Surprisingly Engaging Read

An Essay on the Principle of Population - T. R. Malthus

I read this because it's listed in <i>Good Reading</i>'s "100 Significant Books" and I found reading through that list a valuable education in itself. I found this surprisingly readable. Works on this list such as works by Kant, Spinoza, Adam Smith, can be heavy going--that's not the case here. This is very accessible, and it's short--about a hundred pages. What's more, many of its arguments are still important, still relevant. I can hear echoes of these arguments in both conservative <i>and</i> environmentalist circles. This essay was a major influence on Charles Darwin's <i>On the Origin of Species</i>, and asks questions at the root of Sociology. Malthus very much presents a conservative worldview, and I don't mean that in a political/ideological sense--indeed I'd say it presents a rather liberal sensibility given its time. I mean that it's the opposite of radical--it's very skeptical about pliability of humans and their ability to change, and insists we ground our attempts to improve the human condition on reality--not impractical ideals.

Basically, the central premise is that while increase of production of food, which "is necessary to the existence of man" is arithmetical, increase in population is geometrical--with an ability to double within decades. And that "the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state." A simple premise, but it's fascinating what mileage Mathus gets out of it--critiquing Adam Smith, the socialist schemes of Condorcet and Godwin, the welfare state of Pitt--even speculating on what nature can tell us about the nature of God. Malthus has a reputation of being one of those notorious thinkers that lend their names to sinister notions--like a Machiavelli or Nietzsche, and this is one of those treatises that gave economics the title the "dismal science." It's said that Dickens wrote <i>A Christmas Carol</i> to refute the thrust of Malthus' argument. But believe it or not, the personality that came through to me was benevolent and warm and commonsensical and truly concerned about the condition of women and the poor. This is how he closes the essay:

<i>Evil exists in the world not to create despair but activity. We are not patiently to submit to it, but to exert ourselves to avoid it. It is not only the interest but the duty of every individual to use his utmost effort to remove evil from himself and from as large a circle as he can influence, and the more he exercises himself in this duty, the more wisely he directs his efforts, and the more successful these efforts are; the more he will probably improve and exalt his own mind, and the more completely does he appear to fulfill the will of his Creator.</i>

Well, worth the read--and lucid and lively in how it's written. I found it a fast and thought-provoking read--and still relevant even in an age where modern agriculture and the feminist movement and personal controls on reproduction may have changed the equation somewhat.