homas Malthus had some harsh views on population growth and the poor, but one must not mistake ironic, sarcastic, or satiric passages for his own beliefs. For example, the first paragraph of Book IV, Chapter V, of the 1826 edition of "An Essay on the Principle of Population" is sometimes quoted to show that Malthus wished genuine harm to the poor. But read within context of the entire "Essay," that paragraph turns out to be ironic, and he really did not believe what he said in that passage. The final paragraph of the preceding chapter lays the foundation for his apparently hostile words against the poor:
If after all, however, these arguments should appear insufficient; if we reprobate the idea of endeavouring to encourage the virtue of moral restraint among the poor, from a fear of producing vice; and if we think, that to facilitate marriage by all possible means is a point of the first consequence to the morality and happiness of the people; let us act consistently, and before we proceed, endeavour to make ourselves acquainted with the mode by which alone we can effect our object. [Book IV, Chapter IV]
It would have been less confusing if the two paragraphs had been placed in the same chapter. Here he is saying that if he can't convince people that late marriage is beneficial, let's examine an approach that will encourage early marriage. What follows is an extreme statement of what he believes would be a consistent policy for people who think that early marriages are conducive to good morality. He is not describing what he wants to occur — he is satirizing the proponents of early marriage. The paragraph that follows is reminiscent of Swift's "A Modest Proposal:"
It is an evident truth that, whatever may be the rate of increase in the means of subsistence, the increase of population must be limited by it, at least after the food has once been divided into the smallest shares that will support life. All the children born, beyond what would be required to keep up the population to this level, must necessarily perish, unless room be made for them by the deaths of grown persons. It has appeared indeed clearly in the course of this work, that in all old states the marriages and births depend principally upon the deaths, and that there is no encouragement to early unions so powerful as a great mortality. To act consistently therefore, we should facilitate, instead of foolishly and vainly endeavouring to impede, the operations of nature in producing this mortality; and if we dread the too frequent visitation of the horrid form of famine, we should sedulously encourage the other forms of destruction, which we compel nature to use. Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor, we should encourage contrary habits. In our towns we should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague. In the country, we should build our villages near stagnant pools, and particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and unwholesome situations. But above all, we should reprobate specific remedies for ravaging diseases; and those benevolent, but much mistaken men, who have thought they were doing a service to mankind by projecting schemes for the total extirpation of particular disorders. If by these and similar means the annual mortality were increased from 1 in 36 or 40, to 1 in 18 or 20, we might probably every one of us marry at the age of puberty, and yet few be absolutely starved.
The grisly recommendations only apply if someone desires the population to have early marriages. Malthus does not approve of early marriages, so he is not recommending what he wrote in the paragraph. The entire "Essay on the Principle of Population" is most definitely not a satire. But the first paragraph in Book IV, Chapter V, is satirical, and if taken seriously, will give a misleading impression of Malthus.
- Thomas Robert Malthus
- Thomas Malthus' "Essay on Population"
- Thomas Robert Malthus on "Corrective" and "Preventative" Checks to Population
Last modified 9 August 2003