We covered Thomas Malthus in class this week. Malthus is one of my favorite figures in Western Civ II, mostly because he manages to start with three fairly simple observations – none of which come as any surprise to anyone reading them – and ends up undermining the entire Enlightenment. I’m surprised I haven’t put this bit up here before, and I’m going to rectify this now.
In 1798, an English vicar – what in the United States would likely be called a parish priest – by the name of Thomas Malthus published a book with the gloriously eighteenth-century title of 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.
The wonderful thing about eighteenth-century book titles, as anyone who has ever had to read Moll Flanders will tell you, is that once you have slogged your way through the entire title you rarely ever have to read the actual book. It’s all pretty much laid out there for you.
Malthus was a relative unknown when he published this book, but the book almost literally made his name. His name actually becomes a word in the English language, one that you will run into now and then if your interests move you in a certain direction. If you ever take a particular kind of biology or political science class, for example, you will run into the phrase “Malthusian logic” or “Malthusian cycle,” phrases that come from “Thomas Malthus” and that come from this book.
The thing about Malthus is that he is one of the early figures in perhaps the most important cultural and intellectual development of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the backlash against the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment has been the bedrock of Western Civilization since it emerged out of the 17th century Scientific Revolution. While other civilizations have come to adopt pieces of it as it has proven useful to them to do so over the centuries, the Enlightenment nevertheless defines Western Civilization as separate from all other forms of civilization on the planet. Pretty much all of Western Civilization today exists either as an extension of the Enlightenment or as a reaction to it. But any time you have a movement that powerful and pervasive you will get a backlash. That’s just how humans are wired.
While the Enlightenment is a complex and sprawling thing, it can usefully be simplified to three basic points.
First, that human reason is a powerful and effective tool for examining and understanding the universe. How do you know what you know? Not because an authority – living or dead, corporeal, textual or spiritual – told you so, but because you figured it out using only the reason that all humans come with hardwired into their heads. The social and political implications of this are staggering.
Second, that there are such things as natural laws. A natural law is a predictor – it says that if you start with these conditions and you take that action you will get this result, and you will get it every single time. In other words, that the universe is predictable, orderly, and in many ways harmonious. It is not chaotic or random. The universe is a machine, say Enlightenment thinkers, and natural laws are the rules that govern how the machine works. Furthermore, the Enlightenment holds that you can figure out those natural laws simply by using your reason.
Third, that progress is not only possible but also – in the purest form of the Enlightenment thinking – inevitable. Using the tools of the Enlightenment (reason and natural laws) we can tinker with the machinery of the universe and make it work better. This is the purpose of the Enlightenment.
Malthus sits on the leading edge of the Counter-Enlightenment, which comes in two overlapping stages.
First, there are people who accept the tools of the Enlightenment – who agree that reason is a powerful way to examine the universe and that natural laws make the universe predictable and orderly – but who argue that these do not actually lead to the purpose of the Enlightenment, progress. You can use your reason, discover natural laws and end up no better off than you were before, and therefore why bother? Malthus is here. Eventually Darwin will be too, which is not an accident – there’s a lot of Malthus in Darwin. And so on.
Later there will be a second phase of people who reject not only the purpose of the Enlightenment but also the tools. Reason, they say, is not actually an effective or powerful tool for understanding the universe and thus you need to resort to irrational or anti-rational methods such as faith, emotion, or intuition. Also, there are no such things as natural laws – the universe is not orderly or predictable, but is instead random, chaotic, and mysterious. This will get you to Romantics, Transcendentalists, religious fundamentalists, and so on.
Given Malthus’ position at the forefront of this movement, it is interesting to see what he argues and how he does so.
Malthus’ book is not easy reading – he is a highly educated eighteenth-century gentleman writing for an audience of other highly educated eighteenth-century gentlemen, and they did not cut each other any slack. Nor is much of it original to him – you have to go a long way into Malthus to get to the original part, which is part of its effectiveness. By the time he gets to the end and twists the knife with the original bits, you are so far down the path of his argument that it is hard to figure out how to get back out of it.
Malthus starts with three basic propositions, none of which are original to him and all of which you already know.
1. People have sex.
Why yes, yes they do. People have sex. I have heard this. There is evidence of this all around us. People do, in fact, have sex.
2. People eat.
I’m not going too fast for anyone here, am I?
3. These two things are connected.
Now you know this. You know very well that food and sex are connected in a great many ways, most of which I am not going to get into in this space, and you’re welcome. There isn’t enough whiskey in the barrel to get rid of some of those images, after all. But what is a dinner date, after all, but a device designed to get you from the one to the other as quickly as possible? Now, for some people that means starting with dinner and waiting until after marriage, while for others it means starting with dinner and waiting until after dessert – whatever floats your boat, I suppose. I’m not here to tell you how to live your personal lives.
Do wait until after dessert, though, as the waitstaff tends to get a bit annoyed otherwise. Just saying.
But the point is that those two things are connected in ways that are more serious than simply dinner dates because both of those actions – feeding and fornicating – have consequences, consequences that do not play well with each other.
When you have sex, if you have sex often enough – which is a variable quantity – you will ultimately wind up with more people. That’s what sex is for, after all. Whatever social, ethical, moral, or entertainment value sex has, from a purely biological perspective the primary purpose of sex is to create more of whatever’s having it. And it is surprisingly effective at that. Indeed, statistically speaking, the more people there are having sex the more people they will ultimately create.
Kim is a scientist and she says that historians do not use enough charts and graphs. So I will begin using a few schematic graphs here. Remember that they are schematics, though, meant to illustrate a point. I’m going to go back later and put some reality into them, but for right now just bear with me.
So using my schematic graph, the general population line looks like this:
More sex, more people.
Now, all of those people, when they are not having sex (and occasionally even when they are, which, vide supra, will get no further mention here) need to eat. And the more people you have, the more eating needs go happen. So: more sex, more people; more people, more eat.
But this is a problem, because food doesn’t work the way sex does. When you eat, you end up with less food than when you started. You cannot have your cake and eat it too. You start with this much food, you eat dinner, and you’re left with that much food. So your food supply does this:
The general relationship between terms is now as follows: More sex, more people; more people more eat; more eat, less food.
And this is a problem.
Note what is happening on that graph. Where those two lines cross, very bad things happen. Where those two lines cross, what that means is that you no longer have enough food to feed your population, and nothing good can come of that.
Most obviously, when there isn’t enough food to go around you are going to get Famine. People will starve. Starvation is a terrible way to die. The human body evolved under conditions of scarcity, and it is designed to withstand long periods of short rations in order to give you every chance to find more food over the next hill. But when there is no food over the next hill – or the ones after that – all that means is that it is going to take you a very, very long time to die. Furthermore, the body doesn’t just shut down all at once – it goes in pieces, and one of the last things to go when you starve to death is your mind, again because your body wants you to recognize and take advantage of whatever is coming over the next hill. But in this case, all it means is that you know exactly what is happening to you as you starve to death, and worse you know exactly what is happening to your children, your spouse, your neighbors, and your friends.
Fortunately it does take a long time to starve to death, so something else will likely kill you first.
For one thing, if the mind is one of the last things to go as you starve to death, the immune system is one of the first. Diseases, in other words, will take a fearsome toll on hunger-weakened bodies. Things that are not usually a problem will become problems. Things that are usually problems will become epidemics. And new diseases – things that would take a while to build up immunity to even for well-fed bodies – become Plagues.
Further, hungry people are not patient people. If you have food and my children are starving and you are not willing to share your food with them, I will rip off your limbs and beat you to death with them before taking your food and giving it to my children. Those of you who do not have children are right now sitting there pondering the morality of this, debating the pros and cons of my position, while those of you who are parents are nodding your heads and saying to yourself, “Yes, yes, that makes sense.” Multiply that out across a starving population and you get a general breakdown in social order as the have-nots seek to take from those who have in order to survive. If the haves and have-nots are part of the same society you will see food riots, civil conflicts, and mob violence. If they are part of different societies, you will get international conflicts. But all of these are, in one form or another, War.
And when you add all that together, what you get is a whole lot of Death.
Famine. Plague. War. Death. There is a reason why those are listed as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the Christian Bible. They go together. And when they go together very bad things – apocalyptically bad things – happen.
The thing is that all this has actually happened. This is, for example, the story of the Crisis of the Fourteenth Century, perhaps the most dismal time ever to be alive in European history. Oh, the Black Death gets all the press, of course, and what attention is left over from that inevitably focuses on the warfare of the age – the Hundred Years’ War, the Jacquerie, Wat Tyler’s Revolt, and so on. But people forget that it all started with famine. It all started because in the early 1300s those two lines on the graph crossed, and very bad things happened.
Now the question, of course is can this be prevented? Is there a way to keep those lines from crossing?
Well, there are two lines on the graph. Therefore there should be two avenues of approach we can take. We can attack the population problem, or we can attack the food supply problem.
The problem with attacking the population problem is that, while there are any number of ways to do it, all of them essentially boil down to the same thing: get people to stop having sex. And good luck with that, intrepid social engineers! Really! Good luck! I’ll be over here with my popcorn, watching you as you try to make that happen. Because it’s a stupid plan, that’s why. People are going to have sex – that’s what people do. Malthus, an intelligent and deeply learned man, was well aware that abstinence-only education was a foolhardy idea that only the most ideologically blinkered would even consider, let alone seriously try to adopt. People have sex. We’re wired that way. Telling them to stop is not going to change that.
So that leaves the food supply line.
And when you put it that way, the question rephrases itself. Is there a way to keep the food supply line above the population line?
Because after all, the food supply line does not actually go down the way I drew it on that schematic graph – you knew that, right? No, you can’t have your cake and eat it too, but you can make more cake. Food is a renewable resource, and we have this thing called “agriculture” whose only purpose is to turn that idea into a reality. Can we improve agriculture to keep that food supply line above the population line?
Now if you are an Enlightenment thinker, the answer is, “Of course we can. Using our reason, we can work out the natural laws that govern the food supply and make progress, progress being defined as ‘people not starving in the streets,’ which is as good a definition as any.”
You could work out new and better ways to get more food out of the earth – better seeds, better livestock, better techniques, and so on. You could work out new and better ways to use the food you do get more effectively – new harvesting techniques to cut waste, new preservation techniques to avoid spoilage, new transportation methods to get the food where it needs to go before it rots, and so on. You could even work on the medical end and see if you can get the human body to make more efficient use of the food it gets so as not to need so much. There are all sorts of options for a good Enlightenment figure to answer “yes” to that question.
Malthus, however, says no. Malthus argues that no matter what you do you can never keep that food supply line above the population line. And to see why will require some math.
Neither of those lines from the schematic graphs is accurate, actually. What do they actually look like?
Malthus argued that human population, left unchecked, would increase geometrically – or, as we would say today, exponentially. That is, if you start with 2 people, the increase would then go to 4, then 8, then 16, then 32, 64, 128, 512, 1024, 2048, and so on. Your population line would be an exponential curve, something like this:
This still isn’t the original part of Malthus, by the way. Anyone with access even to the crude demographic statistics of the eighteenth century could have figured this out. Benjamin Franklin worked it out in the 1750s, more or less.
But – and here is the original part – Malthus took a long hard look at the history of European agriculture, at the improvements that had been made over the previous centuries and the effects those improvements had had on the food supply, and based on that information he argued that the best you could hope for when it came to increasing the food supply was that it would increase arithmetically. That is, if you start with 2 food units, the increase would go to 4, then to 6, then to 8, then to 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 20, and so on. Your food supply line would be a straight line, like this:
Those of you who have taken algebra are already wincing at this point, because you know very well that it is mathematically impossible for a straight line to remain above an exponential curve no matter how far apart they start. Eventually – it may take a while, but eventually – those two lines will cross and very bad things will happen.
And if you follow the logic through, what you get is called a Malthusian Cycle:
You start out at the top, with Prosperity. Your food supplies are more than adequate to feed the population, and everyone is quite literally fat and happy. Gradually, though, the two lines get closer and closer and things begin to fall apart, and you enter a period of Crisis. Eventually you get famine, war, plague, and death, and everything will Collapse. But the silver lining of famine, war, plague, and death is that the population line plunges below the food supply line again, and so you can begin a Rebuilding period. You then rebuild until you reach Prosperity.
AND THEN THE CYCLE BEGINS AGAIN.
Around and around the cycle you go, in a never-ending pattern of prosperity, crisis, collapse, rebuilding, and prosperity again, each one following the other with unbreakable certainty. This is not Progress! There is no progress on a circle! When drawing a circle, one may begin at any point because eventually you will end up back where you started. That is the point of a circle, after all. Your population will outstrip your food supply, bad things will happen, you will recover, and then it will happen all over again. And there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.
This is a profoundly pessimistic viewpoint, deeply out of step with the more positive outlook of the Enlightenment. This is a viewpoint that does not admit the possibility – let alone the inevitability – of progress.
Yet notice how Malthus arrived at this point. His argument is highly reasoned – every step along the way follows logically or empirically from the one before in a rational chain that is hard to break. He has developed a natural law. Remember what natural laws are – they are predictors. If you have these conditions and you take that action, you will get this result and you will get it every time. The Malthusian Cycle fits that description quite nicely, no matter where you start. Malthus has, in other words, used the tools of the Enlightenment but he has not arrived at the purpose of the Enlightenment. Reason and natural laws do not in this instance lead to progress. In that case, what good are they?
And if the tools of the Enlightenment do not lead to the purpose of the Enlightenment, what does that say about the Enlightenment overall?
This is more than just a philosophical debate. The Enlightenment had some very practical implications that are called into question here. If the Enlightenment is in doubt, then everything that comes out of the Enlightenment is in doubt. Perhaps science isn’t the best tool for examining the mysteries of the universe. Perhaps the optimistic view of human nature that the Enlightenment assumed – that humans are basically good and can take care of themselves and others without authoritarian oversight – is fatally flawed. Maybe humans are depraved and vicious little creatures after all. Maybe reason itself is the problem, and it should be abandoned in favor of irrational or antirational things like faith, emotion, or intuition.
And maybe the Lockean Liberalism that is the political expression of the Enlightenment – the ideology of individual rights and equality of opportunity, the ideology that when spun toward leveling the economic playing field yields laissez-faire capitalism and small government but when spun toward leveling the political playing field yields liberal democracy and active government and thus defines both ends of the American political spectrum even today – maybe that isn’t the way to go either. Maybe humanity needs a government that will monitor its every move, one that will care more about groups than individuals. Eventually this will get you to genuine Conservatism – the kind that really does not exist in the US no matter what right-wingers say – and from there to any number of ideologies devoted to the welfare of the group: Socialism, Nationalism, and so on.
It’s a simple thing to observe that sex and eating have consequences. But getting from there to the Counter-Enlightenment is a feat.