In preparation for the International Adam Smith Society conference in Bogota, Columbia, July 11-13, I have been reading some papers on Adam Smith and Bernard Mandeville. This has stimulated me to think more about Smith's comments on Mandeville, particularly regarding Christian ethics. I foresee that in some of the discussions in Bogota, I will suggest a way of reading Smith’s response to Mandeville that differs from readings offered by others at the conference.
I see Smith as an esoteric writer, who conveys a surface teaching that differs from his secret teaching. His surface teaching will be popular with his orthodox Christian readers. His secret teaching will be unpopular with those readers. He felt compelled to write this way to avoid persecution.
The clearest evidence for this is the one time in his life in which he publicly, if only momentarily, removed the cloak of esotericism—his Letter to William Strahan in 1776 on the life and death of David Hume. In the last paragraph of that letter, Smith identified Hume as “a perfectly wise and virtuous man,” which meant that an irreligious skeptic could be morally and intellectually virtuous.
This provoked an angry reaction from Christians that lasted for the rest of Smith’s life and even after his death. As John Ramsey of Ochtertyre wrote at the time, the Letter to Strahan “gave very great offence, and made [Smith] henceforth be regarded as an avowed skeptic, to the no small regret of many who revered his character and admired his writings.”
Seeing Smith as an esoteric writer allows us to explain the complexity of his comments on Mandeville. His surface teaching was that Mandeville’s moral theory was “licentious” and “erroneous,” because Mandeville was deceptive in identifying all self-love as vanity, and because he mistakenly defined all virtue as “complete self-denial,” so that what were popularly thought to be virtues were disguised vices.
Smith’s secret teaching, however, was that Mandeville correctly saw that all virtue was motivated by proud self-love, and therefore that the Christian definition of virtue as humble self-denial and “ascetic abstinence” was wrong. Although Mandeville’s surface teaching assumed the Christian definition of virtue, Mandeville’s secret teaching in The Fable of the Bees was a comic satire of Christian virtue that employed a reductio ad absurdum argument to refute the Christian understanding of virtue. It was this secret teaching of Mandeville and Smith that allowed Smith to identify Hume as “a perfectly wise and virtuous man.”
Christian theologians—like Saint Augustine in The City of God, for example—had long taught that all human beings were by nature so depraved by the original sin of pride that they could never be truly virtuous in their earthly life. The worldly pretense of virtue is corrupted by a proud “self-love, even to the contempt of God.” True virtue could be achieved only through a humble “love of God, even to the contempt of self” (14.28).
Therefore, Augustine insisted, there can be no true virtues without true religion. In their natural experience of social life, human beings want to be virtuous because they want to be praised for their virtues to satisfy their self-love. But virtues motivated by this self-loving desire for praise are really vices not virtues. Even those who seek virtue for its own sake—to be praiseworthy regardless of whether anyone actually praises them—are still moved by the self-loving desire for human praise, even if only in praising themselves for being praiseworthy. True virtue is achieved only through humble self-abnegation in submitting to the transcendent law of God that promises eternal salvation in the afterlife (19.25).
This Christian understanding of virtue denies the ancient teaching of pagan philosophers like Aristotle that the good man should love himself, that the “great-souled” or magnanimous man should be properly proud of himself, and that humility is not a virtue (TMS, 258-59). It is notable, therefore, that Smith identifies Aristotle’s account of virtue as corresponding “pretty exactly” with his own (TMS, 270-72).
As Smith suggested, even if only by subtle implication, Mandeville correctly saw the mistakes in this Christian understanding of virtue and vice (TMS, 308-14). Mandeville saw that if vanity is the desire for undeserved praise, then, according to the Christian doctrine of total human depravity, all self-loving desires for praise or praiseworthiness are vanity, because no human beings deserve praise for their self-loving conduct. Mandeville also saw that according to the Christian definition of true virtue as “complete self-denial” and “the entire extirpation and annihilation of all our passions,” such virtue could never be achieved among men, and any pretense of such virtue was fraudulent. Moreover, even if such perfect Christian virtue could be achieved, this would be “pernicious to society.” That’s why, as Mandeville famously and scandalously declared, “private vices are public benefits.”