Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet

Steven Shapin writes:

The Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus liked to look on the bright side. True, that hasn’t been the usual assessment: his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) was intended to drench the parade of Enlightenment optimism about human possibility. The Radical writer Richard Price reckoned that an expanding population was a good thing, and that it would follow inevitably from more virtuous forms of government. Condorcet foresaw endless social progress, an egalitarian society in which technological advance would provide for an ever growing population, and in which death would be, if not eliminated, at least indefinitely postponed. William Godwin pointed to the enormous agricultural capacity of the world’s yet unexploited land: mind would triumph over matter, and ‘there will be neither disease, anguish, melancholy, nor resentment.’ It was better that there should be more people rather than fewer, and there should be no worries about overpopulation, since our sex drive would wither away as we transcended our animal nature.

(LRB 5 June 2014)

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