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CHAPTER I.: CHARACTER AND SPIRIT OF THE ESSAY ON POPULATION DELINEATED. - 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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CHARACTER AND SPIRIT OF THE ESSAY ON POPULATION DELINEATED.
I have now entered somewhat copiously into the three grand topics of Mr. Malthus's work, the progressive increase of the numbers of mankind, the causes [checks, in the language of the Essay on Population] by which the amount of the numbers of the human species is reduced or restrained, and the means which the earth affords for the subsistence of man.
Under these several heads I have endeavoured to shew, 1. that we have no authentic documents to prove any increase in the numbers of mankind, and that, if there is any tendency to increase, exclusively of the counteracting causes that are to be traced in the annals of history, which is, by no means certain, that tendency is of the most moderate description: 2. that the counteracting causes are neither constant nor regular in their operation, and have nothing in them of an occult and mysterious nature: and, 3. that the means which the earth affords for the subsistence of man, are subject to no assignable limits, and that the nourishment of human beings in civilised society, can never, unless in the case of seasons peculiarly unfavourable, sustain any other difficulty, till the whole globe has been raised to a very high degree of cultivation, except such as arises from political institutions.
Having done thus much, 1 might well close my volume, and put an end to this, perhaps the last labour of no idle and unstrenuous life. But Mr. Malthus's book forms an era in political speculation. I should not chuse, like its author, to talk of placing certain principles “on record,”
with a provident care lest, “if the world were to last for any number of thousand yearsa ,” they might then be wanted. But I do think, that some monument should be erected, to shew, for as long a time as such monuments might be expected to last, what extravagant and monstrous propositions the human mind is capable to engender, when once men shall be prompted, upon a fable, a gratuitous and wholly unproved assumption, to build a system of legislation, and determine the destiny of all their fellow-creatures.
Mr. Malthus has delivered a political system. His work is placed on our shelves, by the side of those of Plato, and Aristotle, and Sidney, and Locke, and Montesquieu, and Adam Smith. It may not therefore be uninstructive, setting apart for a moment the question of the truth or falshood of its principles, to enquire into its merits and complexion as a theory merely.
One of the most natural divisions of any work which takes human affairs upon a general scale for the subject of its research, is, 1. to lay down certain evils and imperfections to which human society is liable, and, 2. to treat of the remedy for these evils. Let us see what the Essay on Population has done under each of these heads.
The evil which it was the professed business of Mr. Malthus's work to lay open to the world, was, the tendency of the principle of multiplication in mankind to produce an increase, beyond the possible increase of the means of human subsistence. “The first of the propositions,” into which this view of the condition of man on the globe may be divided, namely, the rapid increase of which the human species, abstractedly taken, is susceptible, so as to enable it (as appears from the author's latest statement), in less than two thousand years, to people the whole visible universe at the rate of four men to every yard square, Mr. Malthus “considered as proved the moment the American increase was relatedb :” and “the second proposition,” namely, the comparatively slow possible increase of the means of subsistence, as proved, “as soon as it was enunciated b.”
Here then is a very plain statement of the evil which hangs over human societies, and which, according to the Essay on Population, is every moment producing the most important effects. It has the advantage of being placed before us in a small compass, and easily intelligible to the meanest capacities.
Mr. Malthus therefore, as he informs us, has not written a work of very ample dimensions, to prove these points. They are dispatched in “the first six pagesa ; “and “the chief object of his workc “is to display, the consequences of these two propositions, to enquire into the duties of those to whose care the public welfare is intrusted, and to shew how this immense disparity between the number of possible candidates for food, and the possible means of subsistence, has been, and must be obviated.
Now the remedies, according to the Essay on Population, by which the disparity between the power of increase in man, and the power of increase in the means of human subsistence, is to be cured, are chiefly vice and misery.
I am persuaded, that Mr. Malthus wrote his first little octavo, which was published in 1798, merely as an exercise of wit, a piece of pleasantry which, whatever should be its fate in other respects, might deservedly obtain for its author the praise of ingenuity. To his great surprise the world received his communications as a very serious affair.
When his speculations were first published, the author was at no pains to disguise the odiousness of their features. In proportion however as he proceeded to consider them in a more serious way, and to imagine that he was laying down a code for the regulation of nations, and deciding upon the fate of a distant posterity, he “so far differed,” as he tells us, in his enlarged work from the original sketch, “as to suppose the action of another check to population, which does not come under the head either of vice or misery, and to endeavour in other respects to soften some of the harshest conclusions of the first Essayd .”
Mr. Malthus's three checks upon increasing population by his latest statement, are therefore vice, misery, and moral restraint.
The original infirmity however of his first Essay adheres to all the subsequent editions. In making the alterations above described, Mr. Malthus expresses an anxious “hope, that he has not violated the principles of just reasoning, nor expressed any opinion respecting the probable improvement of society, in which he is not borne out by the experience of the paste .” Indeed it plainly appears, that the variations introduced are mere sacrifices at the shrine of decorum, without any alteration of opinion on the part of the author. The whole work is built in that contempt for human nature, from which so many men, both through the press, and in private circles, have sought for the reputation of superior wisdom, an opinion that, however refined may be our reflections, we shall in practice always blindly obey our appetites, and that consequently, whatever improvements may be effected in matters purely of science, no future generation of men will ever conduct themselves with more virtue and discretion than the past.
What Mr. Malthus's real opinion is of the efficacy of moral restraint to prevent an excess of population, plainly appears from various passages of his work. Take the following examples.
“But Mr. Godwin says, that if he looks into the past history of the world, he does not see that increasing population has been controled and confined by vice and misery alone. In this observation I cannot agree with him. I will thank Mr. Godwin to name to me any check, which in past ages has contributed to keep down the population to the level of the means of subsistence, that does not fairly come under some form of vice or misery,——except indeed the check of moral restraint, which I have mentioned in the course of this work, and whichto say the truth, whatever hopes we may entertain of its prevalence in future, has undoubtedly in past ages operated with very inconsiderable forcef .”
This passage is omitted in the last edition of Mr. Malthus's work. Not certainly from any alteration of opinion in the author: but “it was suggested to him some years since by persons for whose judgment he has a high respect, that it might be advisable, in a new edition, to throw out the matter relative to systems of equality, to Wallace, Condorcet and Godwin, as having to a considerable degree Lost its interests.g ” He has accordingly met these advisers half-way, and omitted one of the chapters on this point, from which chapter the above passage is taken. But he could not consent to relinquish his antagonists altogether, and “really thought that there should be somewhere on record an answer to systems of equality, founded on the principle of population. It cannot,” he adds, “be matter of wonder, that proposals for systems of equality should be continually reviving. After periods when the subject has undergone a thorough discussion, or when some great experiment in improvement has failed, it is likely that the question should lie dormant for a time, and that the opinions of the advocates of equality should be ranked among those errors, which had passed away, to be heard of no more. But it is probable, that if the world were to last for any number of thousand years, systems of equality would be among those errors, which, like the tunes of a barrel-organ, will never cease to return at certain intervalsa .”
Again. “I do not see,” says Mr. Malthus, “how it is possible to escape the conclusion, that moral restraint is the strict line of duty. At the same time I believe that few of my readers can be less sanguine than I am, in their expectations of any sudden and great change in the general conduct of men on this subject: and the chief reason why in the last chapter I allowed myself to suppose the universal prevalence of this virtue, was that I might endeavour to remove any imputation on the goodness of the Deityh —by supposing something that would never take place.
One more extract to the same purpose. “In my review of the different stages of society, I have been accused of not allowing sufficient weight in the prevention of population to moral restraint. But, when the sense of the term, which I have here explained, is adverted to, I am fearful that I shall not be found to have erred much in this respect. I should be very glad to believe myself mistakeni .”
If any man says, that “increasing population can be restrained by any thing but vice and misery alone,” Mr. Malthus “cannot agree with him.” “Few of his readers,” and among them no doubt are the licentious and the profligate, such men, as I have heard talk, and have heard others applaud, and loudly too, who vehemently affirm that there is no woman chaste,— “Few of his readers,” I say, “can be less sanguine than he is, in their expectations of the efficacy of moral restraint.” He finds that this principle “has in past ages operated with very inconsiderable force; “and he is not visionary enough to entertain “any opinion respecting the future improvement of society, in which he is not borne out by the experience of the past.”
This is then the precise outline of Mr. Malthus's system. The evils against which he would guard are hunger and famine; the remedies for these evils are vice and misery.
Now certainly, when the doctrine of the Essay on Population is thus stated in all its nakedness, I shall probably make no hazardous assertion when I say, that it is the most extraordinary work ever presented to the world, The author may without the smallest breach of modesty affirm, that Plato and Aristotle and Sidney and Locke have done nothing that can enter into comparison with his achievements, and that his view of human affairs differs fundamentally from the views of any philosopher that ever existed
The converts to Mr. Malthus's speculations, as far as I am acquainted with them, are of two sorts.
The first are those who admit the doctrines of the Essay on Population unwillingly. These men are in their hearts lovers of virtue, votaries of the dignity of man, persons who would anxiously desire to see great improvements introduced in society, and who were not previously disposed to set limits to the progress of human understanding, or to the melioration of human institutions. These men are convinced against their will. They look with a certain unconquerable aversion upon the doctrines of the Essay on Population; but they find themselves unable to resist the luminousness of its statements
The second class of the adherents of Mr. Malthus, and these are considerably numerous, consists of persons, who hail his discoveries as an invaluable and a grateful acquisition. They are ready to erect statues to him as a public benefactor. They conceive it of the highest importance to put down once and for ever all impracticable speculations for the improvement of the political condition of man, and are anxious, not only that no overt attempts should be made towards such improvement, but that we should be deprived, if possible, of the dangerous indulgence of dreaming of it in the privacy of meditation and solitude. They regard the author as having performed an inestimable service by putting an end at once to all hopes of mankind ever bettering themselves. He has taught us an admirable lesson, by inducing us to rest satisfied as we are, and not to spend our strength in efforts, at once fruitless in the purposes at which they aim, and mischievous in the result. He has shewn us the path of sobriety and reason. These persons even consider the Essay on Population as a vindication of the goodness of God, and a demonstration of the doctrine of a Divine Providencea
To return. Hunger and famine are the evils: vice and misery are the remedies.
It is a trite observation, that the remedies which the members of the medical profession administer to our bodies, are for the most part nauseous and offensive to the human palate. In this point then Mr. Malthus has sufficiently vindicated his claim to the appellation of a physician.
Surely that system ought to be attended with an irresistible and overpowering evidence, of which the choicest gifts that are tendered to us are vice and misery.
But why these gifts? And what is to induce us to accept them? A remedy can have no claim upon our reception, but inasmuch as it is better than the disease. Now vice and misery are the names for all we fear, and all we hate. What is that worse tiling, which by taking these to our bosom we shall be enabled to defend ourselves against? Over-population itself why should we fear, but because it is said to bring vice and misery in its train?
But I am unwilling that the subject should thus rest in general terms. The human mind is an essence of a peculiar sort; and the effect of whatever is presented to it depends very much on the principle of novelty. The most powerful stimulus may be administered to it so often, as to lose its efficacy: the most appalling and terrific considerations may by this means be made to “pass by us, like the idle wind which we respect not.”
I will take my illustrations of the true bearings and. import of these portentous terms, vice and misery, from the Essay on Population itself.
“The positive checks to population are extremely various, and include every cause, whether arising from vice or misery, which in any degree contributes to shorten the natural duration of human lifea .” I call upon every conscientious speculator upon the state of man on earth, seriously to pause on this enunciation.
Mr. Malthus truly observes, “Every loss of a child from the consequences of poverty, must evidently be preceded and accompanied by great misery to individualsm .” Most surely it must. Independently of the child, who languishes, and at length perishes, for want of sufficient nourishment, what must be the sensations of the parents, who are compelled thus to be the murderers of their own offspring, who occasionally give it something from the food which is necessary for their own sustenance, who see it craving and pining for more, who witness its gradual and premature destruction, and who are speedily destined to follow, partly for the want of that, which unavailingly they bestowed on the infant victim, and which eventually served for nothing but to prolong its miseries!
Yet this destruction of children, and that to an immense extent, is necessary, according to the principles of the Essay on Population, for the preservation of the human species. Alas, why on these principles are we preserved at all!
The same observations with little variety will apply to the whole of Mr. Malthus's eleven headsn ,under which he distributes his positive checks. The author of the Essay on Population sits remote, like a malignant Providence [Providence it seems we are bound to call if], dispensing from his magazine, all those causes, often arising from vice, always inextricably bound up with acute and exquisite misery, which, some a little sooner, and some a little later, “in various degrees contribute to shorten the natural duration of human life “[this is the desideratum]: or rather, himself free from the disturbance of our passions and frailties, he points out to us the various particulars of our lot, and closes the account with taking to himself this satisfaction, that he leaves us to perish “by the hands of God, and not by the hands of man.”
Undoubtedly it would be better upon this “hypothesis, that we could cut off, in a summary way, a proper number of children in the first stage of their existence, as the cultivator of the earth sets himself to hoe his turnips, clearing the ground round each favoured plant, that it may have room enough for growth and subsistence. But this is not consistent with Mr. Malthus's ideas of Christian morality.
Vice and misery are necessary for the preservation of order, and the well being of the body politic. Vice and misery are remedies sufficiently repulsive to the innocent and pureminded: surely Mr. Malthus ought not to have been contented with a general recommendation; but like other physicians, who are obliged to prescribe distasteful and dangerous ingredients, he should have told us the precise quantity of each that was necessary in the medicine. Perhaps we need not have recourse to the whole eleven: perhaps, if we took rather a larger portion of some of them, we might be altogether excused as to others.
Vice and misery are absolutely necessary for the well being of society: and Mr. Malthus has travelled into various regions of the globe, to shew us how they operate in different countries to keep down the excess of population. Surely, as from chapter to chapter he led us to observe the modes and institutions of different states, he had a most desirable opportunity to play the censor, and while he recommended to us the milder vices and oppressions, to enter his protest against the excessive. But no such thing. Provided only there is vice and misery, Mr. Malthus's purpose is sufficiently answered. Or does he mean, that, by the beneficent care of a superintending Providence, each country has exactly the sort and the quantity of vice and misery that are best suited to its wants?
If Mr. Malthus, instead of contenting himself with a vague and general recommendation, had entered into'particulars, he might have supplied us with an instructive lesson. There would still have been room for great political improvements. Perhaps there is no state, at present existing on the face of the globe, England for example, that has not vice and misery enough to answer all wholesome purposes. If any one should be perverse enough to suppose that Greece and Rome, in the days of their greatest virtue and renown, were more happily circumstanced than England is at present, perhaps even the people of Greece and Rome had vice and misery enough, to serve them as a healthful condiment, and save them from putrefaction. Were it not that Mr. Malthus is a sworn enemy to all cheerful and cheering prospects, here was abundant matter to enable him to vary the dreary and repulsive monotony of his volumes. He might have gone over the different governments of the East, Turkey, Persia, and Egypt; he might even have ventured upon some of those of Europe; he might almost have made the circumnavigation of the globe; and, hailing, and pouring his benediction upon every despotic shore, he might have said, “All these countries may be raised to the political level of England, or even of ancient Greece or Rome, without having too much to fear from the principle ofpopulation.” But, no: this does not accord with his tone in writing. It sounds more musical in his ears to pronounce, “Human institutions, however they may appear to be the causes of much mischief to society, are in reality light and superficial, mere feathers that float on the surface, in comparison with those deeper-seated causes of evil [viz. the propagation of mankind] which result from the laws of nature and the passions of man.”
I own I am pleased with the condition in which the author of the Essay on Population has dismissed his subject. He who has written three volumes expressly to point out to us the advantage we obtain from the presence of vice and misery, would naturally leave the question in all the confusion in which Mr. Malthus has left it. This is as it should be. It is scarcely conceivable that the man who recommends to us such bosom-friends and companions, should have much discrimination and choice as to the different species and degrees of each.
The subject which I quit in this place, will be further pursued in the Third Chapter of this Book.
[a]Vol. II. p. 271, 3.
[b]Vol. III, p. 344, note,
[d]Preface, p. ix.
[f]Quarto Edition, 1803, p. 383.
[g]Vol. II, p. 271.
[a]Vol. II, p. 271, 3.
[h]Vol. III, p. 103.
[i]Vol. I, p. 22, note.
[a]“An original well-head of political truth.” “The great merit and the everlasting value of his work.” “The high moral and religious blessings which lie involved in this germ.” “But I must
[a]vol..I, p. 21.
[m]Vol. III, p. 299.
[n]See above, Book III, Chapter V.