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Malthus The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet

Biography / Memoir
By: Robert J Mayhew(Author)
284 pages, no illustrations
Publisher: Belknap Press
Malthus is a scholarly and very rewarding book for the patient reader that charts Malthus's life and especially his intellectual legacy.
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  • Malthus ISBN: 9780674728714 Hardback Apr 2014 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 1 week
Price: £35.95
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About this book

Thomas Robert Malthus's An Essay on the Principle of Population was an immediate succès de scandale when it appeared in 1798. Arguing that nature is niggardly and that societies, both human and animal, tend to overstep the limits of natural resources in "perpetual oscillation between happiness and misery", he found himself attacked on all sides – by Romantic poets, utopian thinkers, and the religious establishment. Though Malthus has never disappeared, he has been perpetually misunderstood. Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet is at once a major reassessment of Malthus's ideas and an intellectual history of the origins of modern debates about demography, resources, and the environment.

Against the ferment of Enlightenment ideals about the perfectibility of mankind and the grim realities of life in the eighteenth century, Robert Mayhew explains the genesis of the Essay and Malthus's preoccupation with birth and death rates. He traces Malthus's collision course with the Lake poets, his important revisions to the Essay, and composition of his other great work, Principles of Political Economy. Mayhew suggests we see the author in his later writings as an environmental economist for his persistent concern with natural resources, land, and the conditions of their use. Mayhew then pursues Malthus's many afterlives in the Victorian world and beyond.

Today, the Malthusian dilemma makes itself felt once again, as demography and climate change come together on the same environmental agenda. By opening a new door onto Malthus's arguments and their transmission to the present day, Robert Mayhew gives historical depth to our current planetary concerns.


Prologue: Opening the Door on Malthus’s Roller Coaster
1. Before Malthus
2. Prophets of Perfection: A Revolutionary Triptych
3. Malthus’s Essay and the Quiet Revolution of 1798
4. Malthus as the Malign Muse of Romanticism
5. Malthus and the Making of Environmental Economics
6. Malthus and the Victorians
7. Malthus and the Dismal Age
8. Malthus the Transatlantic Celebrity
9. Malthus Today
Epilogue: High Time for the Untimely Prophet


Customer Reviews (1)

  • Intellectual biography that is required reading
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 16 Sep 2019 Written for Hardback

    Thomas Robert Malthus, a man so praised and vilified that his name has been immortalised in the noun “Malthusianism”. Many people will have heard of him in the context of overpopulation, but how many of you know the title of his famous book? Robert J. Mayhew is a Professor of Historical Geography and Intellectual History and with Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet he makes the case that Malthus’s book is a good example of the unread classic. Deeply researched, this is a scholarly book for the patient reader that charts Malthus’s life and, especially, his intellectual legacy. As Mayhew shows, Malthus remains as relevant as ever, though he continues to be misinterpreted in manifold ways.

    Malthus’s book An Essay on the Principle of Population was originally published in 1798, followed by a much-reworked second edition in 1803. Yale University Press reissued it with supporting essays four years after this book, see my review here. To understand its stormy reception, Mayhew starts with two chapters sketching the life and economy of Malthus’s England in the decades leading up to 1800, as well as the social and intellectual climate into which his book was born. In particular, Mayhew highlights the French Revolution of 1789 and how it shaped the thinking of scholars such as Richard Price, Marquis de Condorcet, and William Godwin. Concerns about population and food scarcity were already in the air, though little empirical or census data were available.

    Malthus and his work only make their entrance in chapter 3, which charts his education and the period leading up to the publication of the first edition, while chapter 5 explores Malthus “the environmental economist”. As Mayhew clarifies, though, it is misleading of me to call him that. His work was a precursor leading to that discipline, but Malthus did, for example, not consider air, water, or ecosystems as limiting resources. It took “the extractive volumes of the twentieth century” before these were taken along in economic analyses. These two chapters are really the biographical part of this book (a fuller biography is given in Population Malthus). Throughout, Mayhew highlights Malthus's humane side and his caution, assiduousness, and empiricism in collecting more data to prepare the 1803 rewrite.

    The remainder of the book deals with Malthus’s intellectual legacy in a chronological fashion. Mayhew mentions how “the tracks of intellectual history are not so straight and simple as to lead from Wordsworth to the Green Party, and from Malthus to capitalism and climate change”. The body of scholarship on Malthus and his influence spans many decades and Mayhew mines it deeply to show convincingly how Malthus’s thinking has been applied to different concerns over time.

    Mayhew starts with the fierce criticism from the Romantics, such as the Lake Poets (including Samuel Taylor Coleridge) and the Marlow school (including Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron), whose utopian Enlightenment thinking on human perfectibility clashed with Malthus’s vision. After his death in 1834, with the Industrial Revolution well underway, Victorian thinkers such as John Ruskin, Friedrich Engels, and Karl Marx took aim at him, though for different reasons. Simultaneously, he inspired both Darwin and Wallace, shaping evolutionary theory. And this era also saw the birth of the term “Malthusian” with the foundation of the Malthusian League, a society dedicated to making birth control a respectable topic.

    As an aside, Mayhew’s writing in these early chapters is quite rich. He threads together long sentences with quotes from original works that, given the style of the time, are no less wordy. But it is Mayhew’s vocabulary that stands out; advocates of war are bellicose, warrants for arrest are promulgated, complaints are valetudinarian, critics vituperative, and Malthus’s first job was in homiletics. I initially had to keep a dictionary at hand, though the purple prose lets up considerably as the book progresses.

    Mayhew argues that there are good reasons to expect Malthus’s star to have waned as the 1900s rolled around. Economics matured as a discipline to the point that his insights were absorbed but his words went unread, birth control advocates disconnected themselves from his name, and birth rates declined in Europe, not least because of the loss of life in World War I. But this period also saw the rise of eugenics, economic depression (John Maynard Keynes was important here), Churchill’s perhaps little-known role in the Bengal famine in India in 1942-1943, and, of course, Hitler’s fascism. All of these drew on the work of Malthus in one way or another.

    After World War II, the US played a notable role in keeping Malthus’s flame alive, his work inspiring writers such as Isaac Asimov and Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange), while remaining centre-stage in scholarly debates. But it was especially biologists and ecologist who now joined the fray and starting penning many gloomy tracts. Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb is the most infamous, but far from the only one. It was the time of Apollo 8’s famous Earthrise photo, the popularisation of the phrase “Spaceship Earth” (see e.g. Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth), and the publication of the Club of Rome’s influential report (see The Limits to Growth and Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update). In turn, demographers and economists pushed back relentlessly, notably Julian Simon (see also A Life Against the Grain). Interestingly, though, he mostly had a bone to pick with the late-20th Century neo-Malthusians rather than with Malthus himself.

    That brings Mayhew to our time. The concerns may have shifted to climate change, the Anthropocene, and (after this book was published) Extinction Rebellion, but Malthus continues to underpin this thinking. Of note is the rise of the field of “environmental security” that links population, climate, agriculture, and culture. It sees policymakers worrying about climate refugees and food crises. And, of course, there is continued pushback on the topic of overpopulation (see e.g. my review of Empty Planet).

    Clearly, Malthus is here to stay, which is why this book is so important. With the 1803 edition of the Essay readily available again, there is no excuse not to read Malthus’s own words. But to help readers properly understand and contextualize his work and its legacy, a good biography is invaluable, making the deeply researched Malthus required reading. Keeping in mind above remarks about the writing, I do think this is for the patient reader, but they should find it a very rewarding book.
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Robert J. Mayhew is Professor of Historical Geography and Intellectual History at the University of Bristol.

Biography / Memoir
By: Robert J Mayhew(Author)
284 pages, no illustrations
Publisher: Belknap Press
Malthus is a scholarly and very rewarding book for the patient reader that charts Malthus's life and especially his intellectual legacy.
Media reviews

"In his admirably rounded Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet Mayhew draws our attention to the actual writings of this pioneer of demography and political economy, and to his historical context, especially the revolutionary enthusiasm which Malthus was concerned to dampen [...] Though Malthus did not go so far as to interpret our planet as an ecosystem with limited supplies of clean air and water, Mayhew makes a convincing claim for him as a founder of what is now called environmental economics [...] [For] Mayhew, it is the questions Malthus asked which are still important."
– Jonathan Benthall, The Times Literary Supplement

"It is the wide range of techniques [the book] interweaves to recreate the unique fabric of Malthus' intellectual life – including comparative biography, comparative literature and the study of contemporary journals – that make this a singularly rich portrait [...] [Mayhew] is surely right that an attention to the complexities of Malthus' ideas and legacies will better equip us to deal with our present environmental challenges than will simplistic, self-edifying binaries."
– Niall O'Flaherty, Times Higher Education

"[A] fine book [...] Mayhew describes the continuously contested legacy of what it meant to be a Malthusian, to commend or condemn Malthusianism in the two centuries after the Essay [on the Principle of Population] was published. But his book is also inevitably about us – as we too are obliged to think about our numbers, about nature and its resources, and about policies for living in a finite world."
– Steven Shapin, London Review of Books

"Loathed by Karl Marx and admired by Charles Darwin, Enlightenment scholar Thomas Malthus still polarizes, notes historian Robert Mayhew. The flashpoint was Malthus's 1798 An Essay on the Principle of Population, which posits that although humans are prodigal, nature and resources are limited. Mayhew traces that theory through revolutionary and reactionary traditions, arguing that it remains pertinent in an era of economic downturn and shrinking resources, with predictions of 10 billion humans by 2050."
– Barbara Kiser, Nature

"Robert Mayhew helpfully dusts off Malthus and recounts his influence up to the present day, explaining why, with his one big idea, he became such an influential figure in European and North American intellectual history [...] Mayhew tries to rescue Malthus' reputation by saying that many of his readers used him without really understanding him."
– Alister Chapman, Books & Culture

"In our era of global warming, mass urbanization, nuclear contamination, rampant pollution, deforestation, strip mining, and fracking, Malthus's very attention to the dangers of unchecked population growth can seem nothing less than prescient [...] Malthusian thought has found itself applied to dizzyingly opposite policies and politics. You'll find it ingrained in worldviews ranging in label from radical to reactionary. Mayhew's book, then, compels us not only to reread Malthus and consider the background and the arguable moderation of his reasoning but also to consider, more broadly, the complicated and fickle ways by which ideas, once they enter the public domain, become fodder for politically charged disputes."
– Sandra J. Peart, The Chronicle of Higher Education

"Mayhew treats his subject sympathetically, but the book admirably exposes the complete Malthus, warts and all. Nor is any quarter spared for critics, from the Romantics to Freud, all of whom twist Malthus to suit their agenda [...] Mayhew's signal contribution is to remind us that the population debate has been contentious for much of the period since Malthus's original Essay of 1798. The book also helps us to understand the dangers of both pro- and anti-Malthusianism."
– Eric Kaufmann, Literary Review

"Though critics saw Malthus as contemptuous of the poor and entrenched in his beliefs, Mayhew reveals him as a humane observer and insightful commentator, preoccupied with poverty and intent on reviewing his own earlier utterances, including his contentious 1803 claim that the poor deserved no place at life's table. By his death in 1834, Malthus was an authoritative voice on population and economy, but his reputation – and notoriety – lived on in new versions of Malthusianism, including some, such as the advocacy of artificial contraception, he would never have endorsed. Indeed, Malthus was adopted as a bogeyman in post–1950s U.S. debates about 'overpopulation', environment and security. Mayhew pushes beyond the stereotypes of Malthus to recover the historical reality [...] This is a compelling read."
– David Arnold, BBC History Magazine

"Robert Mayhew's account of the intellectual life and legacy of Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) is a fascinating, erudite and readable interdisciplinary – indeed, multidisciplinary – intellectual history [...] Mayhew is very good not just at contextualizing Malthus but in breaking down the binary divide separating Malthus and his enemies – in the process, teasing out from Malthus's work (and how we have understood him) so much that is of value then and now."
– Matthew Hughes, English Historical Review

"Robert J. Mayhew explains complex economic ideas with clarity and shows that even though Malthus and his Essay are still remarkably well-known, his work is often an (unread) reference point. Mayhew underscores how Malthus's ideas are perpetually modern, and remarkably so."
– Alison Bashford, author of Global Population: History, Geopolitics, and Life on Earth

"A stylish, well-written, exuberant, and cleverly conceived book. Malthus is a thoughtful and skillful achievement."
– Donald Winch, author of Wealth and Life: Essays on the Intellectual History of Political Economy in Britain

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