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Although the argument of the Essay on population originated in a family disagreement between Malthus and his father Daniel, who idolized Rousseau, and the Essay itself attacks Condorcet and Godwin, both of whom drew on Rousseau's ideas about human perfectibility, Malthus's project can plausibly be seen as an extension of the social theory set out above all in Rousseau's Discourse on the origin of inequality. Malthus was animated by some of Rousseau's characteristic concerns, and he deployed recognizable versions of some of Rousseau's distinctive arguments, in particular relating to the natural sociability and natural condition of humankind, conjectural history, and political economy, especially with respect to the question of balanced growth. His arguments about ‘decent pride’, furthermore, that were emphasized in later editions of the Essay map neatly onto what has been called ‘uninflamed amour-propre’ in the Rousseau literature. When we treat the social question as a nineteenth-century question, or when we locate its origins in the post-Revolutionary political controversies of the 1790s, we risk losing sight of the way in which what was being discussed were variations on mid-eighteenth-century themes.

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Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, cb3


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1 Karl Marx, Preface to A contribution to the critique of political economy (1859), in Marx Engels collected works (50 vols., London, 1975–2004), xxix, pp. 261ff.

2 Jones, Gareth Stedman, An end to poverty? A historical debate (London, 2004), ch. 1, Conclusion.

3 See iv.6 and iv.9 of, for example,Malthus, T. R., An essay on the principle of population (6th edn, London, 1826), ii, pp. 318–27, 357–60.

4 Larry Frohman, review of Stedman Jones, An end to poverty?, H-German, H-Net Reviews (June 2008), (accessed 31 Aug. 2017).

5 But on this label, cf. Levy, David M., How the dismal science got its name (Ann Arbor, MI, 2001).

6 On which, see Butterfield, Herbert, The Whig interpretation of history (London, 1931), or, more entertainingly, Sellar, W. C. and Yeatman, R. J., 1066 and all that (London, 1930).

7 [Malthus, T. R.], An essay on the principle of population (1st edn, London, 1798), p. i; Malthus, , Principles of political economy (2nd edn, London, 1836), pp. xxxviii–xxxix.

8 Allan Ramsay, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1766), oil on canvas, NG 820, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.

9 See Trousson, Raymond and Eigeldinger, Frédéric S., eds., Jean-Jacques Rousseau au jour le jour (Paris, 1998), pp. 299300.

10 Keynes, J. M., Essays in biography (new edn, London, 1951), p. 84.

11 Leigh, R. A., ed., Correspondance complète de Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Geneva, 1965–98), #6013 (6 Aug. 1767), #6156 (14 Dec. 1767), #6184 (Jan. 1768), and #6218 (24 Jan. 1768).

12 Bashford, Alison and Chaplin, Joyce E., The new worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus: rereading the principle of population (Princeton, NJ, 2016), p. 56; James, Patricia, Population Malthus: his life and times (London, 1979), p. 78.

13 Donald Winch, Carlyle Lecture #5, ‘Malthus, Godwin, and Condorcet: inequality and post-economic society’ (7 Nov. 1995), p. 10. Available through the St Andrews Institute of Intellectual History Donald Winch Archive: (accessed 31 Aug. 2017).

14 Peacock, Thomas Love, Melincourt (3 vols., London, 1817), on which, see Mayhew, Robert J., Malthus: the life and legacies of an untimely prophet (Cambridge, MA, 2014), pp. 97–8.

15 It is also, bracketing Godwin, who is a theorist of a post-economic condition, a debate among Smithians, but this theme is better treated in the literature, so I focus here on Rousseau.

16 [Malthus], Essay on population (1798), p. 14.

17 For extensive description of eighteenth-century French views on population, see Spengler, Joseph J., French predecessors of Malthus: a study in eighteenth-century wage and population theory (Durham, NC, 1942).

18 Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, ‘The social contract’, iii.9, in The social contract and other later political writings, ed. Gourevitch, Victor (Cambridge, 1997), p. 105.

19 Godwin, William, An enquiry concerning political justice (2 vols., London, 1793), i, pp. 146–9, 159–61, ii, pp. 436–8, 503–7. See also i, p. 360, where Godwin calls Rousseau ‘the most benevolent of all these philosophers’.

20 His copy of Emile, for example, is now in the library of Jesus College, Cambridge. See (accessed 31 Aug. 2017).

21 See, for example, Dart, Gregory, Rousseau, Robespierre and English romanticism (Cambridge, 1999).

22 Charles Dickens, ‘The noble savage’, Household Words (11 June 1853), pp. 337–9, discussed in Levy, How the dismal science got its name, pp. 168–9.

23 Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan, ed. Brooke, Christopher (London, 2017), ch. 13, pp. 100–5.

24 Diderot, Denis, ‘Hobbisme’, article for the Encyclopédie, viii (Paris, 1765), trans. in Diderot, , Political writings, ed. Mason, John Hope and Wokler, Robert (Cambridge, 1992), p. 27.

25 Bashford and Chaplin, New worlds, p. 128.

26 Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 102.

27 Rousseau, The social contract, i.4, p. 46.

28 Rousseau, ‘The state of war’, in ibid., p. 166.

29 Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 103.

30 Rousseau, Discourse on the origin and foundations of inequality among men, in The discourses and other early political writings, ed. Gourevitch, p. 127. See also Tuck, Richard, ‘Rousseau and Hobbes: the Hobbesianism of Rousseau’, in Rosenblatt, Helena and Schweigert, Paul, eds., Thinking with Rousseau: from Machiavelli to Schmitt (Cambridge, 2017), pp. 2936.

31 For the ‘jurisconsults’, see Rousseau, ‘The state of war’, p. 162.

32 [Malthus], Essay on population (1798), pp. 176–7.

33 ‘The heaven, even the heavens, are the Lord's: but the earth hath he given to the children of men.’

34 For example, Paine, Thomas, Agrarian justice (Paris, 1797), p. 29.

35 [Malthus], Essay on population (1798), p. 177.

36 See, for example, Neuhouser, Frederick, Rousseau's theodicy of self-love: evil, rationality, and the drive for recognition (Oxford, 2008); and Waterman, A. M. C., Revolution, economics and religion: Christian political economy, 1798–1833 (Cambridge, 1991).

37 [Malthus], Essay on population (1798), p. 357; Rousseau, Discourse on inequality, pp. 142–3.

38 [Malthus], Essay on population (1798), p. 364; Rousseau, Discourse on inequality, p. 162.

39 For Rousseau's admiration for Fénelon, see Saint-Pierre, Bernadin de, La vie et les ouvrages de Jean-Jacques Rousseau, ed. Souriau, Maurice (Paris, 1907), p. 108. Malthus is known to have acquired a number of Fénelon's books in the 1790s: see Waterman, Revolution, economics and religion, p. 26.

40 Fénelon, François de, Telemachus, ed. Riley, Patrick (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 109–14; Rousseau, Discourse on inequality, p. 167.

41 [Malthus], Essay on population (1798), pp. 181–2. Cf. Fénelon, Telemachus, esp. pp. 165–8. The great discontinuity concerns marriage, which is an integral part of Fénelon's utopia, but not – in a concession to Godwin – of Malthus's.

42 [Malthus], Essay on population (1798), p. 190.

43 Waterman, Revolution, economics and religion, for example pp. 63–4.

44 The exposition of Rousseau that follows is indebted to the work of the late István Hont, shaped in general by the argument of his 2009 Carlyle Lectures, posthumously published as Sonenscher, Michael and Kapossy, Béla, eds., Politics in commercial society: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith (Cambridge, MA, 2015), and in particular by a 2011 paper, ‘Luxury and the route to revolution in Rousseau's Second discourse’. That paper remains unpublished, but Hont can be viewed presenting its argument in March 2012 in Lausanne at (accessed 31 Aug. 2017).

45 For a view of Montesquieu along these lines, see, especially, Sonenscher, Michael, Before the deluge: public debt, inequality, and the intellectual origins of the French Revolution (Princeton, NJ, 2007), ch. 2.

46 Rousseau, Discourse on inequality, p. 202.

47 Ibid., pp. 184–5.

48 These are Spengler's words in French predecessors of Malthus, p. 67, describing Herbert, C.-J., Essai sur la police générale des grains, sur leurs prix & sur les effets de l'agriculture (Berlin, 1755), for example pp. 1–2, 310, 359–61.

49 See, in particular, Semmel, Bernard, ‘Malthus: “Physiocracy” and the commercial system’, Economic History Review, new series, 17 (1965), pp. 522–35.

50 See Hollander, Samuel, The economics of Thomas Robert Malthus (Toronto, ON, 1997), pp. 403–6.

51 Stedman Jones, An end to poverty?, p. 70.

52 [Malthus], Essay on population (1798), pp. 303–4.

53 Ibid., p. 307.

54 Ibid., p. 309.

55 Ibid., pp. 309–10.

56 Ibid., pp. 149–50; see Winch, Carlyle Lecture #5, pp. 18–19.

57 Rousseau, Discourse on inequality, p. 132.

58 Malthus, , An essay on the principle of population (2nd edn, London, 1803), p. 11.

59 Malthus refused to countenance the use of contraceptive technologies, on which see Levy, David M., ‘Malthusianism or Christianity: the invisibility of successful radicalism’, Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques, 25 (1999), pp. 6193. Those who came after Malthus – such as Francis Place or John Stuart Mill – who endorsed artificial methods of birth control are usually labelled ‘neo-Malthusians’. (Condorcet had earlier hinted somewhat obliquely that artificial contraception would turn out to be the answer to the population question.) Jeremy Bentham's response to reading Malthus was to recommend a lot more homosexual sex, so that individuals could enjoy the pleasures of sex (utility) without risking overpopulation (disutility), though he did not publish this opinion during his lifetime. (‘Vice, then, is the thing to be encouraged: Moral Restraint the thing to be discouraged.’) See Bentham, , Of sexual irregularities, and other writings on sexual morality, ed. Schofield, Philip, Pease-Watkin, Catherine, and Quinn, Michael (Oxford, 2014), pp. 7983.

60 Rousseau, The social contract, p. 41.

61 On which see Winch, Carlyle Lecture #5, p. 11.

62 [Malthus], Essay on population (1798), p. 10.

63 Malthus, Essay on population (1803), p. 546.

64 Ibid., p. 557.

65 Malthus, , An essay on the principle of population (3rd edn, London, 1806), ii, p. 423.

66 O'Flaherty, Niall, ‘Malthus and the “end of poverty”’, in Mayhew, Robert J., ed., New perspectives on Malthus (Cambridge, 2016), p. 87.

67 Ibid., pp. 90–1.

68 Smith, Adam, An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations, ed. Campbell, R. H. and Skinner, A. S. (Oxford, 1975), V.ii.k, ii, p. 870.

69 Burke, Edmund, A letter from Mr Burke to a member of the National Assembly (2nd edn, London, 1791), pp. 40–1.

70 Malthus, Principles of political economy, pp. 375–6.

71 Ibid., pp. 376–7.

72 Ibid., p. 377.

74 Ibid., p. 378.

75 Ibid., pp. 381–2.

76 Foucault, Michel, ‘Nietzsche, genealogy, history’, in Foucault, Language, counter-memory, practice: selected essays and interviews, ed. Bouchard, D. F. (Ithaca, NY, 1977), p. 139.

77 See, for example, Skinner, Quentin, ‘The limits of historical explanations’, Philosophy, 41 (1966), pp. 199215; Skinner, Quentin, ‘Meaning and understanding in the history of ideas’, History and Theory, 8 (1969), pp. 353.

78 Stephen Burt, ‘All possible humanities dissertations considered as single tweets’, The New Yorker, 10 June 2015, (accessed 31 Aug. 2017).

79 Keith Tribe, The economy of the word (Oxford, 2015), pp. 42–3.

80 See, for example, John Stuart Mill, ‘On the definition of political economy; and on the method of investigation proper to it’ (1836), which appears in his Essays on some unsettled questions of political economy (1844), reprinted in Mill, , Essays on economics and society, ed. Robson, J. M., i (Toronto, ON, 1967), p. 321. Those documents that arise out of Malthus's teaching – for example the so-called Inverarity MSS held at Cambridge (Marshall c. 35) or even the Principles of political economy – also support an ‘eighteenth-century’ interpretation.

81 Ricardo, David, ‘Notes on Malthus's Principles of political economy’, in Sraffa, Piero, ed., The works and correspondence of David Ricardo, ii (Cambridge, 1951), p. 387.

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