The Dystopian Theodicy of Parson Malthus

By Beauchamp, Gorman | Humanitas, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

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.

Leibniz, Theodicy

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.

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