Those who dislike Mandeville, while at the same time feeling the force of his arguments, tend to suggest that he is more libertine than libertarian; a farceur, not l'homme serieux. But this attempt to parry his thrust, knocking the point into the harmless cul de sac of humour, inevitably fails. The guilty reader knows that Mandeville has successfully shown that there is no clear stopping point at which you can confidently draw a line in the scale of human wishes, declaring those on one side to be virtuous, while damning those beyond the line as vicious. One by one, in this circumstance or that, the virtues are found to be vices too. Ultimately, as it turns out, a defense of virtue proves to be the complete denial of human wishes, or it is unstable. Similarly, we cannot separate liberty of the type that we do not wholly dislike from that which we utterly detest. Liberty is complete liberty for all in every respect, and no other position can be defended for long.

But in both cases we find it absolutely necessary in the course of day-to-day living to draw such lines, however indefensible they may be in principle, frustrating one wish in order to satisfy another, curbing liberty there in order to facilitate it here.

The whole point of Mandeville's argument is to show that it is in our interests to understand that such lines are temporary, far from solid, simple reflections of our interests, and open to revision and redefinition as the need arises. Such a position can be held, and Mandeville's own position on religion seems to recommend this course of action, in conjunction with inflexible or absolutist views and without any practical contradiction. The conscientious religious mind must insist on virtue in its rigorist sense, denying all wishes, but must also recognise that the view can have no practical application other than abdication from the world. Those who wish to remain engaged must compromise their rigorism in order to deliver human well-being (or, to give its proper name, wealth). And in just the same way, the lover of freedom must be a libertine in theory, compromising that theory in order to prevent the societal system from rapid disintegration. Some, I am one and perhaps Mandeville was another, would add that the pure versions of virtue and liberty are strictly speaking irrelevant to our lives and can be safely ignored as having no practical consequences of any interest whatsoever.