Burning <i>The Fable of the Bees</i>

Danielle Allen

in The Moral Authority of Nature

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print December 2003 | ISBN: 9780226136806
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226136820 | DOI:
Burning The Fable of the Bees

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This chapter analyzes the scandal provoked by Bernard Mandeville's The Fable of the Bees among eighteenth-century readers in terms of the “cunning” that disguises the second nature of upbringing as the first nature of inborn human nature. For those who excoriated and burned his book, Mandeville's crime lay not so much in reducing virtue and good manners to self-interest, but rather in exposing allegedly natural conduct as in fact acquired. In pre-Christian Latin texts, bees are as industrious as ever, but they are also loyal, capable of perfect concord, and chaste: Virgil thought they fetched their young from olive trees, or that they arose, without copulation, from the rotting flesh of oxen carcasses. In the Christian period the chastity of bees is especially important—indeed, issues of gender and sexuality are never far from the image's symbolic surface—but Christian writers also compared the nectar gathered by bees to divine grace and honey to god's great goodness. In all periods, the bees' hive was used to exemplify perfect political order, whether that was taken to be monarchic (Virgil), communitarian (Christian writers), or egalitarian (some French revolutionaries).

Keywords: Fable of Bees; human nature; natural conduct; pre-Christian texts; Christian period; political order

Chapter.  11643 words. 

Subjects: History of Science and Technology

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