Three names dominate the debates on the social policy of 19th-century Britain: Bentham, Malthus and Chalmers. The first two were original thinkers whose ideas often contradict the system popularly ascribed to them. We have been forced over the last few years to recognise that Bentham’s idea of government was far more sophisticated than the particular pieces of legislation usually labelled Benthamite. Now a remarkably thorough investigation of his life and writings emphasises and develops what Keynes pointed out forty years ago: that there was much more to Malthus than Malthusianism.
Vol. 1 No. 2 · 8 November 1979
SIR: It appears from Rosalind Mitchison’s account in your last issue of Patricia James’s new biography of Malthus that one of the book’s strengths is its portrayal of Malthus’s ability to change his mind (LRB, 25 October). We are asked to see the producer of a ‘chilling’ social theory as being prepared to alter his positions with ease, as ‘someone who saw the subject as a field not for certainty but for speculation’. But as Mrs Mitchison also suggests, some of Malthus’s views were put forward as being unalterable, and this aspect of the man is important, as it is the essence of his claims to be a ‘scientist’.
Stressing Malthus’s humanity and open-mindedness can obscure the fact that his theory was not offered as speculation but as law. Malthus certainly appears to have been engaging in many personal ways, and also to have had a vibrant and realistic sense of the power of sexuality in life. This forms a strong contrast to the deliberate sexlessness envisaged in the utopia of William Godwin, one of the writers whose work Malthus sought to contest in his Essay. But the point about the principle of population was not that it was a proposition that might be socially contingent, or one that in some liberal way people might accept or reject as they chose. It was a law of nature. Malthus’s Wrangler training led him to hunt for Newtonian certainty in the field of demographic studies; and the claim that he had uncovered a natural law is the foundation of the original Essay. Later editions develop the argument, but do not alter the basic theory. His life may indeed have been a ‘genuine search for truth’ (whatever that may be): he certainly felt that he had uncovered the true relationship between population and resources. This was non-negotiable.
Mrs Mitchison further clouds the issue by overstressing ‘the determination of later Malthusians such as Thomas Chalmers to praise God for this imbalance in provision’. Malthus was not as morally harsh as Chalmers and may not have gone as far as him in the praising: but his Essay undoubtedly argues for the providential designedness of the awsome formula that he uncovered. As Mrs Mitchison hints but does not bring out clearly enough, it is precisely this powerful juncture of the (purportedly) providential and the scientific that makes the Essay so gloomy. The essence of Malthus’s achievement rests on the claim to certainty, not speculation. He may have been a good companion but he was the author of a theory that undermined companionship.