An Essay on the Principle of Population | Study Guide

Thomas Robert Malthus

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An Essay on the Principle of Population | Chapter 18 | Summary



Malthus now speculates as to why people live in a world where misery seems inevitable. The "constant pressure of distress," he says, is a sign people need to look to their future (i.e., to the afterlife). Malthus rejects the notion that God is testing people because if God is omnipotent, he already knows how they will act. Rather, he says, God has created the world as a "mighty process" whereby physical matter is "awakened" into mind. When a child first comes into the world, Malthus says, he or she is spurred to action by the "wants of the body," such as hunger and cold. These processes "form the mind." Without them, people would sink into a kind of mental "torpor" (drowsiness) and never develop their intellects.

This, Malthus concludes, is why God has arranged creation so that humanity must work to survive. He could have made everything effortless but chose not to. The principle of population, likewise, is a part of God's plan as Malthus sees it. It may produce many evil results, such as starvation and poverty, but in spurring people to develop their intellects, it "produces a great overbalance of good." If the laws had been different—e.g., if "population and food [had] increased in the same ratio,"—things might have been much worse. This is not to say people need to passively accept the laws without trying to better their situation. Rather, Malthus says, people should try to "find out a mode of government" in which few are extremely rich or extremely poor. In the "middle parts" of society (i.e., the middle class), people have their best shot at cultivating their talents. This, Malthus asserts, is because such people have the benefit of education without being rich enough to waste it on pointless leisure activities.


Having laid out an admittedly depressing view of the human condition, Malthus attempts to find a silver lining. In doing so, he doubles down on his earlier criticisms of Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793). Whereas Godwin believes humanity will learn to make the best use of its leisure time, Malthus sees physical need, and even pain, as important motivators. Without them, he argues, people would fritter away their time uselessly and become like "brutes" (i.e., unthinking animals). A little suffering—even a lot of suffering—is, for Malthus, an acceptable cost if it means at least some humans will develop their mental faculties to the fullest.

But Malthus goes further than this, turning what seems like a dry statistical observation into a spiritual truth. The relationship between population growth and sustenance is, for Malthus, a divinely ordained law of nature, like gravity. It is not an accident, and the immense suffering it necessitates is not proof of God's absence or neglect. Rather, Malthus urges the reader to contemplate how limits on human population might serve the purposes of a wise and loving God. More generally, Malthus argues it serves God's will for the laws of nature to be consistent and discoverable. He touched on this point in Chapter 9 and lays it out much more fully here in Chapter 18. If nature's laws were random or constantly changing, the human mind would never seek them out and thus never reach its full potential.

John Locke (1632–1704), to whom Malthus refers about halfway through this chapter, was a 17th-century English philosopher best known for An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689). In this treatise, Locke argued many points which by Malthus's time had come to seem like common sense. He asserted human knowledge was not limitless, even in principle, and that human reason was prone to a variety of errors. Locke's discussion of pleasure and pain—topics of great interest to Malthus—is found mainly in Book 2 of his Essay. There, he sets out to explain the underlying motivations of human behavior. He says, in essence, what Malthus credits him with saying: people are more motivated by "uneasiness" than by the pursuit of pleasure. For Locke, as for Malthus, uneasiness is the "spring of action," the driving force behind human behavior. Without it, humankind would soon become lazy and inert.

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