Editor’s note: Due to an internal error, this post was not distributed this past Thursday when it originally posted. As a result, we are distributing it today. Thanks, PLG
The idea of the public intellectual, popularly introduced in the mid-twentieth century, has flourished over the past decade. A public intellectual is an expert, “often a noted specialist in a particular field, who has become well-known to the general public for a willingness to comment on current affairs.”1 More simply, a public intellectual is an academic who writes (or speaks) outside their field or to a general audience.2
The role of public intellectual can take many forms. As the lines between public and private, as well as academic and popular, grow increasingly blurry in the digital age, it’s instructive for those finding ourselves increasingly in these liminal spaces to look to examples of public intellectuals who have gone before and fulfilled this role well. One such person who did, although, as we will see, did so somewhat reluctantly, is Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957).
Sayers is best known for her popular writings, including her detective fiction and theological works. Often overlooked as such, Sayers was first an academic. She studied medieval literature and modern languages, even translating a well-regarded edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy. I asked Gina Dalfonzo, author of the delightful chronicle of the friendship between Sayers and C. S. Lewis, Dorothy and Jack,3 to explore with me Sayers’ role as a public intellectual.
KSP: Describe Sayers’ early academic life.
GD: It’s a little bit of a paradox, actually. She was a brilliant scholar, she loved Oxford, she wrote academic papers and made academic presentations all her life—and yet she didn’t live the academic life. She didn’t want to teach at Oxford, fond as she was of the place; she didn’t enjoy teaching at all, in fact. She tried teaching at a girls’ school for a little while, early in her career, but didn’t like it. But as a lay scholar, she was very active, and she put her scholarly mind to good use with her Dante translations and with many of her own works. Even some of her detective novels show her love of scholarship—most famously, “Gaudy Night.” That one is academic not just in regard to the Oxford setting, but in the way she demonstrates that scholarship, properly done, builds good values, encourages integrity, and benefits all of society.
KSP: Sayers was also a close friend of C. S. Lewis, and although they produced some similar work, Lewis has obviously overshadowed Sayers in the present day. How would you compare the work of the two?
GD: There are definite similarities. Both of them were concerned about the direction of their society both during and after World War II; they both thought Christianity had important things to say about how to rebuild after the war, and they both tried to address that need. Both of them relied heavily on logic and reason in their apologetics, although both of them also believed that imagination had a fundamental role to play as well. Both of them wrote skillfully, frankly, and often humorously.
There are differences, too. Especially earlier on in their careers, Lewis often felt compelled to address all kinds of subjects, including those he didn’t always know well, which was frustrating for Sayers, who believed that writers should stay in their lane and write about what they knew. She believed that a writer should write only what he or she felt called to write, while he wasn’t quite so sure, thinking that perhaps a Christian ought to be ready to speak up about anything and everything whether he or she felt a particular call or not. They went back and forth on these issues in their letters, and he did start to see things her way to some extent.
KSP: Your book, Dorothy and Jack, emphasizes the friendship between the two, which was close but also professionally and literarily fruitful for both. How do you think their friendship sets and example, particularly for Christian academics and thinkers today?
GD: I love that they set an example of how to share their thoughts openly, and disagree sometimes, but still remain friends. Their friendship was strong enough to accommodate disagreement and even the occasional bickering. It’s wonderful to watch the progression of this relationship through their letters. Lewis was known for loving a good argument, but with Sayers, at first you see him being very courteous and polite and backing away from anything that might cause contention. And then he figures out that she loves a good argument just as much as he does, and he stops doing that! He’s still courteous and he’s still rather inclined to defer and to defuse things if they get hot, but he’s willing to argue and respects her all the more for her willingness to do the same. And as for her, she just sails right in and says her say, often very passionately, but still shows respect for his thinking. Sometimes she’ll strengthen her argument by pointing out sections of his own work that support what she’s saying.
They were also such great encouragers of each other’s work. If one of them really didn’t like something the other had written, that one would tend to say nothing about it directly, and only remark on it to other friends. But that was pretty rare. When they did discuss their work together, they would be frank in pointing out things that they thought could be better, as well as sincerely praising all the things they liked. They got to know each other’s work and thinking so well that they could give each other the kind of support they each really needed. Both of them so often found themselves in an isolated position—Lewis as an apologist at Oxford, when that sort of thing just wasn’t done, and Sayers as an apologist who didn’t have many other close friends engaged in that kind of work. And then Sayers as a lay scholar translating Dante—she often felt the need for support in that endeavor, and she got that, and deeply appreciated it, from Lewis. Even when he wasn’t, at first, completely enamored of her style of translation, he understood what she was trying to do (i.e., bring out the livelier side of Dante!) and respected it. And he grew to like that liveliness more and more as she progressed with her translation, and he got used to it. All of this meant a lot to her.
KSP: Sayers is often (and rightly) praised for her robust view of women, which was unusual in her personal context, and even—among communities today—might seem radical (though it is not). What are some of the insights she offers about women that we need to be reminded of today?
GD: Sayers had a very interesting journey in this respect. She was the only child of parents who recognized and nurtured her intelligence and encouraged her university aspirations. To her, growing up, there was no difficulty about women’s education—the opportunities were provided to her, and she took them, and thought no more about it. For this reason, she wasn’t always aware of the accomplishments of feminism, or the need for it. But she became aware, as she met other intelligent women, that not all of them had been so fortunate. She hesitated to embrace the label of feminist, but she did eventually start writing and speaking about women’s equality and their need for better opportunities in education and the workforce. Her essays “Are Women Human?” and “The Human-Not-Quite-Human” are still widely loved and cited today. And you see her exploring these issues in novels like “Gaudy Night,” “Unnatural Death,” and “Murder Must Advertise,” where female characters have to grapple with unfair and unequal treatment at school and at work, and in society in general.
But we need to be careful, with Sayers, not to assume she said things she didn’t say, or wanted the same things that many Christians want today. For instance, you’ll hear people say now that she supported women’s ordination. In fact, she didn’t. She and Lewis hashed this out in their correspondence. He wanted her to write something against it; she turned him down, saying that [she] would be an “uneasy ally” in that cause, as she couldn’t find any theological reasons against it. So, to that extent, they differed. But at the same time, she felt she couldn’t support it for historical and ecumenical reasons—she believed it would be too great a break with tradition and with other churches.
Sayers was a complex woman and thinker, and we try to enlist her in this or that cause at our peril. Just as with any other writer, we need to pay attention to what she actually said, not what we think we need her to say. Even when we disagree, we have to be willing to listen and take her as she was, or else we’re not paying her the respect she deserves.
KSP: How does Sayers set an example today for academics who also strive to have a voice in the public square?
GD: Sayers was honest and fearless and witty—all qualities that anyone in the public square should try to emulate. When she had expert knowledge of a subject, she shared it, and offered a clear and coherent argument as to how to apply it to social issues. When she didn’t know a subject well, she admitted it and stayed silent. But she always brought a well-thought-out point of view and her own unique voice to any topic she tackled and made it helpful and memorable.
KSP: Now that’s some wisdom we could all use, particularly those of us who are, like Sayers, Christian academics, trying to serve our institutions and the kingdom of God.
- “Public Intellectual,” Collins Dictionary https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/public-intellectual
- Richard A. Posner, Public Intellectuals: A Study in Decline (Harvard UP, 2003), 1.
- Gina Dalfonzo, Dorothy and Jack: The Transforming Friendship of Dorothy L. Sayers and C. S. Lewis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2020).