The Mind of the Maker
Dorothy Sayers

Dorothy Sayers

These pages: The Mind of the Maker

Preface & Chapters I–VII (here)

Chapters VIII–XI & Postscript




index pages:

The Mind of the Maker

Copyright © 1941 by Dorothy L. Sayers
Copyright renewed 1968 by Anthony Fleming


It is common knowledge among school-teachers that a high percentage of examination failures results from “not reading the question.” The candidate presumably applies his eyes to the paper, but his answer shows that he is incapable of discovering by that process what the question is. This means that he is not only slovenly-minded but, in all except the most superficial sense, illiterate. Teachers further complain that they have to spend a great deal of time and energy in teaching University students what questions to ask. This indicates that the young mind experiences great difficulty in disentangling the essence of a subject from its accidents; and it is disconcertingly evident, in discussions on the platform and in the press, that the majority of people never learn to overcome this difficulty. A third distressing phenomenon is the extreme unwillingness of the average questioner to listen to the answer—a phenomenon exhibited in exaggerated form by professional interviewers on the staffs of popular journals. [...] The journalist is, indeed, not interested in the facts. For this he is to some extent excusable, seeing that, even if he published the facts, his public would inevitably distort them in the reading. What is quite inexcusable is that when the victim of misrepresentation writes to protest and correct the statements attributed to him, his protest is often ignored and his correction suppressed. Nor has he any redress, since to misrepresent a man’s statements is no offense, unless the misrepresentation happens to fall within the narrow limits of the law of libel. The Press and the Law are in this condition because the public do not care whether they are being told truth or not.



I. The “Laws” of Nature and Opinion

Arbitrary law is, therefore, possessed of valid authority provided it observes two conditions:—

The first condition is that public opinion shall strongly endorse the law. This is understandable, since opinion is the authority. An arbitrary law unsupported by a consensus of opinion will not be properly enforced and will in the end fall into disrepute and have to be rescinded or altered. This happened to the Prohibition Laws in America. It is happening today to the laws of civilized warfare [...]

The second condition is, of course, that the arbitrary law shall not run counter to the law of nature. If it does, it not only will not, it cannot be enforced. [...]

Much confusion is caused in human affairs by the use of the same word “law” to describe these two very different things: an arbitrary code of behavior based on a consensus of human opinion and a statement of unalterable fact about the nature of the universe.



There is a universal moral law, as distinct from a moral code, which consists of certain statements of fact about the nature of man; and by behaving in conformity with which, man enjoys his true freedom. This is what the Christian Church calls “the natural law.” 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.”

The universal moral law (or natural law of humanity) is discoverable, like any other law of nature, by experience. It cannot be promulgated, it can only be ascertained, because it is a question not of opinion but of fact. [...]

The moral code depends for its validity upon a consensus of human opinion about what man’s nature really is, and what it ought to be, when freed from this mysterious self-contradiction and enabled to run true to itself. If there is no agreement about these things, then it is useless to talk of enforcing the moral code.

Compare to:

Sam Harris



Natural law

There is a difference between saying: “If you hold your finger in the fire you will get burned” and saying, “if you whistle at your work I shall beat you, because the noise gets on my nerves.” The God of the Christians is too often looked upon as an old gentleman of irritable nerves who beats people for whistling. This is the result of a confusion between arbitrary “law” and the “laws” which are statements of fact.

II. The Image of God

All language about God must, as St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out, necessarily be analogical. We need not be surprised at this, still less suppose that because it is analogical it is therefore valueless or without any relation to the truth. The fact is, that all language about everything is analogical; we think in a series of metaphors. We can explain nothing in terms of itself, but only in terms of other things. [...] Skeptics frequently complain that man has made God in his own image; they should in reason go further (as many of them do) and acknowledge that man has made all existence in his own image. If the tendency to anthropomorphism is a good reason for refusing to think about God, it is an equally good reason for refusing to think about light, or oysters, or battleships.




Without the thought, though the material parts already exist, the form does not and cannot. The “creation” is not a product of the matter, and is not simply a rearrangement of the matter. The amount of matter in the universe is limited, and its possible rearrangements, though the sum of them would amount to astronomical figures, is also limited. But no such limitation of numbers applies to the creation of works of art. [...] This represents the nearest approach we experience to “creation out of nothing,” and we conceive of the act of absolute creation as being an act analogous to that of the creative artist. Thus Berdyaev is able to say: “God created the world by imagination.”

This experience of the creative imagination in the common man or woman and in the artist is the only thing we have to go upon in entertaining and formulating the concept of creation. Outside our own experience of procreation and creation we can form no notion of how anything comes into being. The expressions “God the Father” and “God the Creator” are thus seen to belong to the same category—that is, of analogies based on human experience, and limited or extended by a similar mental process in either case.

If all this is true, then it is to the creative artists that we should naturally turn for an exposition of what is meant by those credal formulae which deal with the nature of the Creative Mind.



III. Idea, Energy, Power

Everything that is conscious, everything that has to do with form and time, and everything that has to do with process, belongs to the working of the Energy or Activity or “Word.” The Idea, that is, cannot be said to precede the Energy in time, because (so far as that act of creation is concerned) it is the Energy that creates the time-process. This is the analogy of the theological expressions that “the Word was in the beginning with God” and was “eternally begotten of the Father.” If, that is, the act has a beginning in time at all, it is because of the presence of the Energy or Activity. The writer cannot even be conscious of his Idea except by the working of the Energy which formulates it to himself.

That being so, how can we know that the Idea itself has any real existence apart from the Energy? Very strangely; by the fact that the Energy itself is conscious of referring all its acts to an existing and complete whole. In theological terms, the Son does the will of the Father.

If you were to ask a writer which is “the real book”—his Idea of it, his Activity in writing it, or its return to himself in Power, he would be at a loss to tell you, because these things are essentially inseparable. Each of them is the complete book separately; yet in the complete book all of them exist together. He can, by an act of the intellect, “distinguish the persons” but he cannot by any means “divide the substance.” How could he? He cannot know the Idea, except by the Power interpreting his own Activity to him; he knows the Activity only as it reveals the Idea in Power; he knows the Power only as the revelation of the Idea in the Activity.
To say that God depends on His creation as a poet depends on his written poem is an abuse of metaphor: the poet does nothing of the sort. To write the poem (or, of course, to give it material form in speech or song), is an act of love towards the poet’s own imaginative act and towards his fellow-beings. It is a social act; but the poet is, first and foremost, his own society, and would be none the less a poet if the means of material expression were refused by him or denied him.
If a ruthless education in Shakespeare’s language could produce a nation of Shakespeares, every Englishman would at this moment be a dramatic genius. Actually, all that such an education can possibly do is to improve a little the general apparatus of linguistic machinery and so make the way smooth for the appearance of the still rare, still incalculable genius. Genius is, in fact, not subject to the “law” of progress, and it is beginning to be extremely doubtful whether progress is a “law” at all.
Metaphors become dead only when the metaphor is substituted for the experience, and the argument carried on in a sphere of abstraction without being at every point related to life.

IV. The Energy Revealed in Creation

The vital power of an imaginative work demands a diversity within its unity; and the stronger the diversity, the more massive the unity. Incidentally, this is the weakness of most “edifying” or “propaganda” literature. There is no diversity. The Energy is active only in one part of the whole, and in consequence the wholeness is destroyed and the Power diminished. You cannot, in fact, give God His due without giving the devil his due also. This strange paradox is bound up with the problem of free will among the characters [...]



[...] the reader will see how impossible it is to say that the author is fully expressed in any speech, character, or single work of his. One must first put all these together and relate them to a great synthesis of all the work, which will be found to possess a unity of its own, to which every separate work is ultimately related. If we stop here, we have arrived at a pantheistic doctrine of the creative mind. But beyond that, the sum of all the work is related to the mind itself, which made it, controls it, and relates it to its own creative personality. The mind is not the sum of its works, though it includes them all. [...] Before it made them, it included them all, potentially, and having finished them, it still includes them. It is both immanent in them and transcendent.
Our speculations about Shakespeare are almost as multifarious and foolish as our speculations about the maker of the universe, and, like those, are frequently concerned to establish that his works were not made by him but by another person of the same name. The itch for personally knowing authors torments most of us [...] To persist in asking, as so many of us do, “What did you mean by this book?” is to invite bafflement: the book itself is what the writer means. It is hopeless to expect, that is, that we can ever be made directly aware of the Idea—the writer himself is not aware of it except through the Energy and all he can communicate to us is the Energy made manifest in Power.


Books (general)

V. Free Will and Miracle

To hear an intelligent and sympathetic actor infusing one’s own lines with his creative individuality is one of the most profound satisfactions that any imaginative writer can enjoy; more—there is an intimately moving delight in watching the actor’s mind at work to deal rightly with a difficult interpretation, for there is in all this a joy of communication and an exchange of power. Within the limits of this human experience, the playwright has achieved that complex end of man’s desire—the creation of a living thing with a mind and will of its own.

The business of the creator is not to escape from his material medium or to bully it, but to serve it; but to serve it he must love it. If he does so, he will realize that its service is perfect freedom. This is true, not only of all literary art but of all creative art; I have chosen a theatrical example, merely because there, as also in the creation of characters, failure to surrender to the law of kind produces disasters more patent and immediate than elsewhere.

The judgment of the natural law is not without its bearing on the writer’s claim to autocratic control over the characters he invents. It is certainly true that these do not possess free will to the same extent that a child’s will is free from parental control. But all possess this measure of freedom, namely, that unless the author permits them to develop in conformity with their proper nature, they will cease to be true and living creatures.

I can only state, as a matter of experience, that if the characters and the situation are rightly conceived together, as integral parts of the same unity, then there will be no need to force them to the right solution of that situation. If each is allowed to develop in conformity with its proper nature, all will arrive of their own accord at a point of unity, which will be the same unity that pre-existed in the original idea. In language to which we are accustomed in other connections, neither predestination nor free will is everything, but, if the will acts freely in accordance with its true nature, it achieves by grace and not by judgment the eternal will of its maker, though possibly by a process unlike, and longer than, that which might have been imposed upon it by force.
The making of miracles to edification was as ardently admired by pious Victorians as it was sternly discouraged by Jesus of Nazareth. Not that the Victorians are unique in this respect. Modern writers also indulge in edifying miracles though they generally prefer to use them to procure unhappy endings, by which piece of thaumaturgy they win the title of realists.



Consequences cannot be separated from their causes without a loss of power; and we may ask ourselves how much power would be left in the story of the crucifixion, as a story, if Christ had come down from the cross. That would have been an irrelevant miracle, whereas the story of the resurrection is relevant, leaving the consequences of action and character still in logical connection with their causes. It is, in fact, an outstanding example of the development we have already considered—the leading of the story back, by the new and more powerful way of grace, to the issue demanded by the way of judgment, so that the law of nature is not destroyed but fulfilled.


the Resurrection

VI. The Energy Incarnate in Self-Expression

The personality of the creator is expressed partially, piecemeal, and as it were impersonally or through created persons.

Christian doctrine further affirms that the Mind of the Maker was also incarnate personally and uniquely. Examining our analogy for something to which this may correspond, we may say that God wrote his own autobiography.



It appears with a double nature, “divine and human”; the whole story is contained within the mind of its maker, but the mind of the maker is also imprisoned within the story and cannot escape from it. It is “altogether God,” in that it is sole arbiter of the form the story is to take, and yet “altogether man,” in that, having created the form, it is bound to display itself in conformity with the nature of that form.

A second point to notice is this: that the autobiography is at one and the same time a single element in the series of the writer’s created works and an interpretation of the whole series. [...] The exact place and moment, within the series of his works, for the appearance of the autobiography is selected at will by the writer, for reasons which he may or may not choose to explain; but at whatever point it comes, the revelation is valid, both for the past and for the future.

If, however, the author either consciously or unconsciously tries to incarnate himself as something other than what he is, there will be a falseness in the artistic expression corresponding to the false relation between Energy and Idea, and the result, as always, will be a failure of Power. This, in Art, is the unalterable law of kind, from which the artist can by no means escape; the truth of what he says about himself is tested by the truth of the form in which he says it. By its truth—not by its elegance or accomplishment, though the more accomplished the form the more readily will it betray its own lack of truth. It will show itself untrue, not in the moral sense of telling lies, but in the structural sense, which is what the builder means by saying that a line is “out of true.”

For this reason, no considerations of false reverence should prevent us from subjecting the incarnations of creators to the severest tests of examination.

VII. Maker of All Things—Maker of Ill Things

“Being” we can make a shift to understand, but what is “not-being”? If we propose to ourselves to “think about nothing,” we find we have engaged in a very difficult exercise. It does not seem to be quite the same as “not thinking about anything.” [...] Professor Eddington has put the essentials of the problem neatly before us in the riddling query: “Is the bung-hole part of the barrel?” It depends, as he says, on what you mean by “part”; it may also depend, to some extent, on what you mean by the “barrel.”
What I want to suggest is that Being (simply by being) creates Not-Being, not merely contemporaneously in the world of Space, but also in the whole extent of Time behind it. So that though, in the absence of Being, it would be meaningless to say that Not-Being precedes Being; yet, in the presence of Being that proposition becomes both significant and true, because Being has made it so. Or, to use the most familiar of all metaphors, “before” light, there was neither light nor darkness; darkness is not darkness until light has made the concept of darkness possible. Darkness cannot say: “I precede the coming light,” but there is a sense in which light can say, “Darkness preceded me.”
Only X can give reality to Not-X; that is to say, Not-Being depends for its reality upon Being. In this way we may faintly see how the creation of Time may be said automatically to create a time when Time was not, and how the Being of God can be said to create a Not-Being that is not God. The bung-hole is as real as the barrel, but its reality is contingent upon the reality of the barrel.

Now, the mere fact that the choice of the “right” word is a choice implies that the writer is potentially aware of all the wrong words as well as the right one. [...] He is free, if he chooses, to call all or any of those wrong words into active being within his poem—just as God is free, if He likes, to call Evil into active being. But the perfect poet does not do so, because his will is subdued to his Idea, and to associate it with the wrong word would be to run counter to the law of his being. He proceeds with his creation in a perfect unity of will and Idea, and behold! it is very good.

Unfortunately, his creation is safe from the interference of other wills only as long as it remains in his head. By materializing his poem—that is, by writing it down and publishing it—he subjects it to the impact of alien wills. These alien wills can, if they like, become actively aware of all the possible wrong words and call them into positive being. They can, for example, misquote, misinterpret, or deliberately alter the poem.



text checked (see note) Jan 2008

top of page