Thomas Robert Malthus Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Thomas Robert Malthus 1766-1834

English political economist, essayist, and travel writer.

Considered one of the most controversial writers of the early nineteenth century, Malthus is best known for An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), commonly known as the Essay on Population. The essay posits that population tends to increase at a faster rate than the means for sustaining the population. Unless population growth is stemmed by “Preventive” checks (such as contraception) that cause “vice,” or “Positive” checks (such as famine, disease, or other form of disaster) that cause “misery,” poverty levels increase. Providing relief to the poor, in the form of food, subsidized shelter, etc., encourages population growth, increasing poverty levels. The essay sparked debates on poverty for decades with Malthus's opponents claiming he was overly pessimistic and unsympathetic to the miseries of the poor, and his defenders insisting that his theory was sound and he was simply being realistic. Both Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace credited Malthus's observations for influencing their theories on natural selection.

Biographical Information

Malthus, the sixth of eight children, was born into an affluent middle-class family in Surrey, England, on February 13, 1766. His father, Daniel Malthus, had inherited sufficient money to live as a gentleman; he read literary classics as well as scientific texts and personally oversaw his son's early education. At the age of ten, Malthus was sent to Bath to study with the Reverend Richard Graves, and at the age of sixteen, he traveled to the Dissenting Academy at Warrington to study with Gilbert Wakefield, a radical Unitarian. In 1784 Malthus enrolled at Jesus College, Cambridge, Wakefield's alma mater, and graduated four years later, having distinguished himself in mathematics. He also won prizes in Latin and English although his physical disability—a cleft lip and palate—prevented him from engaging in public speaking to any great degree. He took Holy Orders and in 1789 was appointed curate at Okewood, a small chapel in an economically depressed area of Surrey. Four years later he joined Jesus College as a nonresident fellow. In 1798, at his father's urging, Malthus published An Essay on the Principle of Population, which challenged the views circulated by Enlightenment utopianists, and aimed to influence public policy. The essay was particularly critical of the Old Poor Law, which had been enacted in Elizabethan times, providing state-sponsored relief based on family size and food prices. Beginning in 1799, Malthus began traveling extensively, first to Scandinavia and Russia, later to France and Switzerland. In 1804 he married his cousin Harriet Eckersall; the couple had three children, two daughters and a son. He gave up his fellowship at Jesus College, which was restricted to bachelors, and in 1805 accepted a professorship at East India College in Hertfordshire. For the next several years he continued teaching, writing essays and pamphlets on political economy, and enlarging and revising the Essay on Population. He retired from his teaching post in 1830, by which time his reputation had declined and his theories were increasingly subject to bitter debate and criticism. Nevertheless, on August 14, 1834, a New Poor Law was passed, drastically reducing government-sponsored aid for the poor. Malthus died on December 29, 1834.

Major Works

Malthus's Essay on Population, which he revised and enlarged four times between 1803 and 1826, was his most influential and most controversial work. Malthus was not the first to discuss a link between population growth and poverty, or to discuss checks to population growth, but the Essay on Population was distinctive in its systematic construction of theory and its aim to impact public policy. It was originally written in response to two essays—An Inquiry into Political Justice (1793) by William Godwin, and Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind (1795) by Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, the Marquis de Condorcet—that advanced the notion of the eventual perfection of society, which Malthus found overly optimistic. Central to Malthus's thought was his observation that, “Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio.” In other words, population increases at a much faster rate than the means to support it unless population growth is checked. Checks include population growth inhibitors in the form of “vice” (such as contraception), and population reducers in the form of “misery” (such as disease or famine). The second edition of the Essay on Population (1806) was expanded to nearly four times the length of the original. The changes incorporated empirical evidence gleaned from Malthus's tour of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, France, and Switzerland, and his study of their populations and crops. It also included a means to control population other than through misery and vice: moral restraint, or voluntary abstinence from sex. In the Essay on Population, Malthus maintained that alleviating some of the oppressive conditions of the poor was ultimately useless, for if conditions were made better the poor would respond by having more children, introducing the problem of sustaining them. The solution was to instill in the lower classes the desire for a higher standard of living, the achievement of which was made possible only by choosing to have a smaller family and practicing moral restraint.

Malthus's other important works include his An Inquiry into the Nature and Progress of Rent, and the Principles by Which It Is Regulated (1815), for which Malthus receives partial credit for discovering the law of diminishing returns. Malthus's observations concerning the import of foreign grain, in his Observations on the Effects of the Corn Laws (1814) and The Grounds of an Opinion (1815), were also influential. His Principles of Political Economy Considered with a View to Their Practical Application (1820) is considered the most complete expression of his views on economics. Malthus's only writing not devoted to political and economic issues was the record of his European travels, titled The Travel Diaries of Thomas Robert Malthus, written in 1799 but unpublished until 1966.

Critical Reception

Malthus's theories were highly controversial in his own time. Liberals and radicals among early Romantic writers attacked his suggestion that the problems of the poor were caused by their reproductive practices, and his belief that poor relief did more harm than good in alleviating those problems. Modern critics have been divided between those who claim Malthus's theories have been misunderstood and those who echo earlier critics in charging that his theories supported an economic system based on inequality. G. J. Cady, in his assessment of American reaction to Malthusianism, states that misperceptions of Malthusian theory abound, maintaining that he was unable to locate, within the large body of American responses, a single text “correct enough, and at the same time comprehensive enough, to provide a point of reference from which the other American comments might have been viewed.” Cady reports that in general, American opinion was not favorable, but cautions that in most cases “the Americans appear to have been criticizing, not the doctrine of Malthus, but their own or, worse yet, someone else's interpretation of it.” Antony Flew (see Further Reading), similarly suggests that “what Malthus himself actually advocated differs in important ways from what has become associated with his name.” Flew reports that, for example, while Malthus attacked the Poor Law and rejected the utopian schemes advanced by Condorcet and Godwin, he never conceived of his theories “as providing a warrant for abandoning piecemeal and realistic efforts for improvement,” as has been charged by many of his critics. Marilyn Gaull (see Further Reading) also suggests that Malthus's theories have been misunderstood and oversimplified: “It is unfortunate that the whole complex argument of the Essay is usually reduced to the geometrical/arithmetic ratio Malthus used to illustrate what he called a ‘tendency’ to reproduce at a greater rate than resources.”

Representing the other side of the critical controversy is Eric B. Ross, who discusses Malthus's many revisions and expansions of the original 1798 essay in response to changing conditions in England and Europe. All of the versions, according to Ross, served the same purpose, which was to legitimize and preserve the unequal distribution of private property then in place. Malthus, in Ross's view, “not only offered the authority of natural law in defence of established property relations, but created a general explanatory framework which was to prove one of the most enduring bulwarks against any argument for the mitigation of economic or social injustice.” Tim Fulford situates Malthus's theories within the context of the earlier writings of Edmund Burke; however, according to Fulford, Malthus extended Burke's arguments about poverty to the next stage. Whereas Burke claimed it was outside the provenance of government to interfere with the laws of nature and the laws of God by providing poor relief, for Malthus “poverty became not simply a calamity that laborers suffered, not simply an instance of a general human vulnerability before God, but the fault of the laborers themselves for breaking the natural and divine law.” According to Ross, Malthus's influence endures to the present day, continuing to provide justification for economic inequality and discouraging efforts to reform such inequalities or alleviate the suffering of the poor.