Essay on Population Theories According to the Early Chinese and Greek Thinkers


Since time immemorial, scholars and thinkers have concerned themselves with the population question. Of course the points of view have differed, specially as they related to the size and growth of human populations.

A large and rapidly growing population has sometimes been considered to be desirable as a source of the nation’s strength and wealth and as an essentially useful factor underlying technological development.

At the other extreme, it has been viewed as a contributory factor in poverty and such catastrophes as wars, famines and epidemics. The size and growth of population has thus been viewed as an important factor underlying the development of any country.


It is, therefore, worthwhile to trace the development in the thinking of scholars and the different points of views expressed by them with respect to population phenomena within the socio- economic-political context.

In ancient times, several statesmen and thinkers applied their minds to the question of the desirable size of population and the need for either encouraging or discouraging population growth.

The basis for such concern was mainly practical, covering military, political, social and economic issues, and usually led to the formulation of a specific public policy. Such thinking, however, cannot be designated as any statement of a consistent population theory.

In the true sense of the term, a population theory can be considered to have emerged only in the eighteen century when the well-known work of Thomas Malthus was published, though some thought was given to population issues in earlier periods.


Since Malthus, impressive contributions have been made to the population theory. In this chapter it is, therefore, proposed to discuss the various theories as they relate, first, to the early periods and then to the pre-Malthusian, Malthusian and post-Malthusian periods.

The two opposite viewpoints regarding population size and growth will be examined in the context of the social-economic-political thinking of the times as well as the actual demographic situations. This Chapter will also cover the biological, social and cultural theories of population.

Confucius and other Chinese Thinkers

The traces of some ideas, which have gained prominence in recent theoretical writings on population such as the effects of excessive population growth on the levels of living, internal peace, and productivity per worker may be noticed in the writings of some ancient thinkers and philosophers.


It appears that the great Chinese philosopher, Confucius, and those belonging to his school of thought, as well as a few other Chinese thinkers, had given some thought to the concept of optimum population as it related to agricultural land.

They had also considered population growth in relation to the availability of resources and the possible checks on this growth.

It must, however, be pointed out that the doctrines of Confucius on marriage, family and procreation were generally in favour of population increase.

Greek Thinkers


The population theories and policies of the Greeks and the Romans may best be understood with reference to their ideals. In the Greek scheme of political life, the individual was only a part of the state and had to play a subordinate role to it.

This viewpoint was reflected in their thinking on various social institutions. For instance, in ancient Sparta, marriage was considered as an institution created by the legal and political system, to provide the state with inhabitants and citizens.

The real purpose of marriage was, therefore, emphasised as being the procreation of children. Continual wars, which decreased the population size, demanded a constant supply of men.

All Spartans were therefore, compelled to get married. Celibacy was punishable by law and denounced in public. The state required that all marriages should be good, in the sense that children, sound in body and mind, should be born of such marriages.


Fathers, who had sired three or for sons, were publicly rewarded in Sparta. The Spartans, however, were also very much concerned about the quality of their population and disfavoured the overburdening of the state with useless inhabitants. As a result, deformed babies were invariably eliminated.

In Athens, the rules concerning procreation were somewhat less rigid, though Athenian customs and laws also encouraged frequent child bearing.

It is remarkable that policies relating to population growth underwent changes to suit changing situations.

During times of peace, when population increased rapidly, the usual recourse was to an expansionist policy of colonization, while, in order to avoid over-population, the Greeks even encouraged abortions and exposure of the new-born babies, leading to infanticide.

It must, however, be remembered that, like the Spartans, the Athenians were also interested in maintaining and improving the quality of the population.

From this, it is obvious that the Greeks were concerned about the size of the population more from the points of view of defense, security and government than from that of economic resources.

Plato (427-347 B.C.) was more specific on this point when he stated that if the “highest good” was to be achieved, the city-state should have 5,040 citizens and land, houses and property should be equally divided among them.

It may be noted that Plato referred only to citizens, and did not include women, children and slaves in this ideal number of 5,040. The total population of such an ideal city- state was about 50,000.

The possibility that demographic trends may not follow the ideals laid down by him was not overlooked by Plato.

To tackle the problem of over-population, he recommended infanticide, exposure and abandonment of deformed infants on grounds of eugenics, and even advocated colonisation, if necessary.

If the population decreased, Plato’s remedy was immigration. His ponytails measures included rewards, advice and scolding to young persons failing in their duty to achieve a certain family size.

According to Plato, the purpose of marriage was to bring forth children. He recommended that women should get married between the ages of 16 to 20, and even went so far as they say that marriage should be made compulsory for girls between these ages.

The figure of 5,040 citizens, which Plato mentioned as ideal for a city-state, appears to be a little intriguing. It is obvious that Plato attached some importance to this figure, for it is mentioned at least four times in The Laws.

He has not offered much of an explanation for recommending this figure, beyond the one that the number 5,040 can be divided by all the numbers from one to twelve, except eleven.

Even after dividing this figure by eleven the correction required would only be marginal, and by deducting two families from this figure, the defect would be taken care of.

Jowett is of the view that there was some element of Numerology in the choice of this particular number. This, however, does not explain the choice of the particular number 5,040, for a half of this number of its double would have served that same numerological purpose.

Hutchinson says that the purpose of this choice of figure in Plato’s planned state was ‘simply to aid in maintaining an equal division of property.”

Another plausible explanation is that Plato wanted the city- state to be large enough to ensure economic self-sufficiency and military defence, but small enough to permit a constitutional government, with considerable contact among citizens and scope for their direct participation.

Plato’s views on population, as expressed in his Laws, were based upon his ideal of the city-state rather than upon a broad view of human society.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) was of the opinion that an excessive number of people would give rise to poverty and other social ills, since it was not possible to increase land and property as rapidly as the size of the population.

As preventive checks, he suggested abortion and exposure of babies. In order to control the size of the city-state, Aristotle even proposed a limit on the number of children each couple should have.

To sum up, the Greeks were interested in maintaining population size which was appropriate for a city-state. They also emphasised the quality of the population. They were interested in what may be called political, rather than economic, questions, and their politics were the politics of small city-states.

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