Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Eighteen

In this chapter, Screwtape encourages Wormwood to plan ahead. He thinks Wormwood should assume the Patient and his girlfriend are going to marry, and begin to sow the seeds of marital discontent now. Currently, he says, they are in the state of love that resembles an enchantment, where everything feels bubbly and perfect. According to Screwtape, many broken relationships actually get their start here, where demons encourage bad behaviors that the couple fails to deal with, because the NRE makes everything easily forgivable. They think they’ve solved problems with the power of their love, when really they’ve only thrown a pretty doily over them.

The trick Screwtape recommends most heavily is the promotion of “Unselfishness.” He distinguishes between unselfishness and actual kindness. Kind acts are things that you do in order to make someone else’s lives better. Unselfishness, according to Screwtape, is a character trait you can earn XP in, and when you get enough points you get to level up and become a level 10 Awesome Human Being, or so demons like to encourage humans to think. This simple substition allows demons to encourage humans to become blind to the real consequences of their behavior, and focus instead on how to best achieve moral superiority. In the case of the Patient and his girlfriend, he wants Wormwood to encourage them to replace the inclination for charity that their NRE has produced with a tendency to do what they don’t want to do so that they can experience subsequent feelings of victorious superiority, tinged with a little resentment. This is bad enough on the small scale, and if nurtured can lead toward real dysfunction in the long run.

Screwtape offers an example of how unselfishness can look when it has been nurtured in a group of people for a long time.

“Something quite trivial, like having tea in the garden, is proposed. One member takes care to make it quite clear (though not in so many words) that he would rather not but is, of course, prepared to do so out of ‘Unselfishness.’ The others withdraw their proposal, ostensibly through their ‘Unselfishness,’ but really because they don’t want to be used as a sort of lay figure on which the first speaker practices petty altruisms. But he is not going to be done out of his debauch of Unselfishness either. He insists on doing ‘what the others want.’ They insist on doing what he wants. Passions are roused. Soon someone is saying, ‘very well then, I won’t have any tea at all!’ and a real quarrel ensues with bitter resentment on both sides.”

Everyone leaves able to feel like they’ve won the war of moral superiority, able to see the selfishness inherent in everyone else’s unselfishness, but fails to see it in themselves.

This whole chapter I liked quite a bit. There was one aside where he explained said that women demonstrate unselfishness by “taking trouble for others,” inconveniencing themselves for someone else’s sake or actively giving to someone, while men demonstrate unselfishness by not giving trouble to others. This is a bit gender essentialist of him, but not entirely wrong. If you change it from an absolute statement to “men tend to be taught that being considerate of others means this and women tend to be raised with different expectations,” I think it’s an accurate observation. I also think that both approaches to kindness can be right in different situations, and the trick is to learn how to do both, not just the one you were raised to think about. The problem lies in doing one in a situation where the other is called for, and patting yourself on the back for being “unselfish” because you fulfilled your own definition of good behavior, rather than think about what the other person really needed. That, I think, was the reason Lewis brought up the distinction in the first place.

Apart from that nitpick, I don’t have much to add to it except “yup, uh-huh, that’s so true,” which made it very enjoyable for me to read but a little more difficult to write about. I think his analysis was not only good but also comprehensive, which leaves me with little to say except, “well said, Mr. Lewis.”


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