A little background
Bernard Mandeville was a practicing physician in Early Modern Europe who, towards his later years, spent much of his time composing political philosophy and satire. In fact, the two genres were almost always intertwined. When published, Mandeville's 'Fable of the Bees' created a large stir throughout English society and the work was largely criticized for the views it put forth. However, at the same time, it was this same critical popularity that turned this doctor into a best-selling author. Sweet irony, eh?
I have to admit that at first sight, I thought this work to be a bit too silly and not very substantial. This edited version begins with Mandeville's 'Grumbling Hive', a poem that really cannot be considered one of the great pieces of 18th century satire. If that's what you want, I suggest that you check out Jonathan Swift's writings or Montesquieu's 'Persian Letters.'
Instead, it is his essays and 'dialogues' within the Fable of the Bees which are of greater importance and far more interesting to read. Much of the political work is devoted to grounding various human sentiments, virtues, and behaviors within human egoism and self-interest. That is, he wishes to illustrate how much of what we consider virtuous within human beings or civil societies is, on the contrary, based upon pride and self-interest. Particularly interesting is Mandeville's account of social development. He, like many early modern european theorists, has a tale of the state-of-nature and the rise of political society. In it, he argues that reason, the arts, sciences, language, and other skills are not natural human characteristics. Instead, they developed over time through man's interactions with the outside world and man's interaction with other men. Indeed, Mandeville's views seem to be very close to that of Adam Smith, on the one hand, and Rousseau, on the other. It's quite bizarre. That is, at least, my interpretation.
While Mandeville has primarily been read in English classes as a piece of satire, it is only recently that greater attention has been given to his political philosophy. Whereas a good amount of time is spent studying Hobbes, Locke, Adam Smith and Rousseau, among others, there is usually little time to get to Mandeville.
As such, I definately recommend this to anyone who wishes to learn more about the political philosophy of early modern europe and the enlightenment. However, I doubt it will be of interest to many others. If you wish to learn more about Mandeville, there are some great secondary texts. However, Hundert (the editor) provides a great introduction and overview himself in this abridged version of the Fable of the Bees.