Selection from _Enquiry Concerning Population_ by William Godwin

William Godwin, from Enquiry Concerning Population

Chapter IX: Conclusion

THERE can be no conclusion more natural or more profitable to such an enquiry as has formed the scope of the present volume, than an attempt to fix a just estimate of the state of man upon earth.

Man is perhaps the only animal in the world endowed with the faculty we call taste. Man is the only animal capable of persevering and premeditated industry, with the fruits of which the land and even the water of our globe are interspersed and adorned. Man is the only creature susceptible of science and invention, and possessing the power of handing down his thoughts in those permanent records, called books. Man has in him the seeds of sentiment and virtue, and the principle of comprehensive affections, patriotism and philanthropy. The human species is capable of improvement from age to age, by means of which capacity we have arrived at those refinements of mechanical production and science, which have been gradually called into existence; while all other animals remain what they were at first, and the young of no species becomes better or more powerful by the experience of those that went before him.

It cannot be but that a being so gloriously endowed should be capable of much enjoyment and happiness. Our tastes and our judgment are fitted to add indefinitely to our pleasures: we admire the works of God and the works of man. Our affections are to us a source of enjoyments, variegated and exquisite. Self-approbation and self-complacency are main pillars of human happiness. The consciousness of freedom and the pride of independence are inexhaustible sources of joy. There is a peculiar and an inexpressible delight which belongs to perseverance and a resolved constancy in the operations of science, in the cultivation of mind, and in a course of virtuous action. We are delighted with these things in solitude and intent application; and society in such pursuits increases our delight. Indeed, when we do but name the word society, we touch a magical chord which introduces us at once to a whole volume of peculiar felicities.

Yet the state of man on earth is not a state of unmingled happiness. We have many pains and infirmities. Every stage of our existence from the cradle to the grave, has its peculiar compartment in this magazine of ills. Our cares and anxieties are innumerable. All these things which, presented to us in one aspect, are sources of pleasure, may, if reversed, become equally sources of affliction. The generous ambition of the human heart, if disappointed, preys upon our vitals. Our affections, those conduits of exquisite enjoyment, are often turned into the means of agony. Man is an erring creature, and may become the victim of remorse; or, if his heart is hardened in this respect, he may be made the object of the resentment and vengeance of his fellow-creatures.

Beside all this, it is now time to add, that human institutions may be the source of much mischief to those they were framed to control. There have been such things as despotism and as tyranny. Society is the source of innumerable pleasures; without society we can scarcely be said to live; yet in how many ways does society infringe upon the independence and peace of its members. Man delights to control and to inforce submission upon his fellow-man; human creatures desire to exercise lordship and to display authority. One class and division of the community, is taught to think its interests adverse to the interests of another class and division of the community. The institution of property has been the source of much improvement and much admirable activity to mankind; yet how many evils to multitudes of our species have sprung from the institution of property. The same may be said of the inequality of conditions.

All that is here stated is very much of the nature of common-place. Every man has heard it; and every man knows it. Yet it is sometimes of great use that common-places should be recollected; and the author would deserve the name of absurdly fastidious, who should resolve upon all occasions to avoid them. Those which have been here introduced are particularly proper on the present occasion.

Between the advantages and disadvantages attendant on the state of man on earth there is one thing that seems decisively to turn the balance in favour of the former. Man is to a considerable degree the artificer of his own fortune. We can apply our reflections and our ingenuity to the remedy of whatever we regret. Speaking in a general way, and within certain liberal and expansive limitations, it should appear that there is no evil under which the human species can labour, that man is not competent to cure. This is a source of unspeakable consolation to us in two ways: first, we can bear with some cheerfulness the ill which for ourselves or our posterity we have the power to remedy: and secondly, this power inherent in our nature is the basis of that elasticity and exultation which are most congenial to the mind of man. "We are perplexed, but not in despair; we are persecuted, but not forsaken; we are cast down, but not destroyed." Man, in the most dejected condition in which a human being can be placed, has still something within him which whispers him, "I belong to a world that is worth living in."

Such was, and was admitted to be the state of the human species, previously to the appearance of the Essay on Population. Now let us see how, under the ascendancy of Mr Malthus's theory, all this is completely reversed.

The great error of those who sought to encourage and console their fellow-beings in this vale of tears, was, we are told, in supposing that any thing that we could do, could be of substantial benefit in remedying the defects of our social existence. "Human institutions are light and superficial, mere feathers that float upon the surface." The enemy that hems us in, and reduces our condition to despair, is no other than "the laws of Nature, which are the laws of God."[1]

Nor is this by any means the worst of the case. The express object of Mr. Malthus's writing was to prove how pernicious was their error, who aimed at any considerable and essential improvement in human society. The only effectual checks upon that excess of population, which, if unchecked, would be sufficient in no long time to people all the stars, are vice and misery. The main and direct moral and lesson of the Essay on Population, is passiveness. Human creatures may feel that they are unfortunate and unhappy; but it is their wisdom to lie still, and rather "bear the ills they have, than fly to others that they know not of."

The two main propositions that are revealed to us by the Essay on Population are, 1. the kind of mortality and massacre that is continually taking place in the midst of us, without our having been aware of it: and, 2. the conduct which it is our wisdom to adopt under the unhappy condition of man upon earth.

It has been already sufficiently proved in the proper place, that, according to Mr Malthus's principles, all the children in each generation on this side of the globe are born, that can be born.[2]The difference between the population of Europe on the one hand, and of the United States on the other, is not that a smaller number of children are born in the former case, but that a greater number are cut off in their infancy. If the present population of England and Wales is ten millions, it would twenty-five years hence be twenty millions, and so on for ever, were it not for the hitherto unobserved destruction of the young of the human species on this side of the globe. That man is mortal we sufficiently knew; we had studied and rehearsed, time out of mind, the various accidents that waylay us in every stage of our existence; and the thought of this was sufficient to make us sober, if not to make us sad: but Mr Malthus has discovered to us the hourly destruction of millions upon millions more, of which we had no previous knowledge. And how are they destroyed? "By all those causes whether arising from vice or misery, which in various degrees and diversified manners contribute to shorten the natural duration of human life." "Every loss of a child from the consequences of poverty [and, were it not for these losses, the population of England and Wales would double every twenty-five years] must evidently be preceded and accompanied by great misery to various individuals."

The second of the two main propositions that are revealed to us by the Essay on Population, is the conduct which it is our wisdom to adopt under the unhappy condition of man upon earth. Vice and misery are the main securities upon which we are to depend: it is they that make the condition of man upon earth so tolerable as we find it. The most pernicious error into which we can fall, and which is beyond all others to be deprecated, would be the inconsiderate attempt materially to improve the state of society, to relieve the hardships under which the greater part of our species at present labour, and to introduce equality, or any approach towards equality, in the conditions of men. Since vice and misery are discovered to be the mala bene posita, the indispensible evils without which the pillars of creation would tumble into ruins, we must be careful to touch them with the utmost tenderness, or rather we must be careful not to touch them on any account. They are the mysterious treasures, laid up in the sanctuary of the covenant between God and his creatures.

Look now upon this picture and on this, the faithful representment of two worlds! One is the world I was born in, and in which I lived for forty years: the other is the world of Mr Malthus.

In the Old World (if I may be allowed so to denominate it) there was something exhilarating and cheerful. We felt that there was room for a generous ambition to unfold itself. If we were under the cloud or the grief of calamity, we had still something to console us. We might animate our courage with reflections on the nature of man, and support our constancy by recollecting the unlimited power we possess to remedy our evils, and better our condition. We felt, as I said before, that we "belonged to a world worth living in."

Mr Malthus blots out all this with one stroke of his pen. By a statement of six pages, or rather of six lines, he undertakes to shew us what a fool the man is who should be idle enough to rejoice in such a world as this. He tells us that our ills are remediless, and that human institutions, and the resources of human ingenuity, are feathers, capable of doing little harm, and no more competent to produce us benefit. We are fallen into the hands of a remorseless stepmother, Nature: it is in vain that we struggle against her laws; the murderous principle of multiplication will be for ever at work; the viper-brood of passion, the passion between the sexes, the fruitful source of eternal mischiefs, we may condemn, but must never hope to control. He forbids us to augur well of the general weal, for all is despair; he forbids us to attempt to raise or improve our condition, for every such attempt is destructive.

I can liken Mr Malthus's world to nothing but a city under the severe visitation of a pestilence. All philanthropy and benevolence are at an end. To serve our fellow-citizens is a hopeless undertaking. With hope, the very wish to serve them expires. We no longer love, where to benefit is impossible. "It were all one," as Shakespear says, "that I should love a bright particular star, and think to wed it."[3] Our only refuge then is in pure self-indulgence, and an entire contempt for, and oblivion of our fellow-creatures. Boccaccio's description of some of his contemporaries in the great plague of Florence is excellently to this purpose. "The reflections of these men," says he, "led them to a determination sufficiently cruel: and this was, to shun and fly from their unfortunate and suffering countrymen. They shut themselves up in houses free from the infection, and sought to forget the very existence of their fellow-citizens. They nourished themselves with the most delicate meats and the finest wines they could procure. Nay, they sung, they danced, they laughed, they jested, and considered this, as far as they were concerned, to be a sovereign remedy for every evil." [4]It is wonderful how exactly this coincides with what is recommended in the Essay on Population, concerning the neglect to be shewn to the poor, and the wastefulness of the rich.

Till Mr Malthus wrote, political writers and sages had courage. They said, "The evils we suffer are from ourselves; let us apply ourselves with assiduity and fortitude to the cure of them." This courage was rapidly descending, by the progress of illumination and intellect, to a very numerous portion of mankind and the sober and considerate began deliberately to say, "Let us endeavour to remedy the evils of political society, and mankind may then be free and contented and happy." Mr Malthus has placed himself in the gap. He has proclaimed, with a voice that has carried astonishment and terror into the hearts of thousands, the accents of despair. He has said, The evils of which you complain, do not lie within your reach to remove; they come from the laws of nature, and the unalterable impulse of human kind. . . .


  1. Vol. III, p. 181.(back up)
  2. P. 30, 31, 32.(go back)
  3. All's Well that Ends Well, I.i.98-9. (go back)
  4. The plague of 1348; Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75), The Decameron, or Ten Days Entertainment of Boccace (London, 1741), p. 3. (go back)  (Decameron)