Ted McCormick

Population, Wealth, and Government: Three Seventeenth-Century Projects at the Disciplinary Margins

Seventeenth-century projectors brought a number of new intellectual and natural-philosophical developments to bear on problems at once social, political, economic and scientific; in so doing, their projects helped to articulate concepts around which the nascent disciplines of social science and new practices of statecraft as well as self-government would crystallize during the long eighteenth century. This paper examines three such projects, linked both socially and intellectually: the Hartlibian Gabriel Plattes’s pursuit of infinite wealth and population growth through alchemically modeled “improvement”, articulated in both utopian and practical modes during the 1630s and early 1640s; Hartlib Circle veteran William Petty’s manuscript proposals for the “transmutation” of recalcitrant subpopulations in the British Isles and across the Atlantic through the adoption by the state of “political arithmetic” from the 1660s and 1670s; and Samuel Foley’s “Computatio universalis”, presented to the Dublin Philosophical Society while Petty was President in 1685 and setting out a geometrical method for determining “wisdom” and pursuing “happiness” at each stage of an individual’s lifespan. All three brought an operational view of the relationship between art and nature and an emphasis on the role of numbers in that relationship to bear on questions involving both the quantification and the qualitative transformation of human collectivities, natural and economic resources, and individual lives, foreshadowing a complex of concepts – population, industry, utility, happiness – central to the emergence of Enlightened disciplines of moral, political, and social thought.