An Essay on the Principle of Population
By Thomas Robert Malthus
There are two versions of Thomas Robert Malthus’s
Essay on the Principle of Population. The first, published anonymously in 1798, was so successful that Malthus soon elaborated on it under his real name.
* The rewrite, culminating in the sixth edition of 1826, was a scholarly expansion and generalization of the first.Following his success with his work on population, Malthus published often from his economics position on the faculty at the East India College at Haileybury. He was not only respected in his time by contemporaneous intellectuals for his clarity of thought and willingness to focus on the evidence at hand, but he was also an engaging writer capable of presenting logical and mathematical concepts succinctly and clearly. In addition to writing principles texts and articles on timely topics such as the corn laws, he wrote in many venues summarizing his initial works on population, including a summary essay in the
Encyclopædia Britannica on population.The first and sixth editions are presented on Econlib in full. Minor corrections of punctuation, obvious spelling errors, and some footnote clarifications are the only substantive changes.* Malthus’s “real name” may have been Thomas Robert Malthus, but a descendent, Nigel Malthus, reports that his family says he did not use the name Thomas and was known to friends and colleagues as Bob. See
The Malthus Homepage, a site maintained by Nigel Malthus, a descendent.For more information on Malthus’s life and works, see
New School Profiles: Thomas Robert Malthus and
The International Society of Malthus.Lauren Landsburg
Editor, Library of Economics and Liberty
First Pub. Date
London: John Murray
The text of this edition is in the public domain. Picture of Malthus courtesy of The Warren J. Samuels Portrait Collection at Duke University.
- Chapter I
- Chapter II
- Chapter III
- Chapter IV
- Chapter V
- Chapter VI
- Chapter VII
- Chapter VIII
- Chapter IX
- Chapter X
- Chapter XI
- Chapter XII
- Chapter XIII
- Chapter XIV
- Bk.II,Ch.XI, On the Fruitfulness of Marriages
- Appendix I
- Appendix II
Of the Checks to Population in Indostan and Tibet.
Book I, Chapter XI
In the ordinances of Menu, the Indian legislator, which Sir Wm. Jones has translated, and called the
Institutes of Hindu Law, marriage is very greatly encouraged, and a male heir is considered as an object of the first importance.
“By a son a man obtains victory over all people; by a son’s son he enjoys immortality; and afterwards by the son of that grandson he reaches the solar abode.”
“Since the son delivers his father from the hell, named Put, he was therefore called puttra, by Brahma himself.”
Among the different nuptial rites, Menu has ascribed particular qualities to each.
“A son of a
Bráhmì, or wife by the first ceremony, redeems from sin, if he perform virtuous acts, ten ancestors, ten descendants and himself, the twenty-first person.”
“A son born of a wife by the
Daiva nuptials redeems seven anal seven, in higher and lower degrees; of a wife by the
Arsha, three and three; of a wife by the
Prájápatya six and six.”
A housekeeper is considered as of the most eminent order. “The divine sages, the manes, the gods, the spirits and guests pray for benefits to masters of families.”
*60 An elder brother not married before the younger, is mentioned among the persons who are particularly to be shunned.
Such ordinances would naturally cause marriage to be considered a religious duty; yet it seems to be rather a succession of male heirs, than a very numerous progeny, that is the object so much desired.
“The father having begotten a son, discharges his debt to his own progenitors.”
“That son alone, by whose birth he discharges the debt, and through whom he attains immortality, was begotten from a sense of duty; all the rest are considered by the wise as begotten from love of pleasure.”
A widow is on some occasions allowed to have one son by the brother, or some appointed kinsman of the deceased husband, but on no account a second. “The first object of the appointment being obtained according to law, both brother and sister must live together like a father and daughter by affinity.”
In almost every part of the ordinances of Menu, sensuality of all kinds is strongly reprobated, and chastity inculcated as a religious duty.
“A man by the attachment of his organs to sensual pleasures incurs certain guilt; but having wholly subdued them, he hence attains heavenly bliss.”
“Whatever man may obtain all those gratifications, or whatever man may resign them completely, the resignation of all pleasures is far better than the attainment of them.”
It is reasonable to suppose that such passages might, in some degree, tend to counteract those encouragements to increase, which have been before mentioned; and might prompt some religious persons to desist from further indulgences, when they had obtained one son, or to remain more contented than they otherwise would have been in an unmarried state. Strict and absolute chastity seems indeed to supersede the obligation of having descendants.
“Many thousands of Brahmens having avoided sensuality from their early youth, and having left no issue in their families, have ascended nevertheless to Heaven.”
“And like those abstemious men, a virtuous wife ascends to Heaven though she have no child, if after the decease of her lord she devote herself to pious austerity.
The permission to a brother or other kinsman to raise up an heir for the deceased husband, which has been noticed, extends only to women of the servile class.
*66 Those of the higher classes are not even to pronounce the name of another man, but “to continue till death forgiving all injuries, performing harsh duties, avoiding every sensual pleasure, and cheerfully practising the incomparable rules of virtue.”
Besides these strict precepts relating to the government of the passions, other circumstances would perhaps concur to prevent the full effect of the ordinances which encourage marriage.
The division of the people into classes, and the continuance of the same profession in the same family, would be the means of pointing out to each individual, in a clear and distinct manner, his future prospects respecting a livelihood; and from the gains of his father he would be easily enabled to judge whether he could support a family by the same employment. And though, when a man cannot gain a subsistence in the employments appropriate to his class, it is allowable for him, under certain restrictions, to seek it in another; yet some kind of disgrace seems to attach to this expedient; and it is not probable that many persons would marry with the certain prospect of being obliged thus to fall from their class, and to lower in so marked a manner their condition in life.
In addition to this, the choice of a wife seems to be a point of considerable difficulty. A man might remain unmarried for some time, before he could find exactly such a companion as the legislator prescribes. Ten families of a certain description, be they ever so great or ever so rich in kine, goats, sheep, gold and grain, are studiously to be avoided. Girls with too little or too much hair, who are too talkative, who have bad eyes, a disagreeable name or any kind of sickness, who have no brother, or whose father is not well known, are all; with many others, excluded; and the choice will appear to be in some degree confined, when it must necessarily rest upon a girl “whose form has no defect; who has an agreeable name; who walks gracefully, like a phenicopteros or a young elephant; whose hair and teeth are moderate respectively in quantity and size; whose body has exquisite softness.”
It is observed, that a woman of the servile class is not mentioned, even in the recital of any ancient story, as the wife of a Brahmen or of a Cshatriya, though in the greatest difficulty to find a suitable match; which seems to imply, that such a difficulty might sometimes occur.
Another obstacle to marriage arising from Hindoo customs is, that an elder brother who does not marry seems in a manner to confine all his other brothers to the same state; for a younger brother, who marries before the elder, incurs disgrace, and is mentioned among the persons who ought to be shunned.
The character, which the legislator draws of the manners and dispositions of the women in India, is extremely unfavourable. Among many other passages expressed with equal severity, he observes, that, “through their passion for men, their mutable temper, their want of settled affection and their perverse nature, let them be guarded in this world ever so well, they soon become alienated from their husbands.”
This character, if true, probably proceeded from their never being allowed the smallest degree of liberty,
*72 and from the state of degradation to which they were reduced by the practice of polygamy; but however this may be, such passages tend strongly to shew that illicit intercourse between the sexes was frequent, notwithstanding the laws against adultery. These laws are noticed as not relating to the wives of public dancers or singers, or of such base men as lived by the intrigues of their wives;
*73 a proof that these characters were not uncommon, and were to a certain degree permitted. Add to this, that the practice of polygamy
*74 among the rich would sometimes render it difficult for the lower classes of people to obtain wives; and this difficulty would probably fall particularly hard on those, who were reduced to the condition of slaves.
From all these circumstances combined, it seems probable that among the checks to population in India the preventive check would have its share; but from the prevailing habits and opinions of the people, there is reason to believe that the tendency to early marriages was still always predominant; and in general prompted every person to enter into this state, who could look forward to the slightest chance of being able to maintain a family. The natural consequence of this was, that the lower classes of people were reduced to extreme poverty, and were compelled to adopt the most frugal and scanty mode of subsistence. This frugality was still further increased, and extended in some degree to the higher classes of society, by its being considered as an eminent virtue.
*75 The population would thus be pressed hard against the limits of the means of subsistence, and the food of the country would be meted out to the major part of the people in the smallest shares that could support life. In such a state of things every failure in the crops from unfavourable seasons would be felt most severely; and India, as might be expected, has in all ages been subject to the most dreadful famines.
A part of the ordinances of Menu is expressly dedicated to the consideration of times of distress, and instructions are given to the different classes respecting their conduct during these periods. Brahmens pining with hunger and want are frequently mentioned
*76 and certain ancient and virtuous characters are described, who had done impure and unlawful acts, but who were considered by the legislator as justified on account of the extremities to which they were reduced.
“Ajígarta, dying with hunger, was going to destroy his own son by selling him for some cattle; yet he was guilty of no crime, for he only sought a remedy against famishing.”
“Vámadéva, who well knew right and wrong, was by no means rendered impure, though desirous, when oppressed by hunger, of eating the flesh of dogs.”
“Viswámitra too, than whom none knew better the distinctions between virtue and vice, resolved, when he was perishing with hunger, to eat the haunch of a dog, which he had received from a
If these great and virtuous men of the highest class, whom all persons were under the obligation of assisting, could be reduced to such extremities, we may easily conjecture what must have been the sufferings of the lowest class.
Such passages clearly prove the existence of seasons of the most severe distress, at the early period when these ordinances were composed; and we have reason to think, that they have occurred at irregular intervals ever since. One of the Jesuits says that it is impossible for him to describe the misery to which he was witness during the two-years’ famine in 1737 and 1738;
*78 but the description which he gives of it, and of the mortality which it occasioned, is sufficiently dreadful without further detail. Another Jesuit, speaking more generally, says, “Every year we baptize a thousand children, whom their parents can no longer feed, or who, being likely to die, are sold to us by their mothers, in order to get rid of them.”
The positive checks to population would of course fall principally upon the Sudrá class, and those still more miserable beings, who are the outcasts of all the classes and are not even suffered to live within the towns.
On this part of the population the epidemics, which are the consequences of indigence and bad nourishment, and the mortality among young children, would necessarily make great ravages and thousands of these unhappy wretches would probably be swept off in a period of scarcity, before any considerable degree of want had reached the middle classes of the society. The Abbé Raynal says (on what authority I know not), that, when the crops of rice fail, the huts of these poor outcasts are set on fire, and the flying inhabitants shot by the proprietors of the grounds, that they may not consume any part of the produce.
The difficulty of rearing a family even among the middle and higher classes of society, or the fear of sinking from their cast, has driven the people in some parts of India to adopt the most cruel expedients to prevent a numerous offspring. In a tribe on the frontiers of Junapore, a district of the province of Benares, the practice of destroying female infants has been fully substantiated. The mothers were compelled to starve them. The reason that the people gave for this cruel practice was the great expense of procuring suitable matches for their daughters. One village only furnished an exception to this rule, and in that village several old maids were living.
It will naturally occur, that the race could not be continued upon this principle: but it appeared that the particular exceptions to the general rule and the intermarriages with other tribes were sufficient for this purpose. The East-India Company obliged these people to enter into an engagement not to continue this inhuman practice.
On the coast of Malabar the Nayrs do not enter into regular marriages, and the right of inheritance and succession rests in the mother of the brother, or otherwise goes to the sister’s son, the father of the child being always considered as uncertain.
Among the Brahmens, when there are more brothers than one, only the elder or eldest of them marries. The brothers, who thus maintain celibacy, cohabit with Nayr women without marriage in the way of the Nayrs. If the eldest brother has not a son, then the next brother marries.
Among the Nayrs, it is the custom for one Nayr woman to have attached to her two males, or four, or perhaps more.
The lower casts, such as carpenters, ironsmiths, and others, have fallen into the imitation of their superiors, with this difference, that the joint concern in one woman is confined to brothers and male relations by blood, to the end that no alienation may take place in the course of the succession.
Montesquieu takes notice of this custom of the Nayrs on the coast of Malabar, and accounts for it on the supposition that it was adopted in order to weaken the family ties of this cast, that as soldiers they might be more at liberty to follow the calls of their profession: but I should think that it originated more probably in a fear of the poverty arising from a large family, particularly as the custom seems to have been adopted by the other classes.
In Tibet, according to Turner’s account of that country, a custom of this kind prevails generally. Without pretending absolutely to determine the question of its origin, Mr. Turner leans to the supposition that it arose from the fear of a population too great for an unfertile country. From travelling much in the east he had probably been led to observe the effects necessarily resulting from an overflowing population, and is in consequence one among the very few writers, who see these effects in their true light. He expresses himself very strongly on this subject, and, in reference to the above custom, says, “It certainly appears, that a superabundant population in an unfertile country must be the greatest of all calamities, and produce eternal warfare or eternal want. Either the most active and the most able part of the community must be compelled to emigrate, and to become soldiers of fortune or merchants of chance; or else, if they remain at home, be liable to fall a prey to famine in consequence of some accidental failure in their scanty crops. By thus linking whole families together in the matrimonial yoke, the too rapid increase of population was perhaps checked, and an alarm prevented, capable of pervading the most fertile region upon the earth, and of giving birth to the most inhuman and unnatural practice, in the richest, the most productive and the most populous country in the world. I allude to the Empire of China, where a mother, not foreseeing the means of raising or providing for a numerous family, exposes her newborn infant to perish in the fields; a crime, however odious, by no means I am assured unfrequent.”
In almost every country of the globe individuals are compelled by considerations of private interest to habits, which tend to repress the natural increase of population; but Tibet is perhaps the only country, where these habits are universally encouraged by the government, and where to repress rather than to encourage population seems to be a public object.
In the first career of life the Bootea is recommended to distinction by a continuance in a state of celibacy; as any matrimonial contract proves almost a certain hinderance to his rise in rank, or his advancement to offices of political importance. Population is thus opposed by the two powerful bars of ambition and religion; and the higher orders of men, entirely engrossed by political or ecclesiastical duties, leave to the husbandman and labourer, to those who till the fields and live by their industry, the exclusive charge of propagating the species.
Hence religious retirement is frequent,
*87 and the number of monasteries and nunneries is considerable. The strictest laws exist to prevent a woman from accidentally passing a night within the limits of the one, or a man within those of the other; and a regulation is framed completely to obviate abuse; and establish respect towards the sacred orders of both sexes.
The nation is divided into two distinct and separate classes, those who carry on the business of the world, and those who hold intercourse with heaven. No interference of the laity ever interrupts the regulated duties of the clergy. The latter, by mutual compact, take charge of all spiritual concerns; and the former by their labours enrich and populate the state.
But even among the laity the business of population goes on very coldly. All the brothers of a family, without any restriction of age or of numbers, associate their fortunes with one female, who is chosen by the eldest, and considered as the mistress of the house; and whatever may be the profits of their several pursuits, the result flows into the common store.
The number of husbands is not apparently defined, or restricted within any limits. It sometimes happens that in a small family there is but one male; and the number, Mr. Turner says, may seldom exceed that which a native of rank at Teshoo Loomboo pointed out to him in a family resident in the neighbourhood, in which five brothers were then living together very happily with one female under the same connubial compact. Nor is this sort of league confined to the lower ranks of people alone; it is found also frequently in the most opulent families.
It is evident that this custom, combined with the celibacy of such a numerous body of ecclesiastics, must operate in the most powerful manner as a preventive check to population. Yet, notwithstanding this excessive check, it would appear, from Mr. Turner’s account of the natural sterility of the soil, that the population is kept up to the level of the means of subsistence; and this seems to be confirmed by the number of beggars in Teshoo Loomboo. On these beggars, and the charity which feeds them, Mr. Turner’s remark, though common, is yet so just and important that it cannot be too often repeated.
“Thus I unexpectedly discovered,” he says, “where I had constantly seen the round of life moving in a tranquil regular routine, a mass of indigence and idleness, of which I had no idea. But yet it by no means surprised me, when I considered that, wherever indiscriminate charity exists, it will never want objects on which to exercise its bounty, but will always attract expectants more numerous than it has the means to gratify. No human being can suffer want at Teshoo Loomboo. It is on this humane disposition, that a multitude even of Musselmen, of a frame probably the largest and most robust in the world, place their reliance for the mere maintenance of a feeble life; and besides these, I am informed, that no less than three hundred Hindoos, Goseins, and Sunniasses, are daily fed at this place by the Lama’s bounty.”