The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis involves two characters. A low-level demon named Wormwood and a higher positioned demon named Screwtape. The book starts with Wormwood, who has received his first assignment to corrupt a man. Naturally, he seeks the aid of someone who has experience in this field, his uncle, Screwtape. The book is a series of letters that go back and forth in which the uncle guides his nephew on how to bring a man closer to hell or at least take him further away from heaven.
The book starts off with a piece of advice that has stuck with me for a long time. Wormwood mentions to his uncle that he is having trouble trying to logically convince his human to understand that materialism is the best course of action. Here, like any good family member, Screwtape introduces a different perspective that would allow Wormwood to achieve success.
The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy’s own ground. He can argue too; whereas in really practical propaganda of the kind I am suggesting He has been shown for centuries to be greatly the inferior of Our Father below. By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient’s reason; and once it is awake, who can forsee the result? Even if a particular train of though can be twisted so as to end in our favor, you will find that out have been strengthening in your patient the fatal habit of attending to universal issues and withdrawing his attention from the stream of immediate sense experiences. Your business is to fix his attention on the stream.
Screwtape further adds an example for his nephew to learn from. He explains how for twenty years he had worked his human into a state that suited him but one day, he found the enemy (the good Angles) had almost undone the twenty years of work by formulating a train of thought that took the man away from Screwtapes desired position.
So, how did he overcome this obstacle?
I struck instantly at the part of the man which I had best under my control and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch. The Enemy presumably made the counter-suggestion that this was more important than lunch. At least I think that must have been His line, for when I said, “In fact much too important to tackle at the end of the morning,” the patient brightened up considerably; and by the time I had added “Much better come back after lunch and go into it with a fresh mind,” he was already halfway to the door. Once he was in the street the battle was won.
After that, it was just a matter of distracting the man with ordinary life. The news paperboy shouting, the bus honking, filtering thoughts of how being by yourself can result in peculiar ideas and opinions being formed and it’s best to just let them pass. Hence, the hero, the bad Angle, was able to save the man and pull him away from the grips of the good Angles. At least for now.
This short little passage teaches three things:
- Be cautious of immediate sense experiences or the ordinariness of life.
- These urges may be stronger when you have to confront something uncomfortable for the mere fact that it is uncomfortable, there comes a desire to distract yourself from it, to stay comfortable. So, the next time you have to tackle an uncomfortable situation and you feel a sudden desire to eat first, ignore it.
- The bad can be undone
- 20 years of work was almost undone by just one train of thought. This puts forth the notion that change can come forth immediately as long as there is a commitment to change.
- Procrastination is the work of the devil
- This needs no explanation.