Bernard Mandeville was a Dutch writer and economist from the 18th century. His most famous work is the Grumbling Hive (1705) and his defense of that poem The Fable of the Bees (1714), which included the former work in it. Both of these poems are based on a bee hive that represents human society. It explains how Mandeville thinks society, particularly economics, should really be. His two most important ideas from these poems are namely that people are driven by selfishness and that there is a certain spontaneous order that comes to society. However, Mandeville’s poems were written terribly and they aren’t great examples of writing. So why did Mandeville come down in history as important?
The two main ideas from Mandeville’s works are spontaneous order and selfishness. Looking at the work of Adam Smith, a Scottish economist and philosopher, The Wealth of Nations, we find these two ideas as the base of Smith’s philosophy. He argues that selfishness is morally acceptable and that this is what drives society. He also believes in the ‘invisible hand’ that drives society, like Mandeville’s spontaneous order. (See my essay, Adam Smith).
Mandeville’s economic influence also reaches to F.A. Hayek, a 20th century economist, known for defending classical liberalism.* Hayek also took Smith and Mandeville’s ideas to heart and further affirmed the idea of spontaneous order, or the invisible hand.
However, Mandeville’s influence wasn’t confined to economics, but also affected science in the form of, most notably, Charles Darwin. As we know, Mandeville said that selfishness is what drives humans to compete in a free market economy. Darwin applied this to biology—his survival of the fittest and natural selection. For example, survival of the fittest is whoever survives best: you are selfishly approaching everything so you can survive.
Whether you agree with it or not, Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees is an important historical work and one that influenced modern economic thought and science.
*You can check out my essays on classical liberalism: