Latter-day Pamphlets "The Dismal Science"

Thomas Carlyle

"The Dismal Science"

Context: These essays on the political problems of his time exhibit Carlyle at his most vehement. He is alarmed by the wave of upheaval that shook all Europe in 1848 with riot and revolution, and by the unrest in England. To Carlyle, the growing trend toward democracy is an evil that must somehow be met and turned into sanity and order. He excoriates the hereditary aristocracy, which he considers least qualified by nature to govern anything; he believes man must be ruled, but that some other group must rule. As for democracy, he considers it no more than "Constituted Anarchy." America cannot serve as a successful example of democracy in action, he points out: with a small population and half a continent to subdue, it could get along with no government at all. When enough time has passed to reverse these conditions, the boasted freedoms will vanish. Here Carlyle pokes fun at suffrage: one cannot change a law of nature, he observes, by voting otherwise. He then turns to one of the great problems of his time, which has also contributed greatly to the revolutionary movements of Europe: the large masses of unemployed and indigent people. The government is spending vast amounts of money keeping these persons alive; some want employment and cannot secure it, others avoid it. Clearly, they and their country cannot be helped in this fashion. They must be put to work, and must be led. The hereditary leaders have already proven themselves incapable of the task; Carlyle suggests that the newly-developed "Captains of Industry" may be better qualified. He then presents an imaginary speech by a hypothetical Prime Minister to these multitudes, pointing out the labor that must be undertaken if all Britain is to be made productive, and the fact that it is better to pay them for work than to pay them for rotting where they sit. At this point there is an interruption from the political and social scientists–"all manner of Economists, Emancipationists, Constitutionalists," and other practitioners of political and social theory; but the Prime Minister quiets them:

"Respectable Professors of the Dismal Science, soft you a little. Alas, I know what you would say. For my sins, I have read much in those inimitable volumes of yours,–really I should think, some barrowfuls of them in my time,–and, in these last forty years of theory and practice, have pretty well seized what of Divine Message you were sent with to me. Perhaps as small a message, give me leave to say, as ever there was such a noise made about before. Trust me, I have not forgotten it, shall never forget it. Those Laws of the Shop-till are indisputable to me; and practically useful in certain departments of the Universe, as the multiplication-table itself. Once I even tried to sail through the Immensities with them, and to front the big coming Eternities with them; but I found it would not do. As the Supreme Rule of Statesmanship, or Government of Men,–since this Universe is not wholly a Shop,–no. You rejoice in my improved tariffs, free-trade movements and the like, on every hand; for which be thankful, and even sing litanies if you choose. But here at last, in the Idle-Workhouse movement,–unexampled yet on Earth or in the waters under the Earth,–I am fairly brought to a stand; and have had to make reflections, of the most alarming, and indeed awful, and as it were religious nature! Professors of the Dismal Science, I perceive that the length of your tether is now pretty well run. . . ."