An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society. With Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers.

London: J. Johnson, 1798.

First edition, rare, of this foundation work of modern economics, and the seed for Darwin’s theory of natural selection. “Malthus’ Essay was a crucial contribution to Darwin’s thinking about natural selection when he returned in 1836 from the Beagle voyage. In July 1837 Darwin began his “Note book on Transmutation of Species,” in which he wrote: “In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement “Malthus on Population,” and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence … it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result would be the formation of a new species” (Life and Letters, I, 83). Later, in the Origin of Species, he wrote that the struggle for existence “is the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms; for in this case there can be no artificial increase of food, and no prudential restraint from marriage” (p. 63). Alfred Russel Wallace, who arrived at a worked-out formulation of the theory of evolution at almost precisely the same time as Darwin, acknowledged that “perhaps the most important book I read was Malthus’s Principles of Population” (My Life, p. 232)” (DSB). “Without doubt the great watershed in the development of Darwin’s evolutionary theory came with his reading of Malthus. Not only did Malthus provide a vital missing element, but it served to precipitate other, equally necessary, elements into their proper place in Darwin’s thought. With but the one notable exception of ‘divergence’, from 1838 onwards Darwin was able to work with a clear formulation of his theory of natural selection” (Vorzimmer, p. 542). AE/RBH list only nine copies in non-rebacked contemporary bindings in the last 40 years.

In 1796 William Godwin, a clergyman, social philosopher and journalist, had written The Enquirer, a popular book (in the sense both of non-technical and broadly read) summarizing a whole school of progressive thought owing much to the French philosopher Condorcet (for example, his Esquise d'un Tableau Historique des Progrès de l'Esprit Humain 1794). In The Enquirer Godwin promotes the idea of the perfectibility of man and society and of an equality among men driven by the economics of growth. Having proceeded upward from the savage, man will continue toward perfection as a law of nature. In Godwin’s utopian economics, population growth means a growth in labor, growth is only good, and can only lead to greater wealth and improvement for all—provided, of course, that institutions (that is, the ‘established order’) change appropriately.

“In this rebuttal of the Utopian views of William Godwin, Malthus reasoned that populations increase by geometrical proportion but food supply only increases arithmetically ... Malthus’s suppositions, though reasonable, were largely intuitive. The first edition of the Essay contains no supporting numerical data (although this was supplied in the greatly expanded second edition of 1803) ... Nevertheless, the Essay exerted great influence upon socio-economic theorists from Ricardo to Mill to Marx ... and played a well-documented role in both Darwin and Wallace’s development of the theory of natural selection. Malthus’s work remains an inspiration for all those who wish to limit population growth” (Norman).

“Thomas Robert Malthus, for most of his life professor of modern history and political economy at the East India Company College, Haileybury, was one of the founders of modern economics. His Essay was originally the product of a discussion with his father on the perfectibility of society. Malthus senior, who had been a friend of Rousseau, was a supporter of the utopian views of Godwin and others, but he recognized the force of his son’s refutation of these views, and urged him to publish. Thus the first edition was essentially a fighting tract, but later editions were considerably altered and grew bulkier as Malthus defended his views against a host of critics.

“The central idea of the essay — and the hub of Malthusian theory — was a simple one. The population of a community, Malthus suggested, increases geometrically, while food supplies increase only arithmetically. If the natural increase in population occurs the food supply becomes insufficient and the size of the population is checked by ‘misery’ — that is the poorest sections of the community suffer disease and famine. Malthus recognized two other possible checks to population expansion: first vice — that is, homosexuality, prostitution and abortion (all totally unacceptable to Malthus); and second ‘moral restraint’ — the voluntary limitation of the production of children by the postponement of marriage. This was the solution to the population problem that Malthus advocated. The Essay was highly influential in the progress of thought in early nineteenth-century Europe. This simple generalization on population increase, and the social policy Malthus advocated were widely discussed. ‘Parson’ Malthus, as Cobbett dubbed him, was, for many, a monster and his views were often grossly misinterpreted. The socialists universally opposed him — both Marx and Engels later condemned his theories — and the conservatives, while glad of a defence against the spread of revolutionary ideas from the Continent, never fully accepted his ideas. But his influence on social policy, whether for good or evil, was considerable. The Malthusian theory of population came at the right time to harden the existing feeling against the Poor Laws and Malthus was a leading spirit behind the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.

“The simplicity of the central idea of the Essay also caught the imagination of thinkers in other fields. Paley was a convert to the Malthusian view, and both Darwin and Wallace clearly acknowledged Malthus as a source of the idea of ‘the struggle for existence’. That Malthus was the only source, as has been traditionally held and as Darwin himself suggested, seems very doubtful, but certainly reading the Essay was for both of them an important event in the development of their theory of natural selection, and they were glad to quote such a well-known and weighty source for their ideas.

“Since his death Malthusian theory, although always controversial, has, more often than not, been rejected as a part of early Victorian social conservatism and, besides, his central tenet — that food supplies can only increase arithmetically — is now regarded as false. However, Malthus has always had his supporters, often unexpected ones. Keynes, while showing that effective demand for many forms of investment is dependent on an expanding population — thus contradicting Malthusian population theory — traced back to Malthus himself the idea that a lack of effective demand can cause economic crises. He also contrasted Malthus’s commonsense approach and the rigidly theoretical bent of his contemporary and friend David Ricardo, concluding that ‘the almost total obliteration of Malthus's line of approach and the complete domination of Ricardo’s for a period of 100 years has been a disaster to the progress of economics’” (PMM).

“Robert Malthus (1766-1834) (he appears never to have been called Thomas) was the sixth child of seven born to Daniel Malthus and his wife, the former Henrietta Catherine Graham. Daniel Malthus, a scholar and a friend and admirer of Rousseau, provided a stimulating home life and education for the boy, and later sent him to study with Richard Graves at Claverton and at the Dissenting Academy of Warrington under Gilbert Wakefield.

“In 1784 Malthus went up to Jesus College, Cambridge, where his tutor was William Frend. He read for the mathematical tripos and graduated in 1788, being ninth wrangler; but he also read widely in French and English history and literature and in Newtonian physics. He had already shown his interest in the practical rather than the abstract. He played games and lived a full social life, apparently unaffected by his cleft palate and harelip. The friends he made at Cambridge influenced the rest of his life; the most important was William Otter (1768–1840), later bishop of Chichester. Malthus and Otter traveled extensively in Europe and maintained the relationship after their marriages. Malthus’ son, Henry, married Otter’s daughter Sophia. Otter probably wrote the memorial to Malthus in Bath Abbey, and he certainly wrote the “Memoir” published with the second edition of the Principles of Political Economy.

“Malthus followed graduation with ordination, but more in the tradition of the younger sons of English gentry entering the Church than as a step consistent with his intellectual development. For some years he held a curacy at Okewood Chapel in Surrey, near the home of his parents at Albury, and was active in his pastoral functions from 1792 to 1794. He showed a genuine interest in and concern for the local people and an understanding of their problems, a sympathy which makes surprising his later references to the laboring class almost as though they were a community apart. From 1803 until his death he held a sinecure as rector of Walesbury in Lincolnshire …

“Jesus College elected Malthus to a fellowship in 1793, and he was resident intermittently until he had to resign upon his marriage to Harriet Eckersall in 1804. They had one son, Henry, who followed his father into the ministry, and two daughters: Emily, who married, and Lucy, who died before her father. About the time of Malthus’ marriage, the East India Company founded a new college, first at Hertford and then at Haileybury, to give a general education to staff members before they went on service overseas. The first known professorship of history and political economy was established there, and Malthus was invited to fill the post. He took it up in 1805, and it gave him the security of a home and an income that enabled him to spend the rest of his life writing and lecturing.

“In order to teach political economy, Malthus needed to extend his knowledge. He wrote two pamphlets on the Corn Laws (1814, 1815); a short, unexceptionable tract on rent (1815); statements on Haileybury (1813, 1817); and a major work, Principles of Political Economy (1820). This included an analogy of his population theory with the quantity of funds designed for the maintenance of labor and the prudential habits of the laboring classes.

“In 1819 the Royal Society elected Malthus to a fellowship. He was also a member of the French Institute and the Berlin Academy, and a founding member of the Statistical Society (1834). In 1827 he was called upon to give evidence on emigration before a committee of the House of Commons.

“Although their life was quiet, Robert and Henrietta Malthus traveled and entertained their many friends, including David Ricardo, Harriet Martineau, Otter, and William Empson, who was also at Haileybury. Malthus managed, in spite of the controversy flowing around him, to keep a reputation as a warm, charming, and lively companion” (DSB).

PMM 251; Norman 1431 (rebacked); Garrison-Morton 1693; Kress B 3693. For a detailed account of the influence of Malthus on Darwin, see Vorzimmer, ‘Darwin, Malthus, and the Theory of Natural Selection,’ Journal of the History of Ideas 30 (1969), 527-42.

8vo (209 x 127 mm), 207 leaves, pp. [2], [i] ii-v [1], [i] ii-ix [1], [1] 2-396. Mispaginations: 352 for 332. Errata on A8v. Early 19th century half black calf, marbled boards, richly spine gilt. Very small ink spot to outer margin of the first 3 leaves. A fine and entirely unrestored copy. Rare in such fine condition.

Item #3905

Price: $225,000.00

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