Last week, my second article was published. Like the first, it is in an open access journal, this time Circumscribere: International Journal for the History of Science. While I now spend most of my time writing code or thinking about pedagogy, I still occasionally crack open a book and think about eighteenth-century history.

Lately, I’ve been reading and writing about how the basic stuff of nature, dirt, water, and air became tradable commodities. How did we go from understanding earth, water, fire, and air as the four basic elements to commodities that could be classified, measured, and traded in markets around the world.

The eighteenth-century is an interesting time period in this story, because of the simultaneous and mutually supportive advances in science and economics. Chemists like Joseph Black were working through new theories about the importance of different kinds of soil for agriculture and how the various solutes in water affected their taste, industrial uses, and medical efficacy. At the same time, his good friend, Adam Smith, was working through the foundations of modern economics.

In a digression away from chemistry and commodification, my article focused on the philosophical and religious beliefs of the economist Thomas Malthus and his famous Essay on the Principle of Population. This is the text that said that humans develop resources at a geometric rate while they, like most animals, reproduce at an exponential rate. Malthus thought it was inevitable that population would increase faster than food, and thus people would always want for food and other resources.

A diagram of the Malthusian Curve depicting the inevitable of want

Malthus’s theory has been used since the publication of his theory in 1798 to not only explain deprivation but also to justify it. Charles Darwin used the theory in the formulation of his theory of evolution by the survival of the fittest. Herbert Spencer extended the point to say that because deprivation is inevitable, it is the duty of the strongest people and strongest societies to lead.

In the 20th century, the memory of Malthus became intertwined with this Spencerian concept of might makes right. Imperialists used these theories to justify colonialism in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Eugenicists pointed to Malthus and Spencer to justify their theories of racial and class supremacy in the 1930s. From Ayn Rand to Rand Paul, this concept of social evolution has continued into the modern day with the bootstrapping, individualist economic theory that casts poverty as inevitable and the poor as undeserving.

In my paper, I returned to Thomas Malthus’s personal religious and philosophical beliefs to see whether he shared this belief that the inevitability of need is justification for social inequality. I found a Malthus that did not match the common memory. I’ll close this rambling bit of self promotion with the abstract for the paper and a link to the article.

The first edition of Thomas Robert Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population is best understood as an exploration of human nature and the role of necessity in shaping the individual and society.  The author’s liberal education, both from his father and his tutors at Warrington and Cambridge, is evident in his heterodox views on hell, his Lockean conceptualization of the mind, and his Foxite Whig politics.  Malthus’ unpublished essay, “Crises,” his sermons, and the the last two chapters of the Essay (which were excised from subsequent editions) reveal a pragmatic, compassionate side of the young author that was under appreciated by both his contemporary critics and modern historians.  The Essay has been mischaracterized by David McNally (2000) as a “Whig response to Radicalism” and by Patricia James (1979) as a reaction by Malthus against his father’s liberalism.  This article argues that when he wrote the first edition of the Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus was himself a liberal dissenter and Foxite Whig rather than an orthodox Anglican or a Burkean defender of traditional class relations.

John Stewart, “Reform and religious heterodoxy in Thomas Robert Malthus’s first edition of An Essay on the Principle of Population,” Circumscribere: International Journal for the History of Science 19 (2017), pp. 1-17.