Dorothy L. Sayers

Great Quotes By: DOROTHY L. SAYERS

From “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged:

Biblical Christianity, of late years, has been having what is known as a bad press.  We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine—dull dogma as people call it. The fact is the precise opposite. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man—and the dogma is the drama.

Here we had a man of divine character walking and talking among us—and what did we find to do with him? Our leading authorities in Church and State considered that he talked too much and uttered too many disconcerting truths. So we tried him on a rather vague charge of creating a disturbance and had him publicly flogged and hanged on the common gallows. All this was not very creditable to us, but if the Church is right about him, it was more discreditable still, for the man we hanged was God Almighty.

That is the outline of the official story—the tale of the time when God was the underdog and got beaten, when he submitted to the conditions he had laid down and became a man like the men he had made, and the men he had made broke him and killed him. This is the dogma we find so dull—this terrifying drama of which God is the victim and hero. If this is dull, then what, in Heaven’s name, is worthy to be called exciting? The people who hanged Christ never accused him of being a bore—on the contrary, they thought him too dynamic to be safe.

Now, we may call that doctrine exhilarating, or we may call it devastating; we may call it revelation, or we may call it rubbish; but if we call it dull, then words have no meaning at all.

From The Mind of the Maker:

The more closely the moral code agrees with the natural law, the more it makes for freedom in human behavior; the more widely it departs from the natural law, the more it tends to enslave mankind and to produce the catastrophes called ‘judgments of God.’

A society of Caligulas is more likely to end in catastrophe than a society of Franciscans. Because God has made the world like this and will not alter it, therefore you must not worship your own fantasies, but pay allegiance to the truth.

The habit, very prevalent today, of dismissing words as ‘just words’ takes no account of their power. But once the Idea has entered into other minds, it will tend to reincarnate itself there with ever-increasing Energy and ever-increasing Power.

The demand for ‘originality’—with the implication that the reminiscence of other writers is a sin against originality and a defect in the work—is a recent one and would have seemed quite ludicrous to poets of the Augustan Age, or of Shakespeare’s time. The traditional view is that each new work should be a fresh focus of power through which former streams of beauty, emotion, and reflection are directed.

From The Man Born to Be King

The law forbidding the representation on the stage of any Person of the Holy Trinity had helped to foster the notion that all such representations were intrinsically wicked, and had encouraged a tendency, already sufficiently widespread, towards that Docetic and totally heretical Christology which denies the full Humanity of Our Lord.

The knowledge which the British public has of the New Testament is extensive, but in many respects peculiar. The books are, on the whole, far better known as a collection of disjointed texts and moral aphorisms wrenched from their contexts than as a coherent history made up of coherent episodes. Moreover, the words of the books are by great numbers of British Christians held to be sacrosanct in such a sense that they must not be expanded, interpreted, or added to, even in order to set the scene, supply obvious gaps in the narrative, or elucidate the sense. And this sacrosanctity is attributed, not to the Greek of the original and only authentic documents, but to every syllable of a translation made three hundred years ago (and that not always with perfect accuracy) in an idiom so old-fashioned that, even as English, it is often obscure to us or positively misleading.

A loose and sentimental theology begets loose and sentimental art-forms; an illogical theology lands one in illogical situations; an ill-balanced theology issues in false emphasis and absurdity. Conversely, there is no more searching test of a theology than to submit it to dramatic handling; nothing so glaringly exposes inconsistencies in a character, a story, or a philosophy as to put it upon the stage and allow it to speak for itself.

My object was to tell that story to the best of my ability, to make as good a work of art as I could. For a work of art that is not good and true in art is not good or true in any other respect and is useless for any purpose whatsoever—even for edification—because it is a lie, and the devil is that father of all such. As drama, these plays stand or fall. It is the business of the dramatist not to subordinate the drama to the theology, but to approach the job of truth-telling from his own end, and trust the theology to emerge undistorted from the dramatic presentation of the story. This it can scarcely help doing if the playwright is faithful to his material, since the history and the theology of Christ are one thing: His life is theology in action, and the drama of His life is dogma shown as dramatic action.

From “Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning”

I want to inquire whether, amid all the multitudinous subjects which figure in the syllabuses, we are really teaching the right things in the right way; and whether, by teaching fewer things, differently, we might not succeed in “shedding the load” (as the fashionable phrase goes) and, at the same time, producing a better result.

If we are to produce a society of educated people, fitted to preserve their intellectual freedom amid the complex pressures of our modern society, we must turn back the wheel of progress some four or five hundred years, to the point at which education began to lose sight of its true object, towards the end of the Middle Ages. The stock argument in favour of prolonging the period of education generally is that there is now so much more to learn than there was in the Middle Ages. This is partly true, but not wholly. The modern boy and girl are certainly taught more subjects—but does that always mean that they are actually more learned and know more?

Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, that to-day, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass-propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard-of and unimagined? Do you put this down to the mere mechanical fact that the press and the radio and so on have made propaganda much easier to distribute over a wide area? Or do you sometimes have an uneasy suspicion that the product of modern educational methods is less good than he or she might be at disentangling fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible?

Is it not the great defect of our education today (a defect traceable through all the disquieting symptoms of trouble that I have mentioned) that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils “subjects,” we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think? They learn everything, except the art of learning.

Let us now look at the mediæval scheme of education. The syllabus was divided into two parts: the Trivium and Quadrivium. The Quadrivium consisted of “subjects,” and need not for the moment concern us. The interesting thing for us is the composition of the Trivium, which preceded the Quadrivium and was the preliminary discipline for it. It consisted of three parts: Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric, in that order.

Grammar indeed is a “subject” in the sense that it does mean definitely learning a language—at that period it meant learning Latin. But language itself is simply the medium in which thought is expressed. The whole of the Trivium was in fact intended to teach the pupil the proper use of the tools of learning, before he began to apply them to “subjects” at all. First, he learned a language: not just how to order a meal in a foreign language, but the structure of language—a language–and hence of language itself—what it was, how it was put together and how it worked.

Secondly, he learned how to use language: how to define his terms and make accurate statements; how to construct an argument and how to detect fallacies in argument (his own arguments and other people’s). Dialectic, that is to say, embraced Logic and Disputation. Thirdly, he learned to express himself in language: how to say what he had to say elegantly and persuasively. At this point, any tendency to express himself windily or to use his eloquence so as to make the worse appear the better reason would, no doubt, be restrained by his previous teaching in Dialectic.

Modern education concentrates on teaching subjects, leaving the method of thinking, arguing, and expressing one’s conclusions to be picked up by the scholar as he goes along. Mediæval education concentrated on first forging and learning to handle the tools of learning, using whatever subject came handy as a piece of material on which to doodle until the use of the tool became second nature.

What, then, are we to do? We cannot go back to the Middle Ages. That is a cry to which we have become accustomed. We cannot go back—or can we? Does “Go back” mean a retrogression in time, or the revision of an error? The first is clearly impossible per se; the second is a thing which wise men do every day. The tools of learning are the same, in any and every subject; and the person who knows how to use them will, at any age, get the mastery of a new subject in half the time and with a quarter of the effort expended by the person who has not the tools at his command.

Sayers’s Introduction to Her Translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy

[Dante’s] vivid awareness of the deeps and heights within the soul comes home poignantly to us who have so recently rediscovered the problem of evil, the problem of power, and the ease with which our most God-like imaginings are “betrayed by what is false within.” We must forget a great deal of the nonsense that is talked about Dante, namely, that he was a peevish political exile who indulged his petty spites and prejudices by putting his enemies in Hell and his friends in Paradise.

We need not forget that Dante is sublime, intellectual and, on occasion, grim; but we must also be prepared to find him simple, homely, humorous, tender, and bubbling over with ecstasy. Nor must we look to find in him only a poet of “period” interest; he is a universal poet, speaking prophetically of God and the Soul and the Society of Men in the universal relations.

We must also be prepared, while we are reading Dante, to accept the Christian view of ourselves as responsible rational beings. We must abandon any idea that we are the slaves of chance, or environment, or our subconscious; any vague notion that good and evil are merely relative terms, or that conduct and opinion do not really matter; any comfortable persuasion that, however shiftlessly we muddle through life, it will somehow or other all come right.We must try to believe that man’s will is free, that he can consciously exercise choice, and that his choice can be decisive to all eternity. For The Divine Comedy is precisely the drama of the soul’s choice.

Selected by Dr. Alan Snyder