The Screwtape Letters

by: C.S. Lewis

Letters 28-31

Screwtape’s advice to Wormwood continues to challenge conventional expectations and beliefs. The conventional belief might be that feeling cowardly in response to danger is a negative thingsomething that would make Hell’s forces happy. Not so. Once again, it is what a person does with their feelings that is significant, not the feelings themselves. According to Screwtape, the Patient’s feelings are not to be trusted. In fact, the Patient believes himself to be cowardly because he felt fear, but his behavior was virtuous. This suggests that it is a good thing for people to be self-deceived so long as it keeps them from falling into sin and pride. Then, Screwtape turns the tables on Wormwood. Wormwood has already reported Screwtape for heresy—or Hell’s version of it—because Screwtape has said that God really loves human beings. Now, Screwtape threatens to report Wormwood for Hell’s version of heresy because Wormwood is asking for mercy. Mercy is a virtue shown by the powerful, but there are no virtues in Hell. God gives mercy, and Satan tortures souls.

Next, Screwtape compares physical and emotional reality. It is easy, Screwtape argues, for humans to believe the ugly and the hideous are somehow more real than the beautiful or joyful. But all of these elements, he reminds Wormwood, are equally a part of physical reality. Human attraction to ugliness may help explain why The Screwtape Letters are so effective as spiritual advice. The dark intentions and evil workings of devils are, arguably, more compelling than the teachings of virtuous people or angels. In any case, the contradiction in receiving spiritual advice from a giant centipede or a violent demon is compelling. Screwtape’s increased affection toward Wormwood in the final letter is a sign of his growing excitement about feasting on him. Wormwood, apparently, is so incompetent that he shall be sacrificed for his failure to capture the Patient’s soul.

There are many contradictions within the world of, and the philosophy advanced within, The Screwtape Letters. For instance, if devils are eternal, why is there a training college for seemingly younger tempters? How could devils have familial relations like nephew and uncle? How could an eternal being like Wormwood be eaten? Ultimately, these inconsistencies make the alien and invisible realm of Hell more concrete and visible. Screwtape and Wormwood’s relationship, for example, seems more definite as a result of its being expressed in the familiar terms of uncle and nephew. It is easier to picture Hell as a large corporation than as an invisible location experienced only by spirits and the dead. The generous reader can see the contradictions in The Screwtape Letters as the result of necessary analogies that attempt to express the true, but ultimately inexpressible, conditions of Heaven and Hell. A more skeptical reader may see these inconsistencies as the natural byproduct of the fact that Heaven and Hell, morality and immorality, sin and virtue, are, themselves, human fictions—stories people tell themselves in the course of the ongoing, impossible human project to make sense out of life.