The Screwtape Letters was one of my favorite books as a young homeschooled Christian. When I became an atheist, I did an experimental re-read with reviews, which kicked off the entire Reviews as an Ex-Christian project. To my surprise, despite a few passages that I disagreed with, I mostly did still like it. I recently had a spiritual reawakening. I tentatively took the label of “witch” as something that was specific enough to encompass a lot of my favorite practices, but vague enough to leave room to periodically re-evaluate my beliefs. Given C. S. Lewis’ views on witches, it seemed appropriate to give the whole thing another read, to see if I had any new objections.
If anything, I like it more than ever.
Modern ethical philosophy, at least in the Western tradition, has a tendency to look at discrete choices, outside of context. It’s also unhelpful in actually guiding human behavior. This isn’t an abstract speculation – Eric Schwitzgebel has made a career studying the moral behavior of ethics professors, and found repeatedly that they are no better to slightly worse than professors. He even found they are more likely to steal books on ethics. If that isn’t the ultimate condemnation, I don’t know what else could be. Furthermore, his work has been replicated by other academics.
My current theory, based on a mixture of reading, working with behaviorally challenged children and observing the world around me, is that changes in ethical behavior come from a growth mentality, not idealism. People who try to will themselves into perfection get discouraged and give up. People who to prescribe utopias usually turn out to be some kind of gross abuser. People who try to build themselves up, from small habits to big ones, taking things one day at a time? Usually they turn out to be genuinely lovely people.
The Screwtape Letters is all about that. The title character, Screwtape, embodies all-or-nothing moral thinking. He believes all humans are pathetic maggots who deserve to go to hell, and it’s his job to make sure they get there. He’s a former field tempter who worked his way up to a cushy desk job in the cutthroat corporate world of Hell. The entire story is told through letters he writes to his nephew Wormwood, a field tempter who is struggling with his ordinary mortal charge, a man known only as the patient. The patient is no saint. He has vices, foibles and frequent uncharitable thoughts. Despite this, every time the demons encourage him to fall, he takes the failure as a lesson, and in every chapter he is a little bit of a better man than he was in the one before. In short, it’s Faust in reverse.
Ostensibly, Screwtape’s goal is to teach Wormwood, but his impatience with the patient’s moral progress leads Screwtape to go on rants about what Wormwood should have done. Even when he proactively strategizes, his grandiosity leads him to go off on tangents about the bigger picture and the whole of the human race – things that don’t support Wormwood’s learning on how to be a better tempter. Instead of teaching Wormwood, he accidentally reveals to us, the ordinary humans reading the book, how to recognize and resist those inner voices that always seem to be rooting against us.
It does come from a Christian perspective, and there are certainly passages that a non-Christian will disagree with. But if you’re the type of person who loves reading a diverse range of religious perspectives, and is all right with disagreeing with a passage here and there, you should definitely add it to your reading list. It’s optimistic, insightful and probably unlike anything else you’ve ever read. I’ll be posting my new reviews over the next month, and I hope you enjoy them, whether or not you have read the original book.
As always, thank you for reading!