Screwtape on Pleasure and Distraction

The following excerpt from The Screwtape Letters is, I think, one of C.S. Lewis’ most sublime arguments. The senior demon, Screwtape, is trying to help his new tempting nephew, Wormwood, keep the new Christian sliding away from his faith. Within this part of Letter XII are several brilliant quotations and key points of subtle spiritual struggles.

As this condition becomes more fully established, you will be gradually freed from the tiresome business of providing Pleasures as temptations. As the uneasiness and his reluctance to face it cut him off more and more from all real happiness, and as habit renders the pleasures of vanity and excitement and flippancy at once less pleasant and harder to forgo (for that is what habit fortunately does to a pleasure) you Harper Collins imagewill find that anything or nothing is sufficient to attract his wandering attention. You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday’s paper will do. You can make him waste his time not only in conversation he enjoys with people whom he likes, but in conversations with those he cares nothing about on subjects that bore him. You can make him do nothing at all for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room. All the healthy and outgoing activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at last he may say, as one of my own patients said on his arrival down here, “I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked”. The Christians describe the Enemy as one “without whom Nothing is strong”. And Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them, in drumming of fingers and kicking of heels, in whistling tunes that he does not like, or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambition to give them a relish, but which, once chance association has started them, the creature is too weak and fuddled to shake off.

You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts,

Your affectionate uncle

SCREWTAPE

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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14 Responses to Screwtape on Pleasure and Distraction

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  4. Here’s hoping my 15-year-old daughter will “get” Screwtape Letters, even if in part. New assignment for 10th grade home school.

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    • Some of the 1st year students thought it a little strange. Plus, most students won’t have read books that are written like letters, right? (The letters of Paul, for example, or Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther”). But if she has read a book written like a diary, it might help to make that connection.
      There is also a CD performance by Focus on the Family. As well, John Cleese from Monty Python has read the book–which is quite cool.

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      • Success! 15-year-old daughter listened to the Focus on the Family radio theatre production of The Screwtape Letters with wonderful voice-over by Andy Serkis and she loved it! I read it to create comprehension/essay questions to challenge her thinking. I re-read this excerpt you posted and am shivering as I imagine the whispery, sinister demonic voice crooning to Wormwood: “But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts”

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        • It is a great quotation! The Serkis demon voice is pretty good: “Woooormwooood….” Wormwood is a dope, though. Perhaps that’s like the original!
          It is hard work for a 15 year old to read the book, but one she’s in, it’s pretty accessible. Good books are sometimes hard, like good coffee.

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  11. As a fellow Anglican (of Lewis, not Screwtape! Although you never know!) I know the prayer to which Screwtape refers very well. It is the Collect for the 4th Sunday after Trinity in the Book of Common Prayer.
    “O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal.”
    I note that Screwtape does not go on to describe Nothing as holy but I suspect that he implies this as he shows what Nothing can become without God. I will never say this prayer in the same way again and, once more, am grateful to Lewis for deepening my understanding and to you for sharing this.

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