Magazine | July 29, 2019, Issue

Our Fable of the Bees

(Yves Herman/Reuters)

I only recently read “The Fable of the Bees,” a poem by Bernard Mandeville (1670–1733), a Dutch physician living in London. The poem was controversial in its day (it was published in England in 1714) and, it struck me, is relevant to our own. In the manner of the fables of La Fontaine, “The Fable of the Bees” surveys the populace of a successful beehive, setting out the reasons for its success, and finding them in, of all places, its vices, greed prominent among them.

No Bees had better Government,

More Fickleness, or less Content:

They were not slaves to Tyranny,

Nor ruled by wild Democracy.

The hive has a population of a vast number of bees, “Millions endeavoring to supply / Each other’s Lust and Vanity; / While other millions were employed, / To see their handiworks destroyed.” The hive is filled with lawyers “of whose Art the basis / Was raising Feuds and Splitting Cases” and physicians who “valued Fame and Wealth / Above the drooping Patient’s Health.” The clergy, no strangers to hypocrisy, are little better. Politicians, then as now, enrich themselves. “All Trades and Places knew some Cheat, / No Calling was without Deceit.” Every part of the beehive “was filled with Vice, / Yet the whole mass a Paradise.” The moral of the poem would seem to be:

How Vain is Mortal Happiness!

Had they but known the Bounds of Bliss;

And that Perfection here below

Is more than Gods can well bestow.

Then one day a bee, repelled by all the fraud and dishonesty he sees in the hive, sets in motion an epidemic of virtue, with the result that everything falls apart: Industry slackens, poverty increases, and the great, bustling, hustling hive loses much of its population, which retreats to a hollow tree.

(Culture Club/Contributor/Getty Images)

Mandeville claimed his moral was “the impossibility of enjoying all the most Elegant Comforts of Life that are to be met with in an industrious, wealthy, and powerful Nation, and at the same time be bless’d with all the virtue and innocence that may be wish’d for in a Golden Age.” Mandeville held that he wasn’t vaunting knavery in his poem but instead highlighting the complexities of imposing virtue from above on a society that in its bumbling, even corrupt way brought an enlivening prosperity.

This side of heaven itself, would anyone truly care to live in a perfectly virtuous society? Life in Plato’s Republic, unless one were among Plato’s philosopher-kings, would be hell. The virtuous utopias of Lenin and Mao Zedong ended in no one knows how many millions of brutal deaths. The Founding Fathers imagined, as they put it in the preamble of the Constitution, “a more perfect,” never an entirely perfect, union. Yet politicians of our day, portraying themselves as among the avant-garde of high virtue, come to us abristle with programs and ideas, hoping to drag the rest of us up to their high moral standard.

Reading “The Fable of the Bees,” one naturally thinks of the United States, which, with all its flaws and frauds, remains the most interesting and ultimately satisfactory country in the world. And one thinks of all the American politicians of the current day who wish to change it, not incrementally but radically. Listening to Elizabeth Warren rattle on about income inequality, corporate power, corrupt politics, or to Bernie Sanders’s harangues about the injustices of our health-care system, our educational institutions, our economic arrangements, one is reminded of the English essayist William Hazlitt on the dissenting ministers of his day who took “pleasure in believing everything is wrong in order that they may have to set it right.”

The Democratic party in particular, when it is not preoccupied with impeaching our current president, is just now stuck on radical reform. On its nightly national news show, NBC is currently running a series called “What’s Your Big Idea,” in which Democratic politicians seeking the presidency are asked to say, in justification of their running for the office, what their “biggest idea” is. In the few segments of the series I have seen, John Hickenlooper, former governor of Colorado, claims his big idea is to reform education so that the young will be fit for the new digital, robotic work that lies ahead; Jay Inslee, currently governor of Washington, worried about climate change, proposes to eliminate the use of coal within ten years and by 2030 have only electric cars on our streets; Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., owing to what he claims is his thirst for fairness, wants to eliminate the Electoral College.

I should like to see one of these Democratic candidates, perhaps one of the more obscure among them, announce: “I have no big idea. If elected president, I should do my best to keep the ship of state steadily afloat, attempt to ameliorate painful inequities, reduce violent crime, avoid unnecessary wars, help tone down ugly disputatiousness, and, if you will allow a mixed metaphor, keep the hive humming.” I would without hesitation give that candidate, man or woman, my vote.

This article appears as “Beehives, Past and Present” in the July 29, 2019, print edition of National Review.

Joseph Epstein — Mr. Epstein is the author, most recently, of Charm, The Elusive Enchantment.

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