An Essay on the Principle of Population

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An Essay on the Principle of Population  (1798) 
by Thomas Malthus

The book An Essay on the Principle of Population was first published anonymously in 1798 through J. Johnson (London). The author was soon identified as The Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus. While it was not the first book on population, it has been acknowledged as the most influential work of its era. Its 6th Edition was independently cited as a key influence by both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in developing the theory of natural selection.
Excerpted from An Essay on the Principle of Population on Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

source: Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library at the University of Toronto; via

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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.

The essay might, undoubtedly, have been rendered much more complete by a collection of a greater number of facts in elucidation of the general argument. But a long and almost total interruption, from very particular business, joined to a desire (perhaps imprudent) of not delaying the publication much beyond the time that he originally proposed, prevented the Author from giving to the subject an undivided attention. He presumes, however, that the facts which he has adduced, will be found, to form no inconsiderable evidence for the truth of his opinion respecting the future improvement of mankind. As the Author contemplates this opinion at present, little more appears to him to be necessary than a plain statement, in addition to the most cursory view of society, to establish it.

It is an obvious truth, which has been taken notice of by many writers, that population must always be kept down to the level of the means of subsistence; but no writer that the Author recollects, has inquired particularly into the means by which this level is effected: and it is a view of these means, which forms, to his mind, the strongest obstacle in the way to any very great future improvement of society. He hopes it will appear, that, in the discussion of this interesting subject, he is actuated solely by a love of truth; and not by any prejudices against any particular set of men, or of opinions. He professes to have read some of the speculations on the future improvement of society, in a temper very different from a wish to find them visionary; but he has not acquired that command over his understanding which would enable him to believe what he wishes, without evidence, or to refuse his assent to what might be unpleasing, when accompanied with evidence.

The view which he has given of human life has a melancholy hue; but he feels conscious, that he has drawn these dark tints, from a conviction that they are really in the picture; and not from a jaundiced eye, or an inherent spleen of disposition. The theory of mind which he has sketched in the two last chapters, accounts to his own understanding, in a satisfactory manner, for the existence of most of the evils of life; but whether it will have the same effect upon others must be left to the judgement of his readers.

If he should succeed in drawing the attention of more able men, to what he conceives to be the principal difficulty in the way to the improvement of society, and should, in consequence, see this difficulty removed, even in theory, he will gladly retract his present opinions, and rejoice in a conviction of his error.

June 7, 1798.



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.

page. 1.

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.

p. 18.

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.

p. 39.

State of civilized nations.—Probability that Europe is much more populous now than in the time of Julius Cæsar.—Best criterion of population.—Probable error of Hume in one of the criterions that he proposes as asstisting 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.

p. 53.

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.

p. 71.

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.

p. 101.

A probable cause of epidemics.—Extracts from Mr. Susmilch'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.—Best criterion of a permanent 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 proportions considered as established.

p. 113.

Mr. Wallace.—Error of suppossing 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.

p. 142.

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.

p. 155.

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 inefficient.—Mr. Godwin's beautiful system of equality supposed to be realized.—It's utter destruction simply from the principle of population in so short a time as thirty years.

p. 173.

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.

p. 210.

Mr. Godwin's conjecture concerning the indefinite prolongation of human life.—Improper inference 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 confidered 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.

p. 219.

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.

p. 250.

Mr. Godwin's five proportions respecting political truths 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 in which Mr. Godwin uses the term, not applicable to man.—Nature of the real perfectibility of man illustrated.

p. 264.

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.

p. 279.

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

p. 303.

Question of the proper definition of the wealth of a state.—Reason given by the French Œconomists 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 attributing 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.

p. 327.

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 of the foreknowledge of God.—The world, probably, a mighty process for awakening matter into mind.—Theory of the formation of mind.—Excitements from the wants of the body.—Excitements from the operation of general laws.—Excitements from the difficulties of life arising from the principle of population.

p. 348.

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.—Moral 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.

p. 372.

Page. Line.
41 13 For half the, read half of the
156 18 For naural, read natural
249 19 For If, read if

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.