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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

III. Bentham and the Early Utilitarians

§ 10. Thomas Robert Malthus; An Essay on the Principle of Population

On the ground of his general principles, Thomas Robert Malthus may be counted among the utilitarians; but he was a follower of Tucker and Paley rather than of Bentham. He did not share Bentham’s estimate of the intellectual factor in conduct, and the exaggeration of this estimate in other thinkers of the time was the indirect cause of his famous work. Hume had spoken of reason as the slave of the passions; but William Godwin wrote as if men were compact of pure intellect. He, too, was a utilitarian, in the sense that he took happiness as the end of conduct; but he was under the sway of the revolutionary idea; he put down all human ills to government, regarding it as an unnecessary evil, and thought that, with its abolition, man’s reason would have free play and the race would advance rapidly towards perfection. It was the doctrine of the perfectibility of man that gave Malthus pause. His criticism of the doctrine was first thrown out in conversation with his father. The elder Malthus, a friend and executor of Rousseau, expressed approval of the idea of human perfectibility set forth, in 1793, in Godwin’s Political Justice and in Condorcet’s Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain. Robert Malthus took a more sombre view of things than his father; he had had a scientific education; and, as a clergyman, he knew something of the life of the people; above all, he was of the new generation, and the dreams of an earlier day did not blind him to existing facts. He saw an obstacle in the way of all Utopias. Even if equality and happiness were once attained, they could not last; population would soon expand beyond the means of subsistence; and the result would be inequality and misery. The argument thus struck out in the course of debate was expanded, soon after, in An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). A storm of controversy followed its publication; but its teaching made notable converts, such as Pitt among statesmen and Paley among philosophers; and it soon came to be adopted as part of the orthodox utilitarian tradition. To his critics, Malthus replied with the thoroughness of an honest enquirer; he travelled on the continent, studied social conditions and investigated the actual circumstances which had kept the numbers of the people and their food in equilibrium. The answer came in the second edition of his Essay (1803), which, in contents, is, practically, a new book. Even the title is modified. The first edition discusses the principle of population “as it affects the future improvement of society”; the second is “a view of its past and present effects on human happiness.” The former shattered the picture of a future golden age, to be reached by the abolition of government or by any communistic device; the effect it produces on the reader is one of unrelieved depression; mankind is in the power of an impulse hostile to welfare; only vice and misery prevent the world from being over-peopled. The second edition turns from the future to the past and the present; it is informed by a fuller study of facts; it finds that the pressure of the people on the food has diminished with the advance of civilisation; not vice and misery only, but morality also, is reckoned among the checks to the increase of population. Thus, as he says in the preface, he “tried to soften some of the harshest conclusions of the first essay.”

The main doctrine of Malthus was not entirely new. The question of the populousness of ancient and modern nations had been discussed by a number of writers, including Hume; there were anticipations of Malthus in Joseph Townsend’s Dissertation on the Poor Laws (1786); and, still earlier, in 1761, Robert Wallace, in his Various Prospects of Mankind, had at first suggested community of goods as a solution of the social problem and then pointed out that the increase of population, which would result from communism, was a fatal flaw in his own solution. But Malthus made the subject his own, and showed by patient investigation how population, as a matter of fact, had pressed upon the means of subsistence, and by what measures it had been kept in check. He produced a revolution in scientific opinion and powerfully affected popular sentiment, so that pure literature took up the theme:

  • Slowly comes a hungry people as a lion creeping nigher,
  • Glares at one that nods and winks behind a slowly dying fire.
  • It is hardly too much to say that the prospect weighed on the social mind of the nineteenth century like a nightmare. The mind of the twentieth century has shaken it off like a dream, but it has not answered the main thesis for which Malthus contended. It is true that his exposition is not above criticism. The terms in which he stated his thesis—that population tends to increase in a geometrical ratio and food in an arithmetical ratio—are, at best, inexact. Perhaps, also, he did not allow sufficiently for the effects of new methods and inventions in increasing the supply of food and for the possible reaction of quality upon numbers among men. The darker side of his picture of the human lot may be read in his criticism of the poor law. But he was not blind to considerations of a more favourable kind. He saw that the “struggle for existence” (the phrase is his) was the great stimulus to labour and a cause of human improvement. Thus, at a later date, Darwin and A. R. Wallace, working independently, found in his book a statement of the principle, of which they were in search, for the explanation of biological development.

    The publication of An Essay on the Principle of Population determined the career of Malthus, which, thenceforth, was devoted to teaching and writing on economics. His Inquiry into the Nature and Progress of Rent, his Principles of Political Economy and his correspondence with Ricardo are of importance in the history of economic theory, though they were not fitted to exert any notable influence upon thought and literature in general. In all that he wrote, Malthus kept in close touch with the actual facts of social and industrial life; in this respect, his writings form a contrast in method to the works of Ricardo, in whose abstract reasonings the economics of the Benthamite school attained their most characteristic expression.