Dark Bilious Vapors

But how could I deny that I possess these hands and this body, and withal escape being classed with persons in a state of insanity, whose brains are so disordered and clouded by dark bilious vapors....
--Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy: Meditation I

Home » Archives » May 2005 » Fable of the Bees:

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05/21/2005: Fable of the Bees:

I've been finishing up one of my recent book selections, Novus Ordo Seclorum by Forrest McDonald. Being busy as a Spring Bee myself, this historical footnote captured my imagination and I thought I'd share with you all:

Back in the good ole’ Pre-Constitutional Days of yester-yore, our Founders had some “oeconomic” new fangled notions to help develop what became our system of Political Economy and a new species of property which was just evolving from the English model for a “monetized public debt.”

Most American know and understand a type of “laizze faire” economics based on the works of Adam Smith, particularly his An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations and his “invisible hand” concept.

Author Forrest McDonald recounts how Smith was influenced by the 1705 writings of a Dutch-born British writer, Bernard Mandeville; of whom McDonald writes:

”Mandeville was the spokesman for a radical new age, just then aborning but more than a century from its full fruition, in which both Christian heritage and the full republican tradition of civic humanism – both of which were fundamentally communitarian – would be overwhelmed by naked materialism and acquisitive individualism. Two parallel institutional developments, one in the field of commerce law and the other in the field of public finance, would during the next few decades transform the English-speaking world, with profound implications for the American founding.”

One intriguing point McDonald makes about Mandeville is this story about “The Fable of the Bees”:

”Mandeville was both noted and notorious for a doggerel poem, first published in 1705 and republished with lengthy commentary in 1714 as a book called The Fable of the Bees, subtitled Private Vices, Publick Benefits. The poem is allegory of a beehive in which everyone is motivated by vicious drives and yet, because of an unfathomable working of the complex social mechanism, prosperity comes to the whole.

Million endeavoring to supply

Each other’s Lust and Vanity…

Thus every Part was full of Vice,

Yet the whole Mass a Paradise.

But the bees, hypocritically feigning discontent at having their prosperity depend upon their vices, pray to be made virtuous. Unexpectedly, their prayers are granted, with catastrophic results. Avarice, luxury, debauchery, waste, intemperance, and gluttony suddenly dissapear; and as suddenly, millions are unemployed. Prosperity, in sum, depends neither upon the designs of the state nor upon the benevolence of the individuals, but upon having individuals act freely in their own self-interest.”

McDonald writes later to explain:

”Smith did mention Mandeville in another connection, but went to considerable lengths to disassociate himself from “the Fable of the Bees.” He did so in a way that is not entirely convincing: he declared that Mandeville grossly exaggerated by labeling as vices what were, when exercised with propriety and restraint, normal and entirely moral appetites and needs. That was unfair, for Smith knew that Mandeville had deliberately written in caricature, for comic effect and for shock value, and did not intend always to be taken literally; and besides, Mandeville was attacking “rigorists,” and political ideologues and puritanical fanatics of his day who insisted that even the slightest deviation from the absolute moral purity constituted vice….”

Any of this beginning to sound familiar to the current debates over our modern "Political Economy"?? It's as if, 300 years later, we have yet again come full circle and are back again discussing the "Fable of the Bees."

Karen on 05.21.05 @ 05:24 AM CST

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