The casual observer might wonder how a pre-war English detective novelist could possibly be relevant to a twenty-first century economic crisis. That would be to underestimate Dorothy L. Sayers.
In the 1933 whodunit Murder Must Advertise, Sayers placed Lord Peter Wimsey incognito in an advertising agency. This allowed her to excoriate the profession and its exploitation of "those who, aching for a luxury beyond their reach and for a leisure for ever denied them, could be bullied or wheedled into spending their few hardly won shillings on whatever might give them, if only for a moment, a leisured and luxurious illusion."
The present situation would thus have caused her no surprise. When the underlying motive of society is economic, when humanity is devalued, the result of this sin will be judgement. One reaped what one had sown; on a larger scale, the Second World War was a manifestation of the same universal truth. In Begin Here, written in the first months of the war, she identified the idolatry of Economics as the key flaw at the heart of society, the overweening contemporary sin.
Begin Here traced a downhill path from the medieval conception of humanity as an image of God to the twentieth-century vision which placed man as an underling of economics. In Sayers’ hands, this became a second fall in slow motion across several centuries. ‘This is the judgment of this world,’ she reiterated in a wartime address to the Public Morality Council: "When we will not amend ourselves by grace, we are compelled under the yoke of the law."
Her address to the Council Sayers entitled "The Other Six Deadly Sins," in which she berated the churches’ concentration on lust. Sayers took avarice and held it to the light, with results that must have been unpleasant to the more reflective audience members. "The Church says covetousness is a deadly sin—but does she really think so? Is she ready to found welfare societies to deal with financial immorality as she does with sexual immorality," Sayers mused, rhetorically asking "does the Church arrange services, with bright congregational singing, for total abstainers from usury?"
In the same vein, she upbraided contemporary society for a related sin. "Whether or not it is desirable to keep up this fearful whirligig of industrial finance based on gluttonous consumption," she asserted, "it could not be kept up for a minute without the co-operative gluttony of the consumer." Sayers would have agreed that the housing meltdown was, at base, a moral failure. The belief that it was not merely reasonable, but virtuous, to want that which you could not afford would have struck her as preposterous as well as sinful.
The final period of Sayers’ life was devoted to a new translation of Dante’s Commedia. Those souls damned by their decision to choose sin, in her lively and idiomatic Inferno, spoke to the 1940s as well as they spoke to fourteenth-century Florence. They speak just as sharply today.
In the Inferno, the merely avaricious, the hoarders and the spendthrifts, are consigned to the Fourth Circle of Upper Hell. Comparatively, they get off lightly: Down in Nether Hell, in the Third Ring of the Circle of Violence, Dante placed the usurers, along with the blasphemers and the sodomites. Not perhaps the most obvious soulmates, but Sayers points out that the usurers "are violent, not only against Nature, the child of God, but also against Art, which is the Child of Nature. How so? Because, says Dante, in effect, there are only two sources of real prosperity: the produce of the earth and the labor of men’s hands . . . but the Usurer has found a third way which does violence to both Art and Nature." When the machinations of finance were predicated on money earning money, they were predicated on an illusion. It was an attempt to get something for nothing.
In a wartime letter, Sayers asserted that "no social structure can be satisfactory that is not based upon a satisfactory philosophy of man’s true nature and needs," which disqualified any that elevated economic factors to primacy. Her Christian understanding would have caused Sayers more concern over the response to the economic "crisis" than to the crisis itself. Welfare liberalism is as much—maybe more—of a materialist philosophy as capitalism, because it assumes the overriding good is material. There is no transcendent Absolute, and thus humanity places itself where God should be. There is no atonement and no redemption in welfare liberalism.
From a materialist perspective, a government that commits to feeding, clothing, and housing its citizens is promising more than God, who told His followers to take no thought of the morrow. It is unfortunately the case that, however valuable it is to insist upon the material dignity of the person, the political philosophy in which it enjoys current influence is one which does not regard this dignity as the means to the divine end of humanity. The difference between Lord God Emmanuel and Rahm Emanuel is that the former suggests to his creation that they might address where their treasure lies; the latter insists that humanity put its faith in government.
Moreover, Sayers would have identified envy as the sin at the heart of left-wing critiques of capitalism. "If avarice is the sin of the Haves against the Have-Nots," Sayers reminded her audience, "Envy is the sin of the Have-Nots against the Haves," and therefore "can always find support among those who are just and generous-minded." We are as familiar as Sayers with these plausible plaints, but Sayers recognized in envy a deeper and more subtle evil, in which the spirit of vindictiveness masquerades as righteous indignation.
Sayers would have treated with contempt Susan Sarandon’s exultation that President Obama "is a community organizer like Jesus was. And now, we’re a community and he can organize us." She recognised this philosophy as, at the very least, providing justification for a gradual assault on freedom. In the "Wimsey Papers," which appeared in the Spectator in the early months of World War Two, Sayers’ characters drew morals she felt in danger of being ignored. From "somewhere in France," Peter Wimsey wrote to his wife, Lady Harriet, exhorting her, as a writer, to ‘tell the people’:
They must not continually ask for leadership—they must lead themselves. This is a war against submission to leadership, and we might easily win it in the field and yet lose it in our own country.
I have seen the eyes of the men who ask for leadership, and they are the eyes of slaves . . . they must not look to the State for guidance—they must learn to guide the State. Somehow you must contrive to tell them this. It is the only thing that matters.
As the translator of Dante, Sayers knew that freedom lay at the heart of Christianity. Those whom Dante met throughout the Commedia are experiencing precisely what they freely chose on earth, from the icy wastes at the depths of hell to the indescribable light at the summit of heaven.
A state based not upon this conception but upon welfare liberalism is based on a dogma that may call itself pragmatic but is predicated upon a materialist assumption. The danger lies in the extrapolation of the assumption: From state direction of economics in the name of equality, the abdication of personal responsibility into other areas of life can appear as a natural progression. "Wherever the state, as such, is held to be an Absolute," Sayers warned in painting a worst-case scenario, "there can be no individual liberty of opinion." President Obama seems to have reversed the challenge of President Kennedy: Ask not what you can do for your country, but what your country can do for you. In such a society, the ‘social contract’ can become a Faustian pact.
Nick Baldock is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of history at Yale University.