Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Summer 2001

Free Thoughts on Religion, the Church, and National Happiness, by Bernard Mandeville, edited by Irwin Primer

reviewed by J. Martin Stafford

A facsimile of the 1720 edition was published in 1987. Recently, for the first time, this book was reset and published with a modern introduction. Little detail is known about Mandeville’s life. He was born in Holland in 1670 and moved during the 1690s to London, where he practised as a physician until his death early in 1733.

He wrote several works on social issues, the best known being The Fable of the Bees, or Private Vices, Publick Benefits, the second edition of which (1723) attained considerable notoriety, being the butt of criticism in sermons, pamphlets, books and newspaper articles. Part II of The Fable (1729), in which he moved towards an evolutionary account of social institutions and morality, was very probably a reaction to contemporary criticism.

Like his other works, Free Thoughts on Religion ... incorporates trenchant comment on issues of his time, some of which are surprisingly relevant to our own. GALHA members may find that his scepticism and anticlericalism make palatable reading. See, for example his mordant account of the extent to which the Catholic Church has connived at wrongdoing in order to promote its own interests (Chapter VII). The first five chapters discuss the nature of religious belief and particular theological controversies. The next five discuss church politics, including persecution and intolerance – the principal reason why Mandeville was prompted to say that the question of what is the true religion has caused more mischief than all other questions put together.

Although he avows that the clergy are entitled to respect, Chapter X is pervaded by warnings that people need to be on their guard against them. Like other professions, they have an interest in maintaining and extending their own influence. The final chapter is an eloquent plea for religious and social tolerance. Governments should, where necessary, take steps to curb “the unbridled zeal of furious preachers” and punish those who arouse in their audience groundless animosity to fellow citizens. If enduring relevance is a hallmark of great writing, then Bernard Mandeville surely has a claim to be great.

URI of this page :
Created : Sunday, 2001-07-29 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
Brett Humphreys :