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The Debate on Luxury

Session Leader


  1. What constitutes a 'commercial nation'?
  2. What is 'progress'? Is it good for societies? Good for individuals?
  3. How does consumption interlink with morality? How does it relate to human nature? Do humans have a choice when it comes to consumption or luxury?
  4. How do the four authors relate or respond to each other? How is their use of the same concepts different?

Primary Sources (essential reading):

  • Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees or Private Vices, Publick Benefits : Preface and 'A Search into the Nature of Society' (available as a Penguin paperback and also online:
  • David Hume, Essays, Moral, Political and Literary (1741, 1742; new edition Liberty Fund), Part II, Essay 1, ‘Of Commerce’; essay 2. ‘Of Refinement in the Arts’.
  • Mandeville,The Fable of the Bees or Private Vices, Publick Benefits. Remark L
  • Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Book III, chap. 1
  • Rousseau, Discours sur les sciences et les arts , trans. as Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (available in paperback in French and English and online: (in French) and in English:
  • Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments: Part IV chapter 1 ('Of the beauty which the appearance of Utility bestows upon all the productions of art, and of the extensive influence of this species of Beauty') also available online:
  • Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations: Book I, chapter 1-2 ('Of the Division of Labour' and 'Of the Principle Which Gives Occasion to the Division of Labour'); and Book V, chapter 1 ('Of the Expences of the Sovereign Or Commonwealth') parts I and II also available online from the

Secondary Sources (recommended reading):

  • Maxine Berg and Elizabeth Eger, ‘The Rise and Fall of the Luxury Debates’ in Luxury in the Eighteenth Century: Debates, Desires and Delectable Goods, ed. by Maxine Berg and Elizabeth Eger (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002), pp. 7-27
  • Maxine Berg, ‘In Pursuit of Luxury: Global History and British Consumer Goods in the Eighteenth Century’, Past and Present, 182 (2004), pp. 85-142
  • Maxine Berg, ‘Luxury, the Luxury Trades, and the roots of Industrial Growth: A Global Perspective’, in Trentmann, The Oxford Handbook on Consumption (Oxford, 2010), chap. 9, pp. 173-191. • Neil de Marchi, ‘Adam Smith’s accommodation of “altogether endless” desires’, in Maxine Berg and Helen Clifford, eds., Consumers and Luxury (Manchester, 1999), pp. 18-37.
  • Christopher J. Berry, The idea of luxury: a conceptual and historical investigation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994): Parts II and III
  • Istvan Hont,‘The Early Enlightenment debate on commerce and luxury’ in The Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Political Thought, ed. by Mark Goldie and Robert Wokler (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 379-418 (also available via Cambridge Histories online)
  • Edward J. Hundert, ‘Mandeville, Rousseau and the Political Economy of Fantasy’, in Luxury in the Eighteenth Century, ed. by Maxine Berg and Elizabeth Eger, pp. 28-40

Further reading:

  • Maurice M. Goldsmith, Private Vices, Public Benefits: Bernard Mandeville’s Social and Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985)
  • Mark Hulliung, The autocritique of Enlightenment : Rousseau and the philosophes (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1994)
  • Albert O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph, Twentieth Anniversary Edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997)
  • Istvan Hont, Jealousy of Trade: international competition and the nation state in historical perspective (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005), especially the Introduction, pp. 1-111
  • Edward J. Hundert, The Enlightenment's Fable: Bernard Mandeville and the discovery of society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, c.1994)
  • Jeremy Jennings, 'The Debate about Luxury in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century French Political Thought', The Journal of the History of Ideas, 68 (2007), 79-105
  • Nicholas Phillipson, 'Adam Smith as civic moralist', in Wealth and virtue : the shaping of political economy in the Scottish enlightenment, ed. by Istvan Hont and Michael Ignatieff, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983)
  • Daniel Roche, France in the Enlightenment (Cambridge, Mass.; London: Harvard University Press: 1998)
  • Ellen Ross, 'Mandeville, Melon and Voltaire: The Origins of the Luxury Controversy in France', SVEC, 155 (1976), 1897-1912
  • John Sekora, Luxury: The Concept in Western Thought, Eden to Smollet (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1977)
  • Donald Winch, 'Adam Smith: Scottish Moral Philosopher as Political Economist', The Historical Journal, 35 (1992), 91-113