Politics

The (New) Screwtape Letters

A view of our political foibles from a highly placed assistant to Our Father Below.
March 3, 2019
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Author’s Note:

I was recently doing some work in the United Kingdom. In my spare time, I decided to visit some of C.S. Lewis’s favorite haunts around Oxford. You can imagine my surprise at finding these letters. I will not explain how or where I discovered them, in keeping with Professor Lewis’s warnings that the existence of this kind of correspondence, and the knack of translating it, should not be revealed to “excitable people” who might make dangerous use of it.

I am working my way through them, and trying to put them in order of terrestrial time as best I can. I have made no effort to identify the patient – I think I’d rather not know – nor some of the other people Screwtape describes here. In some of the later letters, as you’ll see, there are references to “the Old Man,” who seems to be highly influential in the patient’s life and work.

I’m pretty sure I know who that is. Unfortunately.

Best,

Tom

**

My Dear Wormwood,

By now you know that it was only through my good offices that you have been released from the House of Incompetent Tempters so soon. For you, it has been an eternity, but your stay was shorter than you deserved, and you have me to thank for it.

Your letter of effusive gratitude is not only pointless but offensive. Yes, I secured your release because I am your uncle—a relationship I cannot escape, no matter how embarrassing your failures during your last posting on Earth. But Hell is built on realism, not emotion. The truth of the matter is that this current stage of our war with the Enemy is in a critical phase. We face dedicated counterattacks on all fronts. We have also, however, been faced with a flood of foolish souls who seek damnation in such numbers that we are nearly overwhelmed in our ability to escort them to Our Father Below in anything like an orderly fashion.

This is our good fortune, to be sure, but it has forced us to press back into service even such manifest failures as you. Do not for one moment believe that your return to duty reflects confidence in your abilities: your previous debacle in mid-20th century England, in which the Enemy relieved a man from your grasp before your very eyes, is a loss that even now rumbles the empty stomachs of your fellow devils.

I have therefore interceded with the Office of Tempter Assignments to send you to a battlefield on which even an idiot like you might succeed. As you see in the dossier I forwarded to you, I have prevailed upon your superiors to post you to North America, home to some of the most mindless, affluent, and decadent humans available on any front.

I fully expected that your first letter to me in response would be a sober assessment of your new patient. Instead, you have already seen fit to take issue with me—a course from which you might have been dissuaded by a century of torture. You wonder that I have not sent you to a murderer or an adulterer, or at the least to a drunkard or a prostitute. You complain to me instead that your man is an intelligent and educated young Christian.

Your whining only shows your stupidity. It pains me to have to remind you that great sinners are never assigned to bumbling newcomers like yourself, but rather are handed with great trepidation to the most senior and battle-hardened demons of the Infernal Reaches. Immensely wicked human beings are in fact quite rare, and it is only through consummate skill that we keep such prizes on the path of monumental evil for years on end without a moment of that ghastly reversal we know as “Repentance.” The devils who must accompany such humans also risk direct engagement with some of the greatest warriors on the Enemy’s side, a level of combat for which you are scarcely prepared.

Instead, I have seen to it that you were dealt an easy hand. Your man is in danger not because he is wicked, but because he himself has chosen one of the areas of human endeavor that is ever fruitful for the harvest of damnable souls. He is interested in politics.

The political world is the antithesis of the spiritual world. It is nothing but a constant obsession with an immediate stream of events. It is characterized by score-keeping, popularity, and the constant measuring of oneself against the standards of the very lowest common denominators, especially in the democracies. It is fertile ground for some of the most reliable and damnable vices, especially those of narcissism and pride. A man may outgrow sexual incontinence or overcome sloth, but the political world, like few others, offers sins that age and strengthen over time, and eventually dissolve a human character like a flytrap dissolving its oblivious prey while the helpless insect believes itself to be feasting on nectar.

I am specially concerned in this regard that you have asked me why there is so little in the file about the patient’s political views. Your fascination with whether your man is a liberal or a conservative, a socialist or a capitalist, a reformer or a traditionalist, means that you have already accepted the man’s frame of reference for himself—an error of the first order and one, if not corrected with haste, that will return you to Hell long before your patient.

There is nothing inherently virtuous or damnable in most human ideologies; laws and taxes and wars and courts are features of all governments. What matters is not what any one human espouses, but the condition of their spirit as they espouse it.

Besides, your man is in the grip of something far more dangerous: Ambition. Ambition is marvelous campaigning ground for the capture of a human soul, and your patient is engulfed in it. The question is how to turn this to our advantage, but for now, just keep it clear in your own mind that the patient’s actual views are not all that important—yet.

Rather, the goal for the moment is to use the patient’s ambition to plant the seeds of what will, if you handle it with care, turn into a regular reliance on hypocrisy and shallowness that will one day shock him when he realizes that his habits of mind, rather than his position on some meaningless piece of paper here or there, are what led to his own downfall.

Of course, in order to turn a man against his own principles—often a fundamental step in getting him to turn his back on the Enemy—it is important to understand how to use his own beliefs against him. Here, it matters that your patient, in this case, calls himself “a conservative.” We can use that.

More on this in my next.

Your affectionate uncle,

SCREWTAPE

Tom Nichols

Tom Nichols is a professor at the Naval War College and the Harvard Extension School, and the author of The Death of Expertise. The views expressed here are his own.