Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet by Robert J Mayhew - review by Eric Kaufmann

Eric Kaufmann

Too Many People?

Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet


Harvard University Press/The Belknap Press 284pp £20

The temperature of our globe is rising and the population debate is heating up. The mounting stack of books in this field, to which I admit contributing several titles, often lacks historical perspective. Partisans of the two camps, Malthusians and Cornucopians, build Malthus up as hero or straw man, effacing the complexity of his arguments. Robert Mayhew, an intellectual historian and geographer, nicely points out in his new book how the man has been repeatedly truncated, his arguments airbrushed to suit the stock character demanded by friend and foe alike. 

Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) was a remarkable, radical achievement. Christian theology and Enlightenment rationalism shared little but shook hands on the subject of popu-lation. Christianity cleaved to the ‘God Will Provide’ Cornucopianism of Scripture. Enlightenment rationalists yoked faith in man’s ingenuity with a vision of

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