Mandeville against Luxury

POLITICAL THEORY 44.1 (2016): 26-52

Abstract: For three hundred years, Bernard Mandeville was considered the first great apologist for luxury and the unsavory dimensions of commercial society, a reputation that remains largely intact even as scholars reconsider the depth and influence of his thought. Here, I argue that Mandeville’s attitude toward luxury and material excess is far more ambivalent—indeed, highly critical—than previously thought. As societies became wealthier and more literate, Mandeville saw both individuals and societies growing increasingly susceptible to discontent—to “grumbling,” as the original title of The Fable of the Bees has it. This focus on grumbling is particularly worthy of close study because Mandeville’s chief profession was medicine, and, more specifically, the treatment of hypochondria. Identifying the bourgeois lifestyle as the cause of hypochondria in both the body and the body politic led him to caution his patients against the very things with which his name is synonymous: luxury and excess.