The Great De­ceiver’s ad­vice

From ‘The Screw­tape Let­ters’ by C.S. Lewis

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL -

This work pre­sents is­sues of faith from the per­spec­tive of Screw­tape, a fic­tional devil, in a let­ter to his nephew Worm­wood, a ju­nior tempter.


It seems to me that you take a great many pages to tell a very sim­ple story. The long and the short of it is that you have let the man slip through your fin­gers.

The sit­u­a­tion is very grave, and I re­ally see no rea­son why I should try to shield you from the con­se­quences or your in­ef­fi­ciency. A re­pen­tance and re­newal of what the other side calls “grace” on the scale which you de­scribe is a de­feat of the first or­der. It amounts to a sec­ond con­ver­sion — and prob­a­bly on a deeper level than the first.

As you ought to have known, the as­phyx­i­at­ing cloud which pre­vented your at­tack­ing the pa­tient on his walk back from the old mill is a well-known phe­nom­e­non. It is the En­emy’s most bar­barous weapon, and gen­er­ally ap­pears when He is di­rectly present to the pa­tient un­der cer­tain modes not yet fully clas­si­fied. Some hu­mans are per­ma­nently sur­rounded by it and there­fore in­ac­ces­si­ble to us.

And now for your blun­ders. On your own show­ing, you first of all al­lowed the pa­tient to read a book he re­ally en­joyed, be­cause he en­joyed it and not in or­der to make clever re­marks about it to his new friends. In the sec­ond place, you al­lowed him to walk down to the old mill and have tea there — a walk through coun­try he re­ally likes, and taken alone. In other words, you al­lowed him two real pos­i­tive Plea­sures. Were you so ig­no­rant as not to see the dan­ger of this?

The char­ac­ter­is­tic of Pains and Plea­sures is that they are un­mis­tak­ably real, and there­fore, as far as they go, give the man who feels them a touch­stone of re­al­ity. Thus if you had been try­ing to damn your man by the Ro­man­tic method — by mak­ing him a kind of Childe Harold or Werther sub­merged in self-pity for imag­i­nary dis­tresses — you would try to pro­tect him at all costs from any real pain; be­cause, of course, five min­utes’ gen­uine toothache would re­veal the ro­man­tic sor­rows for the non­sense they were and un­mask your whole strat­a­gem. But you were try­ing to damn your pa­tient by the World, that is by palm­ing off van­ity, bus­tle, irony and ex­pen­sive te­dium as plea­sures.

How can you have failed to see that a real plea­sure was the last thing you ought to have let him meet? Didn’t you fore­see that it would just kill by con­trast all the trumpery which you have been so la­bo­ri­ously teach­ing him to value? And that the sort of plea­sure which the book and the walk gave him was the most dan­ger­ous of all? That it would peel off from his sen­si­bil­ity the kind of crust you have been form­ing on it, and make him feel that he was com­ing home, re­cov­er­ing him­self?

As a pre­lim­i­nary to de­tach­ing him from the En­emy, you wanted to de­tach him from him­self, and had made some progress in do­ing so. Now, all that is un­done. Of course I know that the En­emy also wants to de­tach men from them­selves, but in a dif­fer­ent way. Re­mem­ber al­ways, that He re­ally likes the lit­tle ver­min, and sets an ab­surd value on the dis­tinct­ness of ev­ery one of them.

When He talks of their los­ing their selves, He only means aban­don­ing the clam­our of self-will; once they have done that, He re­ally gives them back all their per­son­al­ity, and boasts (I am afraid, sin­cerely) that when they are wholly His, they will be more them­selves than ever. Hence, while He is de­lighted to see them sac­ri­fic­ing even their in­no­cent wills to His, He hates to see them drift­ing away from their own na­ture for any other rea­son. And we should al­ways en­cour­age them to do so.

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.

I my­self would carry this very far. I would make it a rule to erad­i­cate from my pa­tient any strong per­sonal taste which is not ac­tu­ally a sin, even if it is some­thing quite triv­ial, such as a fond­ness for county cricket or col­lect­ing stamps or drink­ing co­coa.

Such things, I grant you, have noth­ing of virtue in them; but there is a sort of in­no­cence and hu­mil­ity and self-for­get­ful­ness about them which I dis­trust. The man who truly and dis­in­ter­est­edly en­joys any one thing in the world, for its own sake, and with­out car­ing twopence what other peo­ple say about it, is by that very fact fore­armed against some of our sub­tlest modes of at­tack.

You should al­ways try to make the pa­tient aban­don the peo­ple or food or books he re­ally likes in fa­vor of the “best” peo­ple, the “right” food, the “im­por­tant” books. I have known a hu­man de­fended from strong temp­ta­tions to so­cial am­bi­tion by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions.

It re­mains to con­sider how we can re­trieve this dis­as­ter. The great thing is to pre­vent his do­ing any­thing. As long as he does not con­vert it into ac­tion, it does not mat­ter how much he thinks about this new re­pen­tance. Let the lit­tle brute wal­low in it. Let him, if he has any bent that way, write a book about it; that is of­ten an ex­cel­lent way of ster­il­iz­ing the seeds which the En­emy plants in a hu­man soul. Let him do any­thing but act.

No amount of piety in his imag­i­na­tion and af­fec­tions will harm us if we can keep it out of his will. As one of the hu­mans has said, ac­tive habits are strength­ened by rep­e­ti­tion but pas­sive ones are weak­ened. The more of­ten he feels with­out act­ing, the less he will be able ever to act, and, in the long run, the less he will be able to feel.

Your af­fec­tion­ate un­cle, SCREW­TAPE

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