The Dystopian Theodicy of Parson Malthus
Beauchamp, Gorman, Humanitas
One may imagine possible worlds without sin and without unhappiness, and one could make some like Utopian or Sevarambian romances: but these same worlds again would be very inferior to ours in goodness. I cannot show you this in detail.... But you must judge with me ab effectu, since God has chosen this world as it is.
In the great lottery of life, wrote Thomas Malthus in his First Essay on Population, most men have drawn a blank. This striking metaphor captures both the epigrammatic elegance of the essay and the harsh realism of its message, which held that the utopian schemata, rife in the Jacobin atmosphere of the day, were doomed to failure (if for no other reason) simply by the pressure of population on the food supply. The principle of population, as Malthus's premise would come to be called, took shape initially not as an independent argument but rather as a refutation of the theses of others, as the full title of his original essay suggests: An Essay on the Principle of Population, As It Affects the Future Improvement of Society. With Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers. They had titles in those days!
Daniel Malthus was admirer of Rousseau.
This essay originated in a dispute, albeit a congenial one, between a father and son, but with the customary roles of such generational ideomachias reversed. Daniel Malthus, the father--fanatical admirer, friend and sometime host of Jean-Jacques Rousseau--was the passionate enthusiast, idealistic and visionary, while the son, just into his thirties, cast the cold--one might even say arctic--eye of practical experience and logic on the millennarian projections of those avatars of Rousseau, William Godwin and the Marquis de Condorcet, who inspired the father. Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), that paean to philosophical anarchism that inspired a generation of radicals and Romantics--particularly, of course, Shelley--projected perfectibilism par excellence. "There will be no war, no crimes, no administration of justice ... and no government," Godwin affirmed. "Beside this, there will be neither disease, anguish, melancholy, nor resentment. Every man will seek, with ineffable ardour, the good of all." Written the same year as Godwin's treatise, Condorcet's Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind is no less optimistic, ironically so, of course, since its author composed his fervent testament to hope almost literally in the shadow of the guillotine kept humming by a revolution in the process of devouring its own children, of which he was a distinguished one. A Girondist member of the Legislative Assembly that deposed Louis XVI, Condorcet nevertheless fell victim of the Terror, was arrested and died in prison two days later. Still his faith in the utopian future of mankind never, apparently, wavered. "The time will come," he wrote, "when the sun will shine only on free men who know no other master but their reason; when tyrants and priests and their stupid or hypocritical instruments will exist only in works of history." Indeed, he affirmed, "the moral goodness of man, the necessary consequence of his constitution, is capable of infinite perfection."
Thomas Malthus saw "unconquerable difficulties" with thought of Rousseau and disciplies.
The younger Malthus was not blind to the appeal exerted by these optimistic and idyllic images of the future, confessed, indeed, to having been "warmed and delighted with the enchanting picture which they hold forth." But his clear-eyed realism, his empirical cast of mind, forced him to acknowledge "great and, to my understanding, unconquerable difficulties" preventing their realization. He rejected as warrantless those postulata of a human nature radically transformed that render utopian extrapolation easy. (G. K. Chesterton's famous criticism fits: "The weakness of all Utopias is this, that they take the greatest difficulty of man"--his nature--"and assume it overcome, and then give elaborate account of the overcoming of the smaller ones. They first assume that no man will want more than his share, and then are very ingenious in explaining whether his share will be delivered by motor-car or balloon.") We can speculate seriously on what man may become, Maithus argues, only by reasoning consequentially from what, in fact, he is, an insistence that produces one of his most arresting metaphors:
A writer may tell me that he thinks man will ultimately become an ostrich. I cannot properly contradict him. But before he can expect to bring any reasonable person over to his opinion, he ought to shew, that the necks of mankind have been gradually elongating, that the lips have grown harder and more prominent, that the legs and feet are daily altering their shape, and that the hair is beginning to change into stubs of feathers. And till the probability of so wonderful a conversion can be shewn, it is surely lost time and lost elegance to expatiate on the happiness of man in such a state.
Illusory assumptions about human nature result in harmful policies.
And man showed no more evidence of becoming the idealized creature of Godwin/Condorcet speculation--selfless, cooperative, rational--than he did of becoming an ostrich. But the cost of such speculation could be far greater, Malthus thought, than merely a waste of eloquence. From illusory assumptions, very bad social policy would result, such as the reform of the Poor Laws, then pending, that would, Malthus argued, actually increase the number of England's paupers. "The most baleful mischiefs may be expected," Maithus warned, "from the unmanly conduct of not daring to face a truth because it is unpleasing."
The unpleasing truth that Malthus manfully faced--and announced to the world, making his name a byword for a sort of socioeconomic pessimism--was that food supply, which increased at best arithmetically, could never keep pace with population growth, which increased geometrically. Consequently, much, perhaps even most of mankind must live in an almost perpetual state of misery, with famine and plague serving implacably to limit the population to the level of subsistence.
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Publication information: Article title: The Dystopian Theodicy of Parson Malthus. Contributors: Beauchamp, Gorman - Author. Journal title: Humanitas. Volume: 13. Issue: 2 Publication date: Fall 2000. Page number: 54. © 2007 National Humanities Institute. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group.
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