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The Ethics of Diet - A Catena
by Howard Williams M.A., 1883

Bernard de MANDEVILLE 1670-1733
(text from the 1st edition, 1883)

The most paradoxical of moralists, born at Dort, in Holland. He was brought up to the profession of medicine, and took the degree of M.D. H afterwards settled and practised in London.

It was in 1714 that he published his short poem called The Grumbling Hive: or, Knaves Turned Honest, to which he afterwards added long explanatory notes, and then republished the whole under the new and celebrated title of The Fable of the Bees. This work "which however erroneous may be its views of morals and of society, is written in a proper style, and bears all the marks of an honest and sincere inquiry on an important subject, exposed its author to much obloquy, and met with answers and attacks. . . It would appear that some of the hostility against this work, and against Mandeville generally, is to be traced to another publication, recommending the public licensing of "stews," the matter and manner of which are certainly exceptionable, though, at the same time, it must be stated that Mandeville earnestly and with seeming sincerity commends his plan as a means of diminishing immorality, and that he endeavoured, so far as lay in his power, by affixing a high price and in other ways, to prevent the work from having a general circulation." In fact, Mandeville is one of those injudicious but well-meaning reformers who, by their propensity to perverse paradox, have injured at once their reputation and their usefulness for after times.

A second part of The Fable appeared at a later period. Amongst other numerous writings were two entitled, Free Thoughts on Religion, the Church, and national Happiness, and An Enquiry into the Origin of Honour, and the Usefulness of Christianity in War. He appears to have been enabled to pursue his literary career in great measure by the liberality of his Dutch friends, and he was a constant guest of the first Earl of Macclesfield. "The Fable of the Bees; or, Private Vices Public Benefits may be received in two ways," says the writer in the Penny Cyclopedia, whom we have already quoted, " as a satire on men, and as a theory of society and national prosperity. So far as it is a satire, it is sufficiently just and pleasant, but received in its more ambitious character of a theory of society, it is altogether worthless. It is Mandeville's object to show that national greatness depends on the prevalence of fraud and luxury; and for this purpose he supposes 'a vast hive of bees' possessing in all respects institutions similar to those of men; he details the various frauds, similar to those among men, practised by bees upon another in various professions . . . His hive of bees having thus become wealthy and great, he afterwards supposes a mutual jealousy of frauds to arise, and Fraud to be, by common consent, dismissed; and he again assumes that wealth and luxury immediately disappear, and that the greatness of the society is gone." For our part, in place of "greatness," we should have rather written misery, as far as concerns the mass of communities.

Strange, as it may appear, that views of this kind should be seriously put forth, "it is yet more so that they should come from one whose object always was, however strange the way he set about it, to promote good morals, for there is nothing in Mandeville's writings to warrant the belief that he sought to encourage vice." (1)

Mandeville, like Swift, in the piece entitled An Argument against Abolishing Christianity; or De Foe, in his Shortest Way with the Dissenters, which were taken au sérieux almost universally at the time of their appearance, may have used the style of grave irony, so far as the larger portion of his Fable is concerned, for the purpose of making a stringer impression on the public conscience. If such were his purpose, the irony is so profound that it has missed its aim. Yet that his purpose was true and earnest is sufficiently evident in his opinion of the practice of slaughtering for food :-

"I have often thought [writes Mandeville] if it was not for this tyranny which custom usurps over us, that men of any tolerable good-nature could never be reconciled to the killing of so many animals for their daily food, as long as the bountiful earth so plentifully provides them with varieties of vegetable dainties. I know that Reason excites our compassion but faintly, and therefore I would not wonder how men should so little commiserate such imperfect creatures as crayfish, oysters, cockles, and indeed all fish in general; as they are mute and their inward formation, as well as outward figure, vastly different from ours, they express themselves unintelligibly to us, and therefore 'tis not strange that their grief should not affect our understanding which it cannot reach; for nothing stirs us to pity so effectually as when the symptoms of misery strike immediately upon our senses, and I have seen people moved at the noise a live lobster makes upon the spit, that could have killed half a dozen fowls with pleasure.

"But in such perfect animals as Sheep and Oxen, in whom the heart, the brain and nerves differ so little from ours, and in whom the separation of the spirits from the blood, the organs of sense, and consequently feeling itself, are the same as they are in human creatures; I cannot imagine how a man not hardened in blood and massacre is able to see a violent death, and the pangs of it, without concern.

"In answer to this [he continues], most people will think it sufficient to say that all things being allowed to be made for the service of man, there can be no cruelty in putting creatures to the use they were designed for; but I have heard men make this reply while the nature within them has reproached them with the falsehood of the assertion.

There is of all the multitude not one man in ten but what will own (if he was not brought up in a slaughter-house) that of all trades he could never have been a butcher; and I question whether ever anybody so much as killed a chicken without reluctancy the first time. some people are not to be persuaded to taste of any creatures they have daily seen and been acquainted with while they were alive; others extend their scruple no further than to their own poultry and refuse to eat what they fed and took care of themselves; yet all of them will feed heartily and without remorse on beef, mutton, and fowls when they are bought in the market. In this behaviour, methinks, there appears something like a consciousness of guilt, it looks as if they endeavoured to save themselves from the imputation of a crime (which they know sticks somewhere) by removing the cause of it as far as they can from themselves; and I can discover in it some strong remains of primitive pity and innocence, which all the arbitrary power of custom and the violence of luxury have not yet been able to conquer.

Footnotes

 

Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet - index