Progress Through Necessity

At the turn of the nineteenth century, most of Europe had become embroiled in the enlightened idea that society could progress nearly infinitely through the use of reason.  Writing in England in 1798, the Reverend Thomas R. Malthus proposed a view of economics centered on population patterns. His Essay on Population suggested a view on human progress tainted by inevitability. He established two constants: food is necessary for mans’ survival and reproduction from the union of the sexes is necessary for mans’ survival. These serve as the foundation for a theory claiming the impossibility of humans ever escaping misery and vice. According to Malthus, the only way to keep the population in proportion to the means of subsistence is through disease and hardship killing off significant amounts of the population, or through a refusal of monogamous unions to produce children. Without “early attachment to one woman,” vice becomes unavoidable. ((Malthus, Essay on Population))

Malthus distinguishes between man and animal on the basis of reproductive instinct, something which animals carry out without thought. Man however, considers his ability to support children and whether or not he desires to work harder to provide for his children. He focuses specifically on the lower classes and how the discrepancy between their instincts and their economic means places them in perpetual poverty. The proposed economic model includes a “season of distress” ((Malthus, Essay on Population)) during which the poor must work harder to earn the same amount. Due to this stress, marriage is less likely and the population stagnates, until those at the top of society increase the means of subsistence through innovation, thus improving the lives of laborers just enough for reproduction to continue.


Rev. Thomas R. Malthus 

Despite the enlightened context of Malthus’ writing, his ideas contradict some of the foundational elements of enlightened thought. His theory does not seem to allow for the perfection of society since misery and vice are necessary just for mankind to continue surviving. It also arguably states that progress, or the increase of the means of subsistence, is only possible through necessity rather than reason. The plight of those at the bottom of society depicts them as mere cogs in a societal machine which fluctuates in a fixed pattern; not as enlightened peoples able to affect and improve their society through reasoned intellectual thought. Given when and where he was writing, I would like to ask why Malthus described society in this way, and what if any of his ideas are reconcilable with the enlightenment?

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The Wealth of Nations and Essay on Population

An Inquiry into the Nature and Cause of the Wealth of Nations

Author: Adam Smith. A pioneering economist who developed revolutionary concepts associated with free market economic theory. He argued that rational people, acting in their own self-interest, could create en efficient economic system. He studied in England but was of Scottish decent. He was influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment.

Context: The work was published in 1776. It was published during the beginning of the industrial revolution in response to the outdated economic ideas of the time. The industrial revolution necessitated a new understanding of how a modern economic systems function.

Language: Very clear and concise; he argues his points with many examples and avoids using difficult rhetoric.

Audience: Intellectuals and Industry leaders of the day. Since the language is easily comprehended this work could also appeal to intellectually curious members of the middle and upper classes.

Intent: To explain how the division of labor leads to a boost in output. A team of workers, each of whom have one specific task, can produce a good far more efficiently than one man who must be versed in every phase of production.

Message: Industrialization and the division of labor provide societies with far more good than societies who are less developed and who do not capitalize on the advantages that the division of labor provides. The standard of living in industrialized societies is superior because goods are more numerous and attainable, so there is less disparity between the upper and lower class than in underdeveloped nations. 


First Essay on Population (1798)

Author: Thomas Malthus. He was a highly educated Englishmen who had strong ties with the Church of England. He was well versed in the humanities, but also in mathematics. He argued against many popular opinions of the time, which is perhaps why he first published the work under the alias Joseph Johnson.

Context: Industrialization had spurred rapid population growth, especially in urban areas. Many Enlightenment thinkers who believed that society would continue to constantly improve without any hitches surrounded him. Some of his beliefs were in contrast with those of his friends, so he sought to cast doubt on their beliefs by pointing disconcerting population trends.

Language: Eloquent and declamatory. Does a good job hammering his point.

Audience: Targeted towards the intellectuals of the society. He originally wrote this piece in rebuttal to some of his enlightenment-influenced colleagues and friends. Although the text has many repercussions for everyday people, I doubt they composed much of the audience.

Intent: To prove that human society can never be perfected because if it is proven that it cannot be perfected in one particular area, then those who belief it can be perfected as a whole will be proven wrong.

Message: Humanity is trapped in a vicious cycle that coincides with food production and the population. When the population of a particular area reaches a certain point it will usher in a period of misery or vice because the demand for food exceeds the supply. Eventually the situation will become tolerable once again as food production is bolstered through human innovation, but this cycle will once again repeat itself as populations continue to grow past a certain threshold. This reality is unavoidable as it is inseparable form human nature. Thus humanity can never achieve perfection.

Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Malthus’ Essay on Population

The Wealth of Nations, 1776

Author: Adam Smith was a Scottish moral philosopher, and is known as “the father of modern economics.” He enjoyed a thorough education at the University of Glasgow, and after graduating traveled around Europe as a tutor.

Context: Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations during the Industrial Revolution. It was published shortly after Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. At the time, Great Britain’s economy was booming, and it’s imperialist influence was spreading through Africa, the Americas, and Asia.

Language: Smith uses simple and concise language. His ideas are well developed and clearly explained.

Audience: The Wealth of Nations targeted an educated demographic. Smith wanted to influence people who could affect the economy, like business men, philosophers, and political officials.

Intent: The objective was to explain economic ideas, like productivity, division of labor, free markets, and the invisible hand. The first chapter discusses the division of labor

Message: The Wealth of Nations is a collection of ideas that Smith hypothesized would build a nation’s prosperity. The first chapter focusses on the three benefits of the division of labor. Firstly, with divided labor, each contributor is very good at producing his or her product, and can therefore produce a lot of it. Secondly, dividing labor prevents contributors from having to switch tasks, which wastes time. Thirdly, when contributors focus on one simple task, they are more likely to find an easier, more efficient way to perform that task.

Essay on Population, 1798

Author: Thomas Robert Malthus was an English cleric and scholar. He believed that society can never be perfect, and disagreed with many 18th century enlightenment thinkers. He pioneered Malthusianism, which explains the “preventative checks” on populations, such as disease, food supply, and available space.

Context: Disease and famine were common in England, even with the agricultural and medical advancements form the Industrial Revolution. England’s population was increasing, and people were starting to live longer

Language: Malthus uses colorful and descriptive language.

Audience: Malthus’ Essay on Population targeted an intellectual demographic. It’s audience was even more specific than Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Malthus wanted to influence scholars and thinkers like himself

Intent: The goal was to show that society cannot be perfect. There will always be food shortages, disease, and other problems.

Message: There is a cap on every human population. Disease, limited food, and limited space prevent society from increasing forever. Once the population gets too big, people will die off because of a lack of food or space. As the population drops, more food or space will become available. The population will rise again, only to fall as food or space become scarce.

Essay on Population and The Wealth go Nations

Essay on Population, 1798

Author: Thomas Mathus. Malthus was an English cleric and scholar, and was very influential in the fields of demography and political economics. He did not believe society was perfectible, and wrote in opposition to many Enlightened thinkers of his era.

Context-Famine was a fact of everyday life in England, even as agriculture was making major advances in efficiency and increased productions. However, the population continued to rise, and production of food was unable to meet demands.

Language: Slightly more difficult and has a flowery, descriptive tone

Audience: This essay is clearly intended for an intellectual crowd. Malthus is arguing against other philosophers of his era, such as Godwin, and assumes his audience is familiar with their writings.

Intent: Malthus writes to explain that human society cannot be perfected because our desire to reproduce cannot be overcome, so food production will never reach the demands of the population

Message: Humanity cannot be perfected. Unlike animals, humans possess reason, although reason alone cannot allow humans to overcome the instinct to reproduce. Each time food production increases, the population will increase to the point where there is a shortage of food. Humankind will be trapped in a cycle, which prevents the perfection of humankind.

The Wealth of Nations, 1776

Author: Adam Smith, who is also known as “the father of economics.” Smith’s Wealth of Nations is known as the first modern work of economics.

Context: Wealth of Nations was published three months after Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense. Smith was writing during the time in which England was experiencing the industrial revolution, and the structure of the economy had changed drastically in a relatively short time period.

Language: The writing style is very clear and explanatory

Audience: The audience has more of an intellectual base, and is targeted towards those who wish to understand the workings of the relatively new economy.

Intent: To explain the division of labor

Message: The division of labor makes production more efficient and cheaper, and even simple items go through numerous stages of production. Due to this division, even poor and frugal individuals who live in a “civilized society” use items that require almost unimaginable amounts of labor.


On Division of Labor

Smith states that the division of labor significantly improves the productive power in manufacture through three ways: the increased dexterity of workman by repetition, the reduced time brought by the quick transition between workers, and the efficiency brought by the machines. These workers, who perform repetitive and tedious work in order to make accommodations, are only a small part of labor in the industry world. A large quantity and variety of labor is needed in every chain of the manufacturing industry, from collecting the raw material to transporting goods from one place to another. As the industry thrives, more jobs are provided and the economics improves. Therefore it seems that a large supply of labor is good for a country to flourish industrially. In Thomas Malthus’ “Essay on Population,” however, oversize population, which means the people residing on the land exceed the land’s ability to feed them, eventually results in oversupply in the labor market, and the poor will have to live a harder life because the price of labor decrease. “The labourer therefore must work harder to earn the same as he did before,” as Malthus clearly stated in the essay. When putting the two essays together, a question is raised: if the labor lives a worse life while the economy is thriving, who lives a better life? Obviously, the employer.

Is Adam Smith intentionally deviating from the fact that employers are exploiting the labors? He discusses the great efficiency and employment brought by the industrialization, and the peasants actually live a better life than before, in contrast to what Malthus has argued, because, “perhaps, that the accommodation of an European prince does not always so much exceed that of an industrious and frugal peasant, as the accommodation of the latter exceeds that of many an African king, the absolute master of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked savages.”

The Wealth of Nations and Essay on Population

Chapter 1 of Smith’s famous text argued that specialization is key to economic growth. He explained how making each man a master of his particular trade makes production faster and leads to further innovation; a cycle of rapid growth then ensues. This growth spreads more wealth over more people, narrowing the gap between princes and peasants. Malthus, in his First Essay on Population, debunked Godwin’s argument that a more egalitarian society and economics will end poverty. Malthus mainly argued that population inevitably reaches an equilibrium with subsistence because population naturally tends to increase but subsistence is definite.

These two philosophers’ arguments are more closely related than they seem at face value. Malthus argued that population is limited by what the earth has to offer. Smith proposed a way to make production much more efficient–specialization. Increased specialization, makes production of materials, all of which are either directly or indirectly from the earth, more efficient. Therefore the more efficient production becomes, the more people the rather can support. The only true limitation on the human population is technology, which is forever developing at an increasing rate. Thus population capacity can never be accurately predicted. The factors which we see at limitations to the population capacity now are mainly space, food, water, and clean air. However, what if science brings up the ability to turn all waste from resources into new resources? Then space would become the final limitation. What if we then develop a way to live at higher elevations or beneath the sea? Questions like these seem unreasonable at the present day, but who could have predicted that nuclear energy would possible one thousand years ago?