Review of Mandeville’s Fable: Pride, Hypocrisy, and Sociability by Robin Douglass (Princeton, 2023)

What holds society together? Why do humans cooperate with one another, and what sustains their cooperation even and in spite of the brutal realities of war, conflict, and competition? These are fundamental questions of social theory and at the root of our understanding of politics. Many readers will likely have an answer to these questions that align with some of the canonical traditions of Western political and social thought. Following the thought of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), some might argue that humans are naturally egoistic and care only about their own self-preservation. The only thing that keeps their passions in check and staves off violent conflict is an absolutist form of power akin to a mortal god. Others might be more persuaded by a line of thought advanced by the Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778): humans are self-centered, but not vicious; they have a capacity to feel pity for others, but are at the same time driven by an insatiable appetite for social approval and recognition. Civil society works only when individuals are able to set aside their private wills, desires, and appetites in favor of a more general will. Still others might appeal to some notion of economic rationality, the workings of the market, or what might be loosely categorized as “commercial sociability:” that even if humans do have pro-social motivations such as benevolence, affection, pity, or a sense of justice, those motivations are nevertheless too weak to account for the vastness of human cooperation and coordination across time and space. After all, following the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790), “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from regard to their own interest.” Few, I imagine, might respond to these questions in the following way: humans are motivated predominantly by pride, and that only by simultaneously harnessing and concealing their pride-based motivations can civil society continue to exist and even flourish.

This last view is attributed to the Anglo-Dutch physician and philosopher, Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733), and is the subject of Professor Robin Douglass’ most recent book, Mandeville’s Fable: Pride, Hypocrisy, and Sociability. Mandeville is most known for his satirical poem The Fable of the Bees (first published in 1714, then revised and enlarged in 1723), which has often been whittled down to the dictum “private vices, public benefits:” that individual greed, luxury, avarice, and an insatiable appetite for wealth is advantageous for society and fuels the prosperity of the modern economy. That idea has been the basis for a well-worn caricature of Mandeville as the father of hedonism and an apologist for no-holds-barred capitalism. Especially among economists and historians of economic thought, Mandeville has been treated as a precursor of Adam Smith, an inspiration for Hayek’s notion of spontaneous order, and an anticipation of Keynes’ underconsumption theory. Mandeville is an thus an apt subject for Douglass, whose repertoire delves into major thinkers who are often reduced to tropes, including Hobbes (“life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”), Rousseau (“man is born free but everywhere lives in chains”), and Smith (“the invisible hand”). Douglass excels in his deeply historical and undeniably philosophical approach to revisionism. His treatments of thinkers like Hobbes and Smith do not strive to make these heavyweights of modern social thought more palatable or comforting for modern-day liberals (or conservatives for that matter); Douglass’ greatest strength is in his ability to grapple with complexity of these thinkers and their approach to the structure of the human psyche, their theories of history, and the evolution of their ideas across different text and even different editions of the same text. What is more, Douglass consistently manages to make the “darker,” unsettling insights of these thinkers more interesting, if not more appealing and applicable to the study of modern politics. Readers acquainted with Douglass’ expansive and extensive publication record  will be able to detect strands of his realism which ties much of his oeuvre together. This realism is characterized by a skepticism that politics is the realm of virtue and moral consensus, instead focusing on the preponderance of domination and corruption. Social life—including politics—thus requires a reckoning with the psychological structure of the motivations underlining these features as well as an admission that social cooperation is a fragile achievement that is always morally compromised.

Mandeville’s Fable is perhaps Douglass’ most sustained and detailed examination of these themes within a single thinker’s works. The book’s overarching aim is to reclaim Mandeville first and foremost as a social philosopher, as opposed to an economic theorist, by focusing on what Douglass calls his “pride-centered theory of sociability.” Pride, Douglass shows, is the dominant—though not the sole—motivation that explains human sociability. Not only does pride compel us to care about how others view us, it also fuels an “innate desire of dominion;” unless we learn to curb and conceal our pride-based motivations, we cannot possibly hope to live together peacefully in society. How is it that we learn to conceal our self-centered, pride-based desires, but nevertheless act in ways that satisfy them and garner social approval? Recognizing that this is the primary philosophical task that Mandeville sets up in his Fable is what merits Douglass’ project of critical reclamation.

Chapter 1 provides the conceptual foundations for the book. Mandeville’s notion of pride, Douglass shows, is not the same thing as psychological egoism. More than thinking highly of ourselves, pride crucially involves the overvaluing or overestimation of ourselves. Here the distinction between the more morally-neutral “self-liking” is important. Self-liking simpliciter denotes a concern for our reputation and social approval. That we want others to see our motivations as worthy of their approval is not necessarily vicious; however, an excessive self-liking bleeds into pride. When we care so much about others’ approval as well as our own, we teeter on the brink of causing offense. And yet, the fact that we tend not to routinely offend people in this way points to the very paradoxical nature of pride: though we act consistently and regularly from pride, we also have “such a strong interest in concealing such disconcerting revelations from ourselves.” We cannot bear to see ourselves as we truly are, and thus, as Mandeville claims, we learn to “become ignorant, or a least insensible” to its force. This is why pride is the “hidden Spring” of humanity (emphasis added). We have “pride-based reasons for deceiving ourselves about the prominence of pride,” Douglass explains. Unlike other vices—lust, anger, envy—learning to conceal our pride satisfies it at the same time. Being able to pass off our actions and motivations as other-regarding and pure “confirms our own high opinion of ourselves as civil or even virtuous.”

Chapters 2 and 3 construct the bridge between the concept of pride and Mandeville’s broader theory of sociability. If pride is a “hidden Spring,” a passion that “we cannot bear to see in its true colors” in ourselves or in others, then we must learn to mask our desire for social esteem. Consider the following example. I willingly took on the additional responsibility of organizing a mini conference for graduate students. Such an opportunity, I told myself and others, would be for the good of the graduate community which has been craving support and new fora for conversation, networking, and mentorship. But I would be deceiving myself if I didn’t also admit that there were pride-based reasons for undertaking such a program: I want to be seen by my colleagues as public-spirited, as a worthy member of the academic community who genuinely cares about graduate education, as highly productive and service-oriented. But how should this affect our evaluation of my conduct? Following Douglass’ reading of Mandeville here is illuminating. On the one hand, we are hard-pressed to call my motivations and behavior outright vicious. But on the other hand, exposing the pride-based reasons for my actions risks diminishing the moral worthiness of my actions. This, Douglass pinpoints, is the reason why I not only feel “impelled to conceal [my] desire for social esteem,” why I must conceal my true motivations.

The boldest and most existentially unsettling claim of Mandeville’s Fable is the following: that in order to conceal our pride-based motivations, we must adopt certain conventions and ideas around virtue and vice, and in so doing, become ultimately unknown to ourselves. Against his contemporaries Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Third Early of Shaftesbury (1671-1713) and the Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746), both of whom insisted on humanity’s innate goodness and benevolence, Mandeville thought human nature was “morally compromised to the core.” Given the psychological dominance of our pride-based motivations, virtue—or at least the appearance of virtue—demands that we outwardly deny our true motivations whilst “putting on an outward appearance we do not feel within.” In other words, hypocrisy underlines all of our actions that appear worthy of socially approval and virtuous. To be sure, this form of hypocrisy does not necessarily entail malice towards others, nor does it imply that all of our conduct is hypocritical. Yet this does little to comfort us in the face of Mandeville’s most uncomfortable insights. First, our own pride is what motivates us to conform to moral standards, and that our attempts to convince ourselves otherwise become the social veneer for our conduct. Second, because so much of our behavior is laced with hypocrisy and so liable to counterfeiting, genuine virtue is an even more demanding concept than we think. To put it in somewhat more current and parochial terms: we’ve become so good at virtue signaling in our social practices that real virtue is even further off than we imagine.

Chapters 4 and 5 move from the substance to the method of Mandeville’s theory of sociability, specifically his historical narratives of the development of social norms and institutions. How is it that mankind develops a capacity to form society—their “visible Desire after Government”—against the overwhelming power of their “Desire of Dominion” and “Desire of Superiority?” On the one hand, one might read Mandeville as offering an account similar to Rousseau’s in the Second Discourse: that lawmakers, moralists, politicians, and philosophers conspired against the masses, duped them into abiding by conventions of honor and shame in order to curb their passions and institute civil authority. On the other hand, Douglass’ meticulous exegesis across the different volumes of the Fable reveals how the emergence of civil institutions was not a one-time “conspiracy” ex nihilo, but the product of a much more gradual, evolutionary historical process out of which leaders and politicians created laws and institutions from experience and “accumulated knowledge rather than super human personal qualities.” Lest we think that Mandeville’s historical narrative paints a positive gloss on his view of human sociability, Douglass’ analysis reminds us that from Mandeville’s perspective, the deck is stacked against us: human societies emerge against harsh background conditions of scarcity, existential threats from nature to human subsistence and survival, and of course, the “domineering Spirit” that makes people “take everything to be our own without any awareness of moral constraints.” Laws and moral norms may emerge gradually and under very specific historical conditions, but they nevertheless emerge out of the necessity to moderate our pride and other self-centered passions that endanger social cooperation. Mandeville’s metaphor of fermentation is an effective illustration of this last point. Wine does not spontaneously emerge out of grapes, nor do grapes come to into existence with a specific telos of becoming wine; only under the right conditions, with the right ingredients and technologies can grapes undergo a long process of fermentation, eventually becoming wine. Human nature is such that only under the right conditions, and with enough time and experience, do we become fit for sociable living. Certain “contrivances,” like certain types or blends of wine, depend on more local conditions. Honor, for instance, is neither a transhistorical nor universal virtue, but instead a Gothic European invention designed to fill in the gaps of Christian morality. Where fear of divine punishment or some other invisible cause might not compel men to fight for their king or their nobleman, appealing to a worldly sense of honor tapped into the root of the human psyche: pride. As Douglass incisively notes, “In one case we fear imminent punishment from an invisible cause; in the other we fear the shame of not living up to the principle inside ourselves that we worship.” Pride is still the universal “hidden Spring” of human action, though the specific instantiations of how humans have harnessed its power vary across time and place.

Mandeville’s Fable is an enviably learned volume. Lucidly written and judicious in tone, Douglass’ treatment of Mandeville as a social philosopher par excellence sets a high bar for scholars who hope to walk the interpretive tightrope between intellectual history and philosophy as effortlessly as he does. While Douglass readily acknowledges the limitations of his own approach to Mandeville, he nevertheless leaves the reader wanting more. Though it is sensible to resist taking Mandeville’s pride-based theory of sociability as an answer to any particular social or political problem past or present, Douglass’s broad-brushstrokes characterization of Mandeville’s anti-utopian brand of political theorizing might actually be more relevant to specific social and political questions than he lets on.

One question that Mandeville’s Fable leaves open ended is the following: what is it about the nature of politics, and specifically of democratic politics, that amplifies the paradoxical dynamic of pride? Why do we so regularly see extreme pride, vanity, and narcissism on full display even when those displays also require hypocritical conformity and swallowing one’s pride? Among the many examples that might come to mind, one that seems particularly salient (at least for this American writer) is the way in which we (again, Americans) bore witness to once self-proclaimed Trump haters becoming Trump sycophants. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham is one of the most notorious cases, going from being one of Trump’s most vocal critics and rivals in his 2016 bid for the Presidency and even denouncing the January 6 insurrection, only to be seen as one of Trump’s closest golfing partners and allies but a few moments later. “If you know anything about me,” Graham told Politico in 2017, “It’d be odd for me not to do this…This is to try and be relevant.”

While a share of the punditry, commentators, and the American public still express their bafflement and moral outrage at the sight of such pride and hypocrisy in its baldest form, Douglass’ analysis offers a nonplussed Mandevillian shrug. Graham’s public admission of his own motivations (“to try and be relevant”) rendered pride as a self-evident and self-justifying motivation. In other words, of course someone like Graham (or any politician really) would do anything to stay relevant; they’re just not willing to admit it. The thing that ought to surprise us, therefore, is not that pride is at the root of such political hypocrisy but that there appear to be no consequences for such behavior. If social harmony depends on the tempering of pride, what is it about the nature of politics, then, that not only permits people to get away with but actually rewards such flagrant displays of pride? And who are we to hold accountable here: the hypocrite himself or the voters who keep him in power? I agree with Douglass that Mandeville encourages us to be “deeply skeptical of political projects that depend upon rooting out moral corruption or expect that people will dispassionately do the right thing without being handsomely repaid in the currency of social esteem,” but I wonder to what extent Mandeville’s theory of sociability anticipates the pernicious ways in which politics as a realm of human sociability exacerbates, rather than ameliorates, the viciousness of pride.

Finally, Mandeville’s Fable raises a question about the usefulness of anti-utopian thinking in deeply anti-utopian or even dystopian times. I take this to be not a weakness of Douglass’ analysis, but rather a limitation of Mandeville’s brand of social and political theorizing. Accepting that human beings and human society are beyond moral redemption need not imply fatalism, but certain political and even planetary crises warrant a deeper consideration of the threshold at which, to quote Douglass, “reform should be seen through the lens of choosing the lesser evil, rather than pursuing some vision of moral perfection.” I am in agreement with Douglass and Mandeville that hope for moral perfection is hopeless but remain less confident that a Mandevillian orientation can help us make sense of the social and political paralyses we find ourselves in amidst existential threats such as climate change. Even if we have pride-based reasons to continue calling for climate, environmental, and intergenerational justice other morally charged catchphrases, indulging our pride in pursuit of the aims of consumption, accumulation, and growth-oriented human development have nevertheless brought us past the tipping point. Nothing—not even a miracle of extraordinary political willpower—can halt the trajectory of irreversible and catastrophic destruction of the earth, human and non-human life. To be clear, I am not asking that Mandeville give us a solution to the overwhelming moral and political problem of the climate crisis, nor am I trying to discount the moral urgency of the climate crisis. Rather, the question for readers of Mandeville today is a more fundamental one: at what point does conceding and concealing our pride and choosing the lesser evil only further imperil human existence rather than enable it? As Gregory Claeys has suggested in his recent volume Utopianism for a Dying Planet (also reviewed in this publication), existential crises of this sort require more than a sobering account of human nature but a radical reimagining of what sociability demands. To me, this is not an either/or question. Mandeville’s pride-based account of sociability provides one compelling explanation for how we ended up in the situation we are in and why we cannot simply wish it away; but he provides little guidance on what it would take to overcome—not just temper—our pride in a way that extends human social existence. We need to think with but also beyond Mandeville’s Fable.

Dr. Glory M. Liu

Johns Hopkins University