An Essay on the Principle of Population | Study Guide

Thomas Robert Malthus

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An Essay on the Principle of Population | Chapter 12 | Summary

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Summary

Next, Malthus turns his attention to Godwin's views on the "prolongation of human life." Godwin's belief in the potential immortality of humankind is based on "the power of the mind over the body," which Malthus says is limited. Although strong emotions may temporarily invigorate people, he points out, they do not actually increase their endurance. When going for a long hike in a state of joy or anxiety, a person may not feel tired when they reach their destination, but they will still be tired the next morning. "Stimulants"—which for Malthus include powerful emotions—"seem to act rather by taking off the attention from the bodily fatigue, than by really and truly counteracting it."

Malthus, however, does not stop at speculation. Rather, he identifies specific instances in which mental "stimulants" seem to have no effect on longevity. Women, Malthus points out, seem to live longer than men, despite the limited opportunities for "vigorous mental exertion" when compared to men. (The lack of "exertion," as Malthus is quick to point out, results from a difference in educational norms, not innate ability.) Likewise, men who content themselves with an unintellectual lifestyle seem to live just as long as philosophers, despite the ample mental exertion of the latter. In some cases, excessive mental "stimulation" can even be harmful, if it causes one to forgo a healthy diet and regular exercise.

The mind-body relationship is, Malthus concedes, a strong one, but not strong enough that people can will themselves to forgo sleep or will away a high fever. Much less, he says, can people will (or feel) their way into immortality. Godwin's vision of the future, Malthus admits, is "beautiful and desirable," but this doesn't make it realistic or even plausible. Malthus closes the chapter by observing that Godwin and de Caritat, despite being religious skeptics, seem to long after immortality just as the devout do.

Analysis

Throughout the Age of Enlightenment, "mind over matter" thinking was widespread among philosophers who, ideologically, might seem to have little else in common. Godwin, a minister turned religious skeptic, believed the mind would eventually triumph almost completely over the body, making physical needs and urges irrelevant to daily life. Many of the assertions in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) can be traced back to this speculative claim.

The primacy of the mind over the body was not, however, an idea unique to secular thinkers. In 1710, over 80 years before Godwin's Political Justice appeared, the Church of Ireland cleric George Berkeley (1685–1753) had published A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. In this treatise, Berkeley set forth his theories of idealism and immaterialism—the beliefs that only minds are truly real and physical matter does not exist as such. Unlike Godwin or Malthus, Berkeley did not merely maintain there was a hierarchical relationship between mind and matter. For him, the mind was everything and matter was merely an illusion.

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