Screwtape on Time, Virtue-Signaling, and the Wrong Side of History

What might a senior statesman of Satan’s kingdom teach us about life in today’s world? Quite a lot, I’d say.

Late last year, on a walk through Cambridge, Andrew Wilson mentioned to me that he recently read The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis. (For the Mere Fidelity podcasts on the book, which I’ve since greatly enjoyed.) I made some ill-considered comment about exegetical fallacies, having in mind overly rigid distinctions between agape and eros and so on. Andrew replied with something like, “Maybe, but the depth of psychological and spiritual insight in the book is astounding.”

Andrew’s comment struck a chord, since I’ve always been struck by the same in Lewis’s writings. And it dawned on me that I hadn’t read much of his non-fiction lately. So Andrew’s comment sent me on a bit of a C. S. Lewis spree: in the last few weeks I’ve read or re-read several of his classic works, which I hope to write a bit about in due time. Having re-read The Four Loves, I’m not sure the lexical fallacy I quipped about is in the book at all—each term Lewis uses becomes in his hands something of a term of art. But that’s for  another post.

In this post I simply introduce a few passages that struck me in the work of Lewis’s I most recently re-read, The Screwtape Letters, published in 1942. If you’ve somehow managed never to hear of the book, the premise is a senior devil, Screwtape, writing to a junior devil, Wormwood, about how to more successfully destroy his “patient’s” newfound Christian faith and ensure his eventual arrival in hell. Lewis’s uncanny scrutiny of Christian experience and expert diagnoses of modern maladies are nowhere on fuller display than in this work. So here I simply introduce three of my favorite sayings of Screwtape, discussions that struck me as particularly pointed and timely. It should go without saying that what I endorse in the following is not Screwtape’s demonic agenda, but Lewis’s wisdom disguised therein.

(1) Do you think of your time as your own? Do you view interruptions and intrusions as violations of your sovereignty? Is there anything you think of as inviolably your own? All to the good, as far as Screwtape is concerned.

They anger him because he regards his time as his own and feels that it is being stolen. You must therefore zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption ‘My time is my own’. Let him have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours. Let him feel as a grievous tax that portion of this property which he has to make over to his employers, and as a generous donation that further portion which he allows to religious duties. But what he must never be permitted to doubt is that the total from which these deductions have been made was, in some mysterious way, his own personal birthright. . . . The man can neither make, nor retain, one moment of time; it all comes to him by pure gift; he might as well regard the sun and moon as his chattels. . . . The sense of ownership in general is always to be encouraged. The humans are always putting up claims to ownership which sound equally funny in Heaven and in Hell and we must keep them doing so. Much of the modern resistance to chastity comes from men’s belief that they ‘own’ their bodies–those vast and perilous estates, pulsating with the energy that made the worlds, in which they find themselves without their consent and from which they are ejected at the pleasure of Another! (112-14)

(2) Might online virtue-signaling be a knock-on effect of Screwtape’s policy regarding “fashions in thought”?

The use of Fashions in thought is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. (137-38)

(3) Finally, Screwtape would be delighted by today’s vogue moral put-down, “You’re on the wrong side of history.” No phrase could better sum up his strategy:

But the greatest triumph of all is to elevate this horror of the Same Old Thing into a philosophy so that nonsense in the intellect may reinforce corruption in the will. It is here that the general Evolutionary or Historical character of modern European thought (partly our work) comes in so useful. The Enemy loves platitudes. Of a proposed course of action He wants men, so far as I can see, to ask very simple questions; is it righteous? is it prudent? is it possible? Now if we can keep men asking ‘Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is this the way that History is going?’ they will neglect the relevant questions. And the questions they do ask are, of course, unanswerable; for they do not know the future, and what the future will be depends very largely on just those choices which they now invoke the future to help them to make. As a result, while their minds are buzzing in this vacuum, we have the better chance to slip in and bend them to the action we  have decided on. And great work has already been done. Once they knew that some changes were for the better, and others for the worse, and others again indifferent. We have largely removed this knowledge. For the descriptive adjective ‘unchanged’ we have substituted the emotional adjective ‘stagnant’. We have trained them to think of the Future as a promised land which favoured heroes attain—not as something which everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is. (138-39)

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