Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Seventeen

In this chapter, Screwtape describes to Wormwood a trick he calls the Same Old Thing. Humans naturally exist in a state of intermingled change and stability, and that is natural. We exist in a rhythm of the familiar and the novel, and because that is part of life, “the Enemy (being a hedonist at heart) has made change pleasurable to them, just as He has made eating pleasurable. But since he does  not wish them to make change, any more than eating, an end in itself, He has balanced the love of change in them by a love of permanence.”

The demonic practice, therefore, is to take the love of change and turn it into a horror of anything that is too familiar, a constant demand for things to be altered and updated. When I read that as a kid, I thought it was a very profound point that Lewis was making. Now, I don’t exactly disagree that too much focus on change can be unhealthy, but I also notice a strange omission. Screwtape says that humans are made to love both change and permanence, and it has been established that demons can twist all sorts of natural pleasures into an excessive obsession, so why isn’t he also instructing Wormwood on the use of the the Comfortable Old Thing? Why isn’t he talking about people who don’t want to challenge themselves, or mature, or let go of old prejudices and increase the level of equality in the world, because that would mean change and change is scary? You only have to look around to see that this is also a common flaw of human nature, but Screwtape never brings it up.

This omission becomes even stranger as he describes the social ills that the fear of the Same Old Thing brings on.

“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. The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under. Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later, when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed against the dangers of the mere ‘understanding.’ Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritanism; and whenever all men are hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make Liberalism the prime bogey.”

I think all of that is valid criticism. Often the vice that is most feared is the one that is least present. The family that fears seeming dysfunctional becomes full of Stepford Smilers. The person who fears seeming controlling is the passive doormat. The culture that despises sissies teaches a repressed, stifling machismo. But once again, I think it’s foolish to put all the blame for that on those who are forward thinking and fashion obsessed. Sometimes the attitude at fault is the one that says “this is the way things have always been, and it’s the way things should be,” ignoring the fact that they are lashing out against constructive or even benign changes, simply because they are different.

Screwtape’s final application of the Same Old Thing is to make sure people, when considering their choices, think not about whether a particular course of action is good or sensible, but whether it is in line with progress and the future.

“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?’ then 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… 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.”

Again, it’s not a bad point, so far as it goes. I tend to be someone who thinks a good deal about the future, and I hang out a lot with people who are preoccupied with making the future more fair, more egalitarian, more liberal. And even while I support these values, I’ve sometimes had conversations where I slap my head, usually because I am talking to someone who has gotten so wrapped up with whether or not a particular idea is in line with forward-thinking philosophy than whether it’s actually good. I am thinking of someone who once chewed me out for referring to someone, approvingly, as “self-disciplined.” He thought I shouldn’t use that word because it was a conservative value, nevermind that it’s still often an objectively good thing to be. But if I may make the same point for a third time, this flaw cuts both ways. Obsessively consulting the past is reasoning as flawed as constantly forecasting the future. There is a reason things have changed over time. Sometimes the past was bad, and we changed because we figured out a way to make it better.

Back when I was reviewing Chapter Nineteen, I talked about how Screwtape objectifies women, when that doesn’t actually fit his motivations and psychology. He wants to use everyone’s basic humanity against them, yes, but he’s aware of everyone as a person with desires and the capacity to take action. The whole point of his role as a tempter is to be aware of everyone’s needs and fears and desires, so he can make use of them, and so it would be actively detrimental for him to ignore the role women have as agents, in the use and misuse of their own sexuality. The way he talked made it clear that Lewis was speaking through him. This is another chapter where he comes across as a puppet, rather than a character. I can see Lewis moving Screwtape’s mouth, bobbing his head, and making Screwtape decry the flaws of liberal, forward thinking groups Lewis dislikes while completely ignoring more conservative groups that Lewis supports. This doesn’t invalidate his points, but it does weaken his message.

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