Context

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Thomas Robert Malthus lived through the last third of the Enlightenment and witnessed the stirring events of the French Revolution and the subsequent convulsions of the Napoleonic era. The progression of the French Revolution from modest, Enlightenment-based liberalism through radicalism to a violent reaction against the early liberalism no doubt affected Malthus, who came from a liberal family. The global conflicts of the Napoleonic era also led to the centralization of power in national governments, which meant that statistical information was collected on a much wider scale than before. The national censuses instituted in 1790 in the United States and in 1801 in Britain provided the numerical data on which mathematical models of society could be based. Malthus also benefited from the contemporary developments in mathematics, which in turn drew on new understanding in the field of astronomy, leading to the creation of mathematical models of the universe. Malthus was one of the first of a long line of thinkers of the nineteenth century to attempt to apply mathematical models to society.

The origin of An Essay on the Principle of Population is said to have been an argument Malthus had with his father over the view advanced by reforming Englishman William Godwin and the Marquis de Condorcet, among others, on the perfectibility of humankind. Malthus argued that the pressure of population on the means of subsistence ensures that the bulk of the...

(The entire section is 413 words.)