restricted access Fielding after Mandeville: Virtue, Self-Interest, and the Foundation of "Good Nature"


Literary scholars often take at face value Henry Fielding's most overt rejections of Bernard Mandeville, a writer he associated with egoism and who argued that self-interest is at the core of all virtuous action. Yet Fielding's rejections are not decisive, tending instead towards ad hominem attacks, insubstantial objections, and unexpected accommodations of egoist arguments. Throughout his corpus, Fielding exhibits a creeping Mandevilleanism: egoist thought frequently gets uncredited airing in his works. Fielding's debt to egoism is clearest in his attempts to define "good nature," his highest term of approbation, which appears throughout his writings. Like Mandeville, Fielding understood that self-interest motivates virtuous action. The two writers diverged on whether the social goods of self-motivated action should be recognized, ultimately, as virtuous deeds. For Mandeville, self-interest cancels out the virtue of the act; for Fielding, a mislaid emphasis on motivation fails to account for the disposition of the actor, the consequent good produced, and the socially cohesive nature of mutual empathy.