An Essay on the Principle of Population | Study Guide

Thomas Robert Malthus

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An Essay on the Principle of Population | Summary




Malthus frames his Essay as a response to the utopian thinking of contemporary political philosophers, including William Godwin and the Marquis de Condorcet (1743–94). These thinkers, he says, have grossly underestimated the role of population in contributing to humanity's problems.

Chapters 1–2

Malthus asserts population will always tend to catch up with any increase in the food supply. Consequently, no matter how rich and populous the human race is collectively, there will always be many who have barely enough food—or in some cases, not enough—to survive. This, he says, is because population tends to grow geometrically (i.e., exponentially) when resources are abundant, while the food supply can only grow arithmetically (i.e., at a maximum constant rate).

Chapters 3–5

To show the applicability of these observations, Malthus surveys first the histories of "savage" and nomadic nations and then those of "civilized" nations. In all cases, he finds population quickly rises whenever the food supply increases so that more food quickly leads to more mouths to feed. Various kinds of "misery" and "vice" then serve to keep population down to the level of sustenance. Broadly speaking, Malthus says, there are two kinds of "checks" (hindrances or obstacles) to population growth. Preventive checks are circumstances that make people less likely to start families or have many children. In a populous nation, for example, a man might choose to hold off on marrying and having children because supporting a family is expensive. Positive checks are the ways in which a population increase is thwarted after it is "already begun." Disease, famine, and war fall into this category. Such checks, Malthus points out, disproportionately affect the poor.

Chapters 6–9

New colonies illustrate the upper limits of population growth. With plentiful land and relative freedom, colonists in North America and elsewhere have proliferated at a remarkable rate, doubling their population every 15 to 25 years. "Old" countries (namely those in Western Europe), meanwhile, are already caught up in the cycle of growth and decline, with the latter caused by war, natural disasters, or famine. Likewise, Malthus sees epidemics as having a cyclical quality: they tend to occur when the population is straining the food supply and are followed by rapid population regrowth. Overcrowding, combined with "unwholesome and insufficient food," sets the stage for disease, and the population suddenly declines due to widespread illness. Such population crises, Malthus warns, are not the theoretical problems of a distant future. Rather, they have already happened throughout history and continue to happen in the present.

Chapters 10–15

Malthus then spends roughly one-third of the Essay responding directly to the ideas of William Godwin. In his widely read Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), Godwin touched on the topic of future trends in humanity's population. He suggested humankind might attain a state of political and economic equality where the population stabilized and resources were abundant. As humanity improved itself, the "passions between the sexes" would decline, and the birth rate would decrease as a result. Meanwhile, the human lifespan would increase indefinitely as healthier modes of living were adopted. Malthus responds point by point to Godwin's assertions, which he finds to be either unproven or simply incompatible with reality.

Chapters 16–17

Toward the end of the Essay Malthus considers the different definitions of wealth proposed by 18th-century economists. Much of what is called "wealth," he finds, does not actually contribute to the well-being of the masses. Thus, an increase in a nation's wealth—as defined by Adam Smith, for instance—is not necessarily of any benefit to the laboring class or the poor.

Chapters 18–19

In the final two chapters, Malthus attempts to reconcile the Christian view of a loving God with the apparently harsh natural laws of population. God, he says, has established the "principle of population" for humankind's benefit. Because of the tensions between population and the food supply, human beings must work to secure the necessities of life. This, in turn, forces people to cultivate their minds and spirits. Malthus also argues that the "sorrows of life"—including the misery induced by poverty and malnutrition—are an opportunity to develop the Christian virtue of compassion. "Evil," he concludes, "exists in the world, not to create despair, but activity."
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