“The world must be peopled.” That’s Benedict’s announcement in Much Ado, when he talks himself into falling in love with Beatrice. I also considered making it the title of my dissertation, but opted instead to pay homage to my dissertation advisor by alluding to his most influential book (so far): In Defence of War. Benedict’s affirmation of the responsibility to people the world is out of step with our own culture and time, but is a strong current within Shakespeare’s works. The first seventeen Sonnets, for instance, are partially an extended argument to a friend to marry and pass on his beauty to the next generation. They are deeply pro-natalist; these days, they are almost exclusively read as deeply homoerotic. The difference is nearly all you need to know about how our world goes.
Benedict’s announcement is a moment of hilarity and joy—while Trollope offers a sadder, darker inversion of the same theme. In He Knew He Was Right, Louis Trevelyan is consumed with an Othello-like jealousy of his wife, which corrodes both himself and his marriage. He has some cause for frustration, but as the Trollope makes clear, not nearly so much as he thinks. At no point can he bring himself to confess his own wrongs, while his wife eventually overcomes her own obstinacy. It is a sad story of a relatively common phenomenon—the slow erosion of an otherwise happy union because of miscommunication, stubbornness, and imprudence.
Given this backdrop, one might forgive Trevelyan for adopting a more dour understanding of procreation than Benedict. In an exchange near the end of the novel, he suggests that wives are a “an evil, more or less necessary to humanity”. “The world must be populated,” he goes on, “though for what reason one does not see.” He has contributed one child to the project, but is willing to own regret if his friend thinks he ought to have done more. This is a more sombre pro-natalism than that of Benedict, one which has been beaten down by the failure of his marriage.
Still, both Benedict and Trevelyan subordinate their understandings of marriage to the good of the species. One looks prospectively at marriage, the other retrospectively. One supplies an exuberant affirmation of marriage, the other a cynical diminishment of it. They are both deluded in their self-assessments: Benedict is condescending to love Beatrice because he has been duped into believing she loves him, while Trevelyan maintains the purity of his own hands and soul despite engaging in malicious behavior toward his wife. We do not hear from women in either about whether the peopling of the world is sufficient reason to sign up for a life with men.
The juxtaposition between the two statements and their context is illuminating. Benedict needs no reason why the world must be peopled—it is a given for him, a fact, and at the moment a fact of great joy. It supplies the inner explanation, the logic for his decision to consider Beatrice as a spouse. The dissolution of Trevelyan’s marriage and happiness means that he has lost any reason for what now seems a cruel institution altogether. While the responsibility to people the world is a fact, it is by no means a source of delight. He needs a reason to people the world, as the failure of his marriage makes procreating seem like little more than brute obligation or responsibility. He cannot see a reason for why the world must be peopled—when the entire problem is that he has been impelled to look.
We ourselves are nearer to Trevelyan’s outlook than Benedict’s—and therein lies a great crisis for our society. The ongoing discussion about whether we ought procreate, because of climate change or any other expected harms or suffering, is itself part of the problem. The peopling of the world should be accepted as the primary fact, as the reason for why we do so much else in the realm of love and marriage. In the parlance of some analytic philosophers, that the world must be peopled is a ‘properly basic belief’: it needs no justification, no rationale, no defense. To attempt one is to lose, as it is to begin from the cynical despair that Trevelyan has been seized by. (I wrote a dissertation on why Christians procreate—so this line of thought is meant to capture an intuition I have about these matters, rather than be a definitive statement.)
Moreover, we are nearer to Trevelyan because we are looking at the value of childbearing while immersed in the carnage and chaos of broken marital and family bonds. Though peopling the world for both is a justification or rational for marriage, marriage is also the presupposition and gateway to procreation. If marriage fails, our ability to see the peopling of the world as a commanding fact of joy will diminish accordingly. This is true both when our own marriages fail, as Trevelyan’s did, but also when the marriages (or unions) we are immersed within from our birth fail to fill us with the joy and confidence of life required to accept the value of procreating. Our care for future generations is embedded within our recognition of the gifts we have received from past generations. When we receive broken fragments of marriage, and so forget what it can be, we lose as well the glad enthusiasm to people the world that Benedict exudes. Without the devastation left by the sexual revolution, the troubles of climate change would have no purchase or hook on our intuitions about whether we ought bring new humans into the world.