Sayers: Enjoy our work so much pay matters little

As we have just celebrated Labor Day with a day off from class and, hopefully, from work, let’s turn to Dorothy Sayers, an English graduate of Oxford University.

This, of course, is no small feat for a woman reading modern languages and medieval literature in 1916 – a mystery novelist, translator of Dante, essayist and Christian apologist, as she turned her attention to the very idea and necessity of work in her essay “Why Work?”

Sayers published the essay in her collection “Creed or Chaos?” in 1947, and in it she called for, in her words, “a thorough-going revolution in our whole attitude to work.”

“I asked,” she wrote, “that it should be looked upon – not as a necessary drudgery to be undergone for the purpose of making money, but as a way of life in which the nature of man should find its proper exercise and delight and so fulfill itself to the glory of God. That it should, in fact, be thought of as a creative activity undertaken for the love of the work itself; and that man made in God’s image should make things as God makes them, for the sake of doing well a thing that is well worth doing.”

Sayers asked directly, “What is the Christian understanding of work?” and she was a committed Christian. She explained that “the only Christian work is work done well.” But she also argued “that work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do.”

I often take this line from Sayers to say to an aspiring college student that undergraduate education is learning how to make a living – yes it is! – but it is learning how to make a life. Sayers would agree.

Sayers weighed in on the topic of compensation for work.

She claimed, “we have all got it fixed in our heads that the proper end of work is to be paid for (it) – to produce a return in profits or payment to the worker which fully or more than compensates the effort he puts into it.”

“But if our proposition is true, this does not follow at all,” she wrote. “So long as Society provides the worker with a sufficient return in real wealth to enable him to carry on the work properly, then he has his reward.”

Now that’s a novel concept – that we should be paid just enough for us to be able to carry on our work!

In a world in which we can’t wait for the weekend to come to give us a break from work, Sayers wrote, “we should no longer think of work as something that we hastened to get through in order to enjoy our leisure.”

We should instead “look on our leisure as the period of changed rhythm that refreshed us for the delightful purpose of getting on with our work.”

Sayers argued that “we should all find ourselves fighting, as now only artists and the members of certain professions fight, for precious time in which to get on with the job – instead of fighting for precious hours saved from the job.”

According to Sayers, we must also fight for the quality of our work.

“We should clamour to be engaged,” she wrote, “on work that was worth doing, and in which we could take a pride.”

“The greatest insult which a commercial age has offered to the worker has been to rob him of all interest in the end-product of the work and to force him to dedicate his life to making badly things which were not worth making.”

Although a devout Christian, Sayers criticized the church for its view of secular work.

“It is the business of the Church to recognize that the secular vocation, as such, is sacred. Christian people, and particularly perhaps the Christian clergy, must get it firmly into their heads that when a man or woman is called to a particular job of secular work, that is as true a vocation as though he or she were called to specifically religious work.”

“He must,” she wrote, “be able to serve God in his work, and the work itself must be accepted and respected as the medium of divine creation.”

If nothing else, Sayers gives us something to think about while we are on our way to work or to class Monday morning.


Story by Duane Bolin, Professor of history