Rousseau, Robespierre, and English Romanticism

By Gregory Dart | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
Strangling the infant Hercules: Malthus and the
population controversy

I

With his Essay on the Principle of Population of 1798 Thomas Malthus made one of the most significant and lasting contributions to the counterrevolutionary cause in England, as important, in its way, as Burke's Reflections of 1790. Seeking to capitalise on the perceptible decline of the British Jacobin movement during the late 1790s, and on the consequent waning of radical enthuasism among the English middle class, Malthus thought he saw an opportunity to settle the ongoing debate on the French Revolution forever, by subjecting its fundamental principles to a thoroughly mathematical — and therefore unanswerable — critique. Primarily, he sought to do this by exploding the radical assumption that institutions were the main cause of human happiness or misery: 'in reality, ' he wrote, 'they are mere feathers that float on the surface in comparison with those deeper seated causes of impurity that corrupt the springs and render turbid the whole stream of human life'. 1

Taking issue wth the discourse of perfectibility that had been popularised by Godwin and Condorcet in the first half of the revolutionary decade, Malthus argued that man was above all things an animal driven by sexual instinct and the need for food, fatally incapable of gaining rational control of his bodily needs and passions. He stated his case with quasi-scientific precision: 'Firstly, 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. ' And by introducing his theory in the form of a ratio, he sought to pass it off as a statement of objective truth: 'Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will show the immensity of the first power in comparison with the second … This implies a strong and constantly operating check on population from the difficulty of subsistence' (71). Society would

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