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Variables and Constants in the Theology of T. R. Malthus.


Professor Sergio Cremaschi has argued that Malthus's views on theology and ethics did not remain static, but evolved over his lifetime. This article acknowledges that there were changes, but argues that they were not of major significance, and that Malthus's spiritual attitudes did not significantly alter. Malthus's status as a political economist is also discussed, together with comments on his character.


Utilitarianism; Theology; Evangelicalism


The theological opinions of Thomas Robert Malthus have been the subject of a number of studies in recent years--for example, Harvey-Phillips 1984; Hollander 1989, 1997; Le Mahieu 1979, Pullen 1981, 1987; Santurri 1982, Waterman 1983, 1991a, 1991b; Winch 1987, 1993. Particular attention has been given to the controversial theological opinions that were expressed by Malthus in the last two chapters of his first edition of An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), but were omitted by him from later editions. The reasons for the omissions have been discussed at length, and different opinions have been expressed on whether the omissions represented recantations. Further aspects of his theological ideas have been unearthed from various places throughout his works--notably, four previously unpublished sermons (see Malthus 1997-2004, vol. 2, 1-24)--and incorporated in attempts to present a coherent account of his theological position.

The debate has recently being reactivated with the publication of a valuable study from Professor Sergio Cremaschi, Utilitarianism and Malthus's Virtue Ethics, 2014, which is the main focus of this article. A central theme of the book is that Malthus's ideas on theology and ethics did not remain static, but evolved over his lifetime. The thesis that Cremaschi seeks to establish is that there was 'a gradual process of modification in Malthus's theory' (p. 128), that he 'travelled a not inconsiderable way' in his ethical ideas, and that there was a personal change in his spiritual attitudes. Three stages of this evolutionary thesis are distinguished (see chapters 4, 5, 6, respectively): an early stage, as presented in the first edition of the Essay, 1798; an intermediate stage, in the second edition, 1803; and the third stage, covering the third (1806), fourth (1807), fifth (1817), and sixth (1826) editions, together with some of his other publications.

The impressive array of textual evidence shows there is no doubt that there were changes in Malthus's presentation of his theological and ethical views, but the questions to be determined are whether the changes can be described as a 'constant evolution' (Cremaschi 2014, 159), and whether they were of major or minor significance. Were they merely changes in the choice of words to express the same ideas, perhaps to express the ideas more clearly and more persuasively, or did they constitute significant alterations that were in effect contradictions of earlier versions? In this evolutionary process, were these changes intra-species or inter-species?

The book argues that there are a number of grounds for concluding that Malthus's theology underwent an evolutionary change of considerable significance. These grounds include: (1) Malthus removed from later editions of the Essay the final two chapters of the first edition in which he had put forward some radical theological ideas. (2) In the first edition of the Essay, Malthus described life as a state of probation, but in later editions it was described as a state of discipline and trial. (3) Between 1803 and 1817, a remarkable transformation occurred in Malthus's ethical views. (4) In the evolution of his theological ideas Malthus came closer to the Evangelicals, and placed more emphasis on Revelation by comparison with natural theology. (5) His moral philosophy placed increasing emphasis on sentiment and feelings in human affairs, relatively to his previous emphasis on reason. (6) The introduction of the check of moral restraint meant that his views became more optimistic and less pessimistic than in earlier editions. (7) His moral philosophy began to give increasing emphasis to the principle of voluntarism, as distinct from consequentialism.

(1). Cremaschi states quite categorically that Malthus in removing from later editions the final two chapters of the first edition abandoned his radical theological doctrine of annihilationism and his view of original sin as a state of torpor. This abandonment interpretation is held by some Malthus scholars but is disputed by others. Cremaschi presents it as if it is now an essential and incontrovertible element in Malthus studies, without presenting the arguments of those who would dispute it.

In the Preface to the second edition of the Essay, Malthus stated that 'some parts' of the first edition had been omitted from the second, but added that these omitted parts 'may still have their use' (Malthus 1989, vol. 1, 2), and that they were rejected not because they were 'of less value' than what had been inserted in the 1803 edition, 'but because they did not suit the different plan of treating the subject' in the second edition. He did not give specific references to the omitted parts that still have their use, but if they included the theological content of the last two chapters of the first edition, then the statements quoted above suggest that despite withdrawing the two chapters he still held the views they contained, and had not recanted them. Without reliable evidence of recantation, the fact of the omission of these last two chapters does not lend support to the thesis that on this point his theology had evolved (Malthus 1989, vol. 1, 2).

Cremaschi recognises that omissions do not necessarily imply recantations. Referring to Malthus's decision to omit the last two chapters, he observes: 'this does not rule out the possibility he might have remained convinced of the good of such a doctrine as annihilation even though he had convinced himself that it was not worthwhile discussing it in print.' Cremaschi prefers to describe the omission not as a withdrawal but as the provision of 'a new version of these chapters, where any reference to creation of mind out of matter and annihilationism was omitted while offering a new complex theoretical answer to the question on evil in the world'--although the intended distinction between a withdrawal of one version and its replacement by a new version is not made clear. It is suggested that the two chapters were omitted because 'they had become useless'; in 1803 Malthus had an alternative answer to those theological questions (Cremaschi 2014, 80, 86, 87; original emphasis). Can Malthus's statement that the two chapters 'may still have their use' be reconciled with Cremaschi's statement that they had become useless? Perhaps Malthus meant they had become useless for the purpose of the second and later editions of the Essay, even though he believed they remained useful in some other, unspecified way.

As further evidence of the evolution of Malthus's theology it is stated that the 'growth of mind'--which figured prominently in the last two chapters of the 1798 Essay--does not appear in later editions. As with other omissions the problem here is whether an omission can be interpreted as a recantation. In the absence of a specific denial by Malthus of the 'growth of mind' idea, are we warranted in concluding that he had abandoned it, and that on this topic his theology had evolved?

(2). It is argued that another instance of the evolution of Malthus's theodicy can be seen in his views on whether life is a discipline, trial or probation. In an addition to the 1817 edition of the Essay, Malthus said he 'had always considered the principle of population as a law peculiarly suited to a state of discipline and trial' (Malthus 1989, vol. 2, 250). Cremaschi (2014, 151) states that this claim by Malthus is 'clearly false', and is presumably contrasting it with Malthus's statement in 1798 that this world is not 'a state of trial, and school of virtue, preparatory to a superior state of happiness', but rather is 'a mighty process for the creation and formation of mind' (Malthus [1798] 1926, 348-349).

Taken at their face value, Malthus's words appear to be contradictory--he is saying in 1798 this world is not a state of trial, and in 1817 it is--and this would suggest a change of theology. But the word 'trial' has more than one meaning, and the context seems to indicate that in 1798 'trial' was being used to mean a situation where a person who is already in possession of certain accomplishments is being tested in a probationary period before being permitted to enter into full membership of a position or organisation. This usage can be seen in his statements: 'A state of trial seems to imply a previously formed existence that does not agree with the appearance of man in infancy'; and there is little probability that 'a complete and full formed spirit' exists in every infant (Malthus [1798] 1926, 348-349, 353). As infants do not bring with them qualities they have developed in a previous existence, it cannot be said that this world is a state of 'trial' in this probationary sense. However, by contrast, in the quoted words from 1817 'trial' seems to be used in the wider sense of the testing of the qualities of a person or thing without any reference to qualities brought from a previous existence. This wider sense is implicit in his 1798 description of the process of creation and formation of mind, where 'many vessels will come out of this mighty creative furnace in wrong shapes', while others come out 'in lovely and beautiful forms' (Malthus [1798] 1926, 388-389) Although he did not use the word 'trial' in describing this creative process, the process could surely be described as a 'trial' in the wider sense of the word. If, as suggested here, 'trial' was used by Malthus with these two different meanings, there would be no contradiction in saying that this world is a state of trial in one sense and not a state of trail in another.

Cremaschi argues (pp. 64-65) that it is not easy to see how the idea of life as a state of probation can be reconciled with the contents of the last two chapters of the first edition of the Essay. But the precise distinctions between a discipline and a trial and a probation are not easy to define, and were certainly not elaborated by Malthus. It could be argued that a state of probation is in effect a state of discipline and trial, and that a state of discipline and trial is in effect a probation. A fairly basic dictionary consulted at random gives four definitions of 'probation', ten definitions of 'discipline', and seven definitions of 'trial'. If Malthus had been more considerate towards his commentators and critics, he would have saved us a lot of trouble by indicating his intended meanings. It is interesting to note, as cited by Cremaschi (2014, 138), that the Rev. John Bird Sumner (1816, 292-293) (later, Archbishop of Canterbury) described this world as a state of 'preparation' and as 'a trial, a warfare, a pilgrimage', which suggests that Sumner regarded 'probation' and 'trial' as virtually synonymous. Sumner's adoption of Malthus's notion of population as a stimulus to human development was instrumental in its incorporation into Anglicanism, and Malthus saw Sumner's doctrine as a 'masterly development and completion' of his own work (Malthus 1989, vol. 2, 250). It is reasonable to conclude that Malthus also saw no contradiction between life as probation and life as trial, and it would follow that, if the different meanings of 'trial' are recognised, there is no falsity in his claiming he had always considered life as a state of trial (as well as a state of probation); no difficulty in reconciling the idea of a state of probation with the two theological chapters of the 1798 Essay, no evidence of an awkward way of retreating when defeated; and no evidence in this matter of any evolutionary development of Malthus's theodicy.

(3). Malthus's moral and theological ideas are said to have evolved between 1803 and 1817, and 'this meant eventually turning almost everything Malthus had been contending for in 1798 upside down' (Cremaschi 2014, 127). It is contended that evidence for this 'almost everything' transformation can be found in areas such as: 'passions may be controlled by reason; education can change the original impulses; institutions ... do matter; and resources may grow faster than population (Cremaschi 2014, 127; original emphasis).

However, it would be difficult to show convincingly that these ideas, listed as post1798 developments, were entirely absent in 1798. Marriage, for example, is an institution, and was mentioned in 1798 as one that matters. Malthus certainly did not say in 1798 that passions would always be under the control of reason, but surely at the essence of his argument about the dangers of overpopulation is the hope or plea or counsel that they may be controlled, or at least modified to some extent, by reason.

As further evidence of the evolution of Malthus's ideas, it is asserted that in his argument with Nassau Senior about the proper use of the word 'tendency' with regard to rates of growth of population, Senior got the better of Malthus; and that in the arguments with William Godwin, Malthus came to 'admit of almost everything Godwin had contended for' (Cremaschi 2014, 127). Other commentators believe Malthus came off second best in his encounters with David Ricardo. A letter from an early tutor to Malthus's father said that at school Malthus frequently engaged in physical combat with a fellow pupil. We can only hope, for his own sake, that these skirmishes with a boyhood opponent were more successful than with later opponents. Donald Winch (1987, 76) has aptly coined the expression 'Malthus the Moderate'. If these versions of Malthus's skirmishes with Godwin, Senior and Ricardo are correct, perhaps he should also be known as 'Malthus the Loser'.

(4). As further proof of evolution in his theological opinions it is argued that in later years Malthus 'came closer to the Evangelicals', and that he gave increasing emphasis to Revelation by comparison with natural theology. In each of his four extant sermons (see Malthus 1997-2004, vol. II, 4-24) he took as his text a passage from The Scriptures. Cremaschi sees this as evidence that there had been a shift in Malthus's theological stance from 'natural to revealed theology'; that 'the scope of revealed religion is enlarged vis-a-vis natural religion'; and that 'Christian morality based on Revelation wins more weight vis-a-vis natural morality' (Cremaschi 2014, 52-53).

Although the sermons frequently refer to Revelation, there are several possible reasons for doubting whether this can be taken as evidence of a significant shift in Malthus's theology. In the first place, the number of references (see index, Pullen 2010) in the first edition of the Essay to 'Revelation', 'Scriptures', 'New Testament', and 'gospel' should not be overlooked--for example, 'to suppose that the world is a mighty process for the creation and formation of mind' is 'consistent ... with the successive revelations of God to man' (Malthus [1798] 1926, 274n). In the second place, Malthus's sermons were given at first before congregations of local people in agricultural parishes, and later at the East India College before congregations of mainly 15-16 year-old students, and presumably with some other professors in attendance. It is not likely that on such occasions he would have entered into a serious discussion of the relative values of Natural Theology and Revelation, In the third place, it would not really be surprising to find more references to Revelation in his sermons than in his writings on political economy, especially when in the Anglican tradition it was customary to base a sermon on a Biblical text. It would be more surprising, if it were otherwise. In the fourth place, only four sermons of Malthus are known to have survived, yet he is said to have preached regularly. (1) We have no evidence to show whether the views expressed in these four sermons were or were not typical, or whether they can be taken as reliable evidence of an ongoing evolutionary trend in his theological views.

But even if textual exegesis does not support the thesis of a trend towards Evangelicalism, it seems that Malthus was sympathetic and supportive towards Evangelical attitudes. In 1812 he assisted his friend, E.D. Clarke, in founding a branch of the British and Foreign Bible Society in Cambridge, and had helped at another meeting of the Bible Society in Chelmsford. The founding of the Bible Society, whose purpose was to promote the distribution and study of the Bible, was opposed by Herbert Marsh, Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University, because it sanctioned a unity with Dissenters, and because he held that distribution of the Bible should be accompanied by a distribution of the Book of Common Prayer. Clarke wrote a pamphlet in reply to Marsh, and Malthus assisted by reading and commenting on it before publication.

Although Malthus's encouragement of the Bible Society shows that his theological position was not restricted to Natural Theology, it is doubtful whether this could be interpreted as a movement away from Natural Theology towards Evangelicalism. He also supported the National Society for the Promotion of the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church, whose teaching was based on the Book of Common Prayer (James 1979, 224-5). He believed that both societies ought to be encouraged, and his personal bank accounts show that he made regular and equal contributions to both (Pullen 2013, 23). (2) His support shows that, in accordance with his middle-way methodology, he had a non-exclusive attachment to both societies, and to both Natural Theology and Evangelicalism. This spirit of pluralism and tolerance is also evident in his support for Catholic emancipation in Ireland. His father's decision to send him to the Dissenting Academy in Warrington for his early education implies a family tradition of religious tolerance, which Malthus's sister (Mrs. Mary Anne Catherine Bray) also seems to have inherited. She always attended a church on Sundays, but when away from home or in the week 'liked to seek out some quiet humble Meeting House where the Gospel was preached with more earnestness and simplicity' (3).

Can a movement towards Evangelicalism be seen in a change in Malthus's attitude to the relative roles of reason and sentiment and feelings in human affairs? In 1827, Malthus said 'we find from experience that the cool decisions of reason have a much more feeble effect upon human conduct than the impulses of feeling', and that religion 'must necessarily be more a matter of feeling than of mere reasoning' (Malthus 1997-2004, vol. 2, 16). This is contrasted with a statement by Malthus in 1820: 'however, powerful may be the impulses of passion, they are generally modified in some degree by reason' (4), and Cremaschi concludes that the (1827) statement is an important concession towards Evangelicalism. However, the quoted statements from Malthus do not seem to support that conclusion. The 1827 statement gives primacy to feeling over reason, but the 1820 statement does not give primacy to reason over feeling. It merely asserts that reason modifies passion in some degree; and the implication is that in 1820, as in 1827, Malthus gave primacy to feeling. If there is evidence of a movement towards Evangelicalism, it must lie elsewhere.

The first edition of the Essay is not devoid of sentiments and feelings--as for example, the unforgettable passages in which he extolled 'the genuine delights' of 'virtuous love, with its mixture of sensual and intellectual enjoyment' and its 'most exquisite gratification' (Malthus [1798] 1926, 211-14). If this description of earthly love had been any more fervent, he would have been accused of unseemly eroticism. The frequent references to 'the passion between the sexes' are further testimony to the role given by Malthus in the first edition to the impulses of feeling. It would not be easy to quantify the comparative amounts of emphasis that sentiments and reason received in the earlier and later editions of the Essay, or to find textual proof that the influence on human conduct of sentiments rather than reason was given greater emphasis in later editions. The hypothesis under examination is that the role played by sentiments in relation to reason was given greater prominence by Malthus in the later editions. This is an interesting hypothesis and one that is certainly worth testing--we are indebted to the author for raising it--but the available evidence appears to be too slight either to prove it or to disprove it.

(5). The conventional view of the first Essay is that it presents a pessimistic vision of the prospects of humanity, but that its pessimism is to some extent alleviated in later editions by the introduction of the idea of moral restraint, the practice of which, in Malthus's view, would help to reduce the frequency of improvident marriages and reduce any misery or vice resulting from delayed marriage. In this respect it might be claimed that there had been an evolution or movement in Malthus's thoughts from pessimism towards optimism. However, the validity of such a claim would depend on whether the check of moral restraint was not at least implicitly present in the first edition. Is it conceivable that Malthus in the first edition was prepared to condone, or commend immoral restraint? Also, the claim that the first edition was marked by pessimism overlooks the element of theological or spiritual optimism implicit in the last two chapters. The 'growth of mind' and the escape from annihilation by those who successfully meet the challenges of life introduce a not inconsiderable element of optimism. Malthus does not say that this spiritual optimism will overcome or justify or compensate for any material suffering due to the pressure of population, but in his vision it clearly is a respectable, virtuous and happy outcome.

Darwin acknowledged that in developing his theory of evolution he had been at least to some extent influenced by Malthus, and Malthus's theological ideas in the last two chapters of the first edition of the Essay implicitly involve the notion of evolutionary change, although on a spiritual plane rather than a biological plane. As argued elsewhere (Pullen 1987), Malthus's conception of 'the growth of mind' could be described as spiritual Darwinism, or, given Malthus's chronological precedence, Darwin's concept of evolution could be described as biological Malthusianism. It would not be surprising therefore if Malthus's ideas in demography, political economy, and theology were themselves the subject of evolutionary development. It would be more surprising if they reflected no evolutionary development. However, the available evidence does not appear to justify the claim that an evolutionary development from pessimism to optimism did in fact occur to any significant extent in his theology.

(6). It is also said that evolutionary change can be detected in Malthus's dealing with the relative roles of consequentialism and voluntarism as ethical principles. In the 1803 edition of the Essay, Malthus had seemed to place his ethical system on a consequentialist basis; for example, when he referred to actions 'the general tendency of which is to produce misery'. In the 1817 edition, this was modified by the addition of 'and which are therefore prohibited by the commands of the Creator' (Malthus 1989, 1, 19). In Cremaschi's view, this modification seems to 'stress the voluntarism element in his view of the law of nature as imposed by God'. He sees this as a belated response by Malthus to critics, and considers the possibility that 'Malthus was trying to appease Evangelical friends by adding a few more words without changing the substance' (Cremaschi 2014, 151-2; original emphasis).

It is a fact that Malthus did not pay as much attention in the first version of the Essay as in later versions to the obligation to conform to the commands of God as disclosed in Revelation, but can this be taken as evidence that in this regard his theology had evolved, and that the voluntarist additions by Malthus in 1817 were presented as an alternative to consequentialism and as an ethical criterion that supersedes consequentialism? In my opinion, it is possible to interpret this modification in the 1817 edition in a way that does not indicate a substantive evolution towards voluntarism in Malthus's theology. A more plausible interpretation might be that as a Christian minister he took it for granted that his readers would know that in the Christian view of the world evil actions are prohibited by Divine command. He did not say so, not because he did not believe it, but because he thought it did not need saying.

When Malthus referred in 1817 to actions that are 'therefore prohibited by the commands of the Creator', Cremaschi sees 'commands' as the keyword which provides evidence of a movement towards voluntarism in ethics; but another keyword in the 1817 version is 'therefore', which seems to reinforce the role of consequentialism. It seems to show that, in Malthus's view, the Creator prohibits certain actions because of their adverse consequences on human happiness.

The priority given in Malthus's ethics to consequentialism over voluntarism is also evident in another cited alteration. In 1803, Malthus said actions are vicious if their 'general tendency is to produce misery'. In 1817, he said an action is vicious 'which violates an express precept, founded upon its general tendency to produce misery' (Malthus 1989, vol. 1, 19). Cremaschi sees the words 'violates an express precept' as evidence of voluntarism in Malthus's ethical system. But the direction of causality indicated by the words 'founded upon' again seems to show that in Malthus's system of ethics the consequences of human actions are given logical priority over Divine precepts (as made known in Revelation). Were the voluntarist additions by Malthus in 1817 presented as an alternative to consequentialism, or were they merely statements of a criterion that would have been taken for granted in a Christian community? It is hard to imagine any Anglican clergyman who did not see vice as against the will and commandment of God. Again, Malthus's reason for not saying it in 1803 was probably that he knew it didn't need saying.

These 1817 alterations have been taken by Cremaschi as evidence of an evolutionary change towards voluntarism in Malthus's ethics, but an alternative view is that there is no convincing evidence of such an evolutionary change, and that the available textual evidence points to Malthus's adherence to a system of moral philosophy based primarily on consequentialist or utilitarian grounds, with and supported by precepts of duty and law and the will of God.

Cremaschi disagrees with those who describe Malthus's policy advice as utilitarian. He argues that Malthus's normative ethics was not utilitarian, nor was it a 'confused formulation of a utilitarian normative ethic' (Cremaschi 2014, 195) or a theological utilitarianism: 'on the contrary, precisely a non-utilitarian distinction between considerations of justice and considerations of expediency lies constantly at the basis of Malthus's changing assessments' (Cremaschi 2014, 182). An alternative view might be that for Malthus there is no distinction between justice and expediency and utility; actions that are (truly) useful are also just. The problem that confronts Malthus and every other moral philosopher is the establishment of criteria for deciding what is (truly) useful, and whether 'useful' should be restricted to temporary physical satisfaction or broadened to include criteria for long-term, or permanent, or higher forms of happiness.

Cremaschi recognises that the test of utility plays a central role in Malthus's metaethics; he maintains that 'a non-utilitarian distinction between considerations of justice and considerations of expediency lies constantly at the basis of Malthus's assessments' (Cremaschi 2014, 182). (5)

But it is arguable that in distancing himself from a utilitarian interpretation of Malthus's ethics, the author has understated the utilitarian elements in Malthus's position. He acknowledges that utility has a 'central role' in Malthus's theology, and denies that Malthus was utilitarian, but a clear distinction between utility and utilitarian is not easy to define. Is it possible that Malthus was holding a balanced position between consequentialism and voluntarism, in accordance with his middle-way methodology?

The role given by Malthus to rights--whether they be described as natural, or inviolable, or a priori--needs to be recognised in any attempt to fit his moral philosophy into the standard categories. (6) For example, when he referred to the inalienable rights of workers with regard to their hours and wages, he was using a moral criterion that is neither consequentialist nor voluntarist. There does not appear to have been any development or evolution in the role he gave to natural rights, and it is not easy to say whether the role he gave to rights was greater or less than the role he gave to consequences.

The book does not set out to provide an appraisal of Malthus's political economy, but in showing how his political economy is connected with his moral philosophy. It briefly refers to some aspects of his political economy, and in doing so expresses opinions that might be contested and might need to be substantiated, if space had permitted. For example, the opinion that Malthus recanted his position on agricultural protection is stated, without entering into the argument about whether a recantation actually occurred, and implying that the question has now been once-and-for-all settled. Likewise, on the controversy between Malthus and Senior on Malthus's use of tendency in arguing that population tends to outrun subsistence, the author seems to support Senior without giving reasons for his support and without noting that other commentators have given reasons for disagreeing with Senior, thus giving the impression that the matter has been resolved beyond question. A full survey of the Malthus-Senior debate on this point, with both sides of the argument outlined and with contemporary reactions included, could not reasonably be expected within the scope of this one book, but could be an interesting part of a sequel, hopefully forthcoming.

It is stated that the law of diminishing returns--to the formulation of which Malthus contributed, either as founder or co-founder or early pioneer--is the most fundamental concept of political economy and Malthus's most important contribution. This view would be surprising to those who see Malthus's emphasis on other matters--such as, the role of effective demand and consumption on economic growth; the distinction between the power to invest and the will to invest; and the doctrine of proportions--as vastly more important. It would also be challenged by those who see the so-called "Law" of diminishing returns as merely a commonsense concept, well-known to every farmer and gardener, and hardly worthy of the pretentious title of 'Law'; and by those who regard the law of diminishing returns as almost as trite as Say's Law in the version to which it was reduced by Say in his response to correspondence from Malthus. For those who see the law of diminishing returns in this light, the statement that the law of diminishing returns was Malthus's most important contribution to political economy would be faint praise indeed.

Cremaschi does not have a high regard for Malthus's status as an economic theorist. His political economy 'is on principle economic sociology or socioeconomics, and cannot be reduced to a kind of economic theory--as it is possible to do, to some extent with Ricardo, Say, John Stuart Mill'. Cremaschi sees this as a difference between Malthus and most of his contemporaries. This opinion of Malthus's economics could benefit from further elaboration, and might be disputed, especially by those who do not subscribe to the view that Malthus was a mere minor Ricardian, and was gradually edging towards discipleship while disingenuously disguising his capitulation. Cremaschi describes Malthus as a 'classic', but it could be argued that Malthus would have been disinclined to accept the title 'classic' if it meant being doctrinally close to those three abovementioned gentlemen (Cremaschi 2014, 159).

The heterodoxy of Malthus's theology is mirrored in the heterodoxy of his political economy; and it is interesting to compare his reactions to criticisms from contemporary orthodox theologians with his reactions to criticisms from contemporary writers on political economy--such as Ricardo, James Mill, J. R. McCulloch and J.- B. Say--who could be taken as representing the orthodox school of political economy of the time. He omitted the two theological chapters in deference to the views of 'a competent tribunal', but when confronted by criticisms of his political economy from these four gentlemen he did not omit the offending views. Perhaps he did not regard them as a 'competent tribunal'.

Some writers such as James Bonar, Lionel Robbins and Samuel Hollander regard Malthus's theodicy as extraneous and irrelevant to his economic analysis, as an embarrassing attempt by Malthus to meddle in matters beyond his province, and as an attempt which has diminished his status as a political economist. Cremaschi (2014, 194) disagrees, and argues that, as Malthus's views developed over the years, the theological foundations of his political economy were strengthened, he agrees with the view of writers such as Anthony Waterman that the theological content of Malthus's writings must be taken seriously in assessing his political economy: they are 'the very parts around which Malthus's overall argument turns' (Cremaschi 2014, 197).

In his reactions to critics and in the evolutionary adaptation of his theories, Malthus is said to have exhibited some unflattering aspects of character. He is said to have been 'too aggressive while attacking', and to have exhibited a 'lack of candour' that makes him 'clumsy while retreating'. This 'polemical spirit' induced him to publish some 'tactless passages'. In altering his text he is said to have 'smuggled through' one of the deletions, and (as noted above) in claiming that he had always considered life to be a state of discipline and trial, he was making a claim that is 'clearly false', and exhibiting his 'usual awkward way of retreating when defeated', although he is commended for 'the mild attitude displayed whenever he was winning'. Admirers of Malthus, aware of the complimentary character assessments from contemporaries who knew him personally, will be dismayed by these alleged charges of human frailty (Cremaschi 2014, 149, 150, 151).

(7). The proposition that there was a significant evolutionary development in Malthus's theological attitudes is presented with considerable textual support, but in the opinion of this reviewer, the argument is not convincing, and the countervailing considerations mentioned above are more persuasive.

The book contains a wealth of documented information about Malthus's ideas, together with a challenging and erudite commentary. It also provides an impressive account of the views of the many authors who may have influenced his views on theology, theodicy and moral philosophy, as well as the views of the many who opposed him. It will be a welcome addition to Malthus studies.


(1.) 'Mal th us ... during a large portion of his life read prayers and preached regularly in turn with the other professors in the chapel of the East India College at Haileybury', His sermons 'were calculated to make a strong impression on the minds of the young men, for whose edification they were chiefly intended' ([Otter] 1836, liii).

(2.) He also made financial contributions to the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

(3.) Recollections of her daughter, Louisa Bray: see Pullen 1989, p.9. Her daughter also preferred the 'quiet Meeting House', rather than 'the pompous service of our Cathedrals' with their 'dry orthodox sermons, fine musicky chanted prayers, and imposing scenery'.

(4.) The source of this quotation is given as 'Malthus 1820, vol. 1, p. 80'. It would be interesting to know whether it was retained in the second edition of the Principles in 1836.

(5.) A layperson or general reader who happens to be not well versed in the vocabularies of theology, theodicy and moral philosophy might have some difficulty in comprehending the meaning and differences of the many terms deployed. The two basic terms, consequentialism and voluntarism, appear separately and in hyphenated combination, as well as with a variety of adjectival supplements, such as ruleconsequentialism, and actconsequentialism, quasi-consequentialism, Anglican consequentialist-voluntarist, atheistic consequentialist-voluntarist, extreme voluntarism, evangelical voluntarism, and theological voluntarism. The term 'morality' is given subcategories: empirical natural morality, Christian revealed morality, Anglican natural morality, irreligious hedonistic immoralism, and rationalistic natural morality. The terms 'virtue ethics' and 'normative ethics' could also benefit from further elaboration, with clarification of their difference from 'ethics'. Aficionados will of course have no problems with this terminology, but the general reader would benefit from a glossary. A concise definition of 'Evangelicalism', as used in British theological debate in the early nineteenth century, would also have been useful, especially if compared with some of its many modern usages.

(6.) Malthus's ethical system is defined as consequentialist voluntarist, but one which 'makes room, within the global sum of happiness and virtue, for such priorities as rights, equality, liberty, security, among which some are non-negotiable priorities' (Cremaschi 2014, 195).

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author. Notes on contributor

John Pullen, Adjunct Associate Professor, University of New England, NSW, Australia; researching history of economic thought, with particular interest in Malthus.


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John Pullen

School of Business, University of New England, Armidale, New South Wales, Australia


Received 19 December 2014

Accepted 24 March 2015

CONTACT John Pullen [mail] [??] School of Business, University of New England, Armidale, New South Wales 2351, Australia
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