An Essay on the Principle of Population | Study Guide

Thomas Robert Malthus

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An Essay on the Principle of Population | Preface | Summary



Malthus begins his Essay by claiming to have been inspired by William Godwin's "Of Avarice and Profusion." Discussing Godwin's article with a friend, Malthus found his own ideas about human society quite different from Godwin's. He acknowledges the Essay would be more "complete" if it had greater evidentiary support, which he has not yet had time to collect.

Malthus deems it "obvious" that "population must always be kept down to the level of the means of subsistence." What isn't obvious to him is how this leveling effect is achieved. The limitations imposed on population by a finite food supply are, as he sees it, the biggest obstacle facing society in its attempt to improve the lives of its members. The discussion that follows is, Malthus warns, gloomy, but he believes it to be accurate. If anyone can find a way to remove the obstacles he describes, Malthus says he will be relieved to be proven wrong.


The English anarchist philosopher William Godwin (1756–1836) is Malthus's central opponent throughout An Essay on the Principle of Population. "Of Avarice and Profusion" (1797), the work that immediately spurred Malthus to write his own essay, is part of a collection entitled The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature. In it, Godwin argues that contrary to popular stereotypes, misers are less harmful to society than spendthrifts. The Enquirer, however, is not Malthus's main target throughout the Essay. In later chapters, he will spend much more time critiquing the ideas presented in Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793).

This guide is based on the 1798 edition of Malthus's Essay, the best-known and most concise of the six editions he published. Later editions do, however, address Malthus's wish for a chance to gather greater factual support for his ideas. The sixth edition (1826), the last published during Malthus's lifetime, is more a full-size book than a long pamphlet. It contains two large, multichapter sections devoted to the evidence behind Malthus's principle of population.

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