Thomas Robert Malthus Essay - Critical Essays

Malthus, Thomas Robert


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.

Principal Works

An Essay on the Principle of Population, As It Affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers [anonymously] (essay) 1798; revised and enlarged as An Essay on the Principle of Population; or, A View of Its Past and Present Effects on Human Happiness; with an Inquiry into our Prospects Respecting the Future Removal or Mitigation of the Evils Which It Occasions. 2 vols. 1803; revised and enlarged 1806, 1807, 1809; revised and enlarged, 3 vols. 1817; revised, 2 vols. 1826, 1890

An Investigation of the Cause of the Present High Price of Provisions: Containing an Illustration of the Nature and Limits of Fair Price in Time of Scarcity; and Its Application to the Particular Circumstances of This Country [anonymously] (essay) 1800

A Letter to Samuel Whitbread, Esq., M.P. on His Proposed Bill for the Amendment of the Poor Laws (letter) 1807

A Letter to the Rt. Hon. Lord Grenville, Occasioned by Some Observations of His Lordship on the East India Company's Establishment for the Education of Their Civil Servants (letter) 1813

Observations on the Effects of the Corn Laws, and of a Rise or Fall in the Price of Corn on the Agriculture and General Wealth of the Country (essay) 1814

The Grounds of an Opinion on the Policy of Restricting the Importation of Foreign Corn, Intended as an Appendix to “Observations on the Corn Laws” (essay) 1815

An Inquiry into the Nature and Progress of Rent, and the Principles by Which It Is Regulated (essay) 1815

Statements Respecting the East-India College, with an Appeal to Facts, in Refutation of the Charges Lately Brought against It in the Court of Proprietors (essay) 1817

Principles of Political Economy Considered with a View to Their Practical Application (essay) 1820; revised and enlarged 1836

The Measure of Value Stated and Illustrated, with an Application of It to the Alterations in the Value of the English Currency since 1790 (essay) 1823

Definitions in Political Economy, Preceded by an Inquiry into the Rules Which Ought to Guide Political Economists in the Definition and Use of Their Terms; with Remarks on the Deviation from These Rules in Their Writings (essay) 1827

A Summary View of the Principle of Population (essay) 1830

The Travel Diaries of Thomas Robert Malthus (diaries) 1966

The Pamphlets of Thomas Robert Malthus (pamphlets) 1970

The Works of Thomas Robert Malthus. 8 vols. (essays, letters, diaries, pamphlets) 1986


G. J. Cady (essay date October 1931)

SOURCE: Cady, G. J. “The Early American Reaction to the Theory of Malthus.” In Thomas Robert Malthus: Critical Assessments. Vol. 4, edited by John Cunningham Wood, pp. 18-42. London: Croom Helm, 1986.

[In the following essay, originally published in October, 1931, Cady examines pre-1840 American criticism of Malthus's theories, contending that much of it is based on misreadings.]

That which has passed and, in fact, still passes for Malthusianism in the mind of the man in the street, the social politician, the amateur economist, and, indeed, of the professional economist, has not infrequently been a very different thing from the theory advanced more than a century...

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Frederick L. Beaty (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Beaty, Frederick L. “Byron on Malthus and the Population Problem.” Keats-Shelley Journal 18 (1969): 17-26.

[In the following essay, Beaty investigates the references to Malthus in Lord Byron's correspondence and poetry.]

Both the letters and poetry of Byron contain references to Thomas Robert Malthus that were immediately clear and meaningful to early nineteenth-century readers. Malthus's concisely phrased hypothesis about the relationship of population growth to the means of subsistence and his incisive theories on political economy made him so famous in his own day that thoughtful contemporaries were obliged to read his work. If for no other reason,...

(The entire section is 4106 words.)

D. L. LeMahieu (essay date July-September 1979)

SOURCE: LeMahieu, D. L. “Malthus and the Theology of Scarcity.” Journal of the History of Ideas 40, no. 3 (July-September 1979): 467-74.

[In the following essay, LeMahieu discusses Malthus's attempt, in the last two chapters of his Essay on Population, to provide theological justification for his theories.]

In the final two chapters of his first Essay on Population, T. R. Malthus tried to reconcile the chilling implications of his population theory with the goodness and benevolence of God. This theodicy further antagonized the critics of the Essay, who found it sanctimonious and hypocritical; and it tagged the author with the acrimonious title...

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Geoffrey Gilbert (essay date spring 1980)

SOURCE: Gilbert, Geoffrey. “Economic Growth and the Poor in Malthus' Essay on Population.History of Political Economy 12, no. 1 (spring 1980): 83-96.

[In the following essay, Gilbert explains Malthus's changing views on the effects of economic growth on the working poor in the 1798 and succeeding editions of the Essay on Population.]


Historians of economic thought have given short shrift to Malthus' treatment of economic growth as it affects the welfare of the working classes, although the issue commands a full chapter in every edition of the Essay on Population. The gist of the argument, as formulated in 1798, is that...

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Arthur E. Walzer (essay date February 1987)

SOURCE: Walzer, Arthur E. “Logic and Rhetoric in Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population, 1798.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 73, no. 1 (February 1987): 1-17.

[In the following essay, Walzer analyzes Malthus's Essay in terms of its rhetorical strategies.]

In 1798, Thomas Robert Malthus published anonymously An Essay on the Principle of Population, As It Affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers.1 In his famous Essay, Malthus argues against the possibility of the utopian future predicted by such Enlightenment reformers as William Godwin and...

(The entire section is 10400 words.)

Samuel Hollander (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Hollander, Samuel. “Utilitarianism in a Theological Context.” In The Economics of Thomas Robert Malthus, pp. 917-48. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.

[In the following excerpt, Hollander explores Malthus's version of theological utilitarianism, claiming that his roles as Christian moralist and political economist were not incompatible.]


Whether Malthus was a ‘Utilitarian’ is still a debated issue. D. P. O'Brien, for example, maintains that ‘only the two Mills, part from Bentham himself, were really Utilitarians' (1975, 25). Against this we have the view of Lord Robbins: ‘The principle that the test...

(The entire section is 17094 words.)

Eric B. Ross (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Ross, Eric B. “Politics and Paradigms: The Origins of Malthusian Theory.” In The Malthus Factor: Population, Poverty and Politics in Capitalist Development, pp. 8-30. London: Zed Books, 1998.

[In the following essay, Ross discusses the historical, political, and economic factors behind Malthus's theory of population which, Ross claims, provide justification for the system of private property as it existed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.]

It is clearly the duty of each individual not to marry till he has a prospect of supporting his children; but it is at the same time to be wished that he should retain undiminished...

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Tim Fulford (essay date fall 2001)

SOURCE: Fulford, Tim. “Apocalyptic Economics and Prophetic Politics: Radical and Romantic Responses to Malthus and Burke.” Studies in Romanticism 40, no. 3 (fall 2001): 345-68.

[In the following essay, Fulford explains the influence Malthus's writings exerted on the history of literature as well as on the history of politics and social science.]

We will do some Michief if you don't lower the Brade for we cannot live. … We have give you a fair offer to do it before you don have your Town & Towns set on fire … we will begin on the One End and Continue to the other. Be all of one Mind we can do itt because we cannot But be killed then &...

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Further Reading


Avery, John. “Malthus” and “The Iron Law.” In Progress, Poverty, and Population: Re-reading Condorcet, Godwin and Malthus, pp. 55-93. London: Frank Cass, 1997.

Provides an overview of Malthus's writings and the controversy surrounding them.

Bowerbank, Sylvia. “The Bastille of Nature: Wollstonecraft versus Malthus in Scandinavia.” Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 304 (1992): 826-27.

Compares Malthus's Scandinavian Diary (1799) with Mary Wollstonecraft's Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1795).


(The entire section is 706 words.)