Spreading the Word: Fable of the Bees

How can a poem influence economy and what do bees have to do with it? The 18th-century Anglo-Dutch philosopher, physician and satirist Bernard Mandeville has an answer. Fable of the Bees is his book that contains the satiric poem “The Grumbling Hive; or, Knaves Turn’d Honest” (1705) in which Mandeville uses an allegory to show the public value of individual vices.

Bernard Mandeville was interested in human nature from what we would nowadays consider a psychological standpoint. He thought that the utter selflessness promoted as the highest virtue is not only utopian but also destructive to society. In his scandalous Fable, he presented the paradoxical idea that a truly virtuous society would collapse because of a lack of self-interest among individuals. A degree of self-interest is required to serve as a social glue that makes individuals appreciate the approval and validation provided by others, and be motivated to strive for it.

At the heart of any selfless act, there is some (healthy) selfishness. For Mandeville, pursuing self-interest is beneficial for society at large. Even the most altruistic behaviour is motivated by the urges and values of one’s own self. The famous invisible hand theory of the ‘father of economics’, Adam Smith, was inspired by the provocative work of Mandeville who, in turn, borrowed the idea from theology that viewed the invisible guiding force as the hand of God.

That is how poetry, economics, bees, and theology can meet at the crossroads of a curious philosophical human mind. Who knows what ideas might come to you while listening to this fascinating BBC In Our Time podcast episode that explores Mandeville’s life, ideas, and, of course, his fabled bees. Enjoy!

swarm of bees in a beehive

Keeping up the “Spreading the Word” tradition, every weekend, I hope to share an article I’ve read or a video I’ve seen and considered to be inspiring and insightful. I feel it is essential to take good care both of our physical and mental well-being. Humans have always turned and returned to storytelling to find meaning. My weekends’ “Spreading the Word” posts are an online version of sharing meaningful stories.   

keep exploring and storytelling!

Image credit: photo by mostafa eissa on pexels.com

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