Mute inglorious Miltons

by John Q on January 12, 2024

Chris’s post on declining population has prompted me to get started on what I plan, in the end, to be a lengthy critique of the pro-natalist position that dominates public debate at the moment. My initial motivation to do this reflected long-standing concerns about human impacts on the environment but I don’t have any particular expertise on that topic, or anything new to say. Instead, I want to address the economic and social issues, making the case that a move to a below-replacement fertility rate is both inevitable and desirable.

I’m going to start with a claim that came up in discussion here and is raised pretty often. The claim is that the more children are born, the greater the chance that some of them will be Mozarts, Einsteins, or Mandelas who will contribute greatly to human advancement. My response was pre-figured several hundred years ago by Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. Gray reflects that those buried in the churchyard may include some “mute inglorious Milton” whose poetic genius was never given the chance to flower because of poverty and unremitting labour

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll;
Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.

Billions of people alive today (the majority of whom are women) are in the same situation today, with their potential unrealised through lack of access to education and resources to express themselves. Rather than adding to their numbers, or diverting yet more resources away from them, we ought to be focusing on making a world where everyone has a chance to be a great poet or inventor.

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