Private Vices, Public Virtues

Written on October 29, 2007 by Arantza de Areilza in Arts & Cultures & Societies, Literature, Philosophy

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Arantza de Areilza


In these shadowy days of national and international politics, the memory comes to me of the figure Bernard de Mandeville, doctor and philosopher, of Dutch origins and his great work “The Fable of the Bees” situated in the England at the beginning of the 18th century. 

This context of historic upheaval, marked by the dethroning of James II of England by William of Orange-Nasseau in the revolution of 1688, the stir caused by the death of Ann Stuart, daughter of James II, the ascension to the throne of the House of Hanover in 1714, the continuing strength acquired by the Jacobites which seemed to threaten the stability of England, and the bankruptcy of religious legitimacies since the 17th century, the insistence of conservative and moralistic strength of the age, in which the importance of virtue and the civic spirit to conserve the cohesion of society was renewed.  A society in the midst of drastic change, with accelerated growth of the urban centers and precarious living conditions of the humble classes.  In this instability, political as well as economic, he considered the public necessity to morally instruct to the society taking steps to what was called Civic Humanism, based in the belief of the public necessity to control private immorality. 

Mandeville resisted this course and, and therefore, the idea of necessity to repress private vice to the benefit of the well being of the Nation.  He rejected the moral interpretation of public life, attributing it to those who did not understand Man, and that the true force which controls is nothing other than personal interest or selfishness.  He expanded on a theory of progress and of the functioning of society based upon acts of individual interest in which virtue and civility are substituted for selfishness and commercial wealth.  For Mandeville, the things that the moralists of the 18th century considered vices were precisely the passions which contributed material prosperity.  Therefore, man should accept his natural selfishness and make adequate use of it converting vice into virtue.  The social cohesion was based in a mutual necessity and not in religious virtue.  The social progress arose from the passions and vices of men, and their passions, were compensated by the interest, allowing them to live in peace. 

This remind us that the demands of moral reform are often aroused by selfishness, hypocrisy or pride and insist that, in every complex society, vice mixes with virtue, which is never a nexus for social unity. 

“The Fable of the Bees” speaks about the complex relations between good and evil, or between virtues and vices, or of the certainty of the difficult transformation of personal interests in economic life in the function of a collective well being.  The formula, “private vices, public virtues” is this “force that wants to create evil and always creates good” as Goethe’s Mephistopheles would say.  It is the idea of Kantian “unsociable sociability” or Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.”  It is the liberal idea, according to which, the common good or the collective interest, is only possible through the individual search of their own interest or benefit.  It is the desire of all men by obtaining more and the eternal feeling of dissatisfaction which leads them to do whatever they can to obtain the desired.  It is, as Max Weber said, the step of the search of the daemon to the pact with the Devil: my next theme. 


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