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Thomas Malthus and the Doctrine of Evil

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The original sin of man is the torpor and corruption of the chaotic matter in which he may be said to be born.[1]

The Reverend Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) is best known for An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). Here this classical economist argues that human beings are caught between two drives, lust and hunger – or, being the polite reverend that he was, population and subsistence. Although hunger would act as a check over lust, when it came down to sex or a meal, human beings would nearly always prefer sex first and think about food later. Can we feed the children? Is there enough land to grow crops and tend herds? These questions face them only afterwards, when large broods of children come crying for want of sustenance. The outcome is nothing less than misery and vice. Misery includes unwholesome manufactures, unhealthy cities, poverty, war, sickness, deformities, epidemics, pestilence, plagues, and premature death. Vice, by contrast, remains politely unelaborated, but he means whatever sexual release one may find. These stark and half-baked ideas stunned his contemporaries, so much so that in the subsequent five revisions of the essay, he sought to ameliorate his argument by means of moral sanction. But his argument was and remains deeply influential even in our own day, usually understood as the primary danger of overpopulation.

Rather than deal with that mistaken position, we would like to focus on a different question: the theological source in his doctrine of evil. Many have argued that Malthus is really a utilitarian, that he was a vicar only by profession. This assumption neglects some recently published sermons, indicating a reasonably developed theological position and serious attention to his pastoral duties.

For Malthus, we are all fallen creatures, sinning despite ourselves. This indicates not so much a jaundiced view of human nature, not the expostulations of a grumpy man, but rather a strong doctrine of evil. This doctrine is the most refreshing feature of an otherwise woefully inadequate collection of writings. In order to witness this understanding of evil in its full glory, we turn to a sermon by Malthus.[2] It was delivered on Good Friday in 1827 and then again in 1832. Given the situation, the topic is the death of Christ and his act of atonement. We should understand Christ’s work, suggests Malthus, not as mere instruction and example, but as propitiation, a vicarious and propitiatory sacrifice. Of all the Christological themes in the New Testament – prophet, messiah, victor against Satan, wisdom teacher, model to emulate – this is the starkest. Malthus draws on the New Testament for this position,[3] but its roots lie in the sacrificial ideology of ancient Southwest Asia, in which one had to appease the wrath of the gods by offering up sacrifices. That wrath may have been manifested in fire, pestilence, famine, or marauding army, but it was generated by wrongs committed by the people. And so, to ameliorate divine anger for a wrong committed, one sacrificed. It may have been a sheep or goat, an ox or pig, but also included the odd human sacrifice. So it is with Christ, according to Malthus: he stands in our place in order to take the full brunt of God’s wrath. This is the “greatest and most important event to mankind recorded in the Scriptures.”[4]

The contours of the doctrine of propitiatory sacrifice are known well enough, but we would like to stress the point that a strong and stark understanding of the function of Christ’s death assumes an equally strong doctrine of sin. Christ’s death is “a remission of sins,” or even more forcefully, in the words of the Gospel of John, “If any man sin, we have an advocate with the father Jesus Christ the Righteous; and he is the propitiation for our Sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”[5] That is, the efficacy of the Christ’s satisfaction is even greater than what it overcomes, namely, the collective sin of the whole human race, if not the whole of nature. Malthus sums up his position on sin and Christ’s death as follows:

The language of the inspired writers then is, “that Christ suffered for our sins, the just for the unjust”, that he gave himself as a ransom; that he redeemed us by his blood, redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us; that he is our advocate, intercessor and propitiation; that he was made perfect through sufferings, and being made perfect became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him.[6]

Evil is powerful indeed. It is “real and essential,” a deep-seated cause of impurity,[7] demanding that none less than Christ himself suffer and die so as to avoid the punishment God would mete out to all human beings.[8] The punishment fits the crime; or, rather, the mitigation of the punishment fits the crime. But how are human beings to respond? At times, Malthus slips into earnest moralizing, urging that we should strive to live virtuous lives.[9] Yet at other times, he realizes that the appropriate response is to repent and wisely to accept the benefit – escaping future punishment and obtaining future happiness – without asking exactly how it was achieved. So the only response to God’s grace is to love God in return, as well as one’s neighbors. Yet there is one further response that we wish to emphasize: Christ’s propitiation should make us acutely aware of how heinous our sins really are, and of how much suffering they produce.[10] We are, after all, “miserable sinners,” lying in “darkness and the shadow of death.”[11] This awareness of the pervasiveness and persistence of sin is found throughout Malthus’s economic works.[12]

What bearing does this doctrine of evil have on the leitmotivs of economic and political theory at the time, especially the slogans of freedom, equality and the beneficial effects of self-interest or self-love (as Adam Smith liked to claim)? A “free, equal, and reciprocal society”[13] would seem to be the most desirable feature of modern human society. Yet Malthus paid only lip service to this position on human nature. The irresistible presence of evil, of the tendency for human beings to do the worst to themselves and to others, overwhelms Malthus’s fleeting assertions of human freedom and equality. The same applies to self-love or self-interest. Malthus may occasionally have opined occasionally that self-love is a positive force, one that leads to the betterment of the human condition,[14] but he asserted it only half-heartedly. Self-interest is really greed and selfishness, the “general occasion of injustice, fraud, oppression and iniquity.”[15] In a society without laws governing property, anarchy would reign, so much so that everyone would fearfully guard with force what little they had.[16] The great virtue of benevolence is weak before such selfishness, fading all too readily in the face of hardship and want. When self-love is the “main-spring of the great machine” everyone suffers.[17]

It should come as no surprise that Malthus was not enamored with the various mildly radical proposals, current at his time, concerning the perfectibility of human beings and society. A significant portion of his essay on population attacks the work of the Marquis de Condorcet and William Godwin.[18] It is a stretch, however, to suggest that these liberal utopians were seriously radical, for they were very much part of the polite circles of ruling class debate. The old order, of the Church of England and the aristocracy, may have felt that “Philosophic Radicals” led by Jeremy Bentham and James Mill threatened all that was good and just, and they may have regarded Godwin as a dangerous Jacobin, but they spoke the same language and shared the same assumptions. The working poor, where true radicalism organized and challenged, was always outside, to be criticized, denigrated and patronized.[19] For eight chapters,[20] Malthus systematically questions the overconfidence in human progress expressed in such works. The gradual but inevitable improvement of society, the transformation of the earth into a vast garden of delights, the shedding of the constraints of institutions and government, the freedom of sexual expression with the abolition of marriage, the advance of truth and virtue, the dominance of reason over the baser passions, even the prolongation of human life through science to the point of immortality – Malthus sees them as “little better than a dream, a beautiful phantom of the imagination.”[21] Instead, the true situation of human beings on earth is one of the impossible struggles between lust and hunger, and of the misery and vice that result. We suggest that Malthus’s attacks evince not merely his doctrine of evil, but also an anti-Edenic theme. If we understand the Garden of Eden – following Ernst Bloch – as a utopian myth, as one that expresses a desire for the future rather than a conservative wish for a confected Golden Age, then Malthus pours a few buckets of cold water on any such hope.



[1] Thomas Robert Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population (London: J. Johnston in St. Paul’s Church-Yard, 1798), 111.

[2] On Malthus’s career in the church, see Anthony Waterman, Revolution, Economics and Religion: Christian Political Economy, 1798-1833 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 83-87. Even so, Waterman claims erroneously: “Save for the last two chapters of the first Essay no other writing by Malthus attests to any special interest in or competence at theology. Unlike others among his clerical colleagues at the East India College he published no volume of sermons.” (p. 96)

[3] Malthus links the legal notion of ransom with propitiatory sacrifice, citing Matt 20:28, Mark 10:45, and 1 Tim 2:6.

[4] Malthus, The Unpublished Papers in the Collection of the Kanto Gakuen University, edited by John Pullen and Trevor Hughes Parry. Vol. II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 12.

[5] Matt 26:28 and John 2:1-2, quoted by Malthus, The Unpublished Papers in the Collection of the Kanto Gakuen University, vol. II, 13.

[6] Malthus, The Unpublished Papers in the Collection of the Kanto Gakuen University, vol. II, 13-14.

[7] Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, 20, 56; see also 80, 84.

[8] Malthus is not always consistent, for elsewhere he takes a much weaker line, suggesting that evil and sin act as trials or as spurs to human action, action that may well lead to the betterment of the human condition. Without such spurs, people would languish in torpor and laziness. Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, 111, 113.

[9] Malthus, The Unpublished Papers in the Collection of the Kanto Gakuen University, vol. II, 10-11, 15, 23-24.

[10] “It is not easy to conceive in what manner the attention of mankind could be so strongly and so constantly directed to the evil of sin and disobedience as by the conviction that the almighty God has

thought it necessary that his only begotten Son, should take our nature upon him, and suffer death upon the Cross, in order to avert those consequences which would otherwise naturally and unavoidably have followed as the wages of sin.” Malthus, The Unpublished Papers in the Collection of the Kanto Gakuen University, vol. II, 15.

[11] Malthus, The Unpublished Papers in the Collection of the Kanto Gakuen University, vol. II, 17.

[12] A sermon such as this renders efforts to see Malthus as an optimist somewhat empty. Samuel Hollander, The Economics of Thomas Robert Malthus (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997) 880-81, 917-48.

[13] Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, 20, 39.

[14] “It is to the established administration of property and to the apparently narrow principle of self-love that we are indebted for all the noblest exertions of human genius, all the finer and more delicate emotions of the soul, for everything, indeed, that distinguishes the civilized from the savage state.” Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, 91; Malthus, Principles of Political Economy Considered with a View to Their Practical Application, 2.

[15] Malthus, The Unpublished Papers in the Collection of the Kanto Gakuen University, vol II, 4.

[16] Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, 57.

[17] Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, 65. Note also: “The mighty law of self-preservation expels all the softer and more exalted emotions of the soul … The corn is plucked before it is ripe, or secreted in unfair proportions, and the whole black train of vices that belong to falsehood are immediately generated. Provisions no longer flow in for the support of the mother with a large family. The children are sickly from insufficient food. The rosy flush of health gives place to the pallid cheek and hollow eye of misery. Benevolence, yet lingering in a few bosoms, makes some faint expiring struggles, till at length self-love resumes his wonted empire and lords it triumphant over the world.” Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, 60; see also 62, 64, 65, 91, 93.

[18] Marquis de Condorcet, Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain  (Paris: Masson et fils, 1795); William Godwin, An Enquiry concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness  (London: G. G. & J. Robinson, 1793).

[19] Edward P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, 2nd ed. (New York: Vintage, 1966). Waterman’s otherwise useful work makes the mistake of assuming this ruling class context and seeing these liberal reformers as “revolutionary.” Waterman, Revolution, Economics and Religion: Christian Political Economy, 1798-1833.

[20] Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, 45-95.

[21] Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, 55.

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Apart from voyages by freighter ship and riding my bicycle as far and as long as I can, I like to write. My recent work has focused on the engagements with theology by leading critics in the Marxist tradition (The Criticism of Heaven and Earth, 5 vols, 2007-14; Lenin, Religion, and Theology, 2013). I am currently working on Mao Zedong, pursuing another dimension of this tradition. In the last few years, I have focused on Eastern Europe and China, stumbling on a number of significant (and almost lost) texts relating to early engagements between Christianity and communism. As a result I am the Xin Ao International professor at Renmin University of China (Beijing), as well as being a research professor at the University of Newcastle, Australia.

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