Who can deny the insidious whisperings that infiltrate the noblest heart and penetrate the most virtuous mind?--those subtle impulses that beckon hither and thither to paths we ought not to travel upon. How often have we vowed never to yield to some enticement, only to succumb moments later to the very vice we had pledged to eschew? Whether manifested in the final, luscious slice of a calorie-loaded pound cake or in the tantalizing allure of a forbidden passion, temptation to choose wrong over right is ubiquitous in our lives as we daily make decisions of both trivial and profound significance. Yet while many have denounced the depravity of sin, C.S. Lewis, a mid-twentieth century British theologian, took a much more innovative approach - through the eyes of the devil himself. The resulting correspondence written between the seasoned devil Screwtape and Wormwood, his inexperienced nephew, is an insightful training manual on the art of human subjugation. In his masterful commentary The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis effectively employs satire, irony, and appeal to logos to enable his adult Christian audience to recognize and understand the devices of temptation.
From the beginning, Screwtape's writings unveil the real roots of temptation through satire. Wormwood's task is to bring about a soul's damnation, but as his uncle quickly observes, the newly christened tempter is prone to error. Critiquing his understudy, Screwtape chides, "Are you not being a trifle naïve? It sounds as if you supposed that argument was the way to keep him out of the Enemy's clutches... Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church" (p. 1). This passage is satirical because it exploits Wormword's fallible use of argument to undermine his patient's faith when mere diversion would be sufficient. It is a direct critique of the book's adult Christian audience who allow meaningless "jargon" to distract them from their faith. As evident in this example, C.S. Lewis masterfully uses satire to establish lesser temptations as valid components of sin in the reader's mind.
Additionally, the satire in Screwtape's letters provides valuable insights on the tactics employed by the beguilers. After offering a slew of tips for diverting people from their prayers, Screwtape states, "It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality, our best work is done by keeping things out" (p. 15). Here he is specifically referring to the spiritual distance fostered by casual or self-promoting prayers, but the technique of distancing his patients from "the Enemy" characterizes all the devil's efforts. This example is satirical because it largely implicates the tempted - not the tempter - for planting seeds of temptation through a careless relationship with God. It reveals the devil's tendency to not only entice, but to encourage conditions where such enticements will be most compelling. By critiquing the audience's possibly cavalier approach to prayer, satire teaches the reader to recognize the devil's underlying tactics in temptation.
In addition to satire, C.S. Lewis uses irony to explore temptation's appeal to human flaws while simultaneously undermining the demon's methodology. On page 37, Screwtape writes, "Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation." Wormwood's patient had recently dropped into a spiritual trough, and Screwtape cautions that such deviations do not of themselves lend to damnation. His statement is ironic because it underscores change as mankind's only dependable feature. But the true irony is that Wormwood's efforts to discourage ultimately undermine his objective because they humble the patient to rely wholly upon "the Enemy." Lewis' irony reveals both human flaws and demonic arrogance associated with sin. It enables his Christian audience to better understand temptation by concisely illustrating both its strengths and failings.
Another example of irony is Screwtape's inability to comprehend love. Referring to God as "the Enemy," he writes, "All His talk about Love must be a disguise for something else - He must have some real motive for creating them and taking so much trouble about them" (p.100). Because, as a devil, he is himself incapable of virtue, Screwtape incorrectly assumes that all righteous actions must also have ulterior motives. This non sequitor fallacy is satirical because it exhibits the tempter's deficiency in understanding, while reinforcing to the Christian audience that love really is "the Enemy's" driving motive. This satire provides dramatic insights by suggesting that temptation is only a pervasion of virtue which cannot supplant righteousness. Through this satirical device, Lewis convinces the reader that while Satan can mimic love as lust and induce man to commit all manner of sexual transgressions, he can never understand the true nature of love. This conundrum is further reinforced by the statement, "We know that He cannot really love: nobody can: it doesn't make sense. If only we could find out what he is really up to!" (p. 101). By satirically emphasizing Satan's misunderstanding of truth, Lewis establishes in his reader's perception the subtlety of sin as a perverted reflection of truth.
Lewis's irony is further bolstered through the use of distorted diction. The polarity of his word choice is best exemplified on page 117. Describing one particularly righteous girl, Screwtape writes, "Not only a Christian but such a Christian - a vile, sneaking, simpering, demure, monosyllabic, mouse-like, watery, insignificant, virginal, bread-and butter miss." The contrast between this vitriolic stream of adjectives and the virtuous purity of Christianity is deliciously ironic. God becomes "the Enemy" while Satan is tenderly patronized as "Our Father Below" (p.2). This ironically polarized diction reinforces the audience's understanding of sin as corruption. What Screwtape loves we should disdain, and Screwtape loathes we should embrace. By intensifying the contrast between good and evil, the irony of Lewis's "black is white" diction immediately alerts his reader to recognize temptation.
Finally, Lewis' rational dissection of temptation as a systematic progression appeals to the reader's sense of logos. Defining his intentions on page 44, Screwtape gloats, "We always try to work away from the natural condition of any pleasure to that in which it is least natural, least redolent of its Maker, and least pleasurable. An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula." With this object established, the devil then works systematically toward his victim's destruction. First he plants doubts so that a patient will question the value of religion. He then lets the person acclimatize to a lowered spiritual condition and finally moderate into complete religious complacency (p. 45-46). This progression toward captivity appeals to the reader's sense of logos because it follows a coherent chronology. By understanding the general logic of temptation and the ensuing misery, the audience is empowered to identify similar patterns in their own lives.
The appeal to logos is similarly employed in Screwtape's discourse on the sin of "fashion." On page 137, the devil lays out the consequences for yielding to fashion in an orderly, logical manner. First, an obsession with novelty "diminishes pleasure while increasing desire." Second, it costs money. Third, it leads to "excesses of lasciviousness, unreason, cruelty, and pride." And ultimately, it "distracts the attention of men from their real dangers." This appeals to the reader's sense of logos because it clearly illustrates the sin-driven regression from desire to danger. By appealing to logos, Lewis clearly displays the mechanics of beguilement to his audience.
As a whole, The Screwtape Letters provide invaluable insights into the world of temptation. From sensual passions to trendy fashions, and distracting jargon to cavalier prayers, C.S. Lewis thoroughly exposes his reader to the twisted realities of the devil Screwtape and his minion Wormwood. In so doing, he empowers his adult Christian audience to resist temptation when it strikes. The scathing satire, delicious irony, and rational appeal to logos unravel the tangled intricacies of temptation by defining its roots, devices, and systematic methodology. In a world filled with temptation, this book is a must read for any Christian adult eager to avoid an unpleasant reunion with "Our Father Below."