The Dismal Origins of a Sobriquet

Stanford’s John McMillan enjoyed Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations. He writes, “I found no nits to pick, except one: your use of ‘dismal science’ in a chapter heading. You might check out Carlyle’s article ‘Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question.’ Economic analysis was ‘dismal,’ in his view, because its proponents were using to it argue for the abolition of slavery. No one would invoke the phrase if they knew how disgusting its origins were.”

The text of Carlyle’s anonymous 1849 essay in Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country can be found here on the New School’s excellent History of Thought site. Carlyle argued that slavery should not have been abolished. The relevant passage is this:

“Truly, my philanthropic friends, Exeter Hall philanthropy is wonderful; and the social science — not a “gay science,” but a rueful –which finds the secret of this universe in “supply and demand,” and reduces the duty of human governors to that of letting men alone, is also wonderful. Not a “gay science,” I should say, like some we have heard of; no, a dreary, desolate and, indeed, quite abject and distressing one; what we might call, by way of eminence, the dismal science. These two, Exeter Hall philanthropy and the Dismal Science, led by any sacred cause of black emancipation, or the like, to fall in love and make a wedding of it — will give birth to progenies and prodigies: dark extensive moon-calves, unnameable abortions, wide-coiled monstrosities, such as the world has not seen hitherto!”

This is indeed the origin of the famous phrase. And McMillan is right. Carlyle’s essay is a revolting piece of work.

I am not so certain, however, that its disreputable origins should lead us to eliminate ”dismal science” from our vocabulary. The phrase neatly encapsulates what chapter five is all about — the dire implications for the human prospect of the Ricardian and Malthusian models. Presumably this resonance is why the sobriquet endured, while Carlyle’s views racist views were soon forgotten.

It is a good thing, therefore, that for Economic Principals, I am reading The “Vanity of the Philosopher:” From Equality to Hierarchy in Post-Classical Economics, by Sandra J. Peart and David M. Levy. The authors deal extensively with the 19th century alliance between evangelicals (among them, the Exeter Hall philanthropists) and English political economists, united in their support of the presumption of human equality – a good excuse to revisit this topic in the summer.

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