An Essay on the Principle of Population | Study Guide

Thomas Robert Malthus

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An Essay on the Principle of Population | Chapter 19 | Summary



Continuing his discussion from Chapter 18, Malthus proposes another benefit to "the sorrows and distresses of life." Misfortunes, he says, serve to "soften and humanize the heart," giving people an opportunity to be charitable and compassionate toward one another. If people did not have to actively seek out good in a world full of evil, he says, there would be nothing admirable about virtue. Moreover, if the world were uniformly perfect, there would be no point in developing one's intellect. The evils people encounter in the world, Malthus concludes, are like "dust" when compared to the goodness which God lavishes on his creation.


In attempting to reconcile the harsh realities of life with the goodness of God, Malthus invokes a theological concept called annihilationism. The most widespread Christian interpretation of the afterlife, held by Catholics, Orthodox, and many Protestant denominations, holds that unrepentant souls will be cast eternally into hell after death. Malthus instead maintains that the souls of the wicked will simply cease to exist. Although never a tenet of mainstream Protestantism in Britain, annihilationism was endorsed, or at least considered, by other influential thinkers of the Enlightenment. John Locke was among those who, like Malthus, saw annihilation as more compatible with God's mercy than eternal punishment.

For Malthus, the idea of annihilationism is attractive because it fits with his recognition of humankind's limited agency in the world. The moral development of a human being is, in Malthus's view, like the firing of a clay vessel in the kiln of a skilled potter (i.e., God). No matter how much care is taken, some pots are bound to come out of the oven "in wrong shapes"—meaning, in human terms, they are predisposed to evil. Elsewhere, Malthus likens the formation of human character to a roll of the dice, with a truly virtuous person being the equivalent of double sixes. Both images stress the role of the environment and social influences on a person's moral development while downplaying the role of deliberate choices. From such a viewpoint, it is neither just nor merciful (two of God's defining traits in Christianity) to create a place of "eternal hate and torture."

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