Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
A Parable of Small Beer
By Bernard Mandeville (16701733)
IN old heathen times there was, they say, a whimsical country, where the people talked much of religion, and the greatest part as to outward appearance seemed really devout: the chief moral evil among them was thirst, and to quench it a damnable sin; yet they unanimously agreed that every one was born thirsty more or less: small beer in moderation was allowed to all, and he was counted an hypocrite, a cynic, or a madman, who pretended that one could live altogether without it; yet, those who owned they loved it, and drank it to excess, were counted wicked. All this while the beer itself was reckoned a blessing from heaven, and there was no harm in the use of it: all the enormity lay in the abuse, the motive of the heart, that made them drink it. He that took the least drop of it to quench his thirst, committed a heinous crime, whilst others drank large quantities without any guilt, so they did it indifferently, and for no other reason than to mend their complexion.
They brewed for other countries as well as their own, and for the small beer they sent abroad, received large returns of Westphalia hams, neats tongues, hung beef, and Bolonia sausages, red herrings, pickled sturgeon, caviare, anchovies, and everything that was proper to make their liquor go down with pleasure. Those who kept great stores of small beer by them without making use of it were generally envied, and at the same time very odious to the public, and nobody was easy that had not enough of it come to his own share. The greatest calamity they thought could befall them, was to keep their hops and barley upon their hands, and the more they yearly consumed of them, the more they reckoned the country to flourish.
The government had made very wise regulations concerning the returns that were made for their exports, encouraged very much the importation of salt and pepper, and laid heavy duties on everything that was not well seasoned, and might any wise obstruct the sale of their own hops and barley. Those at the helm, when they acted in public, showed themselves on all accounts exempt and wholly divested from thirst, made several laws to prevent the growth of it, and punish the wicked who openly dared to quench it. If you examined them in their private persons, and pryd narrowly into their lives and conversations, they seemed to be more fond, or at least drank larger draughts of small beer than others, but always under pretence that the mending of complexions required greater quantities of liquor in them, than it did in those they ruled over; and that what they had chiefly at heart, without any regard to themselves, was to procure great plenty of small beer among the subjects in general, and a great demand for their hops and barley.
As nobody was debarred from small beer, the clergy made use of it as well as the laity, and some of them very plentifully, yet all of them desired to be thought less thirsty by their functions than others, and never would own that they drank any but to mend their complexions. In their religious assemblies they were more sincere; for as soon as they came there, they all openly confessed, the clergy as well as the laity, from the highest to the lowest, that they were thirsty, that mending their complexions was what they minded the least, and that all their hearts were set upon small beer and quenching their thirst, whatever they might pretend to the contrary. What was remarkable is, that to have laid hold of those truths to anyones prejudice, and made use of those confessions out of their temples, would have been counted very impertinent, and everybody thought it a heinous affront to be called thirsty, though you had seen him drink small beer by whole gallons. The chief topic of their preachers was the great evil of thirst, and the folly there was in quenching it. They exhorted their hearers to resist the temptations of it, inveighed against small beer, and often told them it was poison, if they drank it with pleasure, or with any other design than to mend their complexions.
In their acknowledgments to the gods, they thanked them for the plenty of comfortable small beer they had received from them, notwithstanding they had so little deserved it, and continually quenched their thirst with it; whereas they were so thoroughly satisfied that it was given them for a better use. Having begged pardon for these offences, they desired the gods to lessen their thirst, and give them strength to resist the importunities of it; yet in the midst of their sorest repentance, and most humble supplications, they never forgot small beer, and prayed that they might continue to have it in great plenty, with a solemn promise, that however neglectful soever they might hitherto have been in this point, they would for the future not drink a drop of it with any other design than to mend their complexions.
These were standing petitions put together to last; and having continued to be made use of without any alterations for several hundred years together, it was thought by some, that the gods, who understood futurity, and knew that the same promise they heard in June would be made to them the January following, did not rely much more on these vows, than we do on those waggish inscriptions by which men offer us their goods, To-day for money, and to-morrow for nothing. They often began their prayers very mystically, and spoke many things in a spiritual sense; yet, they never were so abstract from the world in them, as to end one without beseeching the gods to bless and prosper the brewing trade in all its branches, and for the good of the whole, more and more to increase the consumption of hops and barley.