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The Screwtape Letters, Part 2

Uncle Screwtape returns.
March 10, 2019
The Screwtape Letters, Part 2

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

My Dear Wormwood,

You have now had an opportunity to observe your patient at closer quarters, and while your letters are still full of vacuous—and borderline heretical—expressions of gratitude, you have made some observations that may be of use in landing your patient on our table.

You are correct, in the main, that you had no chance to influence the patient during his time in university, an environment where vice is so rampant that you might well have damned him then and there before he even reached full maturity.

This option was not available to you because it has been closed to all rank and file tempters for some time. In your recent, shall we say, unplanned sabbatical, the Lowerarchy determined that the universities and other institutions of higher learning in most of the Western world should be centralized under a new command. This was based on a conclusion that campuses, by the late 20th century, had become one of the fronts (much like the worlds of entertainment, literature, and fashion) which deserved a special cadre of tempters exclusively devoted to this area.

It infuriates me, however, to report that this change was forced upon us by the Enemy, who as ever refuses to observe His own rules when it suits His own indecipherable purposes.

In this current era, the Enemy has decided to lengthen the time we would call “childhood,” even among young humans who would have been commanding entire armies in an earlier age. He is consequently willing to excuse an appalling number of sins on the utterly sophistic grounds that maturity is not a fixed quality.

For centuries, adulthood began almost completely coincident with puberty. As soon as a boy could work, he was a man; as soon as a girl could bear children, she was a woman. As the privileges of adulthood arrived, so too did its moral responsibilities, and the Enemy allowed us to do battle only when a human was potentially capable of feeling the satisfaction of doing right or the shame of doing evil. Campaigning season, accordingly, usually began in late adolescence.

I am not revealing classified information when I tell you that the staff of our Research Division were caught by surprise when we encountered the initial reports of the Enemy protecting these young animals beyond their early years. And who can blame them? Our hard work has been thwarted for now by yet another capricious decision by the Enemy based in His nonsense about “love.” This is beyond our control, and we shall have to deal with it as yet another of the many disadvantages under which we fight.

In any case, your man has now, by any definition, entered adulthood. He is fair game.

And so, to business. As I’ve emphasized, you must not overlook that your patient is in the grip of Ambition. Here is where his youth and, to some extent, his identity as a “conservative” can be deployed against him.

Remember, Ambition itself is something the Enemy does not immediately regard as a sin. In general, we discourage it, because it has the unpleasant effect of sometimes making human beings brave or virtuous. Even worse, when yoked to the Enemy’s service, Ambition can produce not only great statesmen, but any number of disgusting specimens, from courageous soldiers to pathbreaking scientists. As a rule, we are always better off with a race of mice than of lions.

But Ambition is useful precisely because it is not obviously a sin, and therefore your man is not immediately on his guard against it. Handled properly, it is the reagent from which you may create an array of sins.

Your man is not only ambitious, but he is a conservative. In modern America, this means that he feels himself part of an embattled minority trying to do the Enemy’s will in a fallen world. (In some instances, this may well be so, but never let it occur to him that there are many people who share neither his politics nor his particular religion who feel the same way, and who may be doing far better on that score than he.)

This ridiculous self-regard always flares up among passionate adherents of every human ideology, especially among the young. The key is to take these bursts of idiocy and mold them into something permanent, using the lava from the occasional eruptions of his ego as the stone upon which you will erect a flawed edifice of self-love and pride.

To this end, we have made arrangements that placed before your patient the opportunity to gain a new position in the office of a well-known political figure. Fool that he is, he took it, with very little advice asked or thought given.

You see him as he is: a cog in a machine, making coffee and shuffling papers. What matters, however, is how he now sees himself: As a hero embarked upon a great adventure, in which he will do battle against “Evil,” a concept of which he has only the slightest inkling and which is still in his mind represented mostly by images of ghosts in red pajamas that he remembers from his childhood.

For now, keep him on that path. You have already begun suggesting to him that his new job, and the supposed calling it represents, should be of paramount importance to him. Good. Later, you can use his work to start separating him from his lover, his friends, his parents, and even from mundane tastes or hobbies, all because they do not comport with what he will come to see as his new station in life.

One of the human poets, in retelling the story of Job—an early myth spread, by the way, against Our Father Below by Enemy propagandists—speaks of “blowing on the coal of the heart” as a way of kindling love and hope. You must do the same, but instead using a bellows to inflame his sense of righteousness and status into a steadily burning furnace of self-importance. The hottest flames are nearly invisible, and if steadily applied they will consume him before he knows it, leaving behind only cold ashes which you will later be able to grind into his face at your leisure for all of eternity.

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.