Dorothy Sayers on Work, Economic Failure, and the Meaningful Life

by Matt

After World War II concluded and in the transition new arrangements in society seemed possible, the incomparable Dorothy Sayers forcefully called public attention to the matter of work, it’s place in our lives, our attitudes toward it, and the spiritual consequences it has on our lives.

In her On Work (PDF), she makes the case that work is vital;

Nothing more than the future of our civilization is at stake

[I]t seems to me that what becomes of civilization after this war is going to depend enormously on our being able to effect this revolution in our ideas about work. Unless we do change our whole way of thought about work, I do not think we shall ever escape from the appalling squirrel cage of economic confusion in which we have been madly turning for the last three centuries or so, the cage in which we landed ourselves by acquiescing in a social system based upon Envy and Avarice.

A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded on trash and waste, and such a society is a house built upon sand.

This contrast between a society bent toward increasing the consumption of things (a source of waste and ingratitude) and the wartime imperative for society to conserve everything, exemplifies for Sayers the root of the problem: a fundamental economic confusion between price and value, money and true worth, which ultimately derives from “the fruit of the earth” and “the labor of men”:

Do you realize how we have had to alter our whole scale of values, now that we are no longer being urged to consume but to conserve? We have been forced back to the social morals of our great-grandparents. When a piece of lingerie costs three precious coupons, we have to consider, not merely its glamour value, but how long it will wear. When fats are rationed, we must not throw away scraps, but jealously use to advantage what it cost so much time and trouble to breed and rear. When paper is scarce we must – or we should – think whether what we have to say is worth saying before writing or printing it. When our life depends on the land, we have to pay in short commons for destroying its fertility by neglect or overcropping. When a haul of herrings takes valuable manpower from the forces, and is gathered in at the peril of men’s lives by bomb and mine and machine gun, we read a new significance into those gloomy words which appear so often in the fishmonger’s shop: NO FISH TODAY….We have had to learn the bitter lesson that in all the world there are only two sources of real wealth: the fruit of the earth and the labor of men; and to estimate work not by the money it brings to the producer, but by the worth of the thing that is made.

Sayers isn’t naive. She’s aware that the economy in war hasn’t shifted from consumption to conservation. The factories are busier than ever. The only change is that consumption has just shifted from the home front to the battlefield, waste is counted not in cheap nylons, but in the monstrous cost of lives wasted, annihilated in total war. She also understands that in peacetime, the pressure to consume will only be greater. “No nation has yet found a way to keep the machines running and whole nations employed under modern industrial conditions without wasteful consumption.”

When war ceases, then the problem of employing labor at the machines begins again. The relentless pressure of hungry labor is behind the drive toward wasteful consumption, whether in the destruction of war or in the trumpery of peace.

Sayers’ missive is not the plea of simplistic socialists or communists who locate the root of the problem in the war between capital and labor and seek a solution in political power which will impose the good on the rest of society. No, Sayers recognizes that the problem is in the human heart, both what we want—our appetite to consume ever more—and how we understand our work.

Sayers encourages us to view work not as merely a means to get money, but as the extension and ennobling of our creative faculties. She urges us to consider those higher goods when we decide what to work at and for how long:

The habit of thinking about work as something one does to make money is so ingrained in us that we can scarcely imagine what a revolutionary change it would be to think about it instead in terms of the work done. To do so would mean taking the attitude of mind we reserve for our unpaid work – our hobbies, our leisure interests, the things we make and do for pleasure – and making that the standard of all our judgments about things and people. We should ask of an enterprise, not “will it pay?” but “is it good?”; of a man, not “what does he make?” but “what is his work worth?”; of goods, not “Can we induce people to buy them?” but “are they useful things well made?”; of employment, not “how much a week?” but “will it exercise my faculties to the utmost?” And shareholders in – let us say – brewing companies, would astonish the directorate by arising at shareholders’ meeting and demanding to know, not merely where the profits go or what dividends are to be paid, not even merely whether the workers’ wages are sufficient and the conditions of labor satisfactory, but loudly and with a proper sense of personal responsibility: “What goes into the beer?”

In this last line, she anticipates not just the craft beer movement of the last twenty or thirty years, which takes the question “What goes into the beer?” with great moral seriousness. You also see her desire in the rise of the marker movement, artisanal foods, urban farming, and more.

What you don’t see, however, is a movement toward what Sayer’s is really advocating, “a Christian understanding of work” as a way to “see the economy from outside the cage.” She believes the reason the church struggles for broader economic impact is that it’s attempting to fit “a Christian standard of economic into a wholly false and pagan understanding of work.”

What is this Christian view of work? Situated within a belief that we all bear the image of God, Sayers argues that the Christian ought to approach work with three fundamental principles in mind:

  1. “[W]ork is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do. It is, or it should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God.”
  2. “[T]the secular vocation, as such, is sacred.” In other words, it’s not just “Church” work that is the work of the church; it’s everything that we do to create value for others and create for ourselves. Our economic lives should be understood as a living out of our faith and a fulfilling of our calling, rather than something we do separate from our identity in Christ. The alternative is irrelevance. “How can any one remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life?”
  3. “[T]he worker’s first duty is to serve the work.” In other words, the worker’s first duty is not to serve the community. Here, Sayers argues that our prioritizing of community in our rhetoric leads to prioritizing the second of Jesus’ “great” commandments (“Love your neighbor as yourself”) above the first (“Love the Lord your God.”) “Whenever man is made the center of things, he becomes the storm center of trouble – and that is precisely the catch about serving the community. It ought perhaps to make us suspicious of that phrase when we consider that it is the slogan of every commercial scoundrel and swindler who wants to make sharp business practice pass muster as social improvement. ’Service’ is the motto of the advertiser, of big business, and of fraudulent finance.”

There’s much more in Sayer’s essay. Don’t miss especially the implications she gives to her three principles of work; there’s depth in her reasoning that will resonate.

While I disagree with her distrust of markets; as corrosive as they can be to the soul when given priority over every other good, the price system is important. It provides information about what people need and the relative scarcity of resources which is invaluable to the person who wants to best steward her time, energy, and resources.

That said, I think Sayers’ broader claims about the nature and place of work are perhaps even more vital today than when she first penned them.

Today, the digital transition is well underway. For many of us, our jobs are increasingly creative and yet creative in ways that are ephemeral, intangible, the “information” in “information work.” The foundations of the economy are shifting beneath our feet. We have a number of new opportunities, but few sure guides.

Sayers’ belief that work is innately good and her inspiring account of the ways work can be fulfilling just might be the guide you need. For I’m convinced that only by working with the right purposes for the right reasons can we harness work’s ability to revitalize society and reenergize (rather than depress) the soul.

One thought on “Dorothy Sayers on Work, Economic Failure, and the Meaningful Life

  1. Gregory says:

    Thanks…good post. I love Dorothy. However, I’m slightly concerned with the numbered points outlining a Christian view on work.

    First, while I’m happy to hear what Dorothy says, I’m not so sure I’d trust her to give me “the” Christian view on work – I might want to consult the tradition a little more broadly.

    Second, I don’t quite care for the formulation of some of it. We live to work? Really? I think that’s a bit vague – dangerously so.

    How do you define work? Where does leisure fit in? Should I simply dig trenches all day and give myself to it like a good, docile, little Christian? That seems to be the sense of the points she’s making, or at least one possible reading.

    Where are the distinctions between creativity, labor, drudgery, toil? Is all work equal? What about her seeming denial of the common good in point 3?

    May I recommend John Paul II’s encyclical on work?

    http://www.catholic-pages.com/documents/laborem_exercens.pdf

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