Sayers against “historicism gone to seed”


In a series a while back on www.christianhistory.net, “Grateful to the Dead: Diary of a Christian History Professor,” I argued that the enterprise of reading history and biography for the purpose of personal transformation has been under attack from a number of fronts, and that we ought to do everything we can to defend that enterprise. Now I discover that Dorothy L. Sayers, bless her, launched her own cautious, balanced defense of just this enterprise, against an enemy she calls “a ’sense of period,’” but which in scholarly circles (as she well knew) is called “historicism.” That is the idea that writings from the past are very much of their time, and we must not try to read them as if they weren’t. What Sayers correctly objected to was the sort of “historicism-gone-to-seed” that goes on to argue that since past writings are so much of their time, we cannot read them with benefit in our own time. But already I’m failing to do her justice, so, on to her own words . . .

“The period-sense, and the dynamic philosophy of history to which it belongs, is, of course, an admirable thing, quickening our understanding of the past and displaying all social and historical changes as movements in a great process of becoming. But if it is insisted upon too much, it may defeat itself. It may end by actually destroying all contact, all sympathy between us and our forebears, and even that very awareness of continuity that it ought to foster. If we look upon Dante (for example) as a man totally explicable in terms of a vanished period, we may succeed in forgetting that he is a man [Sayers almost always used gender-specific language; she understood it as denoting humanity of both sexes] like ourselves. If we account for everything that he said by the consideration that, being born when he was, there was nothing else he could very well say, we shall have provided ourselves with an excellent excuse for not applying what he said to ourselves: it performed a function in history, and there its interest ends. The period-sense may, that is, be used as a defense mechanism against any categorical imperative [that is, any universally applicable moral truth] that we may feel to be inconvenient. So long as we can look upon it as a mere incident in a historical pattern, our resistance remains unaffected.

“In this matter, as in so many others, Christianity displays its usual propensity for making everything as awkward as possible. It outrages the tidy-minded by occupying a paradoxical position. On the one hand, it made modern science and the modern views of history possible by insisting that the pattern of events was not (as the Greek philosophers thought) static or cyclic, but a progression in time from a beginning to an end. On the other, it tiresomely maintains that at every point in the developing temporal process, the conditioned truths are referable [the printed text has “preferable,” but that makes nonsense out of what Sayers is saying] to an extratemporal standard of absolute truth, before which all souls enjoy complete equality, no aristocratic privilege being attached to the accident of later birth.”

(I love Sayers’s characteristic dry wit in that last clause. She later summarizes as follows:)

“Christianity also rests upon the assumption that the Word uttered in the past meant something then and means the same thing now. There is an unseemliness about the Easter appearances of something that has no business to be alive. We cannot really be surprised if some people find it more comfortable to sit down to a quiet, objective, laboratory examination of the grave clothes.”

Dorothy L. Sayers, “Dante and Charles Williams,” in The Whimsical Christian (New York: Collier, 1987).

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