Introduction 16th Mandeville Lecture 20 May 2010
'Mandeville did not like leaders'
By Henk Schmidt, chairman Bernard Mandeville Foundation,
Rector Magnificus, Erasmus University Rotterdam
Dear Mr. Van der Veer, ladies and gentlemen,
I welcome you warmly to this special academic session by Erasmus University. The Mandeville lecture is regarded within the university as the equivalent of an honorary doctorate, but for special social merit. Of the illustrious company that have belonged to the laureate on earlier occasions, I will mention here in particular--without trying to be exhaustive--Ruud Lubbers, Frits Bolkenstein, Lilian Concalvez, Bernard Kouchner, Carla del Ponte, and Ben Bot. Jeroen van der Veer is the sixteenth person to deliver the Mandeville lecture. He was, up till last year, the chief executive officer of Shell and is an alumnus of both the Delft and the Rotterdam universities. The title of his lecture is "Leading for energy."
Bernard Mandeville, a doctor from Rotterdam in London at the end of the 17th century, satirist, writer and eponym of this lecture, had a low opinion of leaders. Leaders, just like other people, are driven by vice: self-interest, greed, lust for power. In his book about philanthropy and schools for the poor, Mandeville said it something like this: "If you ask the directors of the schools for the poor why they go to so much trouble at cost to their own business and time, they would answer unanimously that it was because of the pleasure they derive from contributing to the well-being of poor little children who would otherwise go to hell in these evil times of mockers and free thinkers. But, says Mandeville, one motive remains carefully cloaked, a motive that nevertheless is prominently present in most of these directors: the satisfaction derived from ruling over and commanding others. There's a melodious sound to the word 'director,' which appeals to the average person." As consolation, he added that in every person is the need to rule over others. Look at small children. They all take delight in playing with young kittens and puppies. The reason that they are always walking through the house tugging and pulling these poor creatures along is none other than that they can do whatever they want with these little animals.”
It will surely not surprise you that Mandeville was not very popular with the ruling elite of his time. In particular, his essay on schools for the poor, from which I just quoted, touched such a sore spot among the politicians and church leaders that it was brought before the Grand Jury of Middlesex, where in 1723 a sentence of burning at the stake was handed down. Burning of the book, not Mandeville himself. It was, however, precisely this lawsuit that made Mandeville a bestselling author. All of a sudden, everyone wanted to read his Fable of the Bees, which contained his tirade against schools for the poor. His views on human selfishness and the central role of self-interest were sensational because they were at odds with the prevailing puritan opinion that humans are good by nature and concerned for the well-being of their fellow humans.
Some think that Mandeville's distrust of leaders can be traced back to his involvement with the renowned Costerman riot that broke out here in Rotterdam in 1690. Costerman was a member of the civil militia that was suspected of smuggling a vat of wine; he was consequently executed by order of the thoroughly corrupt--and therefore much hated--bailiff and sheriff Jacob van Zuylen van Nijeveldt. As Rotterdam became increasingly restless, a pasquil or satire (among other things) by the then nineteen-year-old Bernard Mandeville was spread about, titled "Sanctimonious Atheist."
It begins with:
Sanctimonious atheist, lover of whore flesh
Avaricious tyrant, spawn of hell
And ends with:
Oh Citizen Fathers, trip this scoundrel up
Before one of your children does it himself.
The children did finally do it themselves. A popular rebellion broke out, in which Van Zuylen's house was bombarded by the civil militia. He had to step down, but was reinstated a few years later by the governor Willem III in an act of governmental favouritism. Van Zuylen took revenge. Many had to leave the city. Not only father and son Mandeville and their supporters, though, but also others like the French philosopher Pierre Bayle, who was a professor at the Rotterdam High School Illustre. It is supposedly this experience with unveiled abuse of power by directors that reinforced Mandeville's lifelong skepticism of their motives.
Does the fact that Mandeville saw only self-interest in directors mean that leadership can never be effective? No, certainly not. A leader who knows the passions and vices of those under him can direct them in such a way that the public good is still served in the end. In his letter to Bishop Berkely, he wrote that our society is progressing thanks to "the Wisdom of the Politician, by whose skilful Management the Private Vices of the Worst of Men are made to turn to a Publick Benefit." And also, "Pride and Vanity have built more Hospitals than all the Virtues together."
So, says Mandeville, directors, politicians, coaches, mayors all do it in the end for the glory. They hope that at the end of their working lives they will be admired and adulated for their greatest accomplishments. A little like what we're doing for today's laureate. Mandeville: “When he thought on the monuments and inscriptions with all the sacrifices of praise that would be made to him, and above all the yearly tributes of thanks, of reverence and veneration that would be paid to his memory with so much pomp and solemnity; when he considered, how in all these performances wit and invention would be rack'd, art and eloquence ransack'd to find out encomiums suitable to the public spirit, the munificence and the dignity of the benefactor, and the artful gratitude of the receivers; when he thought on, I say, and considered these things, it must have thrown his ambitious soul into vast ecstasies of pleasure, especially when he ruminated on the duration of his glory, and the perpetuity he would by this means procure to his name.”
Looking back on his views, we can, I think, agree with what Midas Dekkers brought up about Mandeville during a recent night of philosophy: "I don't think that Uncle Bernard, with his ideas, was a welcome guest at birthday parties."
Jeroen van der Veer represents a type of leader that, I assume, has a less cynical view of the motives of leaders and those with whom they work. We will hear it now. I invite our speaker to share with us his ideas about leading for energy.