Liberty Matters

Honour and the Art of Politics


A review of Mandeville's Enquiry into the Origin of Honour published in Rome in 1743 remarks that the English had written the most dangerous works because in some matters they are the most learned and profound. Among them "The late dr. Mandeville goes further. In the Fable of the Bees and on the Enquiry on Honour he foolishly endeavours to prove that Vices are necessary and useful devices to govern and make states flourish – and that the point of honour is the most ingenious invention of Politics."[1]
Many commentators have stressed the importance of such notions as pride and fear of shame in Mandeville's analysis of human nature, nevertheless they have by and large overlooked Mandeville's "perennial attraction to the subject of honour,"[2] his tenacious attentiveness to the origin, growth, and evolution of shared systems of sentiments of approval and disapproval based on the fear of shame. The issue of honour and its political uses is a key perspective in considering the question raised by Mikko Tolonen in his inspiring comparison between Mandeville's and Hayek's social theories, particularly in addressing the political question of self-esteem and its political dimension.
Already in his early writings Mandeville differentiates between two components of men's self-interested passions. Humans are "Lovers of Self-Preservation" and at the same time "great Admirers of Praise."[3] In the second part of the Fable of the Bees Mandeville distinguishes between self-love, the instinct of self-preservation, the love for one's physical being and self-liking, that sentiment of overvaluation of one's self which is constantly reliant on other people's approval in order to be confirmed. [4]For Mandeville human behaviour, in its apparent variety of motivations, can generally be traced back to the passion of self-liking, its effects and the efforts carried out to control, hide, and gratify it.[5]Pride and fear of shame play a central role in the 'origin of moral virtue' sketched by Mandeville in the 1714 edition of the Fable. Aware of the radically selfish nature of man, those 'Skilful Politicians' who took it upon themselves to civilize mankind, conceived a way to make people subdue their appetites and pursue public good rather than their own interest by manipulating man's natural instinct of pride. The imaginary reward that the lawmakers devised to repay individuals for the trouble of self-denial was praise for those who subordinate their inclinations to public welfare and blame directed at those who indulge their appetites. Human beings accept an idealized conception of themselves and act in accordance with it. That is: men reckon themselves rational creatures, and they share a criterion of moral worth based on this belief. Yet, passions are the only motives for action that Mandeville acknowledges.[6]According to Mandeville morality derives from a process in which individuals share false beliefs about their own nature and their own motivations. They perform a behaviour worthy of approval and are dominated by pride to the point of not being able to recognize their own motivations. Social relations are based not only on hypocrisy, but also on a systematic self-deception in which the individual controls his own self-interest through an additional passion that is not recognized as such.[7]The basis of civilized society is grounded exclusively in the wish to live up to our inflated self-image and to be reputable and well thought of. Hence the centrality of honour in Mandeville's thought.
In various places in Mandeville's writings the 'Cunning Politicians' endowed with superhuman powers and tasks are unequivocally a shorthand referring to a gradual, evolutionary process.[8]Still, in various other passages 'real' politicians have a paramount function. Laws, like language, are collective works, a distillation of wisdom that has been accumulated generation after generation. Politics itself is an outcome of the evolutionary process: "it is the Work of Ages to find out the true Use of the Passions, and to raise a Politician, that can make every Frailty of the Members add Strength to the whole Body, and by dextrous Management turn private Vices into publick Benefits."[9] Mandeville develops a number of similarities between politics and other complex human constructions. As there is no need for skill or experience to knit a pair of socks or wind up a clock, so, to administer a city like London, where a prodigious number of ordinances and regulations have stratified and evolved over time, the magistrates just have "to follow their nose."[10] Real political agents are thus not standing outside the stream of the spontaneous order of which they are themselves part and expression, but as a matter of fact, they do perform their managerial function and they deserve to be commended for that.[11]Where is the room for political action? And what sort of action? Does it concern a general framework of rules, or rather a kind of intervention incompatible with that laissez faire perspective that Hayek ascribed to Mandeville?[12] It is a crucial question in assessing convergences and differences between Mandeville's and Hayek's social theories.
The most articulated reflections on political management--both in terms of principles and practices--are to be found in Mandeville's Enquiry on the Origin of Honour and the Usefulness of Christianity in War, in his discussion of the 'political use of passions' in promoting ideals of religion and honour in medieval and modern Europe. Christianity, like other religions, originates from the human passions, and like other structures of social interaction it has developed without any design, through the permanence of what, from time to time, seemed functional to the maintenance of social order. Certainly, it is not in the power of politicians to 'contradict the Passions'[13] but when rulers encourage that fear of an invisible cause that all men are endowed with, making that invisible power the object of public worship, they obtain a formidable tool of social control. Mandeville singles out two major steps in the dynamics of religion and honour in shaping idealized social models of promotion of the self. The first took place in the early centuries CE, when the Church of Rome blended sacred rites with the emblems of vainglory to codify rudiments of barbarian courage in the morality of honour. The second major step in Mandeville's 'history of pride' took place at the beginning of the seventeenth century, with the spreading of the new standard of modern honour and politeness and of the practice of the duel. Provocatively showing the incompatibility of honour with virtue and religion, Mandeville simultaneously enhances its function as a hierarchical principle and social tie. The code of modern honour, whose extreme expressions--duelling and infanticide--testify to the strength of the fear of shame even above the basic interest in self-preservation, appears far more efficacious than virtue or religion in impelling individual to respect the rules of social intercourse. [14] Men are more influenced by shame, by the fear of being publicly blamed, than by the fear of legal punishments, of religious precepts, or by the thoughts of a future life. Modern honour is a form of a substitute religion, a cult of the self: "human wisdom is the child of time. It was not the Contrivance of one Man, nor could it have been the Business of a few Years, to establish a Notion, by which a rational Creature is kept in Awe for Fear of it Self, and an Idol is set up, that shall be its own Worshiper."[15]
It is puzzling that Hayek, who quoted precisely this passage in his 1966 lecture on Mandeville as an evidence of the 'critical rationalism' with which Mandeville laid the foundations for Hume's work, downplayed the role of political action.[16] With his survey of the forms of honourable conduct characterizing the moral history of post-medieval Europe Mandeville exemplified how the harmony of interests is not independent from the actions of the legislators. The art of politics itself is the result of a gradual process. Rulers and administrators are and remain part of a network of relationships, a hierarchy of mutual servitudes, wheels of vast systems, machinery forged over time. Politicians cannot change human nature, but they must possess the ability to understand it in order to turn individual's self-interested attitudes into public benefits, exploiting precisely those idealized representations of human nature that most dominate at different times. The Christian saint, the citizen of the ancient republics, the learned courtier, and the noble warrior are all anachronistic ideals in the competitive commercial society of the early eighteenth century, but the principles shared in the last centuries by the ruling elites are still paramount in their function of social bond.[17] For Mandeville the synchronic harmony of a multiplicity of individual interests is not natural and spontaneous but is instead the outcome of the intentional intervention of political authority, exercised by playing human passions against one another in the framework of those aggrandized images of the self. Political obligation for Mandeville is grounded on the love of the self and not on reason, and it can only develop within a system of values that cannot be reduced only to written laws, nor to the mere economic advantage.
[1.] Notizie letterarie oltramontane, in «Giornale De' Letterati», Roma, novembre 1743, II, 2, pp. 321-322 a
[2.] Irwin Primer, Bernard Mandeville, in Dictionary of Literary Bibliography, 101, (Detroit: 1991), p.226
[3.] «The Female Tatler» No. 80, January 9, 1710
[4.] B. Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits ed. F. B. Kaye, in 2 vols. (Oxford: 1924). Reissued in facsimile edition (Indianapolis: 1988). (hereafter Fable) Vol. II, p.130.
[5.] Fable II, 155.
[6.] Fable I, p.51; "Moral Virtues are the Political Offspring which Flattery Begot upon Pride."see also Fable II, p. 402.
[7.] See Tito Magri, Introduzione a B. Mandeville, La Favola delle Api, (Roma-Bari: 1987), pp.xxvii-xxxi.
[8.] M. M. Goldsmith Private Vices, Public Benefits: Bernard Mandeville's Social and Political Thought, Revised ed. (Christchurch, NZ: 2001), in part. Ch.3.
[9.] Fable II, 319
[10.] Fable II, 323
[11.] Fable II, p.330 "To be a consummate Statesman is the highest qualification human Nature is capable of possessing."
[12.] F. Von Hayek, New Studies in Philosophy, Politics, Economics and the History of Ideas, London 1978, p.259; see also N. Rosenberg, "Mandeville and Laissez-Faire," in Journal of the History of Ideas, 24, 1963, pp. 183-96.
[13.] An Enquiry into the Origin of Honour, and the Usefulness of Christianity in War, by "the Author of the Fable of the Bees" (London: J. Brotherton, 1732) (hereafter Honour), p.28. See. Fable II, pp. 206 and fwd.
[14.] See: M. Peltonen, Politeness, duelling and honour in Bernard Mandeville, in The Duel in Early Modern England. Civility, Politeness and Honour, (Cambridge: 2003), pp.263-302 and P. Olsthoorn, "Bernard Mandeville on Honor, Hypocrisy, and War," in The Heytrop Journal, 60, (2), 2019, pp. 205-218.
[15.] Honour p. 41.
[16.] Hayek 1978, p.263.
[17.] E.J. Hundert, The Enlightenment's Fable. Bernard Mandeville and the Discovery of Society, (Cambridge: 1994).