Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

The Screwtape Letters, Part 4

March 24, 2019
The Screwtape Letters, Part 4

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

My dear Wormwood,

For once, your performance in the field was not entirely disappointing. The social event in the Boss’s home, to which your patient and his young woman were invited, is exactly the sort of place where a man can lose his spiritual bearings within minutes of his arrival. Between the time it takes to hand his gloves and coat to the hostess and his first bite of the hors d’oeurves, he can find himself in a frame of mind completely different from the one that guided his thinking in the taxi not an hour earlier.

Social occasions of any kind are, for us, distasteful. The Enemy, having Himself experienced the loathsome duality of being both a spirit and a physical being, is unashamed that His creations are both animals and spirits. During their time on Earth, they must each live alone in their own bodies; He has thus inclined them to mitigate this terrifying loneliness by seeking the company of their own kind. It is in their nature, and there is very little we can do to stop it. (I am, of course, cheered by news that our specialists in the Division of Advanced Technologies have taken a giant stride in fighting this tendency with the creation of a device called “social media.” Even so, we have found that human beings will only accept replicas of each other for so long. The work continues.)

Were these occasions nothing more than a herd of beasts surrounding a watering hole, we would barely take notice. There is nothing interesting about a pack of hyenas, even if it is entertaining to watch them occasionally tear into each other.

The Enemy’s determination to induce sociability and warmth, however, is yet another of His repulsive tricks. He wants humans to overcome their nature as mere mammals in order to establish among themselves the kind of relationships He actually intends for them one day to be capable of engaging in with Him. It is why He insists that they worship together, encourages them to spend time with each other, and binds them in the hideous institution of “the family.”

The more spontaneous and warmer the occasion, the worse for us, especially during the Enemy’s ludicrous “holidays.” Your patient at any moment could find himself feeling the need to reconcile with a colleague with whom he quarreled; patiently listening to a stranger who might become a friend; or even embracing others in accord with the Enemy’s commands about disinterested “love.” These events should be subverted whenever possible.

There is another kind of gathering, however, in which a group of people, usually in the same workplace or profession, engage in something like mandated socializing. These events offer us far more opportunity, as they are almost always governed by unseen hierarchies and fueled by unspoken competition and resentment. Often, they include the intemperate use of alcohol. If all goes well, the evening can result in anything from impulsive sexuality to hurt feelings – and among the lower classes, even the occasional bout of violence.

Among the upper classes, the situation is a bit more delicate. There, you want to seek opportunities to use the pressures of Ambition and Vanity to turn your man away from the Enemy’s intended uses of human sociability. On this score, you seem to have taken advantage of at least some of your openings.

The key, as you realized quickly enough, is to keep your man in the state of mind that the evening is about him and his importance to the Boss. Did you direct his eye to all the reliable indicators of status, from jewelry to the preferred drinks? Did he pretend to like stories that made him uncomfortable? Did he neglect his companions while scanning the room – in a way that others could notice – as he searched for his mentor?

I note here that at one point your man started thinking he was perhaps too interested in such superficiality. It is possible – even likely – that this suggestion came from the Enemy. Whatever its source, I was relieved that you were not so foolish as to argue with him, and instead played on his growing self-regard by countering that he positively owed it to himself to get “the lay of the land” and to “know who was who” as part of his “duties.”

This is all very well. It is vital to us that he continues to believe that his commitment to his work excuses any number of vices. Keep at it, and make sure that he extends this new habit of self-justification throughout his day.

Reviewing your report, however, I see that you made a crucial error: You missed an opportunity to put yet more distance between your patient and his lover. You were caught by surprise when they erupted in anger at each other after the party, when I could have told you not only that such a row was likely, but that you should have been doing your best to stoke its fires.

And yet they are still together. I have taken the liberty of requisitioning her file from the Records Office – as you should have done on your first day – and I am distressed to read that she is a plain and unpretentious Christian woman.

This is very bad, and I might have reconsidered your placement with the patient had I known of this relationship. Her own case has proven rather challenging; she is at present without an assigned Tempter, as her matter has been escalated to a higher office for commissioning to a more experienced devil lest she slip our grasp. (An experience all too familiar to you.)

The situation is not yet dire. The patient’s lover does not like the Boss, and she is positively revolted by the social environment around her young man’s office. Did you not notice her look of disgust at the applause when the Boss toasted the Old Man, whom she knows – as everyone there knew – to be a relentless and remorseless liar, swindler, and adulterer? Could you not see how she resents the way your patient increasingly treats her as an outsider, a status pointedly driven home by those around the patient who ignore her because she is socially and politically of no use to them?

At some point, your man will see the widening gap between his values and hers. His relationship with her must therefore end before she provokes the conscience that you are laboring to smother. It might have ended that very evening, but for your inattentiveness.

But this is too much to discuss at the end of a letter.

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.