An Essay on the Principle of Population | Study Guide

Thomas Robert Malthus

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An Essay on the Principle of Population | Chapter 9 | Summary

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Summary

Malthus continues his exploration of Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat's ideas. He takes issue with what de Caritat calls the "organic perfectibility of man," or the ability of humankind to go on improving in health, longevity, and intelligence. Malthus sees de Caritat as failing to distinguish between an improvement that has no limit and an improvement whose limit is merely unknown.

To illustrate his point, Malthus offers a gardening analogy. Nobody, Malthus says, can tell how big the biggest possible carnation would be. Nobody can claim to have seen the largest ear of wheat that could ever be grown. Nonetheless, Malthus says, it is obvious a carnation cannot grow to the size of a cabbage. There must be a maximum size, even if one cannot pinpoint it exactly. More generally, Malthus faults Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, for asserting the future will be fundamentally different from the past. History, Malthus maintains, is humanity's only guide for forming inferences about what will likely happen in the future.

Analysis

Malthus and de Caritat differ fundamentally on the issue of perfectibility. For de Caritat, the big developments Malthus mentions in his Preface—political changes, technological developments, and new scientific discoveries—represent the beginning of a period in which humanity keeps improving. Godwin shares this optimistic interpretation of history, at least broadly speaking. To revisit Malthus's garden analogy, both men base their theories on the idea humanity can keep growing ever-larger carnations indefinitely. It's just a matter of finding the right soil (i.e., social institutions or lack thereof) and the right fertilizer (i.e., education).

Malthus himself does not deny the potency of social and technological change. He accepts that, in a sense, humanity is better off with ready access to information (via cheap printing) and an improved scientific understanding of the world. He does, however, see such changes as fundamentally limited in how much they can do to improve humanity's lot. For him, it's as though there is an invisible tether restricting the progress of the human race—a point beyond which humanity cannot advance. This tether, in Malthus's view, is partly a result of humanity's built in-limitations—e.g., limited intellect and limited lifespan. The other part comes from the principle of population, which ensures there will never be an era in which everyone enjoys ample time for self-cultivation. De Caritat and Godwin, as Malthus will point out in later chapters, rest on the assumption people will have a chance to develop their intellects. For the poor, Malthus says, this will never be true.

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