An Essay on the Principle of Population | Study Guide

Thomas Robert Malthus

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An Essay on the Principle of Population | Quotes


It is an acknowledged truth in philosophy that a just theory will always be confirmed by experiment.

Thomas Robert Malthus, Chapter 1

Malthus's main problem with the theories of Godwin and Condorcet is that they seem to lack evidence. There is nothing in history to support the idea that humanity is on a trajectory toward a utopian society of equality and plenty. The truth, he insists, is far less rosy.

Despite his apparent belief in this maxim, Malthus originally provided little evidence to support his own theory of population. In later editions of the Essay, however, he responded to critics by adding both statistical and qualitative observations from many different countries. By the sixth edition, two whole books of the Essay were devoted to such examples.


Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio.

Thomas Robert Malthus, Chapter 1

This, in a nutshell, is Malthus's principle of population. Population growth, he argues, is exponential, with the population doubling every generation or so. The food supply, however, can only grow arithmetically, meaning there is a maximum constant rate of growth.

This difference in growth rates does not mean the population will grow far beyond what the food supply can sustain. Rather, a series of "checks" keeps the population at or below the level of the food supply. But if food becomes plentiful, population growth will "close the gap," rising until there is barely enough food to sustain the population.


Population cannot increase without the means of subsistence.

Thomas Robert Malthus, Chapter 2

Malthus is sometimes misunderstood as predicting that a population will increase far beyond what the food supply can sustain. Then, supposedly, a huge die-off (a Malthusian catastrophe) will be necessary to bring the population back in line with the food supply.

In fact Malthus proposes no such thing. The race between population and food supply will tend to be neck and neck. Wars, epidemics, and other disasters will bring the population below the level of the food supply, but the difference will soon be made up.


The superior power of population ... always shows itself the moment it is left to act with freedom.

Thomas Robert Malthus, Chapter 3

As Malthus sees it, the "power of population"—the tendency of humankind to procreate—is a force that can be suppressed or dampened by various "checks." This "power," cannot, however, be eliminated or even weakened in the long run. The "moment" food becomes plentiful in a region, its inhabitants will resume reproducing with great speed, even if the population was stagnant before.


The rich might become poor, and some of the poor rich; but a part of the society must necessarily feel a difficulty of living.

Thomas Robert Malthus, Chapter 5

Malthus's criticism of the Poor Laws has often been dismissed as stingy and harsh. His basis for distrusting these laws, however, lies in his understanding of contemporary economic theory. Giving money to the poor without increasing the food supply, he argued, would simply change who had access to a limited amount of food. Those at the back of the line—those who had neither wages nor charity payments—would still suffer. Without a means of purchasing sustenance, they would either starve or be reduced to begging.


All these checks may be fairly resolved into misery and vice.

Thomas Robert Malthus, Chapter 5

As Malthus tallies up the different "checks" to population growth, meaning the different things that can hinder it, he finds they fall into two overall categories. "Misery," broadly speaking, refers to the effects of poverty, or the effort and sacrifice required to avoid falling into it. "Vice" includes all forms of contraception, which in Malthus's day was frowned upon.


Population increases exactly in the proportion that the two great checks to it, misery and vice, are removed.

Thomas Robert Malthus, Chapter 6

This is the catch-22 underlying Malthus's principle of population. When misery and vice are absent—i.e., when food is plentiful and people are generally well-off—population will grow rapidly. Only when misery and vice return will population growth taper off. Consequently, a state of happiness and plenty cannot be sustained for long because it encourages the very thing (a high birthrate) that will undermine it.


If the laws of nature are ... fickle ... the human mind will ... remain fixed in inactive torpor, or amuse itself ... in bewildering dreams and extravagant fancies.

Thomas Robert Malthus, Chapter 9

A central tenet of Malthus's philosophy is that the laws of nature are fixed and consistent. Gravity works the same today as it did yesterday, and the sun still rises in the east. Without such consistency, he says, humanity would have no means of learning about the natural world. In Chapters 18 and 19 Malthus describes the constancy of natural laws as part of God's plan to encourage the development of the human mind.


This beautiful fabric of imagination vanishes at the severe touch of truth.

Thomas Robert Malthus, Chapter 10

Throughout the Essay, Malthus is eager to explain he does not want to believe in limitations on humanity's potential for happiness. He would much rather believe in the vision of perfectibility set out by Godwin, Condorcet, and others. Unfortunately, Malthus claims, this optimistic vision is not grounded in reality.


The superiority of intellectual, to sensual pleasures, consists rather in their filling up more time ... than in their being more real and essential.

Thomas Robert Malthus, Chapter 11

Although Malthus sees humanity's procreative drive as the cause of much suffering, he does not see sex itself as bad or even morally suspect. Unlike Godwin, who considers "sensual pleasures" to be inferior to intellectual ones, Malthus says life has plenty of room for both. He strongly disagrees with Godwin's belief that humankind will ever become so intellectual as to "outgrow" its sex drive. From his point of view, a person's level of intelligence has no bearing on their interest in sex.


There are no more genuine indications that man will become immortal upon earth than ... that trees will grow horizontally instead of perpendicularly.

Thomas Robert Malthus, Chapter 12

In his criticisms of Godwin and Condorcet, Malthus rarely resorts to mockery. By Chapter 12, however, he has lost his patience with the idea of human perfectibility and the sloppy reasoning that supports it. He proposes the silly idea of trees growing horizontally to emphasize how out of touch with reality Godwin's views are.


Nothing is so easy as to find fault with human institutions; nothing so difficult, as to suggest adequate practical improvements.

Thomas Robert Malthus, Chapter 13

One of Malthus's main complaints against Godwin is the latter's disdain for compromise. Godwin, Malthus argues, is an otherwise brilliant thinker who spends too much of his time "find[ing] faults with human institutions." Instead of offering practical, incremental fixes, Godwin looks forward to a future in which private property and the legal system are done away with. For Malthus, Godwin's recommendations amount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.


The situation of new colonies, well governed, is a bloom of youth that no efforts can arrest.

Thomas Robert Malthus, Chapter 17

Malthus makes this remark as part of a critique of the writings of Richard Price, who thought the "simple state" of civilization was best. Price's assertion seems true, Malthus says, because civilizations in their earliest stages often have cheap land and abundant resources. Once the land is all bought up and developed, the "bloom of youth" wears off, and a society begins to experience population pressure.


The great obstacle in the way to any extraordinary improvement in society is of a nature that we can never hope to overcome.

Thomas Robert Malthus, Chapter 17

This quotation illustrates the "doom and gloom" viewpoint for which Malthus was often critiqued in his own time and for which he is still sometimes stereotyped today. By the end of Chapter 17 Malthus considers his principle of population to be sufficiently proven and its effects obvious. The "great obstacle" that Malthus sees as intractable is humanity's tendency to multiply until resources are strained and much of the population lives in poverty.


Evil exists in the world, not to create despair, but activity.

Thomas Robert Malthus, Chapter 19

A modern reader of Malthus may be surprised to see the Essay ending on a high note. For Malthus, an Anglican priest, the existence of great suffering is not proof of God's absence or neglect. Instead, he urges readers to see the "misery" of human life as part of a divine plan. Within this plan, humanity's role is to work hard and attempt to better its circumstances as much as possible.

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