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The Screwtape Letters, Part 3

March 17, 2019
The Screwtape Letters, Part 3

Editor’s Note: You can read all of Screwtape’s dispatches here.

My dear Wormwood,

I am in receipt of your report about the patient’s new office. Your unsatisfactory summary shows only that a century of torment has done little to sharpen your analytical abilities. As a spirit, you can see almost every facet of the man’s life, and yet you understand nothing about the tableau before you. The patient’s office is, in point of fact, full of opportunities. (For you, I mean.)

Because of your sloppy work, I have had to make enquiries at my own discretion. I have been in touch with Smegmulcher, who is assigned to the patient’s employer. What I find in that far more complete dossier is as good a start as you could hope for.

You may be surprised by my optimism, because the file on the patient’s superior – the Boss – shows him to be a minor politician of no particular gifts, with neither the courage for greatness nor the malice for infamy. He long ago gave up on whatever idealism might have propelled him into public life, and he is now little more than a reliable vote for a political organization he is happy to support so long as it does not ask very much of him. Mostly, he is content to enjoy the perquisites of his office, including “contributions” that he uses mostly to line his pockets and to gild his home.

This may seem of very little use to you. But here, Wormwood, is where experience matters. The issue is not the Boss – and he is not, in any event, yours to damn – but rather in how he is perceived by your patient.

Human beings always pass through a peculiarly inane phase of their youth in which they convince themselves that they are, in effect, self-created beings, and that their personalities and beliefs exist almost entirely by an act of will. (We did some fine work in this regard during the 19th and 20th centuries among the philosophers, but alas, that was in a time when human beings read books and took them seriously.) Young males are specially prone to this, as they tend to mistake their first sense of physical and sexual potency as some sort of grand metamorphosis instead of the normal march of their own biology.

In reality, however, all younger humans look to their elders, both to emulate them and to rebel against them. We have done our best to hide this fact from them, and to make them think of such cycles of maturation as “choices.” But on a daily basis, it is often more a matter of proximity and circumstance.

Of course, we do everything possible to discourage even disinterested arrangements of mutual cooperation between the old and young; far too often these grow into something that too much resembles, in miniature, the kind of relationship the Enemy would gladly have the humans seek with Him, and as such are quite dangerous to our cause. We have no interest in situations governed by good will, in which journeymen do their best, make progress, and are somehow encouraged even when they fail. As one of the Enemy’s most despicable warriors – a “golden mouthed” bishop we should have fed to the lions — once preached, “He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor; the deed He honors and the intention He commends.”

This is an offense to the dignity and virility of Hell, and you may be assured that no such pat on the back awaits you should you fail again.

In any event, your patient knows nothing of any of this. He firmly believes that in accepting employment with the Boss, he has chosen his employer as a model. (Do not miss opportunities, by the way, to suggest to your patient the idea that the Boss, accordingly, should be grateful to him for the offer of work and not the other way around.)

Eventually, your man will discover that his “chosen” mentor is merely a man, and not one particularly worthy of emulation. You must prepare for this moment well in advance, because it will be upon you soon enough and its timing will surprise you almost as quickly as it surprises the patient. When it happens, you must press your advantage immediately. You must convince him that in the name of loyalty and ideological commitment, he has an obligation to be more, rather than less, like his employer.

One way to soften the ground for your eventual attack is to strengthen in the patient the notion that his work is indistinguishable from his identity. Do everything you can to reinforce this sense of importance and belonging in him, so that the thought of leaving – or even of expressing disappointment – is not only frightening, but impossible.

It might assist you to bear in mind that the patient’s would-be mentor has declared his allegiance to the dissolute Old Man who leads his organization. Your patient, still new to the worlds both of politics and adults, is quite impressed with the pictures he sees around him of his employer with the Old Man. On occasion, he overhears their phone calls, and his proximity even to the room in which such discussions take place is another step in convincing him that his work is of transcendental importance.

Fortunately for us, your patient does not yet know that the Boss is usually quite humiliated by these calls. He would likely be surprised at how dull and coarse most of these conversations – which he believes are about Very Important Matters – really are. It is enough for now that he is aware of them, and that they make him feel like he is at the center of epochal events that will affect the fate of a great many people. It should never enter his mind that he has control over the fate of only one human being; if all goes well, he will realize it only when it is too late.

Your affectionate Uncle,


Tom Nichols

Tom Nichols is a professor emeritus at the Naval War College, where he taught for 25 years. The author of The Death of Expertise and Our Own Worst Enemy, he writes the “Peacefield” newsletter for the Atlantic. Twitter: @RadioFreeTom.