Malthus’s sacred history: outflanking civil history in the late Enlightenment

This essay locates Thomas Robert Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) in the historiography of his time. It does so by clarifying the manner in which Malthus used his account of population-food dynamics to retell the grand narrative of Roman decline leading to barbarism, feudalism, and then commerce. The result of Malthus’s intervention was to demote in importance both the actions of the usual historical actors – legislators, princes, and parties – and the historical contexts in which they were portrayed as acting. Such contexts were typically rendered in terms of laws, customs, and political interests, but, on Malthus’s account, these are merely contingent factors compared with the eternal laws that underlie human history. Malthus’s Essay thus represents an example of a more general phenomenon detectable in the late eighteenth century: the demotion of erudition and source criticism by those pursuing theological and philosophical understanding.