Dorothy L. Sayers, for reasons that are still debated by literary critics and historians, abandoned the writing of detective stories in 1937 though she continued to review other books in he genre and was very active in the Detection Club (here is my review of Martin Edwards's history of that august institution, in case anyone is interested). She became more interested in theological matters, social commentary and, eventually, translation of Dante. With C, S. Lewis and Charles Williams she became during the war a popular commentator from the right-wing perspective (unlike J. B. Priestley whom she greatly admired) and a popular theologian.

The long essay I have just finished reading, Begin Here, was commissioned and written at the end of 1939, during what is known as the "phony war" and published in early 1940. It was reprinted and republished many times during the no longer phony war, despite paper rationing.

In this Sayers tried to sum up what she felt had gone wrong with the country, its society and the its people and proposed some tentative ideas about what might have to be done after the war. It is curious how many people at various points of the political spectrum started thinking about post-war society almost as soon as the war began, there being a general assumption that this war would really change everything.

There are too many things in the book for me to discuss in just one posting but let me refer to something that amused me intensely and made me realize that some annoying aspects of our own society goes back a lot further than we sometimes think.

On pages 116 to 117 (I managed to find a copy of the Second Impression, from February 1940) we find the following, which will sound familiar to many people:

I am perpetually disquieted by the popular appetite for what is (horribly) called the "personal angle" on every question. This irrational obsession pervades the newspapers, makes the lives of public characters a burden to them, distracts public worship from its proper object, and is rapidly destroying the intelligence of the people.

It is as though nobody cred fro what is said, but only for who says it. an unsigned article in a newspaper carries no weight, however sound its arguments; except in those few national organs that are still read by highly educated people, articles on theology, drama, science, sociology, poetry or any other special subject have to be sponsored by "a name" if they are to attract attention - nor does it seem to matter in the least whether "the name" knows anything about the subject or not.
Another aspect of the subject is covered at a later point of the book, at the start of the last chapter, called Begin Here, where she outlines her various suggestions for the future:
All questions of fact and all judgements calling for specialised experience must be referred to the people who have that special knowledge and experience. But when we have heard what they have to say, we must use our individual judgment as to the action to be taken, bearing always in mind the geral principles by which we have decided that the world should be governed.

We must also remember that an expert in one department is only an amateur in another; a biologist is no more specially qualified to pontificate about theology than a theologian to lay down the law about stage-management.
What, I wonder, would be Miss Sayers's opinion of the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, a successful and fairly talented actor, who seems to have set himself up as an expert on all subjects to do with morality.


  1. dfordoom Says:
  2. "she noted that the church’s capitulation to political agendas had contributed to its subsequent idolization of reason and 'progress.' ”

    That quote from the linked article really hits home. It's sobering to consider that Sayers could see this in 1940 but the Anglican Church still hasn't figured it out.

  3. Helen Says:
  4. There many interesting observations in the book even if one does not always agree with all her conclusions. That is one of them.

  5. An interesting comparison can be made with the above-named Sayers pamphlet of 1940 and F.A. von Hayek’s 1949 essay, ‘The Intellectuals and Socialism’.

    To begin, take Sayers quotation: ‘We must also remember than an expert in one department is only an amateur in another; a biologist is no more specially qualified to pontificate about theology than a theologian to lay down the law about stage-management.

    Now compare it with Hayek’s complementary stance on this issue: ‘Today in most parts of the Western world even the most determined opponents of socialism [many of whom Hayek terms experts in non-political endeavours, who are themselves conservatives] derive from socialist sources their knowledge on most subjects on which they have no first-hand information. With many of the more general preconceptions of socialist thought, the connection of their more practical proposals is by no means at once obvious; in consequence, many men who believe themselves to be determined opponents of that system of thought become in fact effective spreaders of its ideas. Who does not know the practical man who in his own field denounces socialism as “pernicious rot” but, when he steps outside his subject, spouts socialism like any Left journalist?

    To sum up, I imagine that both Sayers and Hayek are arguing that not only is special knowledge of political affairs limited, but that most of it is also suspect: and thus the necessity of relying upon the common sense of the average citizen — his ‘individual judgment’, in Sayers’ phrasing — over the self-proclaimed expert.

  6. Helen Says:
  7. Sayers spends some time working out whether we should rely on experts and if so, to what extent.

  8. Demetrius Says:
  9. My problem with experts is how often they are inexpert and how much their authority derives not so much from knowledge or analysis but status.

  10. Helen Says:
  11. I guess that is partly what Sayers meant by using one's common sense.

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