An Essay on the Principle of Population | Study Guide

Thomas Robert Malthus

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An Essay on the Principle of Population | Chapter 16 | Summary



Malthus now considers a problem with the definition of wealth posed by Adam Smith. In Smith's definition, wealth has little to do with the "happiness and comfort of the lower orders of society." In other words, a country's wealth can increase or decrease without the poor being any better or worse off. This is because not all forms of wealth are "destined for the maintenance of labor." Not all wealth represents the kinds of basic commodities (e.g. food) the laboring classes need and must often struggle to secure. A nation can be rich in manufactured luxury goods and still be "poor" in the sense of not having enough food to feed its least affluent members.

This gap between overall wealth and basic "provisions" is, Malthus suggests, growing worse in modern times. As England and other European countries rely more on manufacturing and less on agriculture, food becomes scarcer and more expensive. Eventually, the rise in food prices will lead more people to invest in farming, but in the short run, people will struggle to feed themselves. Moreover, even among agricultural products, those favored by the middle and upper classes—e.g., high-quality "butcher's meat"—are displacing the staple foods of the poor. Every acre devoted to fattening cattle, he observes, is an acre not devoted to raising grain for bread. "The increasing wealth of the nation," Malthus concludes, "has had little or no tendency to better the condition of the laboring poor."


In this chapter Malthus reiterates his claim that city living is unhealthy. When he says this, Malthus is not being abstract or idealistic, calling for a slow-paced "country mouse" lifestyle over that of the hectic "town mouse." Nor is he simply praising the psychological benefits of green spaces. Instead, Malthus is responding to real and immediate public xhealth problems brought about by mass urbanization in the 18th century.

During Malthus's lifetime, the Industrial Revolution drove major changes in the distribution of England's population. As the factory model displaced traditional "cottage industries" carried on at home, once-rural laborers flocked to cities in search of work. No English city illustrates this shift better than Manchester, which began the 18th century as a quiet town of about 10,000 but ended the century with a population of 89,000. Factories provided employment not only for those who operated the machines, but for bricklayers, maintenance personnel, and many other types of workers. A host of small businesses sprang up to provide inexpensive food and lodging for the new arrivals.

Urban planning and sanitation did not keep pace with this rapid influx of working-class residents. "The provision of clean water, sewerage, and waste removal," writes Griffin, was "woefully inadequate to the population's needs." Housing was often overcrowded, fueling the spread of contagious disease. Back in Chapter 7, Malthus cheerfully observes, "By great attention to cleanliness, the plague seems ... to be completely expelled from London." Yet, although the Black Death no longer ravaged England's cities, disease and mortality rates remained high among the urban poor, and localized outbreaks continued to take their toll. When the cholera epidemic of 1832 reached England, "filthy, ill-ventilated and crowded" living conditions were cited as aggravating the spread of disease.

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