Twenty years ago, I wrote my thesis on Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733). Mandeville could be termed the ‘Hobbes of Political Economy’, or the Scottish Enlightenment’s Leviathan. Whereas Hobbes forced his contemporaries to defend the idea – and practice – of constitutional government, Mandeville’s challenge, while seemingly limited to a more restricted area of philosophical discourse, has perhaps shown to be more tenacious. In his The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits (1714), Mandeville painted a satirical picture of society as a bee-hive in which the selfishly motivated industry of the individual members produced the wealth of the eco-system as a whole. Satire, of course, is easy to dismiss, as long as it remains far enough removed from what people are liable to acknowledge as a representation of themselves. And this is where Mandeville was such an embarrassment.
Regarding his definition of vices there were no surprises. The selfish pursuit of wealth remained a tainted activity, as it had been, not only for Christianity, but since as far back as Antiquity. The implication of the claim in the title of his book, of course, was insidious; it meant that proper virtue was detrimental to the human hive. It was man’s passions that kept society going. Now here we need a different perspective to fathom the profundity of the threat Mandeville’s ideas posed.
Mandeville, born in Rotterdam (and probably, as far as we can deduct from his name, from a Huguenot, that is French Protestant, background) was trained as a physician. And not only can we discern a keen doctor’s eye behind the theory that dissects the workings of man’s passions, he was part of the nascent tradition that tried to formulate a science of man. This tradition usually is neatly tied to the example Newton had given for the natural sciences and that begged repetition in non-theological descriptions of man and society. Hobbes himself developed a theory of how passions, as the motivating principle in man, necessitated absolute power to keep the competing subjects in check. Descartes had his own theory on the motivating forces in nature, as did Pierre Bayle, the Huguenot philosopher.
This discourse was to be intensely elaborated in the Scottish Enlightenment, culminating in Adam Smith’s Origin of the Wealth of Nations. We can, of course, conveniently categorize all these varying thinkers under the ample label of Deism, and leave it at that. It’s a descriptive conclusion, identifying, without getting into how or why, the tendency to analyze man and society, besides mere nature, in secular terms, as part and product of a clockwork that was divine, but also autonomous. This approach does, however, leave undiscussed a recurring aspect of this man and his passions that, I believe, is central to understanding not only Hobbes, Mandeville, and Adam Smith, but our present world as well, with its persisting susceptibility to authoritarianism.
It is my postulate, that it was not only the Protestant world-view that allowed to a large extent for the development of secular theories of nature, in the sense that it rigorously separated the divine and human realms, abandoning the Catholic wands of Grace and miracles, that is of divine intervention. I hold that the enabling of a modern science of man was – for us perhaps counterintuitively – an expression of the Protestant readiness to reduce man to what was traditionally considered his purely evil manifestation, the flesh. This permitted the development of a mechanical view of man and his actions, unbothered by a more hybrid form of Catholic dualism, that left both the spirit and Grace as unaccountable factors to ruin the neat clockwork of Puritan man.
The optimism of the Scottish Enlightenment was a far cry from the eternal doom preached from the Presbyterian pulpit, of course. But it is no coincidence that the so-called Adam Smith Problem refers to Smith’s struggle to reconcile his worldly view of society and its benefits, with a view of man that would not challenge traditional Christian values. There was a very specific reason why these Scottish philosophers promulgated the idea of man’s sociable passions, driving him naturally to virtuously sociable behavior. It also left a heavy mortgage on the tradition of liberal thinkers in political economy. Nature and value, for many, are still in conflict. And here we return to my own motivation for retrieving these ideas from memory.
I was invited, then, to further pursue my studies in the field of psycho-ethics, as I termed the attempts of the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers to describe the psychological mechanisms (or: the ‘secularized movements of the spirit’) underlying man’s behavior. Now that term was merely a tool for me to describe a historical phenomenon. I felt then that what was useful, or even necessary, was not to zoom in further, only to get lost in the academic tunnel of specialization, but rather to zoom out and identify the persisting traces of this collision of conflicting historical forces. Varying, contradictory, ideas met, combined into unintended outcomes, and reiterated my defining principles of history: failure and the inevitable determination of ideas. We cannot superimpose a logical design on history, but ideas will always have consequences.
So here we are, at a moment in time that those who attribute any importance to classical liberal values, are quite aware that the totalitarian pendulum is swinging away enthusiastically, to either side of the same faux opposites of barely a century ago. The fact is that too few have been willing, or even able, to defend those values. We are witnessing the virulent proliferation of conspiracy theories, the willingness to toss another Venezuela on the bonfire of the vanity of public figures who have profited most from their liberty to take their frivolous ideas to market, we can see more and more people equaling the free flow of goods or ideas to an admission of weakness, and we are facing the resurgence of the mercantilist, zero-sum, view of the economy. We see more and more people accepting, or even condoning, violence against political opponents.
What I’ll write here will be my contribution to push back the tide of totalitarianism. Not because I count on any measurable effect, but simply because I wouldn’t forgive myself for not trying what is in my power. I will share my ideas with you in a thoroughly un-academic way: not only will I drag in politics whenever I can. I will not try to hide it, either. What I publish will not be definitive, as a perfect plan always comes late. Now is history, and history is now.