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Book Review: The Screwtape Letters
(C.S. Lewis)

Reviewing anything by C.S. Lewis seems presumptuous. Between the fame and erudition of the author, and the endless stream of reviews and analysis by others vastly more qualified, reviewing “The Screwtape Letters” seems like reviewing “Hamlet”—an activity that is likely to offer nothing new, and also to reflect poorly on the reviewer. Every page of “The Screwtape Letters” shows a deep understanding of human nature, as well as an orthodox Christian faith and sensibility. It is impossible to even summarize such a book, and it’s certainly short enough that at least an initial read requires no significant time commitment by the reader, thus further reducing any benefit a reviewer may offer. So I’ll keep this brief, and focus not on the spiritual aspects of the book, which are its main offering, but on Lewis’s prescience about the present day, given that it has been nearly seventy-five years since this book was first published.

One of today’s besetting pathologies is the complete erosion of logical reasoning and the simultaneous substitution of feelings and emotions as determinants of action—rather than as agents of chaos to be disciplined and conquered. This is true in both individual self-analysis and in debates on public policy. Lewis foretold this, or saw its early beginnings, for he has Screwtape in the very first letter advise his nephew, Wormwood, to prevent focus by the “patient” on what is true, and instead keep his focus on any of a variety of other, adjectival, elements of a thing. Logical argument is not desirable, says the elder demon, because it creates “the fatal habit of attending to universal issues and withdrawing [the patient’s] attention from the stream of immediate sense experiences.” Doubtless Lewis did not have Screwtape suggest that the patient should be encouraged to substitute his feelings and emotions for logical argument because that would have seemed ludicrous in 1942, but then, a very great deal would have seemed ludicrous in 1942 that we think is normal now.

Most interesting, perhaps, from the perspective of the modern day is the postscript, “Screwtape Proposes A Toast,” written in 1959 and more focused on public policy than individual spiritual progress. Here, Lewis attacks the British elites and education system for, under the guise of “democracy,” eroding the need for and even the very concept of excellence (with a consequent grievous impact on individual souls). Again, if we look at today, where the very idea of excellence has departed entirely from the public realm and even from people’s minds, replaced by tripe like “diversity” and “inclusion” and the demand that people be rewarded for traits rather than accomplishments, we can only wish we were back in 1959. But Lewis saw then, and identified, the baleful skeleton of what has today become the fully animated golem of Anti-Excellence. Thus, Lewis has Screwtape say:

—–

“Democracy is the word with which you must lead them by the nose. . . .You are to use the word purely as an incantation; if you like, purely for its selling power. . . . You can get [a man] to practise, not only without shame but with a positive glow of self-approval, conduct which, if undefended by the magic word, would be universally derided. The feeling I mean is of course that which prompts a man to say ‘I’m as good as you.’”

“No man who says I’m as good as you believes it. He would not say it if he did. The St. Bernard never says it to the toy dog, nor the scholar to the dunce, nor the employable to the bum, nor the pretty woman to the plain. The claim to equality, outside the strictly political field, is made only by those who feel themselves to be in some way inferior. What it expresses is precisely the itching, smarting, writhing awareness of an inferiority which the patient refuses to accept. . . . Now, this useful phenomenon is in itself by no means new. Under the name of Envy it has been known to humans for thousands of years. But hitherto they always regarded it as the most odious, and also the most comical, of vices. . . . What I want to fix your attention on is the vast, overall movement towards the discrediting, and finally the elimination, of every kind of human excellence – moral, cultural, social, or intellectual.” . . .

“In [England] the spirit of ‘I’m as good as you’ has already begun something more than a generally social influence. It begins to work itself into their educational system. How far its operations there have gone at the present moment, I should not like to say with certainty. Nor does it matter. Once you have grasped the tendency, you can easily predict its future developments; especially as we ourselves will play our part in the developing. The basic principle of the new education is to be that dunces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils. That would be ‘undemocratic.’ These differences between pupils – for they are obviously and nakedly individual differences – must be disguised. This can be done at various levels. At universities, examinations must be framed so that nearly all the students get good marks. Entrance examinations must be framed so that all, or nearly all, citizens can go to universities, whether they have any power (or wish) to profit by higher education or not. At schools, the children who are too stupid or lazy to learn languages and mathematics and elementary science can be set to doing things that children used to do in their spare time. Let, them, for example, make mud pies and call it modelling. But all the time there must be no faintest hint that they are inferior to the children who are at work. Whatever nonsense they are engaged in must have – I believe the English already use the phrase – ‘parity of esteem.’” . . .

“In a word, we may reasonably hope for the virtual abolition of education when ‘I’m as good as you’ has fully had its way. All incentives to learn and all penalties for not learning will be prevented; who are they to overtop their fellows? And anyway the teachers – or should I say, nurses? – will be far too busy reassuring the dunces and patting them on the back to waste any time on real teaching. We shall no longer have to plan and toil to spread imperturbable conceit and incurable ignorance among men. The little vermin themselves will do it for us.”

“For “democracy” or the “democratic spirit” (diabolical sense) leads to a nation without great men, a nation mainly of subliterates, full of the cocksureness which flattery breeds on ignorance, and quick to snarl or whimper at the first sign of criticism. And that is what Hell wishes every democratic people to be.”

——-

I certainly can’t add anything to this, except to note that such worship of Anti-Excellence, grown to huge proportions and become totally dominant, is exactly what we see today on college campuses (and high schools, and grade schools, and doubtless preschools). Ranking, in any arena, is forbidden. Shrieks greet anyone pursuing achievement and excellence, rather than “diversity” and “inclusion,” which are mere code words for granting unearned rewards to the undeserving, at the expense of the deserving. Howls of “cultural appropriation” greet those wearing costumes of other cultures, with the implicit message being that the costume is denigrating a culture other than Western culture, and that Western culture is the only inferior culture, all other cultures each being more awesome and fantastic than each other, in some way that not only never is but never can be identified, because each and every one is actually grossly inferior to Western culture, and that knowledge of relative (non-)excellence, suppressed by great effort, is what upsets the howlers. And so on, and on.

I would say that Lewis would be shocked and appalled by today’s educational dystopia, and that such poison has further infected the larger body politic. But really, I don’t think he would be. He, of all men, knew history, and he knew how low societies can, and have, gone in their dying arc. “The Screwtape Letters” merely takes that knowledge and shows how it affects, with direct diabolical input or not, the spiritual life of every person in every time.

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