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Letter In Reply To Hazlitt Concerning The Malthusian Doctrine Of Population
by [?]

2. Mr. Hazlitt says–‘This, Mr. Editor, is the writer whom “our full senate call all-in-all sufficient.”‘–And why not? I ask. Mr. Hazlitt’s inference is–that, because two propositions in Mr. Malthus’s Essay are overthrown, and because these two are propositions to which Mr. Malthus ascribes a false importance, in relation to his theory, therefore that theory is overthrown. But, if an architect, under some fancied weakness of a bridge which is really strong and self-supported, chooses to apply needless props, I shall not injure the bridge by showing these to be rotten props and knocking them away. What is the real strength and the real use of Mr. Malthus’s theory of population, cannot well be shown, except in treating of Political Economy. But as to the influence of his logical errors upon that theory, I contend that it is none at all. It is one error to affirm a different law of increase for man and for his food: it is a second error to affirm of a perfect state an attribute of imperfection: but in my judgment it is a third error, as great as either of the others, to suppose that these two errors can at all affect the Malthusian doctrine of Population. Let Mr. Malthus say what he will, the first of those errors is not the true foundation of that doctrine; the second of those errors does not contain its true application.

Two private communications on the paper which refuted Mr. Malthus, both expressed in terms of personal courtesy, for which I am bound to make my best acknowledgments, have reached me through the Editor of the London Magazine. One of them refers me ‘to the number of the New Monthly Magazine for March or April, 1821, for an article on Malthus, in which the view’ taken by myself ‘of his doctrine, as an answer to Godwin, seems to have been anticipated.’ In reply to this I have only to express my regret that my present situation, which is at a great distance from any town, has not yet allowed me an opportunity for making the reference pointed out.–The other letter disputes the soundness of my arguments–not so much in themselves, as in their application to Mr. Malthus: ‘I know not that I am authorised to speak of the author by name: his arguments I presume that I am at liberty to publish: they are as follows:–The first objection appears untenable for this reason: Mr. Malthus treats of the abstract tendency to increase in Man, and in the Food of Man, relatively. Whereas you do not discuss the abstract tendency to increase, but only the measure of that increase, which is food. To the second objection I thus answer: Mr. Godwin contends not (I presume) for abstract, essential perfection; but for perfection relating to, and commensurate with, the capabilities of an earthly nature and habitation. All this Mr. Malthus admits argumenti gratia: and at the same time asserts that Mr. Godwin’s estimate in his own terms is incompatible with our state. 8th October, 1823.’–To these answers my rejoinder is this:–The first argument I am not sure that I perfectly understand; and therefore I will not perplex myself or its author by discussing it. To the second argument I reply thus: I am aware that whatsoever Mr. Malthus admits from Mr. Godwin, he admits only argumenti gratia. But for whatsoever purpose he admits it, he is bound to remember, that he has admitted it. Now what is it that he has admitted? A state of perfection. This term, under any explanation of it, betrays him into the following dilemma: Either he means absolute perfection, perfection which allows of no degrees; or he means (in the sense which my friendly antagonist has supposed) relative perfection, quoad our present state–i. e. a continual approximation to the ideal of absolute perfection, without ever reaching it. If he means the first, then he is exposed to the objection (which I have already insisted on sufficiently) of bringing the idea of perfection under an inconsistent and destructory predicate. If he means the second, then how has he overthrown the doctrine of human perfectibility as he professes to have done? At this moment, though the earth is far from exhausted (and still less its powers), many countries are, according to Mr. Malthus, suffering all the evils which they could suffer if population had reached its maximum: innumerable children are born which the poverty of their parents (no less fatal to them than the limitation of the earth) causes to be thrown back prematurely into the grave. Now this is the precise kind of evil which Mr. Malthus anticipates for the human species when it shall have reached its numerical maximum. But in degree the evil may then be much less–even upon Mr. Malthus’s own showing: for he does not fix any limit to the increase of moral restraint, but only denies that it will ever become absolute and universal. When the principle of population therefore has done its worst, we may be suffering the same kind of evil–but, in proportion to an indefinitely increasing moral restraint, an indefinitely decreasing degree of that evil: i. e. we may continually approximate to the ideal of perfection: i. e. if the second sense of perfection be Mr. Godwin’s sense, then Mr. Malthus has not overthrown Mr. Godwin.

X. Y. Z.

* * * * *

The following admirable letter[4] seems to refer to the observations on Kant, contained in the Opium Eater’s Letters. Perhaps that acute logician may be able to discover its meaning: or if not, he may think it worth preserving as an illustration of Shakspeare’s profound knowledge of character displayed in Ancient Pistol.

[Footnote 4:
This is attached by the Editor of The London Magazine.–H. ]

* * * * *

Can Neptune sleep?–Is Willich dead?–Him who wielded the trident of Albion! Is it thus you trample on the ashes of my friend? All the dreadful energies of thought–all the sophistry of fiction and the triumphs of the human intellect are waving o’er his peaceful grave. ‘He understood not Kant.’ Peace then to the harmless invincible. I have long been thinking of presenting the world with a Metaphysical Dictionary–of elucidating Locke’s romance.–I await with impatience Kant in English. Give me that! Your letter has awakened me to a sense of your merits. Beware of squabbles; I know the literary infirmities of man. Scott rammed his nose against mortals–he grasped at death for fame to chaunt the victory.


How is the Opium Eater?