An Essay on the Principle of Population | Study Guide

Thomas Robert Malthus

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An Essay on the Principle of Population | Chapter 7 | Summary



Returning to his discussion of positive checks (see Chapter 4), Malthus considers the causes of epidemics. He says a "crowded population," along with "unwholesome and insufficient food," seem to worsen disease outbreaks. To illustrate the cyclical nature of this phenomenon, he draws on tables provided by Johann Peter Süssmilch (1707–67), an early German statistician. After each epidemic ("plague" or "pestilence"), Süssmilch observes, the population seems to rebound quickly. Within decades at most, "the number of inhabitants [has] increased faster than the food and the accommodations necessary to preserve them in health." At this point, conditions are ripe for another disease outbreak, or at least a string of "sickly years." Malthus proceeds to support his hypothesis with additional statistics compiled by 18th-century statistician Richard Price (1723–91).

Malthus then circles back to his main argument. Because "the passion between the sexes" (i.e., the drive to procreate) has been the same in every era, only an "increase in the means of subsistence" can sustain population growth. Consequently, promoting agriculture is the best way for a government to grow its citizenry in a sustainable way. Strengthening the Poor Law, Malthus maintains, will merely contribute to the cycle of misery outlined in earlier chapters (see Chapter 5).


Although little known among English speakers today, Johann Peter Süssmilch was a pioneer in the use of statistics to analyze birth, mortality, and population. Like Malthus, Süssmilch saw his research as an attempt to discern God's will in human affairs. His major work, first published in 1741 and then revised and expanded until 1765, was entitled Die göttliche Ordnung in den Veränderungen des menschlichen Geschlechts (The Divine Order in the Changes of the Human Species). Interestingly, Süssmilch surveyed the same data as Malthus would later use, but he came to a different conclusion. Both men saw the cyclical changes in population as evidence of a carefully ordained divine plan. To cooperate with this plan, Süssmilch wrote, humankind should follow the biblical injunction to "be fruitful and multiply." From Malthus's point of view, however, humankind needed no help in "multiplying."

Malthus, by the way, was hardly the only author of his time to express a distrust of the Poor Law (see also Chapter 5). His complaints against these statutes, however, were more influential than most. Malthus's Essay is often cited as the justification for the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, which implemented drastic cuts in England's social welfare system. Moreover, about a decade after Malthus's death, Ireland underwent a great famine as a result of widespread potato blight. The British's government's muted response to this potato famine (1845–49) has likewise been seen as an example of "Malthusian" political decision-making.

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