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  • “More Men than Corn”: Malthus versus the Enlightenment, 1798
  • Rudolph Binion (bio)

“More men than corn is a fearful pre-eminence”: this pithy truth was uttered by Mr. Fax, a facsimile of Malthus in Thomas Love Peacock’s spoof Melincourt of 1817. Malthus himself in An Essay on the Principle of Population of 1798 posited that “fearful pre-eminence” in pseudomathematical terms as an insuperable fact of nature. “I think I may fairly make two postulates,” he claimed in that philosophical shocker. “First, That food is necessary to the existence of man. Secondly, That the passion between the sexes...will remain nearly in its present state” as far as can be foreseen. 1 And on the strength of these postulates he pursued: “Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio.” 2 [End Page 564] Nor was this predicament peculiarly human: “Through the animal and vegetable kingdoms, nature has scattered the seeds of life abroad with the most profuse and liberal hand. She has been comparatively sparing in the room and the nourishment necessary to rear them...Necessity, that imperious all-pervading law of nature, restrains them within the prescribed bounds. The race of plants and the race of animals shrink under this great restrictive law. And the race of man cannot, by any effort of reason, escape from it. Among plants and animals its effects are waste of seed, sickness, and premature death. Among mankind, an absolutely necessary consequence.” 3 To this “absolutely necessary consequence” among mankind, “misery,” Malthus in his Essay of 1798 allowed a single alternative, namely “vice,” by which he appears to have meant infanticide, abortion, and—equally abhorrent to him—intentionally sterile sex. 4 By “misery” itself he meant both what he called the “positive checks” on the “power of population”—primarily malnutrition or outright starvation, secondarily pestilence and warfare—and what he termed the “preventive check,” or “every the slightest check to marriage” for economic reasons. 5 In 1803 he published a second, revised Essay on the Principle of Population that promoted the “preventive check,” now renamed “moral restraint,” as a lesser, virtuous misery. His euphemistic definitions and classifications were fuzzy and slippery in the second Essay as in the first, and right through all its further editions, the last of them dated 1826. 6 For its part, his law of the geometric as against the arithmetic progression held steady until the last reedition inclusive, with its assumption of a mankind perpetually overbreeding and hence agonizing out of a barely and rarely resistible animal craving to copulate however miserable the consequences.

Reducing human behavior to laws of nature expressible in mathematical terms was a common ambition of the philosophes throughout the Enlightenment, overawed as they were by the example of the natural scientists of the seventeenth century who had seemingly reduced all physical phenomena to a few simple and elegant mathematical formulae—or rather, who had purportedly detected those simple and elegant formulae encoded in nature. Attempts by humanists to frame such nifty basic laws in their own moral province—or, as they hoped, to discern them there—had ranged from dubious mimicry to meretricious analogy. For dubious mimicry of the quantitative laws of physical science, Jeremy Bentham’s “Moral Arithmetic” is hard to beat, with its reduction of right and wrong to sums of pleasure and pain. As for meretricious analogies between physical and moral law, one of my favorites is Alexander Pope’s reconciliation of self-serving with benevolence in human nature: “On their own axis as the planets run, / Yet make at once their circle round the sun: / So two consistent motions act the soul; / And one regards itself, and one the whole.” 7 Another of my favorites is a rationale for reciprocity in ethics which Immanuel Kant tucked away in a footnote half a century later: “I never can do anything to another man without giving him a right to do the same to me on the same conditions; just as no body can act with its moving force on another body without thereby causing the other to react equally against it.” 8 As for Malthus’s pseudomathematical “principle of population,” it...

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