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Gilbert Faccarello, Masashi Izumo, and Hiromi Morishita (eds), Malthus across Nations: The Reception of Thomas Robert Malthus in Europe, America and Japan

Joyce E. Chaplin
p. 373-377
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Gilbert Faccarello, Masashi Izumo, and Hiromi Morishita (eds), Malthus across Nations: The Reception of Thomas Robert Malthus in Europe, America and Japan, Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2020, 480 pages, 978-178897756-2

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Crédits : Edward Elgar

1This is a very useful scholarly volume on an author who is both notorious yet understudied, a situation that begs for more intelligent interventions and challenges to received opinion. The issue of human population and the possibilities of over- or under-population continue to divide academics, political figures, and members of the general public. The essays in this book could be helpful, inspiring more and deeper analysis of the long debate over Thomas Robert Malthus’s impact on socio-economic theory with reference to human population. There are nine essays, plus an introduction by the editors that establishes a rationale for the book: “the reception of Malthus prior to the Great War in varied intellectual and historical contexts” (1). This is an excellent, concrete goal, though the variety of intellectual and historical contexts is, in reality, somewhat restricted, even as the focus on Malthus’s published works is perhaps broader than it needed to be.

2All of the essayists study the history of economic thought; none is a more general historian of ideas or a historian of the book. Their attention is therefore to Malthus’s position within the history of political economy, with only some smaller examinations of his broader cultural impact or place within contemporary print cultures. And yet the attention given to all of Malthus’s works is problematic. The essayists were charged with analyzing all of Malthus’s writings, including his less famous economic works alongside the much more famous Essay on the Principle of Population. That decision makes some sense, particularly as Malthus’s reception in languages other than English might have depended on a translation history beyond his work on population. But the actual payoff is questionable. Over and over (6, 48, 53, 96, 122, 174-175, 236, 264, 274, 286-287, 393), the essayists admit that it was the Essay on the Principle of Population—in its succeeding editions, translations, published extracts, and extended commentaries—that had the greatest and most interesting impact, far overshadowing Malthus’s other works, some of which were not translated until long after the Essay had become available in a local language, arriving only in its wake. Given that the contributors did convene in person to coordinate their efforts, it is somewhat surprising that this preliminary finding was not discussed in a way that adjusted the essayists’ remit to focus on only the Essay—not least to make a more precise point about why and how it overshadowed Malthus’s other works, not just that it did.

3This point is only made elliptically, by way of the volume’s main collective finding, identified in the introduction: Malthus’s major contribution was to define a modern, secular ethics of individual responsibility. Within his theory of population, his innovation in this regard was simply more striking than anything in his other economic writings. That outcome was probably unintended; this secularized take-away point obscured, the editors point out, the Reverend Malthus’s recurring theological framing of his moral philosophy. When people in multiple nations read and commented on his Essay, therefore, they tended to misunderstand (or misinterpret) his ethics as grounded in self-centered indifference to others (8, 9-10). That understanding of Malthus could encourage either sexual abstinence (or a determination to enforce it in others) or else insist that citizens keep reproducing in order to support the strength of their nation, as was particularly evident in France (88-92).

4The volume’s best essays are on France and Japan, and are written by the volume’s editors, Gilbert Faccarello on France, and Masashi Izumo and Hiromi Morishita on Japan. In each case, the authors have produced genuine research essays, offering new material on Malthus’s reception, tailored to each place, language, and context. Faccarello’s essay on Malthus in French language publications is the longest in the volume, with extensive attention to the multiple printed media, including the popular press, in which Malthus’s texts were circulated. This includes an extremely valuable appendix on Malthus in French fiction (though this does not include Jules Verne, hélas). His extended range gives Faccarello’s essay a power that most of the other, shorter essays cannot summon. The result is a piece of scholarship foundational to any future work on population theory in modern France.

5Izumo and Morishita’s essay on Japan is shorter, though this is only to say that it’s proportioned in relation to the relevant material on Malthus in Japanese. As they explain, Malthus’s works did not appear in complete Japanese translations until after World War I (16, 400). But this by no means implies that Malthus was unknown in Japan. Rather, his ideas were rapidly disseminated after the Meiji Restoration through periodicals, textbooks, journals, academic lectures, and works of literature, all of which are identified and analyzed in an exemplary and creative history of Malthusian ideas beyond Europe and European languages.

6The richness of discussions of Malthus in these two languages, French and Japanese—and therefore of Malthusian ideas within two culturally and politically distinct contexts—certainly identifies how broadly the reception of modern debates over population and economics needs to be defined. Most people would have learned about Malthusianism second-hand. (This is probably still the case, with ideas about what Malthus said always outrunning his actual statements of those ideas.)

7The remaining essays in the volume cover Britain (in an essay by Ryan Walter), Germany and Austria (Christian Gehrke), the Italian-speaking territories (Daniela Donnini Macciò and Roberto Romani), Spain (Javier San Julián Arrupe), Portugal (José Luís Cardoso and Alexandre Mendes Cunha), Russia (Maxim Markov and Denis Melnik), and the United States (David Andrews). Most of the attention, therefore, is to Europe; Brazil, and Spanish-speaking Latin America are included, secondarily, in the essays on Portugal and Spain.

8Here, again, the best work considers discussion of Malthus’s Essay in the broadest terms of contemporary media. There is a superb footnote in the essay on Spain and Latin America (311-312, n. 64) cataloging the presence of nineteenth-century Malthus editions in libraries in Latin America, from which an entire other essay could probably be written. And in the case of Russia, where Malthus’s Principles and Definitions have never been translated, the obvious fate of a “bourgeois” economic theorist, the presence of his works in multiple languages within Russian libraries is crucial to the overall picture of his reception and dissemination. (359-360, 363-366). The essay on Spain and Latin America also makes clear that wider comprehension of Malthus and Malthusianism depended on popular periodicals and professional journals (307-316), and the section on Latin America, in particular, makes clear that Malthus’s writings had a strong presence in a part of the world where debates over population would be critical after the world wars.

9Other of the authors give uneven attention to periodicals, both in terms of reviews of the different editions and publication of extracts. The essay on Malthus’s reception in the United States, for example, depends on secondary work that had already covered the topic. Fresh attention to primary sources, and especially contemporary periodicals, would have made a better contribution, one that matched what other of the essays achieve. The editors and author might have concluded that Malthus is not of tremendous interest in the United States today; unfortunately, they’re probably right.

10And the original mandate of the volume—to assess Malthus within political economy—sometimes gives an unhelpfully narrow definition to the sphere of his reception. It is strange that the essay on Great Britain, for example, says nothing about the person who may have been Malthus’s most consequential reader, Charles Darwin. Subsequent essays pick up how Darwinism and social Darwinism inflected discussion of Malthus, perhaps especially in terms of social radicalism in Germany, Austria, and Russia. But without any fresh interpretation of how Malthusianism may have conditioned discussion of Darwin’s writings in English (and vice versa), this intellectual trajectory is incomplete. Similarly, the essay on Germany and Austria doesn’t discuss Alexander von Humboldt—a Prussian, to be sure, but nevertheless a towering figure in German-language discourse at the time, who made a crucial challenge to Malthus in relation to interpretation of Indigenous populations in Spanish America. (Which the essays on Spain/Latin America and France don’t address, either, despite the circulation of Humboldt’s assessment of Spanish America in French, which circulated other of his works within Spain.)

11Finally, the volume relies on a surprisingly conventional definition of “nations.” Conventional, that is, because most of the essays define their component nations within the conventional territorial boundaries of the nation-state, to the exclusion of imperialism. This would have been problematic for almost any historical era, but it is especially puzzling as a default preference for the period in question, the long nineteenth century, the heyday of European imperialism. The essays on Spain/Latin America and Portugal/Brazil are the obvious exceptions. In contrast, the essay on Britain barely mentions the empire, not even British policies relating to Ireland (not even in relation to the Great Famine) and the one on the United States doesn’t mention Indian policies during the most aggressive era of US expansion into Indigenous territories.

12The omission of colonized or imperial territories continues from there. Lack of attention to the Caribbean is notable given the vociferous arguments over Malthusian theory and the population dynamics of enslaved populations that grew mainly from a continued traffic in captives from Africa. Canada is also missing, despite its presence in Malthus’s own analysis, and there is no attention to the Pacific, from New Zealand to Hawaiʻi to Alaska. Above all, it is odd that Japan is the only part of Asia included, given contemporary attention to the rapid-growing populations of India and China, in particular, that underpinned later racist designations of these places as having unsustainable population growth.

13It might be the case, in part, that the editors assumed most of these places lacked libraries, periodicals, and readers, though this is not correct. All of these places had those things, if somewhat differently than the European core that seems to have been the default way the contributors define nations worth investigating. But it’s impossible to believe that colonial settlers, colonized people, trade representatives, and imperial officials in any of these places never read Malthus—and it’s difficult to conclude that the initial reception of Malthus in these places, even if perhaps harder to track, would not matter to their histories. If the nineteenth century was precisely when a great many European people defined themselves in relation to European empires, it was also when colonized people began to study the imperialists and define alternative nationalisms that would underpin the movements for independence that would culminate in the twentieth century. The greatest acrimony over Malthus and Malthusianism that exists today is based on comparisons between developed and developing economies, with differences that are legacies of nineteenth-century imperialism. This book will be necessary reading for any scholar interested in that problem, but it is an only partial guide to it.

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Joyce E. Chaplin, « Gilbert Faccarello, Masashi Izumo, and Hiromi Morishita (eds), Malthus across Nations: The Reception of Thomas Robert Malthus in Europe, America and Japan »Œconomia, 11-2 | 2021, 373-377.

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Joyce E. Chaplin, « Gilbert Faccarello, Masashi Izumo, and Hiromi Morishita (eds), Malthus across Nations: The Reception of Thomas Robert Malthus in Europe, America and Japan »Œconomia [En ligne], 11-2 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2021, consulté le 22 septembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Joyce E. Chaplin

James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History, Harvard University.

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