The Screwtape Letters
“You sharpen the human appetite to the point where it can split atoms with its desire; you build egos the size of cathedrals; fiber-optically connect the world to every eager impulse; grease even the dullest dreams with these dollar-green, gold-plated fantasies until every human being becomes an aspiring emperor, becomes his own God.”
John Milton: The Devil’s Advocate
Free will: the gift and curse of humanity. Through free will we can fully experience God because we are given the option not to. Likewise, through free will we are allowed to craft our lives in any manner of our choosing, even if the end result resembles Hell. “The possibility of this wrong preference is inherent in the very fact of having a being, a self at all…Every conscious agent in finally committed in the long run; i.e. it rises above freedom into willed, but henceforth unalterable, union with God, or else sinks below freedom into the black fire of self-imprisonment.”1 The Great Divorce shows us the aftereffect of this choosing – stripping away the outward trappings and revealing the soul as it really is. In The Screwtape Letters we witness the process. Our choices are not simply dependent on ourselves. Powers and principalities exist that aim to help and hinder. Because of free will a person cannot be forced to act, but their own desires and inclinations can be magnified to influence a person’s decisions. Both sides have the same goal in mind – to encourage a person to “be themselves.” To the ‘angels, archangels, and the blessed company of all faithful people’ this means the relinquishing of the lesser self to regain self redeemed. To spirits ‘masquerading as angels of light’ this means the twisting of the fallen self into an unrecognizable and unredeemable horror.
Before examining Screwtape and Wormwood’s method of using free will to their advantage, let’s first look at another great fictional temptation; The Devil’s Advocate. Lewis says that “every choice reduces a little one’s freed to choose the next time.”2 Enter Kevin Lomax, a criminal defense lawyer. The Devil (under the alias John Milton) tells us the key to temptation; “If at all possible, mask it as something else…they never see me coming.”3 Milton begins by using the simple comments of others to enflame Kevin’s ego. In the guise of a local reporter, Milton encourages Kevin to choose his flawless record over the truth. He is approached by Milton’s firm and slowly flattered into slightly more ambiguous and finally evil clientel. His integrity slides further with each subsequent case. Kevin is “just doing his job.” His wife begs for some of his time, but Kevin is“doing this for her. When his wife is admitted to the hospital, he tells Milton that if he chooses her over the “case of a lifetime” he will resent her for it. Each choice seems small in itself - a little selfishness, some justification, some buried evidence and a convenient blind eye. Finally Kevin discovers that he’s cast his lot with the Devil and can’t recall how he got there. He tells Milton that he was tricked, exploited, and nothing is his fault. Milton retorts, “I’m no puppeteer, Kevin. I don’t make things happen. Doesn’t work like that…I only set the stage. You pull the strings.” Milton reveals hell’s battle strategy: sharpen human appetites, build egos, increase technology so every whim can be instantly satisfied, build up dreams and fantasies until each person becomes his own God. Milton doesn’t need to go to great lengths to tempt people, he needs only to encourage them to pursue their own self-interest. “What do I want?” he asks Kevin, “I want you to be yourself!”
Screwtape and Wormwood use similar tactics to Milton, but more subtly. They take advantage of the fact the God holds himself back from any revealing of Himself which would negate free will; “He is prepared to do a little overriding at the beginning… But he never allows this state of affairs to last long.”4 In a letter to Authur Greeves, Lewis supported his view that God chose to give us freedom even knowing that it could lead to sin:5 “he thought Freedom worth creating even at that price. It is like when mother allows a small child to walk on its own instead of holding it by her hand. She knows it may fall but learning to walk on one’s own is worth a few falls.”6 It also allows Screwtape and Wormwood to work at the patient almost without interruption, and they have developed many techniques to ensure their success. They mask the patient’s ability to see his self as he truly is and build up a false image in its place. Instead of self-reflection the patient is watching a drama. They cannot keep him from thinking lofty thoughts, but they may be able to distract him with lunch. They encourage the patient to excuse bad behavior by extenuating circumstances. He is not to afford the same excuses for others. If they cannot keep him from the church, they will bring forward all of his golden pictures of martyrs, togas and lions, in sharp contrast to the people actually sitting around him. They can stroke his vanity and at the same time surround him with superficial and worldly friends by letting him imagine that he is “doing these people ‘good’ by the mere fact of drinking their cocktails and laughing at their jokes.”7 Since all pure enjoyment (even non-religious) can lead to an experience of the Numinous, Screwtape advises Wormwood to try to encourage the patient to activities that he will not enjoy, but will gain him general admiration. They draw attention to virtues and encourage pride. They take the secondary benefits of Christianity, such as charity or political consciousness and make it the “most important part” of the religion. Then they go a step farther and make Christianity important only insofar as it supports their political agenda. In the end Milton, Screwtape and Wormwood work use the same primary sin to their advantage. As Milton says, “Vanity. My favorite sin.” Every temptation is based on our own vanity, or pride. All our basest desires: everything we do to ‘fit in,’ false humilty, exaggerated religiosity, refraining from truth out of fear, and the desire to impress; are based in vanity. As fallen creatures even our higher emotions are tainted and open to exploitation. We give charity from a desire to be thought well of (thus Christ’s admonition to give in secret). Even love may be exploited. As the Lady says in The Great Divorce, “What we called love down there was mostly the craving to be loved.”8 And even when we are not strictly sinning, we run the risk of echoing the original sin, “not of choosing some evil thing, but in preferring a lesser good …before a greater.”9
The key to modern temptation is to make us unaware that it is occurring. That is what Lewis calls catering to the Spirit of the Age. In our age it is easy for temptation to pass unnoticed in all of the noise, chaos, and complication. We are surrounded by information, and accustomed to have new studies, surveys and opinions presented which are disproved almost daily. We don’t search for truth, but ideas, all of which may be thrown aside at the next bit of research. We are constantly bombarded by television, radio, traffic noise, and music. We spend our time dulled by a commute, work a mind numbing day in front of a computer screen, and then while away our free hours in front of the television or on the internet. In the midst of the flashy and ever-changing, we aren’t to notice that we are being asked to make choices, letting them be made for us by ‘public opinion.’
It is easy to see why Lewis was hesitant to revisit Screwtape Letters after writing it. While Screwtape offers an insightful glimpse into the myriad ways Christians can be tripped up, if read outside the context of Lewis’ other writings it presents a pretty bleak picture. No matter how hard the patient tries to improve his-self, and how many ways he grows, he is constantly tested. Until he is freed by a falling bomb, in nearly every temptation he comes out badly. A new test is at hand if he even feels proud about passing the last one. The missing piece that makes triumph out of our failure is, of course, Grace (Which from Screwtape’s perspective, is only mentioned in the patient’s conversion and untimely death). By the Grace of God we are free from all of these failings and temptations, not because we will not have to undergo them, but because ultimately it doesn’t matter. We cannot possibly be aware of every one of the thousands of ways we may have fallen short in the space of a day. We will never be as charitable as we ought, or patient, or kind, longsuffering, and all the rest. This doesn’t mean that these things aren’t important. We aren’t to “sin…so that grace abound[s] all the more”10 but we can be happy in the knowledge that the debt has already been paid for all of these sins. Though we are to become more like God with every choice we make, we can rest easy because a misstep does not negate our salvation. We will never be perfect, but we can strive for perfection. We may never be what we might have been had the fall not occurred (sheer speculation in what the Green Lady would call an “alongside world”), but by Grace we will “throw off everything that hinders, and the sin that so easily entangles us”11 and finally, in the end, become our true selves.
1. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume II: Books, Broadcasts, and the War 1931-1949. Edited by Walter Hooper. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004), 585
2. Ibid., 585.
3. The Devil’s Advocate.
4. C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1942), 40.
5. It is worth noting that Lewis contradicts his own theology in this letter. In many works and letters it is quite clear that Lewis believes that God exists out of time, and thus sees all things happening at once in a constant “present.” To say that He grants freedom though it “could lead …to sin” is a notion he flatly denies in both The Problem of Pain and The Screwtape Letters. In The Problem With Pain, Lewis asserts that God did not choose free will as the best of available options, but as the only possibility. Screwtape assures Wormwood that God created the world clearly seeing an incident involving a cross. It is an interesting choice of words by Lewis, given how late in his writing career that letter was sent.
6. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume II: Books, Broadcasts, and the War, 1931-1949. Edited by Walter Hooper. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004), 956.
7. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 52.
8. C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1946), 125.
9. The Collected Letters, 585
10. Romans 5:20, NIV (New International Version)
11. Hebrews 12:1, NIV (New International Version)