere for Spight;/And Temp’rance with Sobriety,/Serve Drunkenness and Gluttony” (Mandeville, 28).
By redefining that which distinguishes—quantity—and essentially adjusting it, then a hierarchy is born. The continual allusions to dietary excesses are the perfect metaphor for Mandeville’s system of consumption; the quote mentions musical theory wherein the discordant note is as necessary as the accordant to make “Musick Harmony”. Mandeville is of course not arguing for the benefits of a segregated system of living, but parodying it and pointing out each of its many absurd intricacies, such as the sudden uniformity that divide brings, where the community ends up indirectly fighting for the same cause: apparently, freedom. Mortal Happiness is that very isolation inflicted by man upon himself, and its pursuit is not linear but circular; sustenance of happiness is what plagues societies, not its procurement. As Mandeville’s quote can show, vice definitely lends itself to satisfaction, and everyone is certainly capable of it. “THUS Vice nurs’d Ingenuity,/ . . . To such a Height, the very poor/Liv’d better than the Rich before,/And nothing could be added more” (Mandeville, 28). Perfection is the struggle to transcend the same, and both recognize the assumption that each has been granted and manipulated by the Gods.
All of this is representative of what would arguably be a logic of happiness in society. It is not the logic, though, in the Fable of the Bees, it is the central mindset, but it is a logic a society could live by; indeed, Mandeville wrote the poem with contemporary England in mind, so felt, even if satirically, that it was the logic employed by some living examples. The ideal of it all is that the true happiness lies in the beholder; that free thinking brings free living. Withcunning, Mandeville seizes the opportunity to present English society as nothing more than a large colony of drones, each the same, simultaneously anonymous and a unique whole, bees in a wretched hive, eager to be controlled either by their passionate vices or the seeming virtues of their leaders: “The Grumbling Brutes had been content/With Ministers and Government/ . . . And would, tho’ conscious of his own,/In others barb’rously bear none” (Mandeville, 29). It is a willing submission, a comfort zone in which the bees or citizens can find happiness, however synthetic and its incurred pain great.
The almost sadomasochistic element of citizenship rampant in the Fable of the Bees serves as its preponderate mechanism of satire. That the bees know they are giving up control of themselves and gladly following the corrupt orders of another is the crux of the economy Mandeville is proposing. He said of such a people, that theirs was “That strange ridic’lous Vice,” and that it “ . . . was made/The very Wheel that turn’d the Trade./Their Laws and Clothes were equally/Objects of Mutability” (Mandeville, 28).
That Mutability is the blatant turning of their other cheeks that shows the citizens are too caught up in their vices to govern, yet are governed simultaneously by their pursuit or vices and by assisting in the pursuit of their governments’ vices. The Laws and Clothes of such a society are not only its symbols, but too, symbols of its petty silence and lethargy. There is more paradox at play both linguistically in Mandeville’s structure and in the world he uses that structure to depict; the citizens, or bees, are mutable of their own accord, and equally, the objects which are mutable are clothes and laws, neither speaks, but both cover up what allows a society to progress. The mutability of the hive is multifaceted, just like its many physical layers of inhabitance. Most importantly, what facilitated the perverse economy and existence of such a society as that in this hive was Vice; it was “The very Wheel that turn’d the Trade” (Mandeville, 28).
This leaves the underlying concept of quantity which is so crucial to any economic and arguably, to any social system. Quantity permits the observer—who is the creator of quantity—to argue justification, to argue deference, difference, destruction and development. “That noble Sin; whilst Luxury/Employ’d a Million more:/Envy it self, and Vanity,/Were Ministers of Industry” Mandeville goes on to explore the nature of quantity to define Luxury and its influence on the Industry of the hive (Mandeville, 28). There only exists a perception of Luxury and discernment between two groups—indeed, groups are only created—from an account of quantity. The importance of quantity to the Fable of the Bees lies in its ability to corrupt.
Quantity itself is virtually a vice. The second one begins to notice it and take it into account, to measure and tally it, then one makes attempt to quantify what was not possessed of quantity or difference. This application of quantity is vanity. Vanity is the supreme vice according to Mandeville, and from it, in the hive at least, comes public benefit. “VAST Numbers throng’d the fruitful Hive;/Yet those vast Numbers made ‘em thrive;/Millions endeavouring to supply/Each other’s Lust and Vanity;/While other Millions were employ’d,/To see their Handy-works destroy’d” and such is the power of amount, of quantity in its worst evil, comparison, to prevail (Mandeville, 24).
Though quantity leads to vice, when viewing it in the context of Mandeville’s satirical exploration of corruption and its reciprocal benefits, it seems the most efficient vehicle of survival. Vanity is the awareness of quantity, simultaneously, it is its vice, and essentially, it is the greatest benefit in such a hive as that described.
Mandeville, Bernard, The fable of the bees and other writings. Ed. E. J. Hundert. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1997.