Libel on the Human Race

Steven Shapin

  • Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet by Robert Mayhew
    Harvard, 284 pp, £20.00, April 2014, ISBN 978 0 674 72871 4

The Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus liked to look on the bright side. True, that hasn’t been the usual assessment: his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) was intended to drench the parade of Enlightenment optimism about human possibility. The Radical writer Richard Price reckoned that an expanding population was a good thing, and that it would follow inevitably from more virtuous forms of government. Condorcet foresaw endless social progress, an egalitarian society in which technological advance would provide for an ever growing population, and in which death would be, if not eliminated, at least indefinitely postponed. William Godwin pointed to the enormous agricultural capacity of the world’s yet unexploited land: mind would triumph over matter, and ‘there will be neither disease, anguish, melancholy, nor resentment.’ It was better that there should be more people rather than fewer, and there should be no worries about overpopulation, since our sex drive would wither away as we transcended our animal nature.

Malthus thought all this was nonsense: there was neither evidence from the past nor any plausible future prospect of social equality, plenty, demographic stability, freedom from want – or immortality. Malthus approved Pope: ‘What can we reason, but from what we know?’ And what we know is that life has always and everywhere been a struggle for existence on Hardscrabble Farm. Malthus acknowledged that his view of life ‘has a melancholy hue’, but pleaded that he drew ‘these dark tints from a conviction that they are really in the picture; and not from a jaundiced eye, or an inherent spleen of disposition’. For this bleakness, and for the austere social policies he recommended, Enlightened thinkers and their Romantic allies despised him. Shelley wrote that Malthus was ‘the apostle of the rich’, whose writings were ‘calculated to lull the oppressors of mankind into a security of everlasting triumph’. To Southey, Malthus was a voider of ‘menstrual pollution’, who had written ‘the political bible of the rich, the selfish, and the sensual’. Hazlitt said that Malthus revelled in ‘the prospect of dearth and barrenness’, thought of women as ‘the devil’, and supposed that ‘all mankind … are like so many animals in season.’ Others damned him as a heretic for advocating abstinence and celibacy against God’s command to be fruitful and multiply. To Byron, Parson Malthus was a sexual and religious hypocrite, preaching asceticism to others – ‘turning marriage into arithmetic’ – while arranging his own domestic affairs on a more congenial basis.

The saddest testimony on the Essay’s power to erode optimism came from a doctor in Liverpool, who in 1804 described his care of a patient whose ‘reason gave way’ through obsessive speculation about human perfectibility. The physician, partial to Malthus’s views, pointed out to the madman that a happy and expanding population would eventually strain the limits of agricultural production. Unfazed, the patient suggested that an Act of Parliament be passed to enlarge the earth’s surface. The exasperated doctor discussed the case with the patient’s brother, who recommended that the unfortunate man be given Malthus’s Essay to read for himself so that he could see the force of rational argument and demographic facts. The patient did read it, not once but twice, after which he sank into sullen melancholia, withdrawing to his room ‘on the pretence of drowsiness’. Hours later, his caretaker entered and found ‘the sleep he had fallen into was the sleep of death.’ ‘At the moment I write this,’ the physician said, the madman’s ‘copy of Malthus is in my sight, and I cannot look at it but with extreme emotion.’

The assault on Malthus and his doctrines continued through the 19th century and beyond. Cobbett called him a ‘monster in human shape’, saying that he had never ‘detested’ anyone as much as Malthus. Carlyle found his views ‘dreary, stolid, dismal, without all hope for this world or the next’; ‘Nowhere … is there any light; nothing but a grim shadow of Hunger; open mouths opening wider and wider; a world to terminate by the frightfullest consummation; by its too dense inhabitants, famished into delirium, universally eating one another.’ Secular socialists remarkably accused Malthus of immorality as well as error: Engels condemned his work as a ‘repulsive blasphemy against man and nature’; Marx accounted it ‘a sin against science’ and a ‘libel on the human race’ – little more than an apology by a ‘parson of the English State Church’ for his own class interest.

At the time he published the Essay, Malthus was indeed a parson – curate of Okewood in Surrey – and if, for Wordsworth, it was just then ‘bliss to be alive’ and ‘very heaven’ to be young, you couldn’t tell that from Malthus’s surviving early sermons: recycled, inoffensive homilies in which the revolutionary events in France were scarcely even noises off. (The mild young Malthus could have been a clergyman in a Jane Austen novel.) A younger son of an eccentric landowning father, ‘Bob’ was born with a cleft palate which made comprehensible speech difficult for him and which, according to an associate, rendered him ‘seemingly little fitted for the utterance of any doctrine which could be deemed dangerous to social welfare’. His father – a fawning admirer of Rousseau – gave Robert a progressive education and sent him off to Jesus College, Cambridge, encouraging him to value mathematics not in its pure form but in its practical applications. Robert, who evidently agreed, graduated ninth wrangler and was already well disposed to discovering mathematically-expressed natural laws in domains where the pertinence of such laws hadn’t previously been suspected.

At the end of the 18th century, the average age at marriage for English men was around 26. Malthus’s own marriage was prudently postponed until 1804, when, at 38 and having acquired a position that allowed him at last to support a wife and family, he married his first cousin once removed, and then quickly fathered three children. Patricia James, the author of the still definitive biography Population Malthus (1979), speculates that Malthus’s domestic situation stamped itself on his demographic imagination – though many similarly placed younger sons among professional men at the time found the presumptions of his Essay repellent. Despite his handicap, Robert had charm and a gift for friendship; an admirer said that he led ‘a blameless life’ which ‘served him as a shield which arrows could not pierce, and on which dirt could not stay’; and even violent critics like Southey acknowledged that ‘Mr Malthus is said to be a man of mild and unoffending manners … and exemplary conduct.’ But some critical mud did stick, and while subsequent editions of the Essay showed that Malthus was never shaken from the inexorable mathematical logic of his argument, he did defend himself against a range of charges, especially those connected with the religious implications of his views and with his claims about human sexuality. He had given the old ‘problem of evil’ a new frame, and was keen to establish its theological propriety.

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