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Mar 1, 1980

Mandeville: The Culture & Virtue of Capitalism

“Mandeville openly delighted in trade and demonstrated the public benefits of such private so-called “vices” as luxury and money-making.”

M.M. Goldsmith
University of Exeter

“Mandeville and the Spirit of Capitalism.” The Journal of British Studies 17(Fall 1977):63–81.

Bernard de Mandeville (1670–1733) pioneered in rehabilitating the negative moral image of capitalist money-making and thus contributed to the emergent culture of commercial modernity. Mandeville invented the positive moral and literary image of the man who enjoys the vocation of business and acquiring wealth in order to combat and satirize the “self-righteous censoriousness” of the prevalent ideology of “public virtue,” especially the version of that ‘virtue vs, commerce’ ideology expressed in early eighteenth century England in Richard Steele’s Tatler papers. Mandeville’s literary characters in the Female Tatler show that the pursuit of money-making is a moral and satisfying way of life which contributes to the general good of all. To oppose those who would “prescribe Rules of Happiness to every body else,” Mandeville invented and commended the “spirit of capitalism” and thereby helped to achieve a morally sympathetic hearing for commercial capitalism.

Most of the institutions of a commercial state capitalist economy—banks, stock market, credit financing, and a public debt—were introduced in England during the decade following the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The Bank of England, founded in 1694, was used not only to enlarge private commercial activity but also for public financing of King Williams’ and Queen Anne’s 19 years of wars between 1689–1714. Representatives of the older republican tradition of civic virtue opposed indiscriminately the cultural effects of the state war economy and stock-jobbing, as well as private money-making that were all mixed up in the hybrid public-private financial revolution. Thus the Tory Steele in his Tatler papers of 1709, Addison in the Spectator papers of 1711, and Swift in the Examiner attacked without distinctions the “moneyed interest” which they believed led to moral corruption rather than public virtue because of a lack of gentlemanly aristocratic virtues.

Against such opponents of the hybrid spirit of pub-private commercial modernity Mandeville wrote his Fable of the Bees in 1714. Although Mandeville’s specifically economic views were more mercantilist than laissez-faire, he notably endorsed and promoted the general spirit of capitalism. Mandeville openly delighted in trade and demonstrated the public benefits of such private so-called “vices” as luxury and money-making. In 1710, four years before his Fable of the Bees,Mandeville had defended the same spirit of capitalism as a respectable way of life in his Female Tatler. Thus, in the Female Tatler of 15 March 1710, the old merchant Laborio is sympathetically portrayed as one whose whole life is devoted to business and money-getting. In another issue of the Female Tatler, Mandeville depicts Urbano, who resembles Laborio, as a happy, respected commercial capitalist, one who “minds only himself, and lets every body else do as they please.” Mandeville urges his readers to relinquish the censoriousness and bias against money-making held by the civic virtue ideologists who pretended to have a monopoly on virtue and public spirit.