An Essay on the Principle of Population | Study Guide

Thomas Robert Malthus

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An Essay on the Principle of Population | Chapter 11 | Summary

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Summary

Malthus continues his critique of Godwin's proposed "system of society." Such a system, he argues, is not only unstable but can never be established in the first place. Godwin's argument is based on the gradual "extinction" of the "passion between the sexes." Malthus finds this unrealistic because, after thousands of years of recorded history, there is no sign humanity's sex drive has dwindled in the least. Again he asks: why should one believe the people of the future will be fundamentally different from those of the past?

Malthus then offers a few words in support of "sensual pleasures," which he considers morally acceptable and even uplifting when enjoyed in moderation. He takes issue with Godwin's apparent contempt for sexuality and his attempts to prove it an inferior part of human nature. There is no reason to suppose, he says, that the moral and intellectual improvement of humankind would lead to a loss of interest in sex.

Analysis

In his writing on "sensual pleasures," Malthus counteracts the widespread stereotype holding that religious people are somehow prudish or anti-sex. An Anglican clergyman, Malthus comes right out and declares that intellectual pleasures are no more "real and essential" than sensual ones. The real problem, he says, is "intemperance," meaning a lack of moderation. But in this respect, Malthus sees sex as not fundamentally different than other things a person might do to excess, such as eating, exercising, or even studying.

The skeptic Godwin, meanwhile, sees sex as categorically inferior to intellectual pursuits. For him, sexual desire is akin to a childish impulse that humanity will eventually outgrow. In defending this position, Godwin urges his readers to consider what "the commerce of the sexes" would be like without "its attendant circumstances." If sex came without seduction, romance, or affection, Godwin says, it would be an ugly and ridiculous affair. As Malthus points out, this is a strange, inflexible way of reasoning. Trees, he says, would be ugly indeed without the "attendant circumstances" of branches and leaves, but this is not a good reason to be anti-tree.

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