T.R. Malthus – An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798)

The preface claims, “that population must always be kept down to the level of the means of subsistence” (3). He therefore asks whether it be the case that man will continue to improve infinitely, always producing more subsistence equal to the needs of the population, or whether man is condemned to oscillate between periods of happiness and periods of misery. Malthus believes the latter, but in complicated form:

The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. Population, when unchecked, increases in geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in arithmetical ratio. (13)

However, he complicates the question of perfectibility, drawing attention to “the essential difference between an unlimited improvement, and an improvement the limit of which cannot be ascertained” (112). He uses the analogy of a plant, which comes to perfection, but then through the use of manure and other organic stimulants meant to perfect it, the symmetry is destroyed:

In a similar manner, the forcing manure used to bring about the French Revolution, and to give greater freedom and energy to the human mind, has burst the calyx of humanity, the restraining bond of all society; and, however large the separate petals have grown, however strongly, or even beautifully, a few of them have been marked, the whole is at present a loose, deformed, disjointed mass, without union symmetry, or harmony of coloring. (112)

This is a curious imposition of the ideal of beauty into what was supposed to be an economic treatise. Can analyze in terms of metonymy and metaphor. How can metaphor stem the tide of the metonym’s infinite chain of growth?

The principle of population, or “necessity,” is both regulative and stimulating: regulating the number of people, but also spurring on the naturally lazy man to create new forms of subsistence. This rather depressing outlook gets reworked in the final pages by rigorous refusal to live “in the future”: “Life is a blessing independent of a future state,” a statement supported by a quotation from Antony and Cleopatra on “infinite variety”–can always go into the discourse on Roman regulation and Egyptian bounty.

How the aesthetic becomes a means of halting the dangers of population: the aesthetic as a regulative, consolidating principle.


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