The Dystopian Theodicy of Parson Malthus.
In the great lottery of life, wrote Thomas Malthus in his First Essay on Population, most men have drawn a blank. This striking metaphor captures both the epigrammatic elegance of the essay and the harsh realism of its message, which held that the utopian schemata, rife in the Jacobin atmosphere of the day, were doomed to failure (if for no other reason) simply by the pressure of population on the food supply. The principle of population, as Malthus's premise would come to be called, took shape initially not as an independent argument but rather as a refutation of the theses of others, as the full title of his original essay suggests: 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. They had titles in those days!
Daniel Malthus was admirer of Rousseau.
This essay originated in a dispute, albeit a congenial one, between a father and son, but with the customary roles of such generational ideomachias reversed. Daniel Malthus, the father--fanatical admirer, friend and sometime host of Jean-Jacques Rousseau--was the passionate enthusiast, idealistic and visionary, while the son, just into his thirties, cast the cold--one might even say arctic--eye of practical experience and logic on the millennarian projections of those avatars of Rousseau, William Godwin and the Marquis de Condorcet, who inspired the father. Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), that paean to philosophical anarchism that inspired a generation of radicals and Romantics--particularly, of course, Shelley--projected perfectibilism par excellence. "There will be no war, no crimes, no administration of justice ... and no government," Godwin affirmed. "Beside this, there will be neither disease, anguish, melancholy, nor resentment. Every man will seek, with ineffable ardour, the good of all." Written the same year as Godwin's treatise, Condorcet's Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind is no less optimistic, ironically so, of course, since its author composed his fervent testament to hope almost literally in the shadow of the guillotine kept humming by a revolution in the process of devouring its own children, of which he was a distinguished one. A Girondist member of the Legislative Assembly that deposed Louis XVI, Condorcet nevertheless fell victim of the Terror, was arrested and died in prison two days later. Still his faith in the utopian future of mankind never, apparently, wavered. "The time will come," he wrote, "when the sun will shine only on free men who know no other master but their reason; when tyrants and priests and their stupid or hypocritical instruments will exist only in works of history." Indeed, he affirmed, "the moral goodness of man, the necessary consequence of his constitution, is capable of infinite perfection."
Thomas Malthus saw "unconquerable difficulties" with thought of Rousseau and disciplies.
The younger Malthus was not blind to the appeal exerted by these optimistic and idyllic images of the future, confessed, indeed, to having been "warmed and delighted with the enchanting picture which they hold forth." But his clear-eyed realism, his empirical cast of mind, forced him to acknowledge "great and, to my understanding, unconquerable difficulties" preventing their realization. He rejected as warrantless those postulata of a human nature radically transformed that render utopian extrapolation easy. (G. K. Chesterton's famous criticism fits: "The weakness of all Utopias is this, that they take the greatest difficulty of man"--his nature--"and assume it overcome, and then give elaborate account of the overcoming of the smaller ones. They first assume that no man will want more than his share, and then are very ingenious in explaining whether his share will be delivered by motor-car or balloon.") We can speculate seriously on what man may become, Maithus argues, only by reasoning consequentially from what, in fact, he is, an insistence that produces one of his most arresting metaphors:
A writer may tell me that he thinks man will ultimately become an ostrich. I cannot properly contradict him. But before he can expect to bring any reasonable person over to his opinion, he ought to shew, that the necks of mankind have been gradually elongating, that the lips have grown harder and more prominent, that the legs and feet are daily altering their shape, and that the hair is beginning to change into stubs of feathers. And till the probability of so wonderful a conversion can be shewn, it is surely lost time and lost elegance to expatiate on the happiness of man in such a state.
Illusory assumptions about human nature result in harmful policies.
And man showed no more evidence of becoming the idealized creature of Godwin/Condorcet speculation--selfless, cooperative, rational--than he did of becoming an ostrich. But the cost of such speculation could be far greater, Malthus thought, than merely a waste of eloquence. From illusory assumptions, very bad social policy would result, such as the reform of the Poor Laws, then pending, that would, Malthus argued, actually increase the number of England's paupers. "The most baleful mischiefs may be expected," Maithus warned, "from the unmanly conduct of not daring to face a truth because it is unpleasing."
The unpleasing truth that Malthus manfully faced--and announced to the world, making his name a byword for a sort of socioeconomic pessimism--was that food supply, which increased at best arithmetically, could never keep pace with population growth, which increased geometrically. Consequently, much, perhaps even most of mankind must live in an almost perpetual state of misery, with famine and plague serving implacably to limit the population to the level of subsistence.
This natural inequality of the two great powers of population and of production in the earth and that great law of our nature which must constantly keep their effects equal form the great difficulty that to me appears insurmountable in the way to the perfectibility of society.... No fancied equality ... could remove the pressure of it even for a century.... Consequently, if the premises are just, the argument is conclusive against the perfectibility of the mass of mankind.
Theory population took on life of its own.
Malthus's theory of population is such a commonplace of the modern age, the logic of it seemingly so self-evident, that the seismic impact created by its original appearance is now hard for us to grasp. This essay, Robert Heilbroner claims, changed the view point of its age from optimism to pessimism, convincing the contemporaries of Malthus that they were living in a fool's paradise. Before Malthus, the fear--in Europe at least--was of a declining population and consequent national weakness; proposals were afoot to encourage larger families through social policies. After Malthus, the fear was an excess of people--what we have come to call and (usually) deplore as the population explosion. (As I wrote this essay, the New York Times ran a story under the headline "Conference Adopts Plan on Limiting Population.") Many consider The Essay on Population among the most important books ever written, one of that handful that have altered fundamentally the way we view the world. Quite apart from its original purpose of refuting the perfectibilitism of others, Malthus's theory took on a life--and a renown--of its own. When he published a second edition, much expanded, five years later in 1803, references to Godwin and Condorcet were conspicuously absent. This edition--and the six subsequent and ever longer ones based on it--qualified and amended the first edition so much that many have claimed that it became a different book with a new thesis.
Only The First Essay on Population included a theodicy.
In contrast to the lightness and brevity, the stylistic elegance and felicity of the first edition--an exemplary instance of what one critic calls the "country house" essay--the second and subsequent ones resemble more what we have come to expect from the discipline that Carlyle, after reading this Malthus, christened "the dismal science": lucubratory and data-laden, drier and more ponderous, no longer witty, just longer. Malthus's acknowledgement, however, of the efficacy of certain "prudential checks" on population growth rendered the second edition more optimistic, even allowed for the possibility of some progress in human affairs, so much so that Godwin--rather bitterly, since he received no credit--declared himself vindicated. But lengthy as the later editions grew, they all lacked something that The First Essay on Population contained, a theodicy, a vindication of God's ways to man.
Malthus was England's first professional economist, teaching "political economy" at the East India Company's college in Haileybury from 1805 until his death in 1834. But he was also--and earlier--an Anglican divine, although his pastoral duties, in the fashion typical of the time, seem never to have weighed heavily: he never took residence, for instance, at his living in Walesby in Lincolnshire. Still, a certain irony inheres--or seems to--in a Christian minister's positing a picture of creation as pessimistic as that Malthus posed in The First Essay. The radical William Cobbett, who proclaimed that he detested Malthus more than he detested any other man--"Your book could have sprung from no mind not capable of dictating acts of greater cruelty than any recorded in the history of the massacre of St. Bartholomew": much in that vein--never missed the opportunity to address him as Parson Malthus, an epithet that stuck, inveighing tirelessly against his "parsonical" hypocrisy. Despite the intemperate ad hominem o f Cobbett and a host of other ideological opponents of Malthus, whose first biographer described him as "the best abused man of his age," they nevertheless had grasped the anomoly of a minister's sounding at least as impersonal and impassive toward human suffering as Swift's Modest Proposer. Perhaps in an attempt to forestall such criticism, Malthus the economist, empirical and realistic, gives way in the final chapters of the First Essay to Malthus the theologian, abstract, speculative, willing to hypothecate about things not seen. This Malthus--Parson Malthus--takes on the daunting challenge of explaining the purpose of Providence in creating a world where most people are doomed to marginality if not misery, of explaining why in the great lottery of life it is God's will that most men draw a blank.
Although the term theodicy was an eighteenth-century coinage--Leibniz first used it for the title of his 1710 work Essais de Theodicee--the practice of justifying God's creation was, of course, much older, extending in the Judeo-Christian tradition at least as far back as Job, if not Genesis. Still, the eighteenth century saw a remarkable proliferation of theodicies ; the age of reason wanted reasoned explanations, not mysteries: a mighty maze, perhaps, but not without a plan. Most of these, like Leibniz's or Pope's or Bishop King's, were variations on the Great Chain of Being, that century's "sacred phrase," according to Lovejoy, "analogous to the blessed word 'evolution' in the nineteenth." Belief in the Great Chain held that every element in creation, from angels to ants-- for everything had to be justified--was necessarily entailed on the principle of plenitude, that nature allowed for no lacunae, no missing links in the chain. Thus those elements of creation that appear evils--or at least design flaws--were necessary parts of an integrated whole in which no potentiality could remain unfulfilled: or, in Pope's famous formulation, all partial evil makes for universal good. The argument from plenitude must strike readers today as preposterous, a logical absurdity, rather like the argument of Voltaire's Dr. Pangloss that God made noses so that spectacles would have some place to sit; but it occupied a central place not only in European theology but in its social thought and political theory for centuries. And it does account, in its own way, for the existence of evil in the creation of a good God.
For any theodicy--at least any Christian theodicy--rests on three assumptions: that God exists, that He (we're talking patriarchy, remember) is all good, and that He is all powerful. Were the last premise not true, were He not omnipotent, then evil could be attributed to some competing malevolent power, as Pierre Bayle, for example, and the Manicheans suggested--a convenient explanation, but heretical. But on this last assumption, the theodicists begin (it seems to me) to hedge. Leibniz, for instance--in the doctrine that Voltaire ridicules in Candide--argues not that this is the best of imaginable worlds, but the best of possible worlds: even God is constrained by the laws of reason, cannot make two and two equal anything but four nor create a spherical cube. Thus evil, Leibniz argues, when it is real and not merely apparent, is a necessary, an ineradicable part of a complex creation.
Darwin's debt to Malthus
Malthus launches his own vindication of the ways of God to man with just such a crucial qualification (a denial, really) of the third premise: "unless we wish to exalt the power of God at the expense of his goodness, ought we not to conclude that even to the Great Creator, Almighty as he is, a certain process may be necessary, a certain time may be requisite, in order to form a being with those exalted qualities of mind which will fit them for his high purpose?" The oxymoron here, limited omnipotence, serves Malthus's purpose of predicating a creator of a world still-in-the-making, still in process, not of a finished creation. In this respect, he has moved from the eighteenth-century model of a clockwork world, harmonious and equilibrated, to the nineteenth-century model of a dynamic world, evolving through ceaseless struggle. Darwin acknowledged that he owed the seminal idea of Origin of Species to reading Malthus, where the unrelenting struggle for survival figured centrally. Eighteenth-century world model s--and the social and theological theories bound up with them--were fundamentally harmonious systems, stases, in which seeming conflicts conspire, in the great scheme of things, for the benefit of all, for the general good. Mandeville's argument in The Fable of the Bees typifies: private vices make for public virtues. Pope provides the locus classicus of this worldview in Essay on Man, in couplets such as these:
Till jarring interests of themselves create
The according music of a well-mix'd state.
Thus God and Nature link'd the general frame
And bade self-love and social be the same.
Grasp the whole worlds of reason, life, and sense,
In one close system of benevolence.
System of benevolence, or Optimism, denied reality of evil.
This system of benevolence--Optimism, it was termed--designed by the creator to provide as much happiness to each soul, whatever its station or condition in life, as was possible, while it vindicates God, in effect denies the reality of evil, of suffering, as critics of the doctrine, like Voltaire and Samuel Johnson, insisted. In Malthus there is no such denial. "The collapse of this conception of nature and society as a harmoniously designed system," writes Peter Bowler, "is a central feature of the enormously significant change" begun by Malthus. "His work is a milestone in the process by which nature came to be seen as a potentially unbalanced system, in which species achieve only temporary stability at the expense of considerable suffering."
Judging of the Creator from his creation.
The suffering in Malthus's world is real, it is extensive, it is enduring, and God, within the limitations of the possible, must have intended it so. Why? Suffering is not, Malthus insists, what Christian theology traditionally teaches, a test of one's faith and virtue, with Heaven as the reward. Indeed, convenient as the promise stands as a counterpoise to a life of suffering in this vale of tears, Malthus never adduces Heaven in The Essay on Population as a part of God's design. A representative child of the Enlightenment, in this regard at least, he wanted his truths yielded by reason, not revelation--discovered by reading "the book of nature" rather than scripture. "Can we judge of the Creator but from his creation?" he asks, as a prelude to his unique argument from design.
I ... consider the world and this life as the mighty process of God ... for the creation and formation of mind, a process necessary to awaken inert, chaotic matter into spirit, to sublimate the dust of earth into soul, to elicit an ethereal spark from the clod of clay.... The original sin of man is the torpor and corruption of the chaotic matter in which he may be said to be born.
For the orthodox, this last sentence must particularly startle, in its airy substitution of torpor for disobedience as the original sin: how does one "commit" torpor? Indeed, a good case could be made that torpor is just the term to characterize the prelapsarian state of Adam and Eve in Eden, one of those easeful, profuse milieux that Malthus viewed as inimical to the development of intellect. The problem for the First Couple, in fact, is precisely that their curiosity, their desire for knowledge, is what gets them banished from the cushy life of paradise, condemned subsequently to live by the sweat of their brow--and, in Malthus's calculus, presumably the better for it.
For Malthus, harshness of existence needed as spur to developing intellect.
Malthus's heterodox theology posits the harshness of existence, "those roughnesses and inequalities in life which querulous man too frequently makes the subject of his complaint against the God of nature," as the necessary spur to developing intellect. "The first great awakeners of mind," he asserts, "seem to be the wants of the body": those stimuli to action satisfied too effortlessly in paradise and its utopian simulacra where, in more picturesque folk versions like Schlaraffia and Cockaigne, ripe fruit falls softly into open mouths and fish jump from streams into frying pans, turning themselves over when done on one side.
The savage would slumber for ever under his tree unless he were roused from his torpor by the cravings of hunger or the pinchings of cold.... If those stimulants to exertion, which arise from the wants of the body, were removed from the mass of mankind, we have much more reason to think that they would be sunk to the level of brutes, from a deficiency of excitements, than that they would be raised to the rank of philosophers by the possession of leisure.
Proof, for Malthus: the harshest environments elicit the most active intellects.
"The supreme Being has ordained that the earth shall not produce food in great quantities till much preparatory labour and ingenuity has been exercised upon its surface." Such effort stimulates man to reason, so--Malthus himself reasons--in order to maintain a constant maximal stimulation, "it has been ordained that population should increase much faster than food.... Had population and food increased in the same ratio, it is probable that man might never have emerged from the savage state." Here, explicitly, Malthus's economics mesh with his theology: the unremittingly harsh conditions of human existence--all those blanks in life's lottery--constitute God's method for creating intelligent beings.
But, one cannot help but wonder, couldn't God come up with a better plan than this?
Assuming whatever is is right
Theodicists in general, Malthus here particularly, load the logical dice by assuming at the outset what they set out to prove: namely, that whatever is is right. Or, in this specific instance, that the principle of population is the way it has to be. Malthus declares as illegitimate--"crude and puerile"--any consideration of alternative possibilities, of better designs for the creation of mind than mass starvation.
The moment we allow ourselves to ask why some things are not otherwise, instead of endeavouring to account for them as they are, we shall never know where to stop [and] we shall be led into the grossest and most childish absurdities.... [W]e might imagine that God would call into being myriads of existences, all free from pain and imperfection, all eminent in goodness and wisdom, all capable of the highest enjoyments.
But none of this could be, Malthus argues, because none of it is.
Still, unless one surrenders to the pious quietism that renders explanation unnecessary--"I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes": that sort of thing--then the very reasoning faculty that God's "process" supposedly serves to instill inevitably provokes questions: foremost, of course, why a fully developed rationality can be forged only by a method so tortuous and selective--so entirely inefficient--as Maithus has limned. Perhaps he is right, that once one begins to raise counterfactual possibilities, there is no end to them; but his assumption about the ways of God is so central to his argument and yet so logically flimsy that one must perforce interrogate it. Torpor, as Malthus states, constitutes man's natural state, his true original sin, from which he can be goaded only by harsh necessity. But what was the imperative that God create him torpid in the first place? If the divine desideratum is an energetic, creative, fully sentient being, what prevents God from fashioning one ab ovo instead of relying on "a long and sometimes painful process" to elevate some--but by no means all--of His creations to the desired condition? It is one thing to posit a Malthusian process operating as a purely naturalistic phenomenon, as Darwin does in his theory of natural selection; it is quite another to present the survival of the fittest as the design of a benevolent deity. H. G. Wells sardonically suggests in his conte philosophique The Island of Dr. Moreau that if there were divine purpose underlying the process of evolution, then the deity must resemble our stereotype of the mad scientist, his laboratory littered with the corpses of infinite botched experiments. The God of Malthus's theodicy sounds, indeed, like an inept craftsman who, having created the torpid lump that is humanity, must ratchet up his creation into sentience by the expedients of war, famine and plague: God as Rube Goldberg.
A tradition running through the "hard primitivism" of pagan antiquity held, like Malthus, that harsh conditions were necessary for generating intelligence and thus civilization itself. Thus Virgil, in the first book of the Georgics, declares of Jove that:
He made the path
Of agriculture rough, established arts
Of husbandry to sharpen human wits,
Forbidding sloth to settle on his soil...
Jove endowed the serpents with their venom,
Commanded wolves to prowl and the seas to rise,
Shook honey from the leaves, hid fire away,
Stopped up the streams of wine, so that mankind
By taking thought might learn to forge its arts
From practice: seek to bring the grain from furrows,
Strike out the fire locked up in veins of flint.
This sounds very like Malthus, but--a crucial difference--Virgil's Jove was rescuing from the lotus-land somnolence of Cronos's reign a species not of his own making: he dealt with what he inherited. Malthus's God, however, created his own torpid lumps that then sorely required long and painful reformation. No wonder the concept of omnipotence posed serious difficulty for Maithus.
Even the sort of teleological rationale for evolution offered by some Christian theologians--that God directs the process toward a desired end (which justifies the means)--is not adaptable to the Malthusian principle of population, because teleology implies the sort of progress that Malthus explicitly denied in the First Essay. True, in later editions he retreated somewhat from his absolutist position, allowing for the possibility of some progress, under certain conditions, in some areas of human endeavor; but by then he was no longer attempting a theodicy. The one that he does attempt in the First Essay is formulated in the context of the Malthusian principle in its original, starkest, and most uncompromising iteration. "The long and sometimes painful process" that Malthus's God requires to create mind does not, apparently, result in that incremental growth of knowledge that constitutes progress, certainly not a collective accumulation of know-how sufficient to break the adamantine nexus between food and population.
Role of culture in developing the individual mind ignored.
Oddly, in a sense, for a child of the century that referred to itself as the Enlightenment and considered its achievements unrivaled by any in history, Malthus fails to acknowledge that the opportunity of "developing mind" must differ radically between a privileged denizen of Western Europe in his own day and, say, a serf mired in the Dark Ages or an aborigine stranded in Tasmania. He evinces no awareness of the role of a collectivity or a culture in developing the mind of the individual--nor any scruples about the inequity in Providence's parceling out some part of the population in Periclean Athens or the Paris of the philosophes and some in, say, darkest Polynesia--"a land/In which it seemed always afternoon"--where torpor sufficed. Instead, in Malthus's schema, the individual stands as an uncontextualized abstraction, without history or habitation, like that fiction frequently conjured by eighteenth-century political philosophers, man-in-a-state-of-nature: a tabu1a torpor who begins his quest for mind at a theoretical ground zero. The stress on the abstract isolate, rather than on a racinated being with a race, moment and milieu, reveals, among other things, that Malthus's concern tends more toward man's moral development--restricted, as it is, to each individual's choices--than toward the evolution of culture, a suprapersonal phenomenon. If, for Malthus, torpor is the original sin, not only phylogenetically but ontologically, then, as with its orthodox analogue, each man must effect his own salvation from the Fall.
Uniform prosperity tends to degrade character.
In the last segment of his theodicy, Malthus ups the ante by reformulating the question of God's justice: asking no longer why He didn't create a world better than this one, but why He didn't create a perfect world, a utopia. If the human heart can desire and imagine and plan and even attempt to implement an order of things marked by a maximum of pleasure and a minimum of pain, why can't--or won't--God? In one sense, of course, Malthus claims that He does; but in this putatively best of all possible worlds, the maximum is much less and the minimum much more, vastly much more, than one might expect from benevolent omnipotence. But the very concept of utopia appears antithetical to God's purpose in creation. "The general tendency of a uniform course of prosperity is rather to degrade than exalt the character," Malthus asserts. Or again: "Uniform, undiversified perfection could not possess the same awakening powers" exercised by hard necessity.
As a defense of divine purpose against our desire for a better world than this, Malthus advances two frequently voiced arguments against those human attempts at repairing creation that we call utopias. First, a uniform and static perfection would produce only a stagnant and undifferentiated dullness. In a moderated version of the familiar eighteenth-century argument rehearsed most egregiously by Soame Jenys in A Free Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil (1757)--that some people must be miserable so that others can be happy, some must fall ill so that others will value health, etc.--Malthus claims that both reason and experience "indicate to us the infinite variety of nature (and variety cannot exist without inferior parts, or apparent blemishes) is admirably adapted to the high purpose of creation." As an apologia for natural inequalities, this argument harks back to the principle of plenitude that informs the Great Chain of Being and its social detritus in theories about hierarchy, degree--"Take but d egree away ... And hark, what discord follows"--subordination and the like: divine confirmation of the status quo, or, as it is sometimes called, cosmic Toryism. But when he defends variety not simply as the donnee of creation but also as a societal ideal, a recipe for cultural vigor, Malthus anticipates a crucial precept in the development of nineteenth-century liberalism, that the greater the degree of diversity in character and condition that a society manifests, the better it is. Thus John Stuart Mill in On Liberty praises even eccentricity as the hallmark of a society's genius, mental vigor and moral courage.
Life without unmet desires would be tedium.
Plato, the first systematic utopist, condemned democracy precisely because it allowed for a greater variety of character types than any other regime: an invitation, he thought, to chaos. In The Republic the messy diversity of democratic Athens is replaced by the rigid uniformity of authoritarian Sparta, the prototype for most subsequent utopian models. No matter how alluring these models proved, how appealing their promise of material plenty, equality and justice, the criticism persists that such reformations are achieved at the expense of diversity, eliminating individuality and personal choice. Malthus aligns the Creator with such critics of utopia. One of them, his near-contemporary, Samuel Johnson, in The History of Rasselas imagines a Happy Valley where "the blessings of nature were collected, and its evils extracted and excluded." The result of such a creation for Rasselas is tedium: "possessing all that I can want, I find one day and one hour exactly like another....I have already enjoyed too much; gi ve me something to desire." Malthus lauds the wisdom of God in not condemning humanity to habituation in a utopian Happy Valley, in leaving plenty to desire.
Utopia would preclude free will for individuals.
The second argument against a "perfect" creation that Malthus deduces as a part of God's purpose is probably even more familiar, certainly more general: "that moral evil is absolutely necessary to the production of moral excellence. A being with only good placed in view, may justly be said to be impelled by blind necessity." But precisely such a condition obtains--or is meant to--in most utopias, bastions of a fugitive and cloistered virtue where, ideally, the option to act immorally does not exist. Sir Thomas More recounts that his Utopians have "no chance for corruption, no hiding places, no secret meetings. Because they live in full view of all, they must do their accustomed labor and spend their leisure honorably." Any society, surely, will try to minimize the opportunities for vice and maximize those for virtue; but More's strategy, or that of his creations--to eliminate any possible occasion for evil--typifies the utopist's obsessive desire to shape a being better than the one that came from the hand o f God. The mechanisms for molding behavior and thought differ, of course, utopia to utopia, but the desire remains constant, to develop a citizen incapable of sin in thought or deed.
Consider this bargain proposed by T. H. Huxley in the last century:
If some great Power would agree to make me always think what is true and do what is right, on condition of being turned into a sort of clock and wound up every morning before I got out of bed, I would instantly close with the offer. The only freedom I care about is the freedom to do right; the freedom to do wrong I am ready to part with on the cheapest terms to anyone who will take it of me.
Huxley, of course, Darwin's Bulldog, never penned a utopia nor-- so far as I am aware--espoused any utopian scheme, but his particular formulation focused the central desideratum of utopia so sharply that it appears frequently, endorsed or denounced, in the critical dialogue on the genre. Is such perfection, at such a price, really to be desired?
The dystopian agenda: less perfect and more free.
In the twentieth century, the negative answer to that question often appears in the form of a counterutopia or dystopia. These fictions are invariably predicated on the two premises that Malthus uses to justify the nature of God's creation: that "uniform, undiversified perfection" would result in a world of mindless dullness and that freedom of choice, even when the consequences are evil, is preferable to an invariant--a clockwork--virtue. In a convenient irony, the grandson of the aforesaid Thomas Huxley, Aldous Huxley, produced the paradigmatic dystopia Brave New World, the epigraph for which (taken from the Russian exile philosopher Nikolai Berdjajew) hopes for "un siecle nouveau ... ou les intellectuels et la classe cultivee reveront aux moyens d'eviter les utopies et de retourner a une societe non utopique, moins 'parfaite' et plus libre." [*] Less perfect and more free: the dystopian agenda. Huxley elaborates these alternatives in the climactic agon between the novel's rebel protagonist, John Savage, a nd the World Controller, Mustapha Mond, who is heralding his regime's drug therapy as far superior to conflict-besodden high art, like Shakespearean tragedy, for it offers, he affirms, "all the tonic effects" of tragedy "without any of the inconveniences."
"But I like the inconveniences."
"We don't," said the Controller. "We prefer to do things comfortably."
"But I don't want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin."
"In fact," said Mustapha Mond, "you're claiming the right to be unhappy."
"All right then," said the Savage defiantly, "I'm claiming the right to be unhappy."
Freedom encompasses the "right to be unhappy."
"Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind."
There was a long silence.
"I claim them all," said the Savage at last.
Mustapha Mond shrugged his shoulders. "You're welcome," he said.
The weight of opinion among intellectuals in the twentieth century--Marxists and their like excepted--seems to have inclined decisively toward Savage, against Mond. Writing around mid-century, Chad Walsh noted in From Utopia to Nightmare: "If alert readers once sat down with Bellamy's Looking Backward or Wells's A Modern Utopia and today seem more likely to meditate upon Huxley's Brave New World or Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, this surely points to important changes in that no-man's-land where literature, sociology, psychology, political science, theology and philosophy meet." What was true then remained true for the rest of the century. The grand utopian schemes of Saint-Simon and Fourier, Cabet and Comte, of Robert Owen and Edward Bellamy, that bestrode the ideological landscape of the nineteenth century evaporated, by and large, in the twentieth, subverted in great part by the real world totalitarianisms to which they bore too close a resemblance. Our political theory, our social doctrines, our ideology generally accord much more with dystopian assumptions than with utopian aspirations. Put another way, dystopia is intellectually respectable among today's intelligentsia in a way that utopia is not.
By contrast, however, Malthus's theodicy, which incorporates identical arguments and poses a similar axiology to those in dystopian fiction, will most likely strike that same audience as retrograde at best--theology, that is, in the service of ruling class interests--or, even more likely, irrelevant to our radically skeptical age. Few, probably, among today's intelligentsia, a largely secularized clerisy, will grant the first premise required for a theodicy--that God exists--so that no argument about His justice need or can follow. Ours is an age, unlike the eighteenth century when such things mattered, noticeably devoid of attempts to square heaven and earth. If, however, we acknowledge that a world such as limned by Malthus had a creator, my guess is that, rather than accede to the parson's arguments about God's justice, most modern thinkers would be much more likely to emulate the existential recoil of Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov. Of the many objections Ivan poses against the creator, the suffering of inn ocent children disturbs him most deeply, particularly the argument that their agony constitutes part of a divine harmony:" ... and so I renounce the higher harmony altogether. It is not worth the tears of one tortured child.... Too high a price is asked for harmony; it is beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it.... I most respectfully return Him the ticket." In the face of images of children dying of war and famine and plague--those Malthusian checks on population--Ivan's response is all too understandable.
Dostoevsky's theodicy in "Grand Inquisitor" similar to Malthus's.
Still, his view is not Dostoevsky's, who, in the famous segment of The Brothers Karamazov called "The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor," puts in Ivan's mouth an attack on divine purpose--and its deficiency--that, ironically, constitutes justification of a dystopian creation. No two figures in intellectual history would seem to make an odder couple than Malthus and Dostoevsky, yet "The Grand Inquisitor"--given that its format as dialogic fable could hardly differ more from the Englishman's straightforward essay--offers a theodicy, a justification of creation essentially the same as The Essay on Population, although subsequently going beyond it in complex ways. Ivan's Grand Inquisitor, a utopian redeemer (in his own eyes) of suffering humanity, condemns Christ for having rejected Satan's "temptation" to turn stones into bread--or, more literally, for not providing complete material security for humanity. Allowing people freedom of choice rather than guaranteed comfort and contentment leads to spiritual satisfact ion for only a few, misery for the multitudes. Thus the masses will, the Grand Inquisitor predicts, turn away from Christ and accept the utopian exchange of security for freedom. "In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, 'Make us your slaves, but feed us.' They will understand, at last, that freedom and bread enough for all are inconceivable together."
Interpretations of "The Grand Inquisitor" usually stress its political intent, its exposure of the totalitarian implications underlying utopianism, so that the theology in the legend becomes ancillary to the politics. I have no quarrel with the appropriateness of that focus; but, if we take the theology at all seriously, as of course Dostoevsky did, then the same sort of objections arise to this theodicy as arise to Malthus's--and most likely, anyone else's. On the one hand, then, one--I'm projecting now--would reject a polity like the Grand Inquisitor's or any of those other constructions of a regime of clockwork virtue of the sort T. H. Huxley desired, the utopian solution to human suffering. On the other hand, for the creation of an omnipotent deity to entail starvation, deprivation and disease as the best possible modus operandi for producing a race of sentient and responsible beings leaves one--still projecting--perplexed and incredulous, to say the least. A certain French marquis, famous for his sexual adventures, was pressed on whether he preferred men or women: "I enjoy them both," he professed, "but really there ought to be something better." So, between the uniform mindlessness of our original sin of indolence and the pain-forged world operating by the Malthusian principle, surely there ought to be something better. If this is the best of all possible worlds, it isn't good enough.
After the first edition of The Essay on Population, Malthus--wisely, probably--dropped his theodicy. In none of the six subsequent editions does any argument about divine purpose appear. Perhaps he recognized the obvious, that the parson and the economist were working at odds. But given the world he projected as an economist, where "population is kept equal to the means of subsistence by misery and vice," perhaps the most suitable theodicy of all, if one had to be offered, would depict God acceding to the Manichean heresy and protesting that the devil made Him do it.
Gorman Beauchamp is Adjunct Associate Professor of English at the University of Michigan.
(*.) "a new century ... in which the intellectuals and the cultivated class dream of ways to avoid utopias and return to a society that is not utopian, less 'perfect' and more free."
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|Date:||Sep 22, 2000|
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