Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
 
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
Bernard Mandeville (1670–1733)
 
[Very little is known in detail of the life of Bernard Mandeville or de Mandeville, one of the most notorious and best abused writers of the earlier 18th century. He appears to have been born at Dort, in Holland, about 1670, and to have died in London in January 1733. His father was a physician, and Mandeville was well educated at Rotterdam and Leyden. It does not seem to be known when or why he came to London; but he must have done so pretty early. He practised physic, it would seem, to the end of his life; but never appears to have attained a sufficient position to have a house of his own. One of the very rare personal traditions about him says that he was pensioned by the distillers to write in favour of their wares—a statement not quite reconcilable with divers passages in his works, unless we are to take these as an attempt at blackmailing. Another is his picturesque and pregnant description of Addison as “a parson in a tie-wig.” By his own account he wrote, before the end of the seventeenth century, a short poem in very rough but rather vigorous octosyllabics, entitled The Grumbling Hive. This is a fable wherein the corrupt practices which made a hive of bees populous and prosperous, and the reformation which improved their morals and put an end to their prosperity, are successively recounted. Bibliography however does not seem to know any edition before 1705. The piece, according to Mandeville, was both bought and pirated; but it was not till he reprinted it in 1714 with divers prose additions that it attracted much attention. This increased till, after yet another enlarged reprint in 1723 as The Fable of the Bees, or Private Vices Public Benefits, it was presented by the Grand Jury and drew many replies, the fiercest and most severe of which was Law’s Remarks, while later Berkeley also attacked it very bitterly in Alciphron. Mandeville, who was not afflicted with bashfulness, continued to enlarge his work till in the so-called ninth edition (Edinburgh, 1755) it fills two small but closely printed volumes of nearly four hundred pages each, the first containing the Fable and its original prose appendices (“Remarks,” a “Vindication,” a “Tract of Charity Schools,” which excited Law’s special wrath, and other things), while the second is filled with Dialogues on what the author probably regarded as a tolerably complete system of ethics, including what we now barbarously call sociology. Mandeville’s entire works have never been collected; and the very titles of some of them sufficiently indicate a moral purpose of very dubious sincerity. Even the others, except the Fable itself, are not easy to obtain, and in some cases are almost certainly spurious. Of these last is The World Unmasked, a considerable book giving itself out as translated from the French and published in 1736. Of the remainder An Enquiry into the Origin of Honour, and The Usefulness of Christianity in War, continue the dialogues of the second part of the Fable with the same personages and in the same spirit. Free Thoughts on Religion, the Church, and National Happiness, 1720, is also evidently genuine: the others need not be mentioned.]  1
 
THE FABLE OF THE BEES which, with its more immediate appendices, contains almost everything of Mandeville’s that is of importance to any but the curious, is one of those unlucky books which have become known to posterity chiefly by the polemical efforts of others to suppress them. And as Law and Berkeley, to name these only, were infinitely greater as well as infinitely better men than Mandeville, the state of the latter under this dispensation is not gracious. Curiously enough the justest as well as the acutest estimate of him in his own century comes from Johnson, who was not wont to be very kind either to writers of doubtful morality or to those of scarcely doubtful unorthodoxy. In a conversation not many years before his death, he hit the real blot in Mandeville’s ingenious sophism by pointing out that “he defines neither vices nor benefits.” He also declared that Mandeville, whom he must have read not long after the hubbub of 1723 itself, “did not puzzle him, but opened his views into real life very much.” And indeed the natural indignation which men like Law and Berkeley must have felt at the extreme coarseness of tone which characterises Mandeville, at the excessively low views of human nature which he habitually takes, at his utter lack of reverence, of sense of beauty, of feeling for whatsoever dignifies and ennobles life, must be admitted to have made them somewhat unfair to him. His protestations of orthodox intention, or at least of freedom from all intentional unorthodoxy, are indeed, like most such protests in the 18th century, to be taken with something more than grave suspicion. His doctrine that private vices are public benefits—in other words that avarice, luxury, unjust wars, and so forth conduce to the welfare of the body politic—may have been partly due, as Johnson points out, to a neglect to define his terms, and was partly also no doubt wilful paradox. His ethical and political philosophy, so far as he has any, is Hobbism degraded. And the coarseness before referred to—a coarseness which does not consist so much in the use of offensive language as in an almost incredible vulgarity and foulness of tone, in the dragging in of offensive illustrations at every opportunity, in studious belittling and defiling of motive and sentiment and feeling—is disgusting enough. But there seems little doubt that his original object was to ridicule and decry the sentimental and genteel finicalness of Shaftesbury’s notion of virtue; and there is no doubt at all that with all his drawbacks he possesses a certain hard rough common sense and acuteness which are very uncommon. He has among other Mephistophelean characteristics that of being detestable, but not despicable; and, though utterly blind to high things, he sees low things with a clearness that is frequently astonishing and almost admirable.  2
  It is his form, however, that concerns us here, and in this also he is not despicable. His verse is very uncouth, and his prose is frequently incorrect and never in any way polished; but he makes up for this by many of the merits of Defoe, to whom in character as in period he is very close. Many of his characters—the special knack of the time—possess great felicity and truth of touch; his argument, sophistical as it commonly is, is put with a good deal of surface clearness and cogency; and his illustrations and digressive passages have singular liveliness and force. They are indeed frequently unpleasant (there is a passage describing a swine devouring a child which any French naturalist of the younger school might be proud of); but the sketches of the crowd before the gallows at Newgate, that on gin-selling and gin-drinking given below, and others in no small numbers scattered about his works show a vividness of narrative and almost dramatic presentation worthy of writers of far higher traditional repute. Nor is he less considerable as a satirist, and the “Parable of Small Beer” in his Remarks is worthy of Arbuthnot, if not even of Swift. The proverb about the commoner words of our language being “good Yorkshire and good Friese,” is certainly confirmed by the vigour and ease with which this Dutchman uses the English vernacular. And though his sudden and not very savoury notoriety tempted him to indulge in long and dull dissertations where the merit of his style is spun too thin to cover the nakedness of his sophistry, he must still at his best remain a striking exemplar of one of the most nervous if not the most elegant periods of English writing, and deserve a place in the division of English prose history which includes Latimer and Bunyan, Defoe and Cobbett.  3
 
 
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