Gluttony in the Workshop, Courtesy of Dorothy L. Sayers

In 1941, the English detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers gave a lecture called “The Other Six Deadly Sins.”  What she has to say about the sin of Gluttony has important implications for the arts and crafts:

An odd change has come over us since the arrival of the machine age.  Whereas formerly it was considered a virtue to be thrifty and content with one’s lot, it is now considered to be the mark of a progressive nation that it is filled with hustling, go-getting citizens, intent on raising their standard of living.  And this is not interpreted to mean merely that a decent sufficiency of food, clothes, and shelter is attainable by all its citizens.  It means much more and much less than this.  It means that every citizen is encouraged to consider more, and more complicated, luxuries necessary to his well-being.  The gluttonous consumption of manufactured goods had become, before the war, the prime civic virtue.  And why?  Because the machines can produce cheaply only if they produce in vast quantities; because unless the machines can produce cheaply nobody can afford to keep them running; and because, unless they are kept running, millions of citizens will be thrown out of employment, and the community will starve.

We need not stop now to go round and round the vicious circle of production and consumption.  We need not remind ourselves of the furious barrage of advertisement by which people are flattered and frightened out of a reasonable contentment into a greedy hankering after goods which they do not really need; nor point out for the thousandth time how every evil passion—snobbery, laziness, vanity, concupiscence, ignorance, greed—is appealed to in these campaigns.  Nor how unassuming communities (described as “backward countries”) have these desires ruthlessly forced upon them by their neighbors in the effort to find an outlet for goods whose market is saturated.  And we must not take up too much time in pointing out how, as the necessity to sell goods in quantity becomes more desperate, the people’s appreciation of quality is violently discouraged and suppressed.

You must not buy goods that last too long, for production cannot be kept going unless the goods wear out, or fall out of fashion, and so can be thrown away and replaced with others.  If a man invents anything that would give lasting satisfaction, his invention must be bought up by the manufacturer so that it may never see the light of day.

Nor must the worker be encouraged to take too much interest in the thing he makes; if he did, he might desire to make it as well as it can be made, and that would not pay.  It is better that he should work in a soulless indifference, even though such treatment should break his spirit, and cause him to hate his work.  The difference between the factory hand and the craftsman is that the craftsman lives to do the work he loves; but the factory hand lives by doing the work he despises.  (92-94)

Sayers, Dorothy L. “The Other Six Deadly Sins.” Creed or Chaos? Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 1974. 85-113.

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5 Responses to Gluttony in the Workshop, Courtesy of Dorothy L. Sayers

  1. Rob says:

    Sayers seems to echo in part the words of William Morris in Useful Work versus Useless Toil (1884).

    I haven’t read any of her novels – do you recommend them?

    Thanks.

    • Yes, she and Morris have a lot of concerns in common. She’s not exactly a lone voice, though she was (and still is) a minority one.

      I do recommend her novels, if you like detective fiction. Her early novels are reminiscent of Agatha Christie–intellectual jigsaw puzzles, if that makes sense. Her last couple of novels, especially Gaudy Night, are much more mature works. The characters are well-rounded and the motives more subtle.

  2. Beth Perry says:

    There is a reason Dorothy Sayers novels are like Agatha Christie’s. She is her sister. Personally, I like Sayers work better. I have read many of her stories featuring “Lord Peter Wimsey” and I have enjoyed them all.

    • Not her biological sister, surely? Sayers was an only child. She and Christie did know each other through a formal group of detective fiction writers in mid-century England, and I gather that they read each other’s work. I couldn’t tell you anything more about their relationship.

      • Beth Perry says:

        Not her biological sister. I am a fan of the detail that she puts in her storytelling. She drops clues, albeit subtle ones, all through her tales and when the story parts all come together in the end, you shake your head and say “I can see that now”. A lot of other mystery writers throw all kinds of other facts in at the very end to bring their stories to a conclusion, but Sayer’s details are all there all along. You just don’t often realize it until the end. That is one of the reasons that I am so fond of her work. I read many of her books many years ago when I was in college. I revisited her work within the last year and discovered to my pleasant surprise that the magic was still there.

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