To Irrigate Deserts

“For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defense against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.”

C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, in Selected Books (London: HarperCollins, 2002), 403.

We never meant it to come to that!

“Men are reluctant to pass over from the notion of an abstract and negative deity to the living God. I do not wonder. Here lies the deepest tap-root of Pantheism and of the objection to traditional imagery. It was hated not, at bottom, because it pictured Him as man but because it pictured Him as king, or even as warrior. The Pantheist’s God does nothing, demands nothing. He is there if you wish for Him, like a book on a shelf. He will not pursue you. There is no danger that at any time heaven and earth should flee away at His glance. If He were the truth, then we could really say that all the Christian images of kingship were a historical accident of which our religion ought to be cleansed. It is with a shock that we discover them to be indispensable. You have had a shock like that before, in connection with smaller matters—when the line pulls at your hand, when something breathes beside you in the darkness. So here; the shock comes at the precise moment when the thrill of life is communicated to us along the clue we have been following. It is always shocking to meet life where we thought we were alone. ‘Look out!’ we cry, ‘it’s alive’. And therefore this is the very point at which so many draw back—I would have done so myself if I could— and proceed no further with Christianity. An ‘impersonal God’—well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads—better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap—best of all. But God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband—that is quite another matter. There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (‘Man’s search for God!’) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?”

– C. S. Lewis, Miracles (London: Harper Collins, 2012), 149–50.

Until the Shadow of Man Falls upon Them

“We are inveterate poets. When a quantity is very great we cease to regard it as a mere quantity. Our imaginations awake. Instead of mere quantity, we now have a quality—the Sublime. But for this, the merely arithmetical greatness of the Galaxy would be no more impressive than the figures in an account book. To a mind which did not share our emotions and lacked our imaginative energies, the argument against Christianity from the size of the universe would be simply unintelligible. It is therefore from ourselves that the material universe derives its power to overawe us. Men of sensibility look up on the night sky with awe: brutal and stupid men do not. When the silence of the eternal spaces terrified Pascal, it was Pascal’s own greatness that enabled them to do so; to be frightened by the bigness of the nebulae is, almost literally, to be frightened at our own shadow. For light years and geological periods are mere arithmetic until the shadow of man, the poet, the maker of myths, falls upon them. As a Christian I do not say we are wrong to tremble at that shadow, for I believe it to be the shadow of an image of God. But if the Vastness of Nature ever threatens to overcrow our spirits, we must remember that it is only Nature spiritualised by human imagination which does so.”

– C. S. Lewis, Miracles (London: Harper Collins, 2012), 84.

Screwtape on Humility and the Word “Real”

There follow two more bits from Screwtape well worth pondering. The first, on humility:

The Enemy wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favour that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbour’s talents—or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. . . . His whole effort, therefore, will be to get the man’s mind off the subject of his own value altogether. He would rather the man thought himself a great architect or a great poet and then forgot about it, than that he should spend much time and pains trying to think himself a bad one. Your efforts to instil either vainglory or false modesty into the patient will therefore be met from the Enemy’s side with the obvious reminder that a man is not usually called upon to have an opinion of his own talents at all, since he can very well go on improving them to the best of his ability without deciding on his own precise niche in the temple of Fame. (71–72)

The second is on the word “real.” Screwtape boasts that “we have got them completely fogged about the meaning of the word.” If the topic is a great spiritual experience, what is “real” can only be bare physical facts; if some gruesome physical event, what is “real” are its emotional effects. Screwtape reasons:

Either application of the word could be defended; but our business is to keep the two going at once so that the emotional value of the word ‘real’ can be placed now on one side of the account, now on the other, as it happens to suit us. The general rule which we have now pretty well established among them is that in all experiences which can make them happier or better only the physical facts are ‘real’ while the spiritual elements are ‘subjective’; in all experiences which can discourage or corrupt them the spiritual elements are the main reality and to ignore them is to be an escapist. Thus in birth the blood and pain are ‘real’, the rejoicing a mere subjective point of view; in death, the terror and ugliness reveal what death ‘really means’. . . . Wars and poverty are ‘really’ horrible; peace and plenty are mere physical facts about which men happen to have certain sentiments. The creatures are always accusing one another of wanting ‘to eat the cake and have it’; but thanks to our labours they are more often in the predicament of paying for the cake and not eating it. (168–69)

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)