C. S. Lewis’s (Lack of) Sympathy for the Devil: “The Screwtape Letters” and “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”

Recently, I was watching an episode of “Inspector Lewis” on PBS television, and in the famous mystery series, Inspector Lewis and Inspector Hathaway were investigating murders of some people who were either followers of “The Inklings” (J. R.. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and C. S. Lewis), or of medieval alchemy, it took them some time to discover which.  Some of the details about The Inklings in this generally well-researched series made me curious, but while I was conversant with the other two, I had never heard of Charles Williams the literary figure before.  So, I dug out the only book I’d ever had by C. S. Lewis (excepting a childhood’s version of The Chronicles of Narnia), a copy of The Screwtape Letters which also included a short piece called “Screwtape Proposes a Toast.”  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the primary work, its subtitle is “How a Senior Devil Instructs a Junior Devil in the Art of Temptation.”

One of the most curious things about this book is the way in which it conveys serious moral philosophy without, however, verging either into the preachy or the satirical in a pure sense.  It examines moral issues relating to humanity, a Christian version of God, and the wages of sin in a topsy-turvy way through Screwtape’s earnest and falsely urbane written advice to his nephew, Wormwood, who is trying to tempt a young man to fall from grace.  The book traces each step (or misstep) Wormwood makes through the lessons Screwtape is apparently offering his nephew, while the nephew’s letters to Screwtape, soliciting this advice, are suppressed by the book’s creator.

In his “Preface,” C. S. Lewis says, “The commonest question is whether I really ‘believe in the Devil.’  Now, if by ‘the Devil’ you mean a power opposite to God and, like God, self-existent from all eternity, the answer is certainly No.  There is no uncreated being except God.  God has no opposite.  No being could attain a ‘perfect badness’ opposite to the perfect goodness of God; for when you have taken away every kind of good thing (intelligence, will, memory, energy, and existence itself) there would be none of him left.  The proper question is whether I believe in devils.  I do.  That is to say, I believe in angels, and I believe that some of these, by the abuse of their free will, have become enemies to God and, as a corollary, to us.  These we may call devils.  They do not differ in nature from good angels, but their nature is depraved.  Devil is the opposite of angel only as Bad Man is the opposite of Good Man.  Satan, the leader or dictator of devils, is the opposite, not of God, but of Michael….It should be (but it is not) unnecessary to add that a belief in angels, whether good or evil, does not mean a belief in either as they are represented in art and literature.  Devils are depicted with bats’ wings and good angels with birds’ wings, not because anyone holds that moral deterioration would be likely to turn feathers into membrane, but because most men like birds better than bats.”

Lewis further explains two other choices of his creation of characters, the first to give his devils no real sense of humor (“For humor involves a sense of proportion and a power of seeing yourself from the outside.”), and the second to make his devils bureaucrats and their subordinates (“I like bats much better than bureaucrats.  I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of ‘Admin.’  The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid ‘dens of crime’ that Dickens loved to paint.  It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps.  In those we see its final result.  But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men   with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.  Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern.”  He goes on to point out that the devils only have any kind of supposedly civilized concord with each other in a temporary sense.  When Wormwood finally fails, in this book, to tempt his subject to Hell when he dies, and instead sees him headed for Heaven, it’s his own uncle, Screwtape, who has been giving him devilish avuncular advice all this time, who rejoices the most (and literally salivates the most) at his downfall in Hell.

The shorter piece by Lewis, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” finds Screwtape the honorary speaker at the annual dinner for the Tempters’ Training College for young devils.  The piece has some quite pointed bits about what exactly they are dining upon. For example, they eat “a municipal authority with Graft sauce”; a “Casserole of Adulterers”; a “Trade Unionist stuffed with sedition”; and they drink “sound old vintage Pharisee.”  This piece is rather more politically than morally slanted, as herein C. S. Lewis takes aim at the ways in which he feels the principles of modern democracy and the annihilation of individuality are leading people from the straight and narrow to the wide broad highway of sin.  This work is not really as universal as the main text, but criticizes mainly what Lewis finds objectionable in the democratic society of his own time.  This is not to say that it’s not interesting to read, but there is a stronger Toryish flavor to it from what I can tell without having done further research beyond just reading the piece myself and judging from that (a true Britisher reading it might disagree, and might feel that Lewis’s objections are free of bias).

At any rate, I’m very glad to have read this book finally, having often wondered what lay between its covers.  Though more of a spiritual than a religious person myself (having been raised a Christian, but also having tried to extend my understanding in some degree at least to other religious systems as well), I found that Lewis’s was an innervating and and energetic point of view, and one well worth encountering, even at points where it seemed dated.  After all, you have to look for the virtues in any book you read, while trying to explain to yourself the faults and shortcomings.  It’s a position you would want people to approach your own work(s) with, and you as well.  Happy exploring in the literary world!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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1 Comment

Filed under Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

One response to “C. S. Lewis’s (Lack of) Sympathy for the Devil: “The Screwtape Letters” and “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”

  1. I remember reading this a few years back and whilst enjoying it, I don’t think I got as much out of it as I would now…though where my copy now is, sadly I do not know. Lewis was thinker, sadly all people seem to remember him for (for the most part) is The Chronicles of Narnia which are worth a reread by the way.

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