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CHAPTER XII: Miscellaneous Observations. - William Godwin, Of Population. An Enquiry concerning the Power of Increase in the Numbers of Mankind 
Of Population. An Enquiry concerning the Power of Increase in the Numbers of Mankind, being an Answer to Mr. Malthus’s Essay on that Subject (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1820).
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Such was the policy, and such the experience of the most celebrated nations of antiquity on the subject of population. But Mr. Malthus has brought forward certain maxims of a very different tenor from Plato and Aristotle, writing of an imaginary republic: and upon them he remarks, “From these passages it is evident that Plato fully saw the tendency of population to increase beyond the means of subsistencea . And, again, “If he could propose to destroy certain children, and to regulate the number of marriages, his experience and his reasonings must have strongly pointed out to him the great power of the principle of increase, and the necessity of checking itb .” To which he adds, “Aristotle appears to have seen this necessity still more clearly.”
Now, all this is surely sufficiently memorable. We have Lycurgus, and Romulus, and Metellus, and Julius Cæsar, and Augustus, and all the practical politicians of antiquity, marshalled on one side; and Plato and Aristotle, who amused themselves with framing imaginary re publics, on the other: and Mr. Malthus chooses to adhere to the Utopian notions, or, as he phrases it, the “experience and reasonings” of the latter.
He calls Plato and Aristotle wise, because he thinks they fell into the same blunder as he has done. Would not any reasonable man wonder how the “experience of Plato” came to be so much greater than that of the immortal legislators of the republics of Sparta and of Rome, and of those who administered those republics for several hundred years after the frail bodies of their institutors had crumbled into dust?
But the fact is, that Plato and Aristotle never thought about the matter. They dreamed neither of a geometrical series, nor of any other series. They were guilty of no refinement in all this. They fixed the number of citizens in their imaginary republic; and all they meant in the passages the sagacity of which Mr. Malthus applauds, was, that if you are determined to have no more than five thousand citizens, you must take care not to have six.
Thus far I have been enquiring merely into the human population of the world, or, more accurately speaking, of those parts of the world known by the names of Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America; and certainly in these we have found no reasons to persuade us to believe in Mr. Malthus's doctrine of the stupendous and alarming multiplication of mankind. Let us now take the question upon a somewhat larger scale. Let us look abroad, and see what hap. pens among inferior animals.
In the first edition of the Essay on Population Mr. Malthus found no powers to check the calamitous multiplication of mankind, but vice and misery; to which he has since added moral restraint. No one of these three applies to the lower orders of animals. They are incapable of vice: I think Mr. Malthus will not say, that they refrain from procreation from a principle of prudence: and they are seldom found starved to death. Mr. Malthus has ventured to intrude himself into the mysteries of the administration of the universe, under the sole guidance of his geometrical and arithmetical ratios; and I shall not hazard much in asserting that this is a science of another order.
If there was no principle at work in the world but Mr. Malthus's “Principle of Population,” I should expect to find things much otherwise than they are. I know not that we have the smallest reason to suppose the animal world more numerous than it was three thousand, or (putting revelation out of the question, and supposing the earth to have subsisted so long) thirty thousand years ago. Every blade of grass, it may be, is peopled; but we may wander for days together in some parts of the world, without seeing an animal so big as a ferret or a hare. Why is this? Why is not nature
—strangled with her waste fertility,
The earth cumbered, and the winged air darked with plumes?
The spawn of fishes is most copious, but we know not how much of this is ripened into perfect animals. All we seem to know is, that the eaters are not more numerous than they have been from the earliest records of time, and that the small animals which serve for food to the large ones, are not produced in so much greater plenty than formerly, as to occasion any disturbance to the goodly order of the universe. We know that several species of animals have totally perished. We' read of the unicorn, the leviathan, the behemoth, the mammuth, and many others, and of some of them the skeletons, in whole or in part, subsist to this day. What animal was to prey on the mammuth, or to keep down the enormous multiplication of his species, by making use of him for food? If Mr. Malthus's system were true, the earth long ere this, ought to have been a habitation for mammuths only; or rather this enormous animal, after having devoured every other species, ought himself to have perished, and the globe to have become one vast solitude.
It is not my intention to pursue this speculation respecting the animal tribes. It is enough for me to have started the hint for the use of future enquirers. I return therefore to the topic of human population.
There is something much more mysterious in the principle by which the race of mankind is perpetuated, than any man has yet distinctly remarked: and he that shall sufficiently attend to it, instead of wondering that the globe has not long ago been overstocked with inhabitants, and seeking for vague and indefinite causes to account for the thinness of its population, will be apt rather to wonder why the human race has not by this time become extinct.
What are the lessons that experience teaches us on this subject? Of the families that I knew in the earliest stage of my recollection, the majority have perished. The persons to whom I refer were men in the middle station of life, and who lived at their ease. Why has their race become extinct? How few can trace their descent in the direct male line through many generations? The persons of the name of Smith, or White, or Brown, are indeed numerous; for these are not one family, but the name of old was given at random to many. But take any name that is singular, Shakespear, or Malthus, or Gildon, how many of that name will you find in the muster-roll? Upon the principle of the Essay on Population, the inhabitants of this country ought long ago to have been a people of nobles: the nobility with us, like the mammuth in the brute creation, ought to have eaten up the rest; for they had ample encouragement to multiply, which the peasant and the mechanic could scarcely in the smallest degree partake. Yet our nobility are in a striking degree new families, scarce any of them taking precedence of the bastards of Charles the Second. Such is the order of the universe. “One generation,” as Solomon says, one family, and one race of men, “passeth away, and another cometh;” but the human race survives these vicissitudes. In Scotland, titles are old, because they descend to heirs-general, and surnames are widely diffused, because it was the custom of the head of a clan to give his own name to all his followers.
A passage extremely to this purpose, on the subject of the town of Berne, occurs in Mr. Malthus's Essay, who has indeed always appeared to me a man of a candid mind; so much so, that in my opinion it would not have been difficult for any one of sufficient leisure and perspicacity, to construct an answer to the Essay on Population from the Essay itself. The passage purports to be an extract from the Statistique de la Suisse, in four volumes, octavo, published at Lausanne, in 1766. “In the town of Berne, from the year 1583 to 1654, the sovereign council had admitted into the Bourgeoisie 487 families, of which 379 became extinct in the space of two centuries, and in 1783 only 108 of them remained. During the hundred years from 1684 to 1784, 207 Bernese families became extinct. From 1624 to 1712, the Bourgeoisie was given to 80 families. In 1623 the sovereign council united the members of 112 different families, of which 58 only remainc .”
It has sometimes occurred to me whether Mr. Malthus did not catch the first hint of his geometrical ratio from a curious passage of Judge Blackstone, on consanguinity, which is as follows:
“The doctrine of lineal consanguinity is sufficiently plain and obvious; but it is at the first view astonishing to consider the number of lineal ancestors which every man has within no very great number of degrees: and so many different bloods is a man said to contain in his veins, as he hath lineal ancestors. Of these he hath two in the first ascending degree, his own parents; he hath four in the second, the parents of his father and the parents of his mother; he hath eight in the third, the parents of his two grandfathers and two grandmothers; and by the same rule of progression, he hath an hundred and twenty-eight in the seventh; a thousand and twenty-four in the tenth; and at the twentieth degree, or the distance of twenty generations, every man hath above a million of ancestors, as common arithmetic will demonstrate.
“This will seem surprising to those who are unacquainted with the increasing power of progressive numbers; but is palpably evident from the following table of a geometrical progression, in which the first term is 2, and the denominator also 2; or, to speak more intelligibly, it is evident, for that each of us has two ancestors in the first degree; the number of which is doubled at every remove, because each of our ancestors had also two immediate ancestors of his own.
This argument however from Judge Blackstone of a geometrical progression would much more naturally apply to Montesquieu's hypothesis of the depopulation of the world, and prove that the human species is hastening fast to extinction, than to the purpose for which Mr. Malthus has employed it. An ingenious sophism might be raised upon it, to shew that the race of mankind will ultimately terminate in unity. Mr. Malthus indeed should have reflected, that it is much more certain that every man has had ancestors, than that he will have posterity, and that it is still more doubtful, whether he will have posterity to twenty, or to an indefinite number of generations.
Another remark also it is proper to make on this extract. Judge Blackstone does indeed shew, that the population of the world is, in one sense, the proper subject of a geometrical ratio. But his ratio is essentially different from that of Mr. Malthus. The Commentator on the Laws of England does not pretend to assign any period of time, any precise numbers of years, to his doubling; whereas the Essay on Population not only affirms a doubling by direct generation, which is not true; but it is also of the essence of the doctrine there delivered, that this doubling shall take within a limited and assignable portion of time.
In treating on this subject of population,, and considering whether the small number of the present inhabitants of the earth is altogether to be ascribed to the inroads of vice and misery, it is certainly not wholly unworthy of our attention to observe, that some of those countries from which we have drawn our examples of the scarcity of men, were among the countries in which liberty and equality most abounded, and where distress was the least known. The two most flourishing states of ancient Greece, were Sparta and Athens; and in both the laborious occupations were assigned to slaves, while the free citizens lived in comparative idleness. In Sparta there was little motive to industry, as all property was in common: a citizen was there thought to be disgraced, if he practised any of the arts. In Athens Solon made an exception, in favour of statuary and painting, which were therefore termed liberal artse . Some of the citizens of Athens were enterprising, and sought to accumulate wealth; but the greater part were contented with the condition in which they were born. In the Symposium of Xenophon, a curious representation of the state of the Athenians in this respect is put into the mouth of one Charmides. “When I was wealthy,” says he, “1 was exposed to perpetual demands for the support of government, or for the expences of the theatre. I could not go beyond the confines of Attica, without incurring the suspicion of the magistrates, and was obliged to court the favour of the vilest informers. Now, on the contrary, that I have, become poor, I go where I chuse; I am treated with respect and deference by the rich, who regard me with the same terror I once felt for others; and, when in want, I can require of the state to support me.” These were the countries in which to have tried the geometrical ratio; and it was tried. The constitution of Sparta endured five hundred years; with what effect we have seen. The government of Rome was perhaps the happiest for its citizens, and certainly produced, while in its vigour, the greatest quantity of true energy and heroic virtue, of any government that ever existed. Nor will the government of the canton of Berne be cited among those that have most oppressed their citizens.
In the Grecian republics the increase of mankind could not have been kept down in their citizens by want, for every citizen had a right to call on the state to support him. And in Sparta when the citizens had all been fed, there was a numerous train of Helots, by whom the mechanical labour of the community was performed, and who we may be sure would not all be starved. The citizens therefore, the decrease of whom I have exemplified in striking instances, were, it is certain, always plentifully fed, and in that, and every other way that might seem to have the greatest promise of success, encouraged to multiply their species.
Of Hispaniola and Peru, such as they were when first visited by their European invaders, our accounts are not perhaps perfectly satisfactory and accurate: but I think we know enough to enable us to pronounce that, if vice and misery were all they had to depend upon for the stability of their condition, and the well being of the whole, they were very slenderly provided in these respects. The case is different with respect to the missions of Paraguay. These fall properly and fully within the province of history. We labour under no want of records respecting them. And I should therefore apprehend that, as far as the evidence of general history is to be admitted for proof, the doctrine of the geometrical ratio was fully tried in that celebrated establishment.
It should seem then that vice and misery are not altogether such powerful agents, and have by no means done so much for the well being of society as Mr. Malthus imagines. All the political establishments which have just been enumerated, contrived to do with a very small portion of them; and we have no reason to believe respecting any one of them, that they were overwhelmed with the multitude of their citizens. Indeed it is a strange hypothesis, so violent that one wonders that it could for a moment have imposed on human credulity, so shocking that it might drive all reasonable beings to despair, to suppose the agency of vice and misery to be so active and gigantic, that by those alone or, as Mr. Malthus expressively terms it, by “every cause which in any degree contributes to shorten the natural duration of human lifef ,” three times as many children die in years of nonage in the Old World as in the United States of America, and that thus and thus only our population is kept down to a level, while, if we were as virtuous and happy as the citizens of that republic, it would not fail to double itself in less than twenty-five years. Every reader, I apprehend, who has gone thus far along with me, will feel satisfied, that there is some gross mistake in Mr. Malthus's statement respecting the population of North America: and it will be the business of the Fourth Book of the present work to endeavour to lay open the sources of that mistake.
[a]Vol. I. p. 333.
[c]Vol. I. p. 484. There is an observation in Fuller, the celebrated historian of the Worthies of England, under the article, Huntingdonshire, much to the same purpose.
[e]Hill, Essays on Ancient Greece, Essay XIII.
[f]Vol. I, p. 21.