The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
July 12, 2006

Perverse Civilisation and Natural Barbarism: William Coleman explores two doubtful moves in social theorising and examines Malthus's debate with Godwin over population - and the subsequent Benthamite libelling of Malthus

Posted by William Coleman

Dr William Coleman - Reader in Economics at the Australian National University and the author of Economics and its Enemies: Two Centuries of Anti-Economics - explores the conflict between "Perverse Civilisation" and "Natural Barbarism".

Despite their prostitution by political rhetoric, and their abandonment by post-Victorian social thought, two categories - the Civilised, and the Natural - retain a purchase on our emotions.

Both categories are usually - if not always - considered positively. But their concurrent desirability is made problematic by the possibility that the Civilised and the Natural are in conflict.

It is sometimes argued, for example, that "Human Nature Offends Civilisation". In this position it is supposed that human nature is endowed with certain irascible passions: the love of domination and superiority; of victory and glory; the territorial impulse; the taste for vengeance and "aggression"; an excitement from destruction and violence.

These irascible passions, it is argued, once contributed to reproductive fitness. But, the argument goes on, they are now badly dysfunctional with respect to physical, human and social capital. These irascible passions are the Sickle Cells of human behaviour: useful once, but now disastrous. The upshot is that human nature - or at least its irascible part - is something one would like to do without. One palpable specimen of this position is Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence (Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson). This book opens with the two authors flying into Rwanda to study ape-to-ape aggression, and by page two they are evoking the genocidal violence of Hutus against Tutsis.

But it is also sometimes argued - differently, but to the same conclusion of conflict - that "Civilisation Offends Human Nature". In this position wealth caters to the love of comfort and ease, and that accommodation atrophies irascible passions. In terms of physical capital, "enervating luxury" makes us soft. In terms of human capital, the sophistication that is part of civilisation produces relativism, subjectivism and the "purpose uncertainty" associated with sophisticated man's existential anxiety about "the meaning of life".

There is a loss of self-confidence, will and morale. The archaic relish in filling the world with many smaller copies of oneself vanishes, and is replaced by a modern indifference, or even distaste, at such a prospect. More generally, there is a loss of self-assertion or self-defence; a loss of recognition of one's enemies; or even any animus towards those enemies one does recognise. The ultimate expression of this loss is suicide, in both individual and social terms. Animals do not commit suicide, but in captivity they do sometimes injure themselves, and notoriously lose the impetus to breed. In civilising ourselves we have put ourselves in a cage.

By either analysis of the irascible passions, there is a conflict between Civilisation and Nature.

If there is a conflict then a choice is compelled: one must either take Civilisation (over Nature), or take Nature (over Civilisation). These two choices carry with them different policies:

1. To choose Civilisation - on the grounds that "Nature Offends Civilisation" - recommends that Nature be censored, truncated, conquered.

2. To choose Nature - on the grounds that "Civilisation Offends Nature" - implies that Civilisation should retire. Nature is to be licensed, unfettered.

Each of these positions has political resonances.

Position 1 sounds "Left". It is the left that has a confidence in "progress". Progress is almost a "left" translation of civilisation.

However, there is also a powerful current in conservative thought that is so pessimistic about human nature that it stresses the imperative of some moral authority to act as disciplinarian to the human mass. This amounts to a binding of human nature, and extends to attempts to censor it.

Position 2 sounds "Right", as a disbelief in progress (and a sensitivity to "decline") is "right".

However, there are certain "left" philosophies of "personal liberation" - of a Rousseauian, Romantic, and counter-cultural hue - that reject civilisation in favour of whatever nature has given you. The "Be a Good Animal" ethic of some environmentalist ideologies is a good illustration. The Unabomber was a pathological extreme of this position.

However ambiguous in terms of Left/Right classifications, the two alternative versions of the conflict Civilisation and Nature have constituted an important divide in the history of ideas. One illustration of this divide was the division between Malthus and his critics over what do with the menace that the "animal" fertility of the human race posed to its aspirations for improvement.

Both T. R. Malthus, and his adversary William Godwin agreed on the menace that breeding posed to progress: this conflict between Civilised and the Natural was key and common ground to both sides. The difference between Malthus and Godwin lay in the choice they took in the face of the conflict. Malthus opted for Nature, and Godwin for Civilisation.

Godwin's choice turns on his confidence that with sufficient intellectual progress, the fertility rate will drop to zero. This unexpected hypothesis flows from Godwin's belief that our genetic endowment can be freely altered. To illustrate; Godwin grants that humankind is born with certain "appetites" (e.g. "hunger"). But these appetites can be:

conquered or restrained … by the due exercise of the understanding.
Godwin believes this because (in defiance of the anti-rationalist dimension of the 18th century utilitarians, such as Hume, Smith, and Bentham) Godwin is very much the 17th century rationalist, and sees reason as the sovereign to the senses. Thus the only true and sure foundation of pleasure is in reason:
The gratification of the senses... [only] please by their imposture…. [They are] intellectual delusions [that] we soon learn to despise.
And our contempt serves a useful purpose because, contrary to the maxim of "following nature":
these appetites… lead to excess, and the mischief with which they are pregnant is to be corrected.
Godwin's vision has an easy application to the menace of excessive breeding. If excessive fertility ever constitutes a menace to progress, then the "gratification of the senses" that formerly propelled the increase in population will vanish, says Godwin, under the glare of reason:
The men therefore whom we suppose to exist, when the earth shall refuse to itself a more extended population, will cease to propagate.
To sum up Godwin: Nature does threaten the advance of Civilisation, but Nature can be excised, pruned, and perfectly tamed.

In The Principle of Population of 1798 Malthus denied Godwin's thesis that the gratification of the senses would ultimately become extinct, and so with it the proximate source of population growth. Malthus calls the "passion between the sexes" a "fixed law of our nature". This, combined with the necessity of food, necessarily implies:

a difficulty of subsistence [that] must necessarily be severely felt by a large portion of mankind.
He concludes:
Is not a degree of misery, the necessary and inevitable result of the laws of nature …?
Thus for Malthus there is a conflict between Civilisation and Nature: for the "lower classes", at least, any significant degree of comfort is made impossible by Nature. But given the invincibility of Nature, Malthus recommends this be accepted, rather than futilely resisted.

In the decade subsequent to 1798 there was some dynamic in the controversy between the two men. Malthus shifted away somewhat from the invincibility of obdurate Nature. Godwin, by contrast, did not move in his principles, but became rather more radical in the means he favoured for truncating Nature.

This radicalisation can be introduced by reference to a fantastic misrepresentation of Malthus that obtained currency among French and English authors during the 1840s: that Malthus, or his adherents, recommended publicly organised infanticide as the means of managing the population problem. This accusation was intended quite literally. To Pierre Leroux (the man who coined the term "socialism"):

infanticide at public expense has been publicly called for by the disciples of Malthus.
Alphonse Toussenel - the Commissioner for Labour in the French second republic - went further. He asserted that Malthusians favour:
that a national award be given to mothers who sacrifice the fruit of the womb; and they want that mothers can visit the remains of the children in sumptuous cemeteries where they can breath the souls of the children amidst the smell of roses.
Wherein arose this myth of "annual massacre of infants"? The source seems to be the Book of Murder! that survives today only as a reprint (by anti-Malthusians) of a paper by one "Marcus" that had been "printed for private circulation" in 1838.

Marcus begins by commending Malthus for drawing attention to the problem of overpopulation, and then advances his own solution to the problem: the extinction of surplus infants by deadly gas. This would be carried out by an Association with legislative sanction. Mothers were to be consoled with the prospect of interment of their deceased children in beautiful cemeteries (or "Infants' Paradise") decorated with plants and flowers, which would be the "scene of recreation of all classes".

Anti-economists, including Carlyle and Engels, made good use of Marcus and his macabre vision to attack the Malthusian population theory as (to use Engels' description):

the crudest most barbarous theory that ever existed.
But who was Marcus? "Marcus" was the pseudonym of Matthew Livingston Davis (1766-1850), the "adoring friend", "intimate associate", "zealous henchman, and an unwise biographer" of Aaron Burr (Vice-President of the United States, 1801-05). Davis was also custodian of Burr's papers upon Burr's death in 1836, one year before the Book of Murder! appeared in "private circulation". Did Burr devise the scheme of Book of Murder!? Did Burr even write it himself?

This possibility quickens when we realise that Burr was "a disciple" of Jeremy Bentham. Even before meeting him, Burr had tried to persuade the Spanish Cortes to sponsor and distribute Bentham's Traites de Legislation. When the two finally met in 1808 it was for Burr "an intellectual milestone". He was Bentham's house guest for several months. The two enjoyed:

a warm and comfortable intimacy marked on Burr's part by unflagging adoration... ,[indeed]complete idolatry.
Burr proposed to Bentham that an invasion of Mexico be undertaken, that would leave Burr as Emperor, and Bentham as legislator.

The significance of Burr's Benthamania is that Bentham had, at least ten years before, accepted the Malthusian conflict between Civilisation and Nature. But unlike Malthus, Bentham had not accepted the invincibility of Nature; Nature could be censored. Thus Civilisation could be chosen over Nature. And Bentham did not hesitate to choose Civilisation. From 1797 Bentham was advocating contraception, and this advocacy was accepted by other Philosophical Radicals. At first it was reproduced only in delicate hints, but then openly in Frances Place's Illustrations and Proofs of the Principle of Population of 1822.

More critically for the Book of Murder!, in Bentham's mind the censorship of Nature was not limited to contraception. Infanticide was also countenanced in his Traites de Legislation of 1802. He judges infanticide to be a matter of "no alarm" in itself. As a step leading to crime, it should be branded with some "mark of disgrace". But Bentham cannot construe infanticide sui generis as a crime. We need not detain ourselves here with the weaknesses of his case. It is sufficient that Bentham had passed his judgment, and that it circulated among his pupils.

One ready learner was Francis Place - a father of fifteen - who in his Illustrations did something Bentham had not done in 1802: co-ordinate infanticide with the Malthusian program. Place stated he had no objection to infanticide if it would:

materially and permanently benefit the working people... without making them in other respects more vicious.
However, he added, infanticide in the present "condition" would be productive of "intense suffering", and "inefficient" in preventing over-population. In summary: Place opposed infanticide on pragmatic and circumstantial grounds, but had no "in principle" objection.

But perhaps still more significant for Burr than his encounters with Philosophic Radicals, was the fact that during his English sojourn he met and befriended someone who had publicly conjured with infanticide as a solution to the Malthusian problem, long before Place - and without any of Place's qualifications and hesitations: William Godwin.

During 1808 Burr:

came and went from the house of the William Godwin's as though he were a member of the family... [Godwin's] advanced ideas struck sympathetic chords.
What might have been among Godwin's "advanced ideas"? In his Thoughts Occasioned by the Perusal of Dr Parr's Spital Sermon of 1801 Godwin wrote that he had no:
superstitious reverence for the new born child.
He grants that the "exposing of children" is:
very painful and repulsive to the imagination.
But what sort of adults will they become if suffered to live?
It is not man, such as I see him that excites much of my veneration. … I know that the majority of that I see are corrupt, low minded, prepared for degradation and vice. … I know that the globe on earth affords room for only a certain number of human beings to be trained to any degree of perfection; and I had rather witness the existence of a thousand such [perfect] beings, than millions of millions of creatures burdensome to themselves and contemptible to each other.
Godwin complacently concludes that infanticide is:
an expedient perfectly adequate to the end of population control.
What especially interests me in Godwin's case here that it has a eugenic element - a eugenic element that is quite absent in Bentham or Place. To my mind this is something of a portent. For the choice compelled by the Malthusian controversy - to side with Nature over Civilisation, or Civilisation over Nature - prefigured the later emergence of the contrast between Social Darwinism (siding with "Nature" against civilisation), and Eugenicism (siding with "Civilisation" against Nature).

It seems the nineteenth century's literary debates prepared the 20th century well for its more practical acquaintance with "perverse civilisation" and "barbarous nature".

Dr William Coleman is Reader in Economics at the Australian National University and the author of Economics and its Enemies: Two Centuries of Anti-Economics, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).

To read William Coleman's other essays on the conflict between Nature and Civilisation, see: The Civilised Way of Death: Nature vs. Civilisation in the novels of Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh and William Godwin and A Natural History of Civilisation: How the Scottish Enlightenment Reconciled our Biology with our Progress.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement