An Essay Picked by blupete

"On the Originality of Mr Malthus's Essay" 1

We asserted in a former article, upon what we thought sufficient and mature grounds, that the author of the "Essay on Population" had taken the leading principle of that essay, and the general inference built on it, from Wallace's work, entitled, "Various Prospects of Mankind, Nature and Providence." We here repeat that assertion; and to enable our readers to judge for themselves, shall give the passage in Wallace on which it is founded. It is as follows:--

"But without entering further into these abstracted and uncertain speculations; it deserves our particular attention that as no Government which hath hitherto been established is free from all seeds of corruption, or can be expected to be eternal; so if we suppose a Government to be perfect in its original frame, and to be administered in the most perfect manner, after whatever model we suppose it to have been framed, such a perfect form would be so far from lasting for ever, that it must come to an end so much the sooner on account of its perfection. For though happily such Governments should be firmly established--though they should be found consistent with the reigning passions of human nature, though they should spread far and wide--nay though they should prevail universally, they must at last involved mankind in the deepest perplexity, and in universal confusion. For how excellent soever they may be in their own nature, they are altogether inconsistent with the present frame of nature, and with a limited extent of earth.

"Under a perfect Government, the inconvenience of having a family would be so entirely removed, children would be so well taken care of, and evey thing become so favourable to populousness, that though some sickly seasons or dreadful plagues in particular climates might cut off multitudes, yet in general, mankind would increase so prodigiously that the earth would at last be overstocked, and become unable to support its numerous inhabitants.

"How long the earth, with the best culture of which it his capable from human genius and industry, might be able to nourish its perpetually increasing inhabitants, is as impossible as it is unnecessary to be determined. It is not probable that it could have supported them during so long a period as since the creation of Adam. But whatever may be supposed of the length of this period, of necessity it must be granted, that the earth could not nourish them for ever, unless either its fertility could be continually augmented, or by some secret in nature, like what certain enthusiasts have expected from the philosophers' stone, some wise adept in the occult science should invent a method of supporting mankind quite different from any thing known at present. Nay though some extraordinary method of supporting them might possibly be found out, yet, if there was not bound to the increase of mankind, which would be the case under a perfect Government, there would not ever be sufficient room for containing their bodies upon the surface of the earth, or upon any limited surface whatsoever. It would be necessary, therefore, in order to find room for such multitudes of men, that the earth should be continually enlarging in bulk, as an animal or vegetable body.

"Now since philosophers may as soon attempt to make mankind immortal, as to support the animal frame without food, it is equally certain that limits are set to the fertility of the earth; and that its bulk, so far as hitherto known, hath continued always the same, and probably could not be much altered without making considerable changes in the solar system. It would be impossible, therefore, to support the great numbers of men who would be raised up under a perfect government; the earth would be overstocked at last, and the greatest admirers of such fanciful schemes must foresee the fatal period when they would come to an end, as they are altogether inconsistent with the limits of that earth in which they must exist.

"What a miserable catastrophe of the most generous of all human systems of Government! How dreadfully would the Magistrates of such commonwealths find themselves disconcerted at that fatal period, when there was no longer any room for new colonies and when the earth could produce no farther supplies! During all the preceding ages, while there was room for increase, mankind must have been happy; the earth must have been a paradise in the literal sense, as the greatest part of it must have been turned into delightful and fruitful gardens. But when the dreadful time should at last come, when our globe, by the most diligent culture, could not produce what was sufficient to nourish its numerous inhabitants, what happy expedient could then be found out to remedy so great an evil?

"In such a cruel necessity, must there be a law to restrain marriage? Must multitudes of women be shut up in cloisters, like the ancient vestals of modern nuns. To keep a balance between the two sexes, must a proportionable number of men be debarred from marriage? Shall the Utopians, following the wicked policy of superstition, forbid their priests to marry; or shall they rather sacrifice men of some other profession for the good of the state? Or shall they appoint the sons of certain families to be maimed at their birth, and give sanction to the unnatural institution of eunuchs? If none of these expedients can be thought proper, shall they appoint a certain number of infants to be exposed to death as soon as they are born, determining the proportion according to the exigencies of the state; and pointing out the particular victims by lot, or according to some established rule? Or must they shorten the period of human life by a law, and condemn all to die after they had completed a certain age, which might be shorter or longer, as provisions were either more scanty or plentiful? Or, what other method should they devise (for an expedient would be absolutely necessary) to restrain the number of citizens within reasonable bounds?

"Alas! how unnatural and inhuman must every such expedient be accounted! The natural passions and appetites of mankind are planted in our frame, to answer the best ends for the happiness both of the individuals and of the species. Shall we be obliged to contradict such a wise order? Shall we be laid under the necessity of acting barbarously and inhumanly? Sad and fatal necessity! And which, after all, could never answer the end, but would never give rise to violence and war. For mankind would never agree about such regulations. Force, and arms, must at last decide their quarrels, and the deaths of such as fell in battle, leave sufficient provision for the survivors, and make room for others to be born.

"Thus the tranquillity and numerous blessings of the Utopian governments would come to an end; war, or cruel and unnatural customs, be introduced, and a stop put to the increase of mankind, to the advancement of knowledge, and to the culture of the earth, in spite of the most excellent laws and wisest precautions. The more excellent the laws had been, and the more strictly they had been observed, mankind must have sooner become miserable. The remembrance of former times, the greatness of their wisdom and virtue, would conspire to heighten their distress; and the world, instead of remaining the mansion of wisdom and happiness, become a scene of vice and confusion. Force and fraud must prevail, and mankind be reduced to the same calamitous condition as at present.

"Such a melancholy situation, in consequence merely of the want of provisions, is, in truth, more unnatural than all their present calamities. Supposing men to have abused their liberty, by which abuse vice has once been introduced into the world; and that wrong notions, a bad taste, and vicious habits have been strengthened by the defects of education and government, our present distresses may be easily explained. They may even be called natural, being the natural consequences of our depravity. They may be supposed to be the means by which Providence punishes vice; and by setting bounds to the increase of mankind, prevent the earth's being overstocked, and men being laid under the cruel necessity of killing one another. But to suppose that, in the course of a favorable Providence, a perfect government had been established, under which the disorders of human passions had been powerfully corrected and restrained; poverty, idleness, and war banished, the earth made a paradise; universal friendship and concord established, and human society rendered flourishing in all respects; and that such a lovely Constitution should be overturned, not by the vices of men, or their abuse of liberty, but by the order of nature itself, seems wholly unnatural, and altogether disagreeable to the methods of Providence.

"By reasoning in this manner, it is not pretended that 'tis unnatural to set bounds to human knowledge and happiness, or to the grandeur of society, and to confine what is finite to proper limits. It is certainly fit to set just bounds to every thing according to its nature, and to adjust all things in due proportion to one another. Undoubtedly, such an excellent order is actually established throughout all the works of God, in his wide dominions. But there are certain primary determinations in nature, to which all other things of a subordinate kind must be adjusted. A limited earth, a limited degree of fertility, and the continual increase of mankind, are three of these original constitutions. To these determinations, human affairs, and the circumstance of all other animals, must be adapted. In which view, it is unsuitable to our ideas of order, that while the earth is only capable of maintaining a determined number, the human race should increase without end. This would be the necessary consequence of a perfect government and education. On which account it is more contrary to just proportion, to suppose that such a perfect government should be established, in such circumstances, than that by permitting vice, or the abuse of liberty, in the wisdom of Providence, mankind should never be able to multiply so as to be able to overstock the earth.

"From this view of the circumstances of the word, notwithstanding the high opinion we have of the merits of Sir Thomas More, and other admired projectors of perfect governments in ancient or modern times, we may discern how little can be expected from the most perfect systems.

"As for those worthy philosophers, patriots, and law-givers, who have employed their talents in framing such excellent models, we ought to do justice to their characters, and gratefully to acknowledge their generous efforts to rescue the world out of that distress into which it has fallen, through the imperfection of government. Sincere, and ardent in their love of virtue, enamoured of its lovely form, deeply interested for the happiness of mankind, to the best of their skill, and with hearts full of zeal, they have strenuously endeavoured to advance human society to perfection. For this, their memory ought to be sacred to posterity. But if they expected their beautiful systems actually to take place, their hopes were ill founded, and they were not sufficiently aware of the consequences.

"The speculations of such ingenious authors enlarge our views, and amuse our fancies. They are useful for directing us to correct certain errors at particular times. Able legislators ought to consider them as models, and honest patriots ought never to lose sight of them, or any proper opportunity of transplanting the wisest of their maxims into their own governments, as far as they are adapted to their particular circumstances, and will give no occasion to dangerous convulsions. But this is all that can be expected. Though such ingenious romances should chance to be read and admired, jealous and selfish politicians need not be alarmed. Such statesmen need not fear that ever such airy systems shall be able to destroy their craft, or disappoint them of their intention to sacrifice the interests of mankind to their own avarice or ambition. There is too powerful a charm, which works secretly in favour of such politicians, which will forever defeat all attempts to establish a perfect government. There is no need of miracles for this purpose. The vices of mankind are sufficient. And we need not doubt but Providence will make use of them, for preventing the establishment of governments which are by no means suitable to the present circumstances of the earth."2 [And here ends the long quote which Hazlitt made of Wallace.] --

Here then we have not only the same argument stated, but stated in the same connexion, and brought to bear on the very same subject to which it is applied by the author of the Essay on Population. The principle, and the consequences deduced from it, are exactly the same. It may happen (and often does) that one man is the first to make a particular discovery or observation, and that another draws from it an important inference of which the former was not at all aware. But this is not the case in the present instance. As far as general reasoning will go, it is impossible that any thing should be stated more clearly, more fully and explicitly than Wallace has here stated the argument against the progressive and ultimate amelioration of human society, from the sole principle of population. We have already seen that the addition which Mr. Malthus has made to the argument, from the geometrical and arithmetical series, is a fallacy, and not an improvement. The conclusion itself insisted on in the above passage, by Wallace, appears to us no better than a contradiction in terms. Of the possibility of realizing such a Utopian system as he first supposes, that is, if making every motive and principle of action in the human mind absolutely and completely subservient to the dictates of reason and the calculation of consequences, we do not say a word; but we do say, that if such a system is possible, and if it were realised, it would not be destroyed by the principle of population, that is by the unrestrained propagation of the species from a blind, headlong, instinctive irrational impulse, and with a total and sovereign disregard of the fatal and overwhelming consequences which would ensue. The argument is a solecism; but if Wallace showed his ingenuity in inventing it, Mr Malthus has not shown his judgment in adopting it. Through the whole of the first edition of the Essay on Population, the author assumed the impulse to propagate the species as a law, and a physical necessity of the same force as that of preserving the individual, or in other words, he sets down 1st, hunger, 2d, the sexual appetite, as two co-ordinate and equally irresistible principles of action. It was necessary that he should do this, in order to bear out his conclusion against the Utopian systems of his antagonists; for, in order to maintain that this principle of population would be proof against the highest possible degree of reason, we must suppose it to be an absolute physical necessity. If reason has any practical power over it, the highest reason must be able to attain an habitual power over it. Mr Malthus, however, having by the rigid interpretation which he gave to his favorite principle, or by what he called the iron law of necessity, succeeded in laying the bugbear of the modern philosophy, relaxed considerably in the second and following editions of his book, in which he introduced moral restraint as a third check upon the principle of population, in addition to the two only ones of vice and misery, with which he before combated the Utopian philosophers; and though he does not lay an exaggerated or consistent stress on this third check, yet he thinks something may be done to lighten the intolerable pressure the heavy hand of vice and misery, by flattering old maids, and frightening the poor into the practice of moral restraint! It will be recollected by those who are familiar with the history of Mr Malthus's writings, that his first and grand effort was directed against the modern philosophy. The use which the author has since made of his principle, and of the arithmetical and geometrical ratios to shut up the work house, to snub the poor, to stint them in their wages, to deny them relief from the parish, and preach lectures to them on the new invented crime of matrimony, was an after-thought; of the merit of which we shall speak in another article.



1 Hazlitt's "On the Originality of Mr Malthus's Essay" is to be found in Political Essays (1819).

2 (See "Various Prospects of Mankind, Nature, and Providence, " chap. 4. p. 113. 1761.) The original note found in Hazlitt's essay; I have, in turn, placed them in parentheses. A reader of this page put me on to Wallace by referring me to : 3/26/2006


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Peter Landry