"The Devil You Know"
Casey N. Cep
October 17th, 2013
The New Yorker
Last week, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia brought the Devil out of the darkness and into the limelight. In an expansive interview with New York magazine, after talking about Heaven and Hell, he said, “I even believe in the Devil.”
“You do?” said the interviewer, Jennifer Senior.
“Yeah, he’s a real person,” Scalia explained, but “it is curious. In the Gospels, the Devil is doing all sorts of things. He’s making pigs run off cliffs, he’s possessing people and whatnot. And that doesn’t happen very much anymore.”
Near the end of his excursus on evil, Scalia said, “You’re looking at me as though I’m weird.” He continued, “Most of mankind has believed in the Devil, for all of history. Many more intelligent people than you or me have believed in the Devil.” When all other explanations seemed to fail, he asked the interviewer, “Have you read The Screwtape Letters?”
Now, there are many literary devils, and Justice Scalia could easily have invoked Dante or Blake, John Milton or Thomas Mann, but instead he named a work by one of the celebrities of Christian apologetics. C. S. Lewis has been dead for nearly fifty years, but talk about Christianity long enough and you’ll likely hear his name. Evangelicals, Protestants, and Catholics all lay claim to him. Children read his “Chronicles of Narnia” series and grow into reading his more formal works of memoir and theology: “Mere Christianity,” “The Problem of Pain,” “Miracles,” “Surprised by Joy,” and “The Four Loves.”
“The Screwtape Letters,” though, remains one of his most popular works. Continuously in print since Lewis published it in 1942, the novel has been adapted into plays, made into a comic book, and recorded as an audio drama by John Cleese. Fox owns the film rights, and Ralph Winter, best known for blockbusters like “X-Men” and “Fantastic Four,” has said he will produce it. Three years ago, I saw one of the stage adaptations in New York, where it was shockingly difficult to get a ticket. I remember wondering then, as I have been again since Justice Scalia’s interview, why the novel is still so popular.
Its appeal, I think, comes from Lewis’s success in writing a theodicy of the everyday. Unlike Dante and Milton, he eschewed a grand theology of the cosmos, focussing instead on quotidian temptations of the common man. An epistolary novel, “The Screwtape Letters” features a senior demon called Screwtape writing thirty-one letters of advice and encouragement to his inexperienced nephew, Wormwood, who is trying to win the soul of a nameless young man. “The patient” is an unremarkable man who fights with his mother, falls in love, and then dies in an air raid during the Second World War.
“My dear Wormwood,” the letters begin, and we meet the first-person voice of the spine-tinglingly charming Screwtape, who signs off, “Your affectionate uncle.” Screwtape likes philosophy, admires history, and disdains science; he is so cultured that in one letter he talks about reading in the British Museum, so hip that in another he says how helpful it will be to make use of “the ‘Life Force,’ the worship of sex, and some aspects of Psychoanalysis.”
He wants nothing but the best for his nephew, an erring neophyte unversed in the finer methods of temptation. Screwtape is more than just a masterful theologian—he is a careful anthropologist. “When two humans have lived together for many years,” he tells his nephew, “it usually happens that each has tones of voice and expressions of face which are almost unendurably irritating to the other. Work on that.” Adultery seems excessive when furrowed eyebrows and dismissive tones can do the work of ruining relationships slowly: “Courtship is the time for sowing those seeds which grow up ten years later into domestic hatred.”
In another letter addressing prayer, Screwtape writes, “It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.” These demons aren’t digging pits of fire or offering bargains of absolute power, they are embedding themselves in the daily lives of their patients. Nowhere is this clearer than when Wormwood is excited by the outbreak of the Second World War, and Screwtape advises caution: wars bring souls as easily to God, “the Enemy,” as to the Devil, “Our Father Below.”
The bureaucracy of tempters is roughly sketched when Screwtape tells Wormwood to collaborate with other, adjacent demons: Glubose, who is assigned to the patient’s mother, and Slumtrimpet, who is assigned to the woman he loves. Somewhat surprisingly, he tells his nephew, “One of our great allies at present is the Church itself.” Organized religion is full of misguided liturgies, bad preachers, and off-key singing: the sort of minor but menacing distractions that can slowly undermine the patient’s faith. “Indeed,” Screwtape later says, “the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
Opportunities for sin are what fill a human lifetime. Screwtape tells Wormwood that God “cannot ‘tempt’ to virtue as we do to vice,” and letter by letter he reveals these temptations. “You are much more likely,” he says, “to make your man a sound drunkard by pressing drink on him as an anodyne when he is dull and weary than by encouraging him to use it as a means of merriment among his friends when he is happy.” Alcohol is not the only instrument of vice, and Screwtape insists that the most ordinary of instruments are the best.
The patient’s mother, for instance, is a supreme glutton, but not the excessive kind. She is the sort of person who is always sending plates of food back to the kitchen because they are too large or refusing tea because it is too strong, offending servants and friends alike with her self-concern. As Screwtape observes, “At the very moment of indulging her appetite she believes that she is practising temperance.” So often, sin is accomplished by manipulating the pursuit of virtue. Wormwood is advised, “Catch [the patient] at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, ‘By jove! I’m being humble,’ and almost immediately pride—pride at his own humility—will appear.” With little effort, gluttony can be disguised as temperance and pride can be hidden by humility.
The greatest of these vice-for-virtue deceptions was achieved, Screwtape says, by “the admirable work of our Philological Arm in substituting the negative unselfishness for the Enemy’s positive Charity.” Couples are ideal for getting patients to resent the very individuals they most desired to show charity:
In discussing any joint action, it becomes obligatory that A should argue in favour of B’s supposed wishes and against his own, while B does the opposite. It is often impossible to find out either party’s real wishes; with luck, they end by doing something that neither wants, while each feels a glow of self-righteousness and harbours a secret claim to preferential treatment for the unselfishness shown and a secret grudge against the other for the ease with which the sacrifice has been accepted.
Another way of framing such failed virtues is to say that true temptation distracts from the present and directs to the future. Instead of appreciating your boyfriend’s preference for one television show over another or your wife’s desire to go for a walk instead of staying at home, you worry unsustainably about being the most unselfish of partners or scoring more points than your wife on the balance sheet of the relationship. “Gratitude looks to the past and love to the present,” Screwtape tells Wormwood, but “fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead.” It’s perfect satire.
Five years after publishing “The Screwtape Letters,” Lewis appeared on the cover of Time with a devil on his shoulder. The novel was already one of his most popular works. Despite decades of expounding the same themes in lectures, radio addresses, sermons, and theological treatises, Lewis (like Milton) was never livelier than when he wrote of demons. No matter how many other ways he tried to write of faith, we still like hearing from the Devil best.
For believers, the letters are theology in reverse, teaching the love of God through the wiles of the Devil, but for all readers, regardless of belief, the letters frame human experience as a familiar sequence of trials, from how you take your tea and what parties you attend to the sort of person you choose for a partner and the sort of politics you espouse. As Justice Scalia said when he invoked “The Screwtape Letters,” “That’s a great book. It really is, just as a study of human nature.” The novel remains wildly popular because whether or not you agree with Lewis and Scalia that the Devil is real, the evils promoted by Screwtape—greed, gluttony, pride, envy, and violence—most certainly are.