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The dismal science

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Title: The dismal science  
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Subject: Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question, Economics, Definitions of economics, Ernst Fehr, Malthusian catastrophe
Collection: Economics Aphorisms, History of Economic Thought
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The dismal science

"The dismal science" is a derogatory alternative name for economics coined by the Victorian historian Thomas Carlyle in the 19th century. The term drew a contrast with the then-familiar use of the phrase "gay science" to refer to song and verse writing.[1]


  • Origin 1
  • Criticism 2
  • See also 3
  • References 4
  • External links 5


It is often stated, incorrectly, that Carlyle gave economics the nickname "the dismal science" as a response to the late 18th century writings of The Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, who grimly predicted that starvation would result as projected population growth exceeded the rate of increase in the food supply.[2][3] Carlyle did indeed use the word 'dismal' in relation to Malthus' theory in his essay Chartism (1839):

The controversies on Malthus and the 'Population Principle', 'Preventive Check' and so forth, with which the public ear has been deafened for a long while, are indeed sufficiently mournful. Dreary, stolid, dismal, without hope for this world or the next, is all that of the preventive check and the denial of the preventive check.

However, the full phrase "the dismal science" first occurs in Carlyle's 1849 tract entitled Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question, in which he was arguing for the reintroduction of slavery as a means to regulate the labor market in the West Indies:

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.[4]

It was "dismal" in "find[ing] the secret of this Universe in 'supply and demand,' and reducing the duty of human governors to that of letting men alone." Instead, the "idle Black man in the West Indies" should be "compelled to work as he was fit, and to do the Maker's will who had constructed him."[5]


Carlyle's view was attacked by John Stuart Mill as making a virtue of toil itself, stunting the development of the weak, and committing the "vulgar error of imputing every difference which he finds among human beings to an original difference of nature."[5][6]

See also


  1. ^ The latter phrase later appeared as the title of a book by Nietzsche: The Gay Science.
  2. ^ The Dismal ScienceInvestopedia Page on
  3. ^ The Dismal ScienceEconomics Help page on
  4. ^ Carlyle, Thomas (1849). "Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question", Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country, Vol. XL., p. 672.
  5. ^ a b As quoted in Joseph Persky, 1990. "Retrospectives: A Dismal Romantic," Journal of Economic Perspectives, 4(4), pp. 167-169 [pp. 165-172].
  6. ^ Mill, John Stuart (1850). "The Negro Question," Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country, Vol. XLI, p. 29.

External links

  • Thomas Carlyle, ‘The Dismal Science,’ and the Contemporary Political Economy of Slavery, by Peter Groenwegen
  • The Secret History of the Dismal Science, by David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart.
  • The Dismal Science? Thomas Carlyle v John Stuart Mill, by Robert Dixon
  • Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question , by Thomas Carlyle
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