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 among the Greeks.
Book I, Chapter XIII
It has been generally allowed, and will not indeed admit of a doubt, that the more equal division of property among the Greeks and Romans, in the early period of their history, and the direction of their industry principally to agriculture, must have tended greatly to encourage population. Agriculture is not only, as Hume states,
*1 that species of industry, which is chiefly requisite to the subsistence of multitudes, but it is in fact the
sole species by which multitudes can exist; and all the numerous arts and manufactures of the modern world, by which such numbers appear to be supported, have no tendency whatever to increase population, except so far as they tend to increase the quantity and to facilitate the distribution of the products of agriculture.
In countries where, from the operation of particular causes, property in land is divided into very large shares, these arts and manufactures are absolutely necessary to the existence of any considerable population. Without them modern Europe would be unpeopled. But where property is divided into small shares, the same necessity for them does not exist. The division itself attains immediately one great object, that of distribution; and if the demand for men be constant, to fight the battles and support the power and dignity of the state, we may easily conceive that this motive, joined to the natural love of a family, might be sufficient to induce each proprietor to cultivate his land to the utmost, in order that it might support the greatest number of descendants.
The division of people into small states, during the early periods of Greek and Roman history, gave additional force to this motive. Where the number of free citizens did not perhaps exceed ten or twenty thousand, each individual would naturally feel the value of his own exertions; and knowing that the state to which he belonged, situated in the midst of envious and watchful rivals, must depend chiefly on its population for its means of defence and safety, would be sensible that, in suffering the lands which were allotted to him to lie idle, he would be deficient in his duty as a citizen. These causes appear to have produced a considerable attention to agriculture, without the intervention of the artificial wants of mankind to encourage it. Population followed the products of the earth with more than equal pace; and when the overflowing numbers were not taken off by the drains of war or disease, they found vent in frequent and repeated colonization. The necessity of these frequent colonizations, joined to the smallness of the states, which brought the subject immediately home to every thinking person, could not fail to point out to the legislators and philosophers of those times the strong tendency of population to increase beyond the means of subsistence; and they did not, like the statesmen and projectors of modern days, overlook the consideration of a question, which so deeply affects the happiness and tranquillity of society. However we may justly execrate the barbarous expedients which they adopted to remove the difficulty, we cannot but give them some credit for their penetration in seeing it; and in being fully aware that, if not considered and obviated, it would be sufficient of itself to destroy their best-planned schemes of republican equality and happiness.
The power of colonization is necessarily limited; and after the lapse of some time it might be extremely difficult; if not impossible, for a country, not particularly well suited for this purpose, to find a vacant spot proper for the settlement of its expatriated citizens. It was necessary therefore to consider of other resources besides colonization.
It is probable that the practice of infanticide had prevailed from the earliest ages in Greece. In the parts of America where it was found to exist it appears to have originated from the extreme difficulty of rearing many children, in a savage and wandering life, exposed to frequent famines and perpetual wars. We may easily conceive that it had a similar origin among the ancestors of the Greeks or the native inhabitants of the country. And, when Solon permitted the exposing of children, it is probable that he only gave the sanction of law to a custom already prevalent.
In this permission he had without doubt two ends in view. First, that which is most obvious, the prevention of such an excessive population as would cause universal poverty and discontent; and, secondly, that of keeping the population up to the level of what the territory could support, by removing the terrors of too numerous a family, and consequently the principal obstacle to marriage. From the effect of this practice in China we have reason to think that it is better calculated to attain the latter than the former purpose. But if the legislator either did not see this, or if the barbarous habits of the times prompted parents invariably to prefer the murder of their children to poverty, the practice would appear to be very particularly calculated to answer both the ends in view; and to preserve, as completely and as constantly as the nature of the thing would permit, the requisite proportion between the food and the numbers which were to consume it.
On the very great importance of attending to this proportion, and the evils that must necessarily result, of weakness on the one hand, or of poverty on the other, from the deficiency or the excess of population, the Greek political writers strongly insist; and propose in consequence various modes of maintaining the relative proportion desired.
Plato, in the republic which he considers in his books of laws, limits the number of free citizens and of habitations to five thousand and forty; and this number he thinks may be preserved, if the father of every family choose one out of his sons for his successor to the lot of land which he has possessed, and, disposing of his daughters in marriage according to law, distribute his other sons, if he have any, to be adopted by those citizens who are without children. But if the number of children upon the whole be either too great or too few, the magistrate is to take the subject particularly into his consideration, and to contrive so, that the same number of five thousand and forty families should still be maintained. There are many modes, he thinks, of effecting this object. Procreation, when it goes on too fast, may be checked, or, when it goes on too slow, may be encouraged, by the proper distribution of honours and marks of ignominy, and by the admonitions of the elders, to prevent or promote it according to circumstances.
In his Philosophical Republic
*3 he enters more particularly into this subject, and proposes that the most excellent among the men should be joined in marriage to the most excellent among the women, and the inferior citizens matched with the inferior females; and that the offspring of the first should be brought up, of the others not. On certain festivals appointed by the laws, the young men and women who are betrothed are to be assembled, and joined together with solemn ceremonies. But the number of marriages is to be determined by the magistrates; that, taking into consideration the drains from wars, diseases and other causes, they may preserve, as nearly as possible, such a proportion of citizens, as will be neither too numerous nor too few, according to the resources and demands of the state. The children, who are thus born from the most excellent of the citizens, are to be carried to certain nurses destined to this office; inhabiting a separate part of the city; but those which are born from the inferior citizens, and any from the others which are imperfect in their limbs, are to be buried in some obscure and unknown place.
He next proceeds to consider the proper age for marriage, and determines it to be twenty for the women, and thirty for the men. Beginning at twenty, the woman is to bear children for the state till she is forty, and the man is to fulfil his duty in this respect from thirty to fifty-five. If a man produce a child into public either before or after this period, the action is to be considered in the same criminal and profane light as if he had produced one without the nuptial ceremonies, and instigated solely by incontinence. The same rule should hold, if a man who is of the proper age for procreation be connected with a woman who is also of the proper age, but without the ceremony of marriage by the magistrate; he is to be considered as having given to the state a spurious, profane and incestuous offspring. When both sexes have passed the age assigned for presenting children to the state, Plato allows a great latitude of intercourse; but no child is to be brought to light. Should any infant by accident be born alive, it is to be exposed in the same manner as if the parents could not support it.
From these passages it is evident that Plato fully saw the tendency of population to increase beyond the means of subsistence. His expedients for checking it are indeed execrable; but the expedients themselves, and the extent to which they were to be used, shew his conceptions of the magnitude of the difficulty. Contemplating, as he certainly must do in a small republic, a great proportional drain of people by wars, if he could still propose to destroy the children of all the inferior and less perfect citizens, to destroy also all that were born not within the prescribed ages and with the prescribed forms, to fix the age of marriage late, and after all to regulate the number of these marriages, his experience and his reasonings must have strongly pointed out to him the great power of the principle of increase, and the necessity of checking it.
Aristotle appears to have seen this necessity still more clearly. He fixes the proper age of marriage at thirty-seven for the men, and eighteen for the women, which must of course condemn a great number of women to celibacy, as there never can be so many men of thirty-seven as there are women of eighteen. Yet, though he has fixed the age of marriage for the men at so late a period, he still thinks that there may be too many children, and proposes that the number allowed to each marriage should be regulated; and, if any woman be pregnant after she has produced the prescribed number, that an abortion should be procured before the fœtus has life.
The period of procreating children for the state is to cease with the men at fifty-four or fifty-five, because the offspring of old men, as well as of men too young, is imperfect both in body and mind. When both sexes have passed the prescribed age, they are allowed to continue a connexion; but, as in Plato’s republic, no child which may be the result is to be brought to light.
In discussing the merits of the republic proposed by Plato in his books of laws, Aristotle is of opinion that he has by no means been sufficiently attentive to the subject of population; and accuses him of inconsistency in equalizing property without limiting the number of children. The laws on this subject, Aristotle very justly observes, require to be much more definite and precise in a state where property is equalized than in others. Under ordinary governments an increase of population would only occasion a greater subdivision of landed property; whereas in such a republic the supernumeraries would be altogether destitute, because the lands, being reduced to equal and as it were elementary parts, would be incapable of further partition.
He then remarks that it is necessary in all cases to regulate the proportion of children, that they may not exceed the proper number. In doing this, deaths and barrenness are of course to be taken into consideration. But if, as in the generality of states, every person be left free to have as many children as he pleases, the necessary consequence must be poverty; and poverty is the mother of villany and sedition. On this account Pheidon of Corinth, one of the most ancient writers on the subject of politics, introduced a regulation directly the reverse of Plato’s, and limited population without equalizing possessions.
Speaking afterwards of Phaleas of Chalcedon, who proposed, as a most salutary institution, to equalize wealth among the citizens, he adverts again to Plato’s regulations respecting property; and observes that those who would thus regulate the extent of fortunes, ought not to be ignorant that it is absolutely necessary at the same time to regulate the number of children. For if children multiply beyond the means of supporting them, the law will necessarily be broken, and families will be suddenly reduced from opulence to beggary,—a revolution always dangerous to public tranquillity.
It appears from these passages that Aristotle clearly saw that the strong tendency of the human race to increase, unless checked by strict and positive laws, was absolutely fatal to every system founded on equality of property; and there cannot surely be a stronger argument against any system of this kind than the necessity of such laws as Aristotle himself proposes.
From a remark which he afterwards makes respecting Sparta, it appears still more clearly that he fully understood the principle of population. From the improvidence of the laws relating to succession, the landed property in Sparta had been engrossed by a few; and the effect was greatly to diminish the populousness of the country. To remedy this evil, and to supply men for continual wars, the kings preceding Lycurgus had been in the habit of naturalizing strangers. It would have been much better however, according to Aristotle, to have increased the number of citizens by a nearer equalization of property. But the law relating to children was directly adverse to this improvement. The legislator, wishing to have many citizens, had encouraged as much as possible the procreation of children. A man who had three sons, was exempt from the night-watch; and he who had four, enjoyed a complete immunity from all public burdens. But it is evident, as Aristotle most justly observes, that the birth of a great number of children, the division of the lands remaining the same, would necessarily cause only an accumulation of poverty.
He here seems to see exactly the error into which many other legislators besides Lycurgus have fallen; and to be fully aware that to encourage the birth of children, without providing properly for their support, is to obtain a very small accession to the population of a country at the expense of a very great accession of misery.
The legislator of Crete,
*10 as well as Solon, Pheidon, Plato and Aristotle, saw the necessity of checking population in order to prevent general poverty; and as we must suppose that the opinions of such men, and the laws founded upon them, would have considerable influence, it is probable that the preventive check to increase, from late marriages and other causes, operated in a considerable degree among the free citizens of Greece.
For the positive checks to population we need not look beyond the wars in which these small states were almost continually engaged; though we have an account of one wasting plague, at least, in Athens; and Plato supposes the case of his republic being greatly reduced by disease.
*11 Their wars were not only almost constant, but extremely bloody. In a small army, the whole of which would probably be engaged in close fight, a much greater number in proportion would be slain than in the large modern armies, a considerable part of which often remains untouched;
*12 and as all the free citizens of these republics were generally employed as soldiers in every war, losses would be felt very severely, and would not appear to be very easily repaired.
“Vos enim video procreatos filios nunc feris et avibus exponere, nunc adstrangulatos misero mortis genere elidere; sent quæ in ipsis visceribus medicaminibus epotis originem futuri hominus extinguant, et parricidium faciunt antequam pariant.”
This crime had grown so much into a custom in Rome, that even Pliny attempts to excuse it; “Quoniam aliquarum fecunditas plena liberis tali veniâ indiget.” Lib. xxix. c. iv.
Tantum artes hujus, tantum medicamina possunt,
Quæ steriles facit, atque homines in ventre necandos
Conducit.—Juvenal, Sat. vi. 593.