Friday 1 May 2015

Screwtape wants a comfortable, middle-aged world

If any reader have not already read or otherwise experienced CS Lewis's The Screwtape Letter, then you may be depriving yourselves.

The conceit of the book is its inverted perspective, written from the demonic perspective of advisory/ threatening letters from a senior devil called Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood who has been assigned to work on earth as a Tempter for a young man - they are trying to win the soul of the 'Patient' (i.e. the young man) for Hell; and in this task God is the 'Enemy'. This topsy-turvy angle makes for considerable humour, and many unexpected insights.

As well as re-reading the book; I have a fine CD audio-book of the basso-profundo-voiced Joss Ackland reading them; and also a very lively audio-drama version featuring the always-brilliant Andy Serkis as Screwtape with Bertie Carvel being perfect in the tricky role of his nephew Wormwood.


The Letters come up fresh every time because there is just so much distilled wisdom and prescience - in the following (edited) passage, Lewis - a 1914-18 combat veteran writing in the middle of another world war, is arguing that from the demonic perspective war and premature death is mostly a problem, and comfort and long-life are their great allies.

This has since been proved correct, now that we perceive that the effects of unprecedented prosperity and convenience in The West, better health and a twenty-plus year increase in average life-span have been accompanied by an historically-unprecedented collapse of faith and official embrace and approval of the inverted and Satanic viewpoint on many major issues.

Lewis accurately blames the quietly corrupted middle-aged and elderly (i.e. my generation, and that of my parents and grandparents) for this situation - since the young are naturally too unstable and easily-swayed to hold to an evil course, but will intermittently spontaneously recur to religiousness.

This particular passage is also where I was for the first time brought to recognize the need for Christianity to recognize that, through history, most humans die in the womb, infancy or before adulthood - and that the mature Man is a tiny minority of the species. Any adequate theology must therefore recognize 'premature' mortality as normal, and 'threescore years and ten' as exceptional.

God's plan of salvation has so far been mostly about fetuses, babies, children and youths.


Humans, of course, do tend to regard death as the prime evil and survival as the greatest good. But that is because we have taught them to do so.

If only your Patient can be kept alive, you have time itself for your ally. 

The long, dull monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity or middle-aged adversity are excellent campaigning weather. The routine of adversity, the gradual decay of youthful loves and youthful hopes, the quiet despair (hardly felt as pain) of ever overcoming the chronic temptations with which we have again and again defeated them, the drabness which we create in their lives and the inarticulate resentment with which we teach them to respond to it—all this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition.

If, on the other hand, the middle years prove prosperous, our position is even stronger!
Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that he is "finding his place in it", while really it is finding its place in him. His increasing reputation, his widening circle of
acquaintances, his sense of importance, the growing pressure of absorbing and agreeable work, build up in him a sense of being really at home in earth which is just what we want. You will notice that the young are generally less unwilling to die than the middle-aged and the old.

The truth is that the Enemy, having oddly destined these mere animals to life in His own eternal world, has guarded them pretty effectively from the danger of feeling at home anywhere else. That is why we must often wish long life to our patients; seventy years is not a day too much for the difficult task of unravelling their souls from Heaven and building up a firm attachment to the earth.

So inveterate is their appetite for Heaven that our best method, at this stage, of attaching them to earth is to make them believe that earth can be turned into Heaven at some future date by politics or eugenics or "science" or psychology, or what not. Real worldliness is a work of time—assisted, of course, by pride, for we teach them to describe the creeping death as good sense or Maturity or Experience.

How valuable time is to us may be gauged by the fact that the Enemy allows us so little of it. The majority of the human race dies in infancy; of the survivors, a good many die in youth. It is obvious that to Him human birth is important chiefly as the qualification for human death, and death solely as the gate to that other kind of life.

We are allowed to work only on a selected minority of the race, for what humans call a "normal life" is the exception. Apparently He wants some—but only a very few—of the human animals with which He is peopling Heaven to have had the experience of resisting us through an earthly life of sixty or seventy years. Well, there is our opportunity. The smaller it is, the better we must use it.

Whatever you do, keep your patient as safe as you possibly can.



JP said...

God's plan of salvation has so far been mostly about fetuses, babies, children and youths.

If that is so, it is difficult to understand Earthly existence as an opportunity for spiritual progression - a "moral gymnasium" or "assault course" that enables man to become suited for Heaven. How much moral or spiritual progression can you make as a fetus, a baby, or an infant?

For myself, it took a long time (decades) to make spiritual progression. As a child, youth, and young man, I was very definitely an atheist and materialist. No doubt the situation would have been different if I had not been raised in such an actively atheistic and materialistic culture, but if I had died before the age of 18 - or even 40 - I would not have made any spiritual progress at all.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JP - I think the explanation is that being incarnated and dying is the essence; and that the chance for theosis is a minority thing. I wouldn't try to explain everything, but the Mormon belief in pre-mortality implies that different soul are placed differently when they are incarnated - in terms of their needs and potential. I would assume that some of those who die very young (and uncorrupted) only need to become incarnated as a necessary step to resurrected immortality; others, such as you and I, perhaps need the chance of more theosis.

drizzz said...

Although he's not saying the exact same thing, your post reminded me of something G. K. Chesterton wrote in "Charles Dickens":
“The more plain and satisfying our state appears, the more we may know that we are living in an unreal world. For the real world is not satisfying. The more clear become the colours and facts of Anglo-Saxon superiority, the more surely we may also know we are in a dream. The real world is full of bracing bewilderments and brutal surprises. Comfort is a blessing and the curse of the English, and Americans of the Pogrom type also. With them it is a loud comfort; but comfort at bottom still. For there is but an inch of difference between the cushioned chamber and the padded cell.”