Summary: C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters inverts ethics and morality to provide insight into modern religious life. The book is comprised of 31 letters written by Screwtape, an eminent devil, to his nephew Wormwood, a novice tempter working to guide his first “patient” towards purgatory. The letters advise Wormwood on how to best tempt, morally bankrupt, and damn his patient while the man goes through conversion to Christianity, courtship, and eventual death. Through this contrivance, Lewis addresses moral and ethical conundrums, prayer, repentance, free will, and modern attacks on the religious ethos.
Screwtape consistently urges Wormwood to steer away from intellectual arguments against religion but to instead use jargon, confusion, and befuddlement, “Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous.” Argument awakens the patient’s reason and who knows where that may lead? Instead, humans should be taught that “real life” is their immediate sense experience and that sensuality is the “Ultimate safeguard against the aberrations of mere logic.” As a corollary, science is actually an ally to religion, not its foil, as both encourage humanity to think about realities not seen or heard. Screwtape warns, “There have been sad cases among the modern physicists.” (As a physicist, this is my favorite line in the book).
Second, Hell has reimaged words and phrases into propaganda. “Puritanical,” says Screwtape, has “rescued annually thousands of humans from temperance, chastity, and sobriety of life.” ”Progress,” “phase,” and “stagnation” are now tinged with moral meaning and used to quash traditional behavior and support the immoral. Surely our Jewish society has similarly weaponized words such as “modern,” “frum,” and “off the derekh,” that accomplish the same.
Third, Lewis perceives each human as a series of concentric circles: the will at the center, then the intellect, and the fantasy. As it is impossible to completely exclude benevolence from a human, a tempter must “keep on shoving all the virtues outward till they are finally located in the circle of fantasy.” In this way humans can virtue signal or even admire charity, kindness, and forgiveness aimed towards those they will never encounter, while practicing the opposite towards those they interact with regularly.
Lewis, via Screwtape, also shares profound insight into human nature. Humans are amphibious, half-spirit and half-animal. While they can aim for eternity, they also change as they inhabit time. The closest humans can get to consistency is via the Law of Undulation, “the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks,” present in all aspects of their life.
Screwtape strongly advocates separating man from God by separating man from himself: “The deepest likings and impulses of any man are the raw material, the starting-point, with which the Enemy has furnished him. To get him away from those is therefore always a point gained; even in things indifferent it is always desirable to substitute the standards of the World, or convention, or fashion, for a human’s own real likings and dislikings.” It would be interesting to identify Jewish thinkers who may have addressed the issues raised in these last two paragraphs.
Screwtape champions vices and failings that often fall close to home: the constant desire for novelty (the horror of the “Same Old Thing”), the tendency to become a “connoisseur of churches,” judging places where one should go to be judged, and the difficulty humans have in persevering though middle age with fading hopes and bygone dreams.
Throughout, Lewis integrates humor and gravity to entertain readers and keep their concentration on ethics and morals. It is difficult not to find oneself in at least a few of the Letters; the thoughtful advice proves useful even to those who are not Lewis’ co-religionists.
Cautionary Note: Two words of warning are in order before reading The Screwtape Letters. First, remember the letters are written from Hell. They are instructions on how to urge man towards sin. These instructions must be inverted to learn virtue. Second, The Screwtape Letters is a work of Christian thought and, unlike Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and Till We Have Faces, the Christian concepts are explicit, not hidden by parable. The reader will encounter the concepts of the trinity, God being born a man, and, of course, devils rebelling against God. While perhaps uncomfortable for some, this should not detract from the universal theist messages Lewis attempts to impart.
Many printings of “The Screwtape Letters” include a later essay of Lewis called “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” (read the original edition here). In this address, given at the annual dinner of the Tempters’ Training College for Young Devils, Screwtape unfolds how Hell has used democracy to transform most of humanity into small, mindless beings, completely void of accomplishment or achievement, good or bad. As this essay deserves its own treatment, it is not addressed here.