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Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Of Bees

December 10, 1755

I read with great Interest, which you was so good as to share with me, your last, a Discourse of Dr. MANDEVILLE’s Fable of the Bees, one of the most virulent Libels ever made upon the Dignity of Mankind. I find myself in happy Agreement with every Sentiment you express’d therein, and wou’d only wish to subjoin a few Remarks on the Fable’s lack of Originality. For it is truly unoriginal, both in its Speculations, and in the very Conceit upon which it is based.

Indeed, the Comparison of Human Societies to that of Bees is an old Topick, and one which has never yet failed to occur to observant Minds since Honey began to be cultivated. VERGIL, gave over his fourth Georgick to a Rhapsody upon our Insect Brethren, meditating especially upon their natural Sociability, and thus deriving the opposite moral to that of Dr. Mandeville, for the Poet writes ut apium examina non fingendorum favorum causa congregantur, sed, cum congregabilia natura sint, fingunt favos, sic homines, ac multo etiam magis, natura congregat adhibent agendi cogitandique sollertiam [“as swarms of bees do not gather for the sake of making honeycomb but make the honeycomb because they are gregarious by nature, so human beings – and to a much higher degree – exercise their skill together in action and thought because they are naturally gregarious.” Our author has mistaken his sources, for this passage is taken from Cicero, De Officiis, I.157. Virgil did indeed, however, devote his fourth Georgic to bees. — Ed.].

‘Tis probable that Vergil was mining the same Vein as TULLY, according to whom itemque formicae, apes, ciconiae aliorum etiam causa quaedam faciunt. Multo haec coniunctius homines. Itaque natura sumus apti ad coetus, concilia, civitates [“these creatures, and also the ant, the bee, the stork, do certain actions for the sake of others besides themselves. With human beings this bond of mutual aid is far more intimate. It follows that we are by nature fitted to form unions, societies and states”, Cicero, De Finibus, 3.19.63 — Ed.].

The good Doctor, presumably following close upon the Leading Strings of his Tutor, Mr. HOBBES, wou’d have us to believe that Men, like Bees, gather together into Societies for Reason of mere Profit, and wou’d gladly ungather were it become profitable to do so, which is too absurd a Notion to stand in need of Refutation. Much more probable is it that we first gathered together out of a love of Company, and only later discover’d the more material Benefits of social Intercourse.

I cou’d give many more examples to show that Dr. Mandeville’s Conceit is not new. For instance, the noble Emperor ANTONINUS hath writ, “that which is not in the Interest of the Hive cannot be in the Interest of the Bee” [Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.54 — Ed.]. Unfortunately, Dr. Mandeville’s Memory seems here to have failed him, for he unwittingly transpos’d this, and instead of deriving the Interest of the Bee from that of the Hive, found the Reverse, a much different Sentiment, and one of which the Emperor wou’d doubtless disapprove. However, as I have already noted, even the good Emperor himself is here only partly correct, for although what is good for the Hive is good for the Bee, that Good is not the sole Reason for the Bee’s remaining with the Hive.

Among the Moderns, the Comparison of Men with political Animals such as Bees and Ants is a well-trodden Road. The Reverend Dr. CLARKE, in his Discourse of Natural Religion accuses Hobbes of endeavouring to prove that War and Contention is more natural to Men, than to Bees or Ants [see Samuel Clarke, A Discourse concerning the Unchangeable Obligations of Natural Religion (1706), 6th edition, 1724, p. 87 — Ed.].

Against such a Claim, my Lord SHAFTESBURY accurately observes that “in the other Species of Creatures around us, there is found generally an exact Proportionableness, Constancy and Regularity in all their Passions and Affections; no failure in the care of the Offspring, or of the Society, to which they are united; no Prostitution of themselves; no Intemperance, or Excess, in any kind. The smaller Creatures, who live as it were in Citys (as Bees and Ants) continue the same Train and Harmony of Life: Nor are they ever false to those Affections, which move them to operate towards their Publick Good” [Shaftesbury, Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711), Vol. II, p. 96 — Ed.].

Even so errant an Atheist as Mr. TINDAL, in all other respects such an Enemy to Decency, admits that Virtue is as natural to Man as it is to other sociable Creatures: “The Ants, notwithstanding they have Stings, are crouded in vast Numbers in the same Hillock; and, having all Things in common, seem to have no other Contention among them, but who shall be most active in carrying on the common Interest of their small Republick. And much the same may be said of Bees” [Matthew Tindal, Christianity as Old as the Creation (1730), p. 165 — Ed.].

And finally, POPE wisely advises us to

Learn each small people’s Genius, Policies;
The Ants Republick, and the Realm of Bees;
How those in common all their stores bestow,
And Anarchy without confusion know,
And these for ever, tho’ a Monarch reign,
Their sep’rate Cells and Properties maintain.
Mark what unvary’d Laws preserve their State,
Laws wise as Nature, and fix’d as Fate.
[Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man (1734), Epistle III, ll. 183-190 — Ed.].

This is a very different Lesson from the one Dr. Mandeville wou’d seem to have learned, and his failure to grasp what so many ingenious Authors have endeavour’d to teach him, I can only attribute to some natural Defect in his Morals or his Understanding.

I am, Sir, your humble Servant,

Jos. Darlington, Esq.
Darlington Close,
Horton-cum-Studley, Oxfordshire.

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