Recently, I had a chance to revisit C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. Doing so permitted me to appreciate once again Lewis’s considerable virtues. It also reminded me of some things I had forgotten.
In the considerable virtues category, I would emphasize his remarkable insight into our fallen human nature. This is shown, for example, in the amazingly penetrating remarks he gives to Screwtape about how humans deceive themselves about their own motives. Humans, for example, can actually use tone of voice to provoke an argument and then act like the injured party when the argument breaks out. How many times have we seen this? How many times have we done it ourselves? Seeing Lewis unmask this kind of hypocrisy, to which all humans are prone, is an essential first step to trying to reform ourselves. Again, Lewis’s Screwtape reminds us–and this is pretty incredible, except that we know it happens all the time–that human beings are actually capable of being proud of being humble. Also, Screwtape notes that humans can be gotten to waste considerable amounts of their lives not in sin but just in pointless diversion, things they don’t even really enjoy, but that just at the moment seem easier than doing something serious. And those moments add up! Lewis reminds us that the spiritual and moral life is full of snares, and he helps us to avoid them by bringing them to light so clearly and so memorably (because so amusingly).
In the other category–things I had forgotten–I would place Lewis’s pronounced Catholic tendencies. These come out more in Screwtape than I had remembered. Screwtape refers to Purgatory. His arguments make reference to mortal sin, and his advice to Wormwood is premised on the idea that a human being’s conduct is important to his or her salvation.
There is an addendum to the Screwtape Letters that also reveals the extent to which Lewis was a kind of conservative. This would be “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” (available online here). This was written some years after the original letters. It is a blistering–and, I would say, very insightful–attack on the modern spirit of egalitarianism. Not that Lewis did not believe in equality. As a Christian he obviously did acknowledge some very important kinds of equality–in our being created in God’s image and likeness, in our fallen state, in God’s love for us. But Lewis evidently thought modern men were making a fetish out of equality and pressing it beyond all bounds of reason. Thus he wrote “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” in order to show that an extreme version of equality will be corrosive of commitment to every form of excellence.
By the way, I actually did not revisit Screwtape by reading it but instead by listening to an audiobook of it. I have friends who have sworn by the reading by John Cleese of Monty Python fame, but I could not find it. Instead, I listened to one read by Joss Ackland, who played Lewis in the BBC production of Shadowlands. This is a very good reading. Ackland is excellent.