Essay On The Principle Of Population 1798 Summary Of The Book

Malthusian Theory of Population


Thomas Robert Malthus was the first economist to propose a systematic theory of population.  He articulated his views regarding population in his famous book, Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), for which he collected empirical data to support his thesis. Malthus had the second edition of his book published in 1803, in which he modified some of his views from the first edition, but essentially his original thesis did not change.


In Essay on the Principle of Population,Malthus proposes the principle that human populations grow exponentially (i.e., doubling with each cycle) while food production grows at an arithmetic rate (i.e. by the repeated addition of a uniform increment in each uniform interval of time). Thus, while food output was likely to increase in a series of twenty-five year intervals in the arithmetic progression 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and so on, population was capable of increasing in the geometric progression 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, and so forth.  This scenario of arithmetic food growth with simultaneous geometric human population growth predicted a future when humans would have no resources to survive on.  To avoid such a catastrophe, Malthus urged controls on population growth. (See here for graphs depicting this relationship.)   


On the basis of a hypothetical world population of one billion in the early nineteenth century and an adequate means of subsistence at that time, Malthus suggested that there was a potential for a population increase to 256 billion within 200 years but that the means of subsistence were only capable of being increased enough for nine billion to be fed at the level prevailing at the beginning of the period. He therefore considered that the population increase should be kept down to the level at which it could be supported by the operation of various checks on population growth, which he categorized as "preventive" and "positive" checks.


The chief preventive check envisaged by Malthus was that of "moral restraint", which was seen as a deliberate decision by men to refrain "from pursuing the dictate of nature in an early attachment to one woman", i.e. to marry later in life than had been usual and only at a stage when fully capable of supporting a family. This, it was anticipated, would give rise to smaller families and probably to fewer families, but Malthus was strongly opposed to birth control within marriage and did not suggest that parents should try to restrict the number of children born to them after their marriage. Malthus was clearly aware that problems might arise from the postponement of marriage to a later date, such as an increase in the number of illegitimate births, but considered that these problems were likely to be less serious than those caused by a continuation of rapid population increase.


He saw positive checks to population growth as being any causes that contributed to the shortening of human lifespans. He included in this category poor living and working conditions which might give rise to low resistance to disease, as well as more obvious factors such as disease itself, war, and famine. Some of the conclusions that can be drawn from Malthus's ideas thus have obvious political connotations and this partly accounts for the interest in his writings and possibly also the misrepresentation of some of his ideas by authors such as Cobbett, the famous early English radical.  Some later writers modified his ideas, suggesting, for example, strong government action to ensure later marriages. Others did not accept the view that birth control should be forbidden after marriage, and one group in particular, called the Malthusian League, strongly argued the case for birth control, though this was contrary to the principles of conduct which Malthus himself advocated.


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An Essay on the Principle of PopulationIntroduction
A Note on the Text
Suggestions for Further Reading

Chapter I
Question stated – Little prospect of a determination of it, from the enmity of the opposing parties – The principal argument against the perfectibility of man and of society has never been fairly answered – Nature of the difficulty arising from population – Outline of the principal argument of the Essay.

Chapter II
The different ratios in which population and food increase – The necessary effects of these different ratios of increase – Oscillation produced by them in the condition of the lower classes of society – Reasons why this oscillation has not been so much observed as might be expected – Three propositions on which the general argument of the Essay depends – The different states in which mankind have been known to exist proposed to be examined with reference to these three propositions.

Chapter III
The savage or hunter state shortly reviewed – the shepherd state, or the tribes of barbarians that overran the Roman Empire – The superiority of the power of population to the means of subsistence – the cause of the great tide of Northern Emigration.

Chapter IV
State of civilized nations – Probability that Europe is much more populous now than in the time of Julius Caesar – Best criterion of population – Probable error of Hume in one of the criterions that he proposes as assisting in an estimate of population – Slow increase of population at present in most of the states of Europe – The two principal checks to population – The first, or preventive check examined with regard to England.

Chapter V
The second, or positive check to population examined, in England – The true cause why the immense sum collected in England for the poor does not better their condition – The powerful tendency of the poor laws to defeat their own purpose – Palliative of the distresses of the poor proposed – The absolute impossibility, from the fixed laws of our nature, that the pressure of want can ever be completely removed from the lower classes of society – All the checks to population may be resolved into misery or vice.

Chapter VI
New colonies – Reasons of their rapid increase – North American Colonies – Extraordinary instance of increase in the back settlements – Rapidity with which even old states recover the ravages of war, pestilence, famine, or the convulsions of nature.

Chapter VII
A probable cause of epidemics – Extracts from Mr. Suessmilch’s tables – Periodical returns of sickly seasons to be expected in certain cases – Proportion of births to burials for short periods in any country an inadequate criterion of the real average increase of population – Great frugality of living one of the causes of the famines of China and Indostan – Evil tendency of one of the clauses in Mr. Pitt’s Poor Bill – Only one proper way of encouraging population – Causes of the happiness of nations – Famine, the last and most dreadful mode by which nature represses a redundant population – The three propositions considered as established.

Chapter VIII
Mr. Wallace – Error of supposing that the difficulty arising from population is at a great distance – Mr. Condorcet’s sketch of the progress of the human mind – Period when the oscillation, mentioned by Mr. Condorcet, ought to be applied to the human race.

Chapter IX
Mr. Condorcet’s conjecture concerning the organic perfectibility of man, and the indefinite prolongation of human life – Fallacy of the argument, which infers an unlimited progress from a partial improvement, the limit of which cannot be ascertained, illustrated in the breeding of animals, and the cultivation of plants.

Chapter X
Mr. Godwin’s system of equality – Error of attributing all the vices of mankind to human institutions – Mr. Godwin’s first answer to the difficulty arising from population totally insufficient – Mr. Godwin’s beautiful system of equality supposed to be realized – Its utter destruction simply from the principle of population in so short a time as thirty years.

Chapter XI
Mr. Godwin’s conjecture concerning the future extinction of the passion between the sexes – Little apparent grounds for such a conjecture – Passion of love not inconsistent either with reason or virtue.

Chapter XII
Mr. Godwin’s conjecture concerning the indefinite prolongation of human life – Improper reference drawn from the effects of mental stimulants on the human frame, illustrated in various instances – Conjectures not founded on any indications in the past, not to be considered as philosophical conjectures – Mr. Godwin’s and Mr. Condorcet’s conjecture respecting the approach of man towards immortality on earth, a curious instance of the inconsistency of scepticism.

Chapter XIII
Error of Mr. Godwin in considering man too much in the light of a being merely rational – In the compound being, man, the passions will always act as disturbing forces in the decisions of the understanding – Reasonings of Mr. Godwin on the subject of coercion – Some truths of a nature not to be communicated from one man to another.

Chapter XIV
Mr. Godwin’s five propositions respecting political truth, on which his whole work hinges, not established – Reasons we have for supposing, from the distress occasioned by the principle of population, that the vices and moral weakness of man can never be wholly eradicated – Perfectibility, in the sense that Mr. Godwin uses the term, not applicable to man – Nature of the real perfectibility of man illustrated.

Chapter XV
Models too perfect may sometimes rather impede than promote improvement – Mr. Godwin’s essay on “Avarice and Profusion” – Impossibility of dividing the necessary labour of a society amicably among all – Invectives against labour may produce present evil, with little or no chance of producing future good – An accession to the mass of agricultural labour must always be an advantage to the labourer.

Chapter XVI
Probable error of Dr. Adam Smith in representing every increase of the revenue or stock of a society as an increase in the funds for the maintenance of labour – Instances where an increase of wealth can have no tendency to better the condition of the labouring poor – England has increased in riches without a proportional increase in the funds for the maintenance of labour – The state of the poor in China would not be improved by an increase of wealth from manufactures.

Chapter XVII
Question of the proper definition of the wealth of a state – Reason given by the French economists for considering all manufacturers as unproductive labourers, not the true reason – The labour of artificers and manufacturers sufficiently productive to individuals, though not to the state – A remarkable passage in Dr. Price’s two volumes of Observations – Error of Dr. Price in attributin the happiness and rapid population of America, chiefly, to its peculiar state of civilization – No advantage can be expected from shutting our eyes to the difficulties in the way to the improvement of society.

Chapter XVIII
The constant pressure of distress on man, from the principle of population, seems to direct our hopes to the future – State of trial inconsistent with our ideas for the foreknowledge of God – The world, probably, a mighty process for awakening matter into mind – Theory of the formulation of mind – Excitements from wants of the body – Excitements from the operation of general laws – Excitements from the difficulties of life arising from the principle of population.

Chapter XIX
The sorrows of life necessary to soften and humanize the heart – The excitements of social sympathy often produce characters of a higher order than the mere possessors of talents – More evil probably necessary to the production of moral excellence – Excitements from intellectual wants continually kept up by the infinite variety of nature, and the obscurity that involves metaphysical subjects – The difficulties in Revelation to be accounted for upon this principle – The degree of evidence which the scriptures contain, probably, best suited to the improvement of the human faculties, and the moral amelioration of mankind – The idea that mind is created by excitements seems to account for the existence of natural and moral evil.

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