Bernard Mandeville was born in Rotterdam in 1670 and qualified as a Doctor of Medicine from the University of Leyden. He then settled in London, where he practiced as a physician. The Grumbling Hive, along with An Enquiry into the Origin of Moral Value, was published in 1714. Together with remarks and further essays, it made up a much longer work entitled The Fable of the Bees. Mandeville stated he intended to expose the vices of his countrymen and the false pretenses that are made to virtue. For him, the most prominent vices of his fellowman were fraud, luxury, and pride. He claimed lawyers would overbill their clients, doctors would extort fees for conditions they could not cure, the clergy were ignorant and lazy, and the general population indulged in their appetite for luxury.

Mandeville believed that morality was a social construct, as society decided what was virtuous, or to be praised, and what was to be condemned, or vice. This means morality is different according to different time periods; the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had different values compared to the twenty-first century. For Mandeville, morality required the rejection of selfishness rather than self-denial for the sake of other people. Where selfishness is defined as any act motivated by emotion and desire, self-denial involves the suppression of emotion and desire.

He also coined the phrase self-esteem, which came from pride in one’s own achievements. Self-esteem helps drive a better society as it drives people to seek approval from others through good manners, loyalty, honesty, justice, dutifulness to family, courage, magnanimity, charity, philanthropy, and public spiritedness. Mandeville argued the pursuit of honor was insatiable and individuals would go to any length to avoid shame. Therefore, shame was to be associated with selfishness and honor with the public interest.

Philosophers therefore undertook to civilize mankind and found no one would resist praise or suffer contempt, and flattery was the best form of control. They instructed mankind with ideas of honor and shame, one the worst of all evils and the other the highest good to aspire to. It was deemed unbecoming to gratify those appetites associated with brutes or savages and neglect those qualities that gave individuals superiority over them. Such impulses associated with the state of nature were very pressing, but conquering them was glorious, and it was scandalous not to attempt it.

People were then divided into two classes, one low-minded and always hunting for immediate enjoyment, incapable of self-denial and without regard for the good of others, with no higher value than their own advantage. They made no use of their reason except for their heightened sensual pleasure, only differing from brutes in their outward appearance. The other class are lofty, higher-spirited creatures, free from selfishness; they value improvement of the mind; they despise whatever they have in common with irrational creatures; and they use reason to oppose their most violent inclinations. They make a war within themselves to promote the peace of others, aiming for public welfare and the conquest of their passions.

The first class of individuals would undergo many inconveniences and hardships to be seen as men of the first class. These men took pains to master their appetites, to prefer the good of others, and to not shrink from the fine notions of rational creatures. Thus, they assume superiority over the second class. Those who lacked pride or resolution would be ashamed of confessing to being despicable wretches that belonged to the inferior class, and they would hide their own imperfections and admire in others what they found wanting in themselves. This was seen as the first part of morality that politicians used to make men useful to one another. The more ambitious could then reap the benefits and govern vast numbers with greater ease and security. However, by raising those with avarice and providing them with power, fame, and privilege, it undermined the low-ranking traditional moral consensus assigned to the selfish. Yet George Bragues argues that by equating morality with self-restraint, nobody could be truly virtuous. This begs the question: why reject wealth and comfort if virtue is beyond our reach? If self-denial is driven by regard for reputation or pride, it reduces virtue to a popularity contest. People argue that happiness does not consist of worldly pleasures, but that virtually all an individual’s time is spent pursuing them.

Mandeville used the term self-love, also referred to by Rousseau, to suggest people are naturally inclined to prefer things that please them and avoid anything that causes pain. When self-love is combined with sympathy, we feel the pleasure and pain of others as our own. Love and compassion are pleasing and direct individuals outward to consider the interests of others. However, love generally relates to particular people close to us, and compassion only extends to those in dire circumstances. Bragues concludes that by equating virtue with the calm and benevolent passions of empathy, compassion, and humanitarianism, Mandeville foresees a world devoid of general ambition and risk-taking, where easy-going sociability and a lack of passion delude people into thinking they are paragons of virtue when they are really indulging their natural inclinations towards safety, ease, and comfort.

Although his work was popular, it also raised controversy. The Grand Jury of Middlesex presented his work as a public nuisance on religious grounds, and the book was also attacked by the London Journal. In his defense, he claims nothing in the book could offend the chaste ear or sully the imagination of the most vicious. In relation to the corruption of the general public through reading, he points to the obscenities easily purchased. He maintains that the book itself has a philosophical bent and is therefore not aimed at those unused to reading such material. With the title Fable of the Bees, it would not prove enticing, as no one would know what it related to unless they had read it.