Modern History Sourcebook:
Essay on Population, 1798
The Rev. Thomas R. Malthus (1766-1834) began modern analysis
of population in terms of "laws" - a classic Enlightenment
approach. His arguments were directed againts William Godwin
(1756-1836) whose Enquiry Concerning Political Justice argued
in favor of a more egalitarian society and economics in order
to end poverty.
From Thomas Malthus. First Essay on Population
The following Essay owes its origin to a conversation with a friend,
on the subject of Mr. Godwin's Essay, on avarice and profusion,
in his Enquirer. The discussion, started the general question
of the future improvement of society; and the Author at first
sat down with an intention of merely stating his thoughts to his
friend, upon paper, in a clearer manner than he thought he could
do, in conversation. But as the subject opened upon him, some
ideas occurred, which he did not recollect to have met with before;
and as he conceived, that every, the least light, on a topic so
generally interesting, might be received with candour, he determined
to put his thoughts in a form for publication....
I think I may fairly make two postulata.
First, That food is necessary to the existence of man.
Secondly, That the passion between the sexes is necessary,
and will remain nearly in its present state.
These two laws ever since we have had any knowledge of mankind,
appear to have been fixed laws of our nature; and, as we have
not hitherto seen any alteration in them, we have no right to
conclude that they will ever cease to be what they now are, without
an immediate act of power in that Being who first arranged the
system of the universe; and for the advantage of his creatures,
still executes, according to fixed laws, all its various operations.
I do not know that any writer has supposed that on this earth
man will ultimately be able to live without food. But Mr. Godwin
has conjectured that the passion between the sexes may in time
be extinguished. As, however, he calls this part of his work,
a deviation into the land of conjecture, I will not dwell longer
upon it at present, than to say, that the best arguments for the
perfectibility of man, are drawn from a contemplation of the great
progress that he has already made from the savage state, and the
difficulty of saying where he is to stop. But towards the extinction
of the passion between the sexes, no progress whatever has hitherto
been made. It appears to exist in as much force at present as
it did two thousand, or four thousand years ago. There are individual
exceptions now as there always have been. But, as these exceptions
do not appear to increase in number, it would surely be a very
unphilosophical mode of arguing, to infer merely from the existence
of an exception, that the exception would, in time, become the
rule, and the rule the exception. Assuming then, my postulata
as granted, I say, that the power of population is indefinitely
greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for
Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio.
Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight
acquaintance with numbers will shew the immensity of the first
power in comparisonof the second.
By that law of our nature which makes food necessary to the life
of man, the effects of these too unequal powers must be kept equal.
This implies a strong and constantly operating check on population
from the difficulty of subsistence. This difficulty must fall
some where; and must necssarily be severely felt by a large portion
Through the animal and vegetable kingdoms, nature has scattered
the seeds of life abroad with the most profuse and liberal hand.
She has been comparatively sparing in the room, and the nourishment
necessary to rear them. The germs of existence contained in this
spot of earth, with ample food, and ample room to expand in, would
fill millions of worlds in the course of a few thousand years.
Necessity, that imperious all pervading law of nature, restrains
them within the prescribed bounds. The race of plants, and the
race of animals shrink under this great restrictive law. And the
race of man cannot, by any efforts of reason, escape from it.
Among plants and animals its effects are waste of seed, sickness,
and premature death. Among mankind, misery and vice. The former,
misery, is an absolutely necessary consequence of it. Vice is
a highly probable consequence, and we therefore see it abundantly
prevail; but it ought not, perhaps, to be called an absolutely
necessary consequence. The ordeal of virtue is to resist all temptation
This natural inequality of the two powers of population, and of
production in the earth, and that great law of our nature which
must constantly keep their effects equal, form the great difficulty
that to me appears insurmountable in the way to the perfectibility
of society. All other arguments are of slight and subordinate
consideration in comparison of this. I see no way by which man
can escape from the weight of this law which pervades all animated
nature. No fancied equality, no agrarian regulations in their
utmost extent, could remove the pressure of it even for a single
century. And it appears, therefore, to be decisive against the
possible existence of a society, all the members of which, should
live in ease, happiness, and comparative leisure; and feel no
anxiety about providing the means of subsistence for themselves
Consequently, if the premises are just, the argument is conclusive
against the perfectibility of the mass of mankind.
I have thus sketched the general outline of the argument; but
I will examine it more particularly; and I think it will be found
that experience, the true source and foundation of all knowledge,
invariably confirms its truth....
No limits whatever are placed to the productions of the earth
they may increase for ever and be greater than any assignable
quantity; yet still the power of population being a power of a
superior order, the increase of the human species can only be
kept commensurate to the increase of the means of subsistence,
by the constant operation of the strong law of necessity acting
as a check upon the greater power.
The effects of this check remain now to be considered.
Among plants and animals the view of the subject is simple. They
are all impelled by a powerful instinct to the increase of their
species; and this instinct is interrupted by no reasoning, or
doubts about providing for their offspring. Wherever therefore
there is liberty, the power of increase is exerted; and the superabundant
effects are repressed afterwards by want of room and nourishment,
which is common to animals and plants; and among animals, by becoming
the prey of others.
The effects of this check on man are more complicated.
Impelled to the increase of his species by an equally powerful
instinct, reason interrupts his career, and asks him whether he
may not bring beings into the world, for whom he cannot provide
the means of subsistence. In a state of equality, this would be
the simple question. In the present state of society, other considerations
occur. Will he not lower his rank in life? Will he not subject
himself to greater difficulties than he at present feels? Will
he not be obliged to labour harder? and if he has a large family,
will his utmost exertions enable him to support them? May he not
see his offspring in rags and misery, and clamouring for bread
that he cannot give them? And may he not be reduced to the grating
necessity of forfeiting his independence, and of being obliged
to the sparing hand of charity for support?
These considerations are calculated to prevent, and certainly
do prevent, a very great number in all civilized nations from
pursuing the dictate of nature in an early attachment to one woman.
And this restraint almost necessarily, though not absolutely so,
produces vice. Yet in all societies, even those that are most
vicious, the tendency to a virtuous attachment is so strong, that
there is a constant effort towards an increase of population.
This constant effort as constantly tends to subject the lower
classes of the society to distress, and to prevent any great permanent
amelioration of their condition.
The way in which these effects are produced seems to be this.
We will suppose the means of subsistence in any country just equal
to the easy support of its inhabitants. The constant effort towards
population, which is found to act even in the most vicious societies,
increases the number of people before the means of subsistence
are increased. The food therefore which before supported seven
millions, must now be divided among seven millions and a half
or eight millions.
The poor consequently must live much worse, and many of them be
reduced to severe distress. The number of labourers also being
above t the proportion of the work in the market, the price of
labour must tend toward a decrease; while the price of provisions
would at the same time tend to rise. The labourer therefore must
work harder to earn the same as he did before. During this season
of distress, the discouragements to marriage, and the difficulty
of rearing a family are so great, that population is at a stand.
In the mean time the cheapness of labour, the plenty of labourers,
and the necessity of an increased industry amongst them, encourage
cultivators to employ more labour upon their land; to turn up
fresh soil, and to manure and improve more completely what is
already in tillage; till ultimately the means of: subsistence
become in the same proportion to the population as at the period
from which we set out. The situation of the labourer being then
again tolerably comfortable, the restraints to population are
in some degree loosened; and the same retrograde and progressive
movements with respect to happiness are repeated....
The theory, on which the truth of this position depends, appears
to me so extremely clear; that I feel at a loss to conjecture
what part of it can be denied.
That population cannot increase without the means of subsistence,
is a proposition so evident, that it needs no illustration.
That population does invariably increase, where there are the
means of subsistence, the history of every people that have ever
existed will abundantly prove.
And, that the superior power of population cannot be checked,
without producing misery or vice, the ample portion of these too
bitter ingredients in the cup of human life, and the continuance
of the physical causes that seem to have produced them bear too
convincing a testimony.
From Thomas R. Malthus, First Essay on Population (London:
Macmillan,1926), pp. i, 11-17, 26-31, 37-38.
This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook.
The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted
texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World
Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the
document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying,
distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal
use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source.
No permission is granted for commercial use of the Sourcebook.
(c)Paul Halsall Aug 1997