Book Review: The Screwtape Letters

stllewis

The work of C.S. Lewis is so rich and is the proper subject for lifelong study. The Screwtape Letters are a series of letters written by a devil who is in charge of another devil who is trying to corrupt the soul of an anonymous individual the devils refers to as the “patient.” We thus have a picture of human life as contested over by two warring spiritual factions. On the one hand, there is God, which the devils refer to as the “Enemy.” On the other hand, there are the devils, who are determined to trip up the patient as he tries to live a Christian life in the hopes of having a tasty soul to snack on when the patient enters Hell after his death.

There are many brilliant psychological and philosophical insights in this book. It can surely illuminate one’s encounter with various people in one’s life. Religion, we learn, can itself become the source of corruption. People who are very religious become full of hate and cliquish, as they look with scorn on people who are not members of their religion. Lewis has a critique of democracy which is particularly appropriate, I think, for the millennial generation. Democracy, Lewis thinks, breeds a mindset in which everyone is fearful of standing out from the crowd. So, people feel reluctant to seek learning because this make them distinct from others, and ignorant people are immune from criticism–after all, everyone is equal. This reminds me of participation trophies which are handed out to teams regardless of their effectiveness on the field, and also the oft-heard criticism of millennials to the effect that they are entitled and think of themselves as special. Lewis also critiques political philosophers who had a collectivist vision. Rousseau, for instance, comes under fire for claiming that the individual has unknowingly willed what the government has told him to do. Rousseau of course invented the convoluted notion of the general will, by which there is a will that represents the collective interests of society, and when an individual obeys the general will, he/she is really obeying himself. Rousseau, and later thinkers like Hegel who had similar views on the absorption of the individual into the state, are propagandists for the devil.

There is a contrast between different types of sinners. The worst sinners are slightly dangerous for the devils, since these people are people of tremendous willpower and talent. If properly oriented, they could become great heroes of virtue. Less dangerous are people who are weak and who therefore commit more petty crimes. They will never amount to great saints because of their limited willpower and abilities. They become adulterers, for instance, not because they have a great appetite for pleasure and have developed a philosophical orientation under which adultery is permissible. Instead, the mediocre sinner falls into sins like adultery because there is nothing better to do.

It is fun getting to know these devils, since their whole approach is the normatively topsy-turvy. They like and welcome what we should fear and loathe. Another interesting angle has to do with what we should be most afraid of in life. Screwtape at one point mentions how the ravages of World War II are in a way good, but also dangerous, because it reminds people that their lives on earth are limited. This realization might lead to an increased reliance on God. Death in the war, then, might actually be the pathway to salvation. If the soul is in the proper state at death, the devils have lost, even though the premature ending of life in war is tragic.

The essence of life, then, in Lewis’s worldview is a struggle for spiritual righteousness. Many people direct their energy to extending our material comfort on earth. This is good, but it can be harmful if we forget our ultimate purpose. If a doctor who makes a great medical advance is a serial adulterer or emotionally abusive to his children, his great achievement ultimately does not matter and his life is a failure.

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