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CHAPTER II.: OF THE POSITIONS RESPECTING THE NATURE OF MAN UPON WHICH THE ESSAY ON POPULATION IS CONSTRUCTED. - 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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OF THE POSITIONS RESPECTING THE NATURE OF MAN UPON WHICH THE ESSAY ON POPULATION IS CONSTRUCTED.
The theory of the Essay on Population may be considered under two heads: first, as it respects human communities, such as we now find them: secondly, as it relates to any improvement in society which may be supposed to be effected hereafter.
I might omit the consideration of the latter altogether; for the majority of Mr. Malthus's readers, and all Mr. Malthus's disciples, never think but of what they see, and of man as he is.
But it is proper to take some notice of that branch of the speculations of this work, which relates to future and remote “improvements in human society: first, because all the reasonings of the author began with this; his first thought was to shew the impracticability of all cardinal and substantive improvements: secondly, because the object of this last division of my enquiry is to display the character and spirit of the Essay on Population, and to shew to those who have followed this leader so far, under what sort of banner they have marshalled themselves.
The fundamental error of Mr. Malthus's system, as far as the constitution and structure of man, independently of the geometrical ratio, is concerned, seems to me to lie in two propositions, which were explicitly stated in the first edition of his booka , but which he has since withdrawn. These are,“First, that food is necessary to the existence of man; and, secondly, that the passion between the sexes is necessary, and will always remain nearly in its present state.” Thus our author sets out with putting these two necessities, that of food, and of “the passion between sexes“upon a level with each other.
I would be the last man in the world to deny an author the benefit of his after-thoughts. If Mr. Malthus has since discovered, that food and the passion between the sexes are necessities not exactly alike and of equal force, that were well. But I cannot consent to his withdrawing his premises, while he maintains the conclusions built upon them. This seems to be one of the instances of “a passage expunged, that the author might not inflict an unnecessary violence on the feelings of his readers.”
For instance: the Essay on Population retains its argument respecting the impracticability of a permanent state of equality among human beings, founded upon the parity of these two propositions, in its latest edition, verbatim as it stood in the first.
“Thus it appears that a society, constituted according to the most beautiful form that imagination can conceive, with benevolence for its moving principle instead of self-love, and with every evil disposition in all its members corrected by reason, not force, would from the inevitable laws of nature, and not from any fault in human institutions, degenerate, in so short a period as fifty years, into a society, where self-love would lord it triumphant, and every hateful vice and every form of distress, which degrade and sadden the present state of man, would reappear in their most malignant aspect.”b
Again: “As we are supposing no anxiety about the future support of children to exist, the encouragements to have a family would be greater than even in Americac .”
In fine: Mr. Malthus repents of his concession in the preceding passage, and concludes,“If such a system of society were established in its utmost perfection, not thirty years could elapse, before its utter destruction from the simple principle of populationd .”
This is no other than saying, that man is unalterably such a brute and insensible animal, that no arguments addressed to his understanding, no beauty and virtue existing in the forms of society around him, no clear and incontestible conviction of the pernicious consequences of indiscriminate indulgence, could prevent him from sacrificing the happiest and most enlightened condition of our being, to what the ancient philosophers called the “gross impulses of the lower part of our nature.” Merely because the care of his children did not fall exclusively upon himself, he would feel the “encouragement to have a family greater,” than all the considerations of interest and worldly advantage are supposed to have produced in America.
It is likewise exactly the same sentiment, that has led Mr. Malthus to affirm of moral restraint generally, that it has “operated in past ages with very inconsiderable force,” and that we have no right to entertain “any opinion respecting the future improvement of society, in which we are not borne out by the experience of the past.”
But this sentiment is expressed in the highest possible energy in the memorable maxim of the Essay on Population: “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 upon the surface, in comparison with those deeper-seated causes of evil, which result from the laws of nature and the passion between the sexes.”
It is necessary then that we should pause for a moment upon these two fundamental positions of Mr. Malthus, respecting “food,” and “the passion between the sexes,” They are like two counteracting weights in a machine: if they do not pull with equal force, and have not the same degree of activity, the whole scheme of Mr. Malthus's Essay, at least as it relates to a pure and equal form of society, and I believe in every other view, will be found to be rotten at the core.
Now, that “food is necessary to the existence of man,” I feel no inducement to dispute. We know of no instance of a man living without food. The human frame is sustained by repletion and evacuation; and we have no reason, so far as experience goes, to consider this as any thing else than an indefeasible law of nature. Man is like a clock, that must be wound up at stated periods; otherwise all motion ceases, and the main spring becomes inert and ineffective.
But what parity is there between this necessity, and what Mr. Malthus calls “the passion between the sexes?” As has been observed in the Enquiry concerning Political Justice, “Nothing is so easy as to extinguish this propensity, amidst the progressive voluptuousness of the most sensual scene. So conscious are we of the precariousness of the fascination of the senses, that upon such occasions we provide against the slightest interruption. If our little finger ached, we might probably immediately bid adieu to the empire of this supposed almighty powere .”
Mr. Malthus says, “the passion between the sexes is necessary, and will always remain nearly in its present state.”
In controverting the second member of this proposition, I would ask, What is its present state? The want of a precise explanation under this head, is a deficiency that goes to the heart of the system. Mr. Malthus assumes something, that is perpetually shifting, that at no two periods, and in no two places, is alike, and treats it as if it were absolutely determinate, and that, the moment it is named, every one would have exactly the same idea of its strength and its weakness.
This member of Mr. Malthus's proposition, if explicitly unfolded, must mean, that “the passion between the sexes” always exists and acts, in all persons, in all countries, and in all ages of the world, under all institutions, prejudices, superstitions, and systems of thinking, in the same manner.
But, when the whole meaning that lies hid in this ambiguous proposition, has been thus unfolded, I suppose it will not find a single defender.
Will it be affirmed, that the most decent single women, in those countries of Europe, where morality most steadily maintains its empire, are as prone to violations of chastity, as the most licentious men, or as the women of Cafraria or Otaheite? Are the Fakirs, who voluntarily exercise on their bodies the most tremendous severities, at the same time immersed in the most shameless voluptuousness? Have the most reverend bishops, in times when celibacy was ranked among the first of virtues and the most indispensable, led exactly the same lives, as a Mohammedan sultan in his seraglio, as Tiberius or Sardanapalus? Many satirical and cutting things have been invented against monks and nuns and hermits: but are we really to believe that all such societies, without exception, have been sinks of debauchery, and all such persons the most audacious and consummate hypocrites that ever existed?
Let us confine our attention for a moment, to the fair, and, as it has sometimes been denominated, the frailer sex. The female of the human species, it is admitted, arrives at maturity sooner than the male. Yet a considerable portion of the women of England do not enter into the marriage state, till two-and-twenty, perhaps till five-and-twenty years of age. Even when they do marry, I believe it will be found, that the majority of young women, at least of decent condition, and of a certain education, do not marry merely for the indulgence of their appetites. It is, I think, notorious, that the sober part of the sex, which may perhaps be found to constitute the majority, take it for the main subject of their meditations, how by marriage they may “better their condition?” This is the lesson that their mothers industriously teach them; and a great part of the daughters are not found untractable scholars in the question.
Does Mr. Malthus mean to say, that these prudent young ladies are accustomed to appease the “heyday of the blood,” by indulging another set of lovers, not in the way of marriage? If this is his judgment, I shall leave him to settle that question with the numerous portion of the inhabitants of this island, who are believers in virtue, and in decency of heart, and who think with me, that “moral restraint has operated in past ages with considerable force, and that for that reason hopes may be entertained of its prevalence in future.”
Such then, I believe, is clearly the state of the case as to the female sex. And yet, when we come to examine the constitutional character of the two divisions of our species, it will hardly be disputed, that woman is the weaker vessel, and more a slave to passion. “For well I understand,” says Milton,
The weakness indeed of woman in this respect is in some points of view her fairest ornament. She is the creature of impulse, and is for that reason the more bewitching; and, when her impulses are innocent and pure, it is not in the mind of man to imagine any thing more lovely. But resolution is “the pillar of true dignity in man:” he is “formed for contemplation;” and
It cannot therefore be supposed that there is any thing in woman, that should make her by nature more capable of abstinence and rigorous self-government than our own sex.
Nor on the other hand will any impartial enquirer affirm, that the passions of the male sex are stronger than those of the female, so as by that means, though we have more power to control our appetites, yet having a more forceful antagonist to contend with, we should for that reason be oftener subdued.
Let us grant then, that the laws of chastity in civilised countries are more rigidly observed by the women than the men: what is the reason of this? Not that they have more energy of understanding, or weaker passions, than ourselves: but simply on this account, because they are more under the influence of “moral restraint.” In this affair of “the passion between the sexes,” which Mr. Malthus puts on a level with the appetite of hunger, and seems to suppose that we have as little reason to believe, that any considerable variety can be produced in the operation of the one as of the other, the women have more cogent reasons of self-interest and self-preservation than we have, to submit to the regulations of a strict morality. Still it is reason, and reason only, that restrains them, that power of which Mr. Malthus speaks with so much contempt, and respecting which he says, that “the error which pervades Mr. Godwin's whole workf ,” is the considering man too much in the light of a being purely rational.
Nothing then, I think, can be more clear, than the immense power possessed by this principle of “moral restraint;” and nothing more irresistible, than the inference that, if as powerful motives to forbearance can be presented to the minds of the male sex as of the female, the operation of those motives will not be less conspicuous and certain.
Mr. Malthus may say, if he pleases, that man is a being exclusively selfish. He may say, as he has said, that no respects of “the fairest form of society that imagination can conceive,” no certainty that this society will be ruined by the uncontrolableness of his indulgences, no foresight that the children he begets will perish for want of sufficient food in the midst of the common wreck, will prevent him from considering the “encouragements to have a family as greater,” in such a society, than all the motives which interest and worldly advantages are supposed to have generated in America. He may accuse, as he is never sparing to do, the governor of the world,—that, while he has furnished motives ample and all powerful to the female sex to observe the laws of morality, he has left it impossible that such motives can ever be found and brought to bear on the mind of the male.
But neither Mr. Malthus nor his adherents can hereafter have a right to charge this defect, upon “the laws of nature [as they are usually understood], and the constitutional passions of mankind.”
So much as to the female sex: but how is it in reality as to the male? Away with the licentious and unprincipled doctrines, that we are not in many cases as pure and beyond suspicion in these respects as the females! I visit the ruins of our ancient monasteries in a very differâent spirit, from that in which I can suppose Mr. Malthus to visit them. These were the great scenes of “moral restraint.” However mistaken might be the principle of the virtue practised by their inhabitants, I have learned to love virtue under every form it can assume. When I consider these noble edifices as the great preservers of all that is admirable in the literature of ancient Greece and Rome, when I recollect that wonderful class of men, known by the name of the Schoolmen, their patient labours, their voluntary self-mortification, their generous love of truth, and of a fame, pure, however limited in its circumference among their contemporaries, their disdain of the inticements and splendours of the world, their exquisite subtlety of thought and accuracy of deduction in questions almost beyond the bounds of human enquiry, I feel myself under no temptation to arraign the sincerity of their moral professions, or to believe that, amidst their more than human labours, they were victims to the lowest sensuality and debauchery. I am thankful indeed, that I am impelled to “consider man too much in the light of a being purely rational,” not to expose myself to Mr. Malthus's censure and opprobrium. I know that these glorious institutions fell into degeneracy. I know that their professions of morality were too high, not to make it impossible but that some individuals should become faint in the way. I know that these establishments have had their use and their day; and I am contented that they should be abolished.
At the same time nothing, I believe, is more certain, than that numerous professions, and large bodies of man, have passed their lives in as great chastity and reserve, as the most exemplary women. Women, Mr. Malthus would say, are restrained by the fear of giving birth to a bastard child. But the mind of our sex is capable of motives as cogent and effectual, as this consideration may be supposed to prove to a female. The mind of man is a noble structure, and we are prone to love many other things, beside the gratification of our appetites. In fine, I never will believe that, if “a form of society the most beautiful that imagination can conceive” were brought into existence, it would degenerate into “violence, oppression, falshood, misery, every hateful vice and every form of distress, that have ever saddened the past,” and be “destroyed in less than thirty years,” from the uncontrolableness with which every man would hasten to gratify “the gross impulses of the lower part of our nature.”
It is however no part of my present intention, to pursue this subject into its full development. I have merely introduced it here, because it is the object of this final division of my work, to present to my readers a complete survey of the character and spirit of the Essay on Population.
[b]Vol. II, p. 268, 256.
[c]P, 25 1, 252.
[e]Book I, chapter v, p. 73. Edition, 1797.
[f]Vol. II, p. 245.