It's been interesting to learn what Malthus really thought. He's quoted a lot, but never really accurately. In the first reading of his essay on population, I was impressed. It's well written. I'm still trying to figure out if I totally agree with him on everything, but he makes a lot of what I think are good points. Here's a shortened version of my paper.
Perhaps one of the most misunderstood men of his time and into the future was Thomas Malthus. Although Malthus was an economist, his theories on population have sparked debate all over the world. The name Malthus or the term Malthusian theory makes people think of what people consider his somewhat negative views on population. Malthus's theories had an impact on his own society and have continued to influence society and ideas in the 200-plus years since his famous work Essay on Population was published. Malthus's ideas an unseen, unrecognized forces in several theories that developed at a later date.
Born February 13, 1766, in Rookery, England, Thomas Robert Malthus was the second son and fifth child of the rather wealthy Daniel Malthus. He hardly ever went by Thomas, instead choosing to use his middle name of Robert. His father knew Jean-Jacques Rousseau and David Hume personally, so Thomas Robert Malthus grew up under the influence of those men's writings and philosophies. Never educated in a public school, Malthus was taught by tutors. In 1784, Malthus entered Jesus College at Cambridge and became an ordained minister for the Church of England. Around 1796, Malthus became a fellow of Jesus College. About the same time, he received a ministry in a small parish in the Surrey area. Consequently, he divided his time between Cambridge and the Surrey area. Around 1805, Malthus became professor of modern history and political economy at East India Company's College at Haileybury where he remained until he died in 1834.
Despite being educated with the ideals of Rousseau, Malthus disagreed with most of them and frequently debated his father about these ideas. In 1798--after an intellectual debate with William Godwin, father of Mary Shelley and with the urging of his father, who also disagreed with Malthus--Malthus set down his ideas on population in his now well-known Essay on Population. Essay on Population was first published anonymously, but Malthus's identity later become known.
Malthus states two postulates in the Essay: “First, That food is necessary to the existence of man. Secondly, That the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state”. Malthus articulates his second postulate because William Godwin had conjectured that passion between the sexes could diminish in the future. Malthus did not foresee that happening in the future, and he made that idea a part of his argument.
Malthus then goes on to state, “Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will shew the immensity of the first power in comparison of the second.”. Many scholars consider this part of Malthus's argument somewhat invalid in today's world because of the advances in science and technology that have allowed an increase of the amount of food produced on the land. This is a not totally true consideration because Essay on Population does talk about how when a check is removed, population will grow until it reaches and exceeds a new check. In a finite world, technology can only increase production so much before the checks will fall into place.
Throughout his Essay on Population, Malthus is constantly refuting the arguments of Godwin and articulating his own thoughts on the subjects of what happens when the world becomes overpopulated and what should be done about the issue. He saw that in the natural world, there is a very wide spread of plant and animal life and that when those populations grew over the sustainable limits, nature puts checks on the populations to keep them near where they should be. Malthus believed that the same was true of humans. Malthus believed that those checks, consisting mostly of famine and war, were a good thing because they were nature's way of controlling the population when it went over the limit imposed by nature.
Malthus was also trying to make sense of why there was suffering and evil in the world. The “Supreme Creator” is mentioned several times throughout Essay on Population. Malthus eventually comes to the conclusion that “Evil exists in the world not to create despair but activity.” For Malthus, the presence of evil was to encourage good behavior. It is man's duty to try to avoid evil and to better themselves. The laws of nature had been formed around this concept of evil as a means if encouraging good. Malthus's religious background is seen in the closing chapters of Essay on Population as Malthus discusses the evil in the world and man bettering himself morally to “fulfill the will of his Creator”.
This first version of Essay on Population caused a great deal of outcry among the public. They believed Malthus was a very brutal man and saw him as an opponent to “Utopian hopes for rapidly improving living conditions for the great masses”. In 1803 after traveling and doing more research in Germany, Russia, and Scandinavia, Malthus published a second edition of Essay on Population. This version of the essay had a drastically softened tone about the fate of mankind. Malthus conceded that it took time for children to increase the supply of workers and that there may have been some other factors that influenced population growth.
In the second edition, Malthus also proposed positive and preventative checks to help with population growth. Preventative checks include realizing how much it costs to raise a family and waiting to get married until a later age. Positive checks include poor children dying because of lack of nutrition or resources to care for them. War and famine could also be considered positive checks because population was being controlled naturally. Preventative checks are more likely to be used by people of higher social classes because they have more resources. Positive checks will be forced on people of lower classes because they do not always have the resources to practice the preventative checks. Birth control was not mentioned as a way to control population because the subject was almost taboo in an early nineteenth-century society. Six editions of Essay on Population were published during Malthus's lifetime. Malthus revised and edited many of those editions, making changes as he gathered more knowledge on the topic. The 1816 edition is the one he last revised.
Many times, Malthus was accused of not following his views, but that was not true at all. Married at the age of thirty-nine, Malthus had only three children. Only one of those children lived to adulthood. Malthus was a very mild-mannered man who was considered to have a very high and distinguished character. He quietly accepted all abuse given to him without complaining. Malthus did not intend to cause a controversy with his essay; he just wanted to give a realistic view of what he saw was happening in the world.
Because if his ideas, Malthus could be considered a realist in a time when being a realist was unpopular. The public saw Malthus as a cruel man for his theories when he was simply trying to promote the happiness of man through real possibilities instead of perfection through fantasy with no consideration for what was really happening to man. In the preface to the first edition of Essay on Population, Malthus acknowledges that his view is somewhat grim when he wrote, “The view he has given of human life has a melancholy hue, but he feels conscious, that he has drawn these dark tints from a conviction that they are really in the picture, and not from a jaundiced eye or and inherent spleen of disposition”.
Although at first Malthus believed that not much had been written on population, he acknowledged in a personal letter after the publication of the first edition that some French economists and British writers had already touched on the subject. Despite this, Malthus is considered to be the first to clearly articulate his ideas on the subject to the public.
Malthus's ideas reached a large population of readers and thinkers and caused differing reactions from other well-known figures. Karl Marx granted him that his essay was “the first serious economic study on the welfare of the lower classes” even though he did not agree with Malthus's ideas. Frederick Engels, Marx's writing partner, also disagreed with Malthus. In one writing, Engels points out contradictions in Malthus's arguments and considers Malthus's theory as a transitory stage between previous theory and new theories about the power of the land to produce. Charles Darwin's theories were positively influenced by the ideas of Malthus.In 1933 John Maynard Keynes wrote that Malthus's works were genius and could take a place in those who influenced the progress of thought.
It's kinda long, but interesting at the same time. Here's my sources if you want a little more reading...
Boulding, Kenneth E. Foreward. Population:The First Essay. By Thomas Robert Malthus. United States of America: University of Michigan Press, 1959. Print.
Elwell, Frank W. “Reclaiming Malthus.” 2001. Web. 29 March 2010.
Engels, Frederick. Overpopulation is a Myth. Population Opposing Viewpoints. Ed. Charles F. Hohm. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1995. 36-40. Print. Opposing Viewpoints.
“From the Desk of Malthus: How the Population Debate Began.” National Academies Forum, n.d. Web. 29 March 2010.
Heilbroner, Robert. Teachings from the Worldly Philosphy. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006. Print.
Malthus, Thomas Robert. “Overpopulation is a Serious Problem.” Population: Opposing Viewpoints. Ed. Charles F. Hohm. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1995. 29-35. Print. Opposing Viewpoints.
“Thomas Malthus.” NNDB. Soylent Communications, 2010. Web. 29 March 2010.
“Thomas Robert Malthus.” n.d. Web. 29 March 2010.