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The Screwtape Letters, Part 5

Hell is other people.
March 31, 2019
The Screwtape Letters, Part 5

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

My dear Wormwood,

It is to your discredit that the ugly row between your patient and his lover after the Boss’s party caught you by surprise. She is a persistent blind spot in your field of vision—and she could yet be the undoing of all of your hard work.

You are a spirit, existing throughout time, a witness to the grandeur and awe of Hell and the Infernal Realms. I understand why it might offend you even to think that a mere animal has more influence over your man than you. But your patient is “in love”—that disgusting innovation by which the Enemy gratuitously conflates sexual desire with a search for spiritual completeness while yet still on Earth—and so for now, her influence can indeed rival yours.

Yet again, just as during your last posting on Earth (a grand failure of which we should speak as little as possible) you have a singular inability to comprehend the effect human beings have on each other in close proximity. This point requires review, and much greater attention on your part.

An invaluable French human once wrote that “Hell is other people,” but he was only partly correct. All human beings, of course, eventually belong either to the Enemy or to Our Father Below. But they are the Enemy’s creation all the same, and they are not ours to claim as if by default.

While other people are not Hell itself, however, many of them are positively eager to serve as guides for each other on the road to Hell, especially among those most petty, or vain, or choleric, or cruel, or greedy. Of course, the Enemy has also made it possible for human beings to direct each other to Heaven, and so the question of how closely to allow them to associate with each other is always a delicate matter for us. Isolation can lead to reflection, and even monasticism, while a life lived actively among other humans can lead to empathy and compassion. None of these serves our purposes.

Human beings in the 21st century, and particularly those in the more technologically advanced parts of the world, experience the paradox of having to live more closely to each other, but with more opportunities, through various diversions, also to ignore each other. The trick, then, is to work among them to use the closeness of their own bodies to bring forth their animal instincts, and to play upon physical and emotional reactions of which they are often barely aware and to which they arrogantly think themselves immune.

As ever, you must remember that the Enemy does not actually begrudge them any of the feelings incited by other human beings, even those often found between people “in love,” such as anger and lust. Instead, He actually designed His creatures to feel these things so that they might overcome them.

We are guided by the realism of Hell and the example of Our Father Below, and thus find all of this not only repulsive but illogical. We revel in our appetites, and we have tried to liberate the humans to do likewise. If a man is angry, he should strike. If he is hungry, he should take food, especially if he can seize it from the hand of the beggar who might be clutching his own last loaf of bread. The strong can, and should, prey upon the weak.

The Enemy, for His own perverse reasons, has tried to invert this natural order, a situation we will put right one day when Heaven is overthrown, and we establish the true justice of Hell in which the strong rule as is their right: absolutely and without mercy.

But I digress. As for your patient, he may well be “in love” with this young woman, but he is still a human being and he has a self-will that demands that his wants and needs precede those of other humans, including her. She, too, hears these same insistent voices.

Their argument erupted, ostensibly, because she feels slighted and ignored in the patient’s new world. I have had to reconstruct their argument from your woefully inadequate notes, but it seems that initially, all was going quite well. She felt neglected; he felt unappreciated. He believes his new job with the Boss is a great achievement, and he feels—as males so often do—that she should be more adoring of his putative success. She, for her part, is hurt that he prefers a group of people who reject her and who—as she now fully realizes after a night of obsequious toasts to the Old Man—likewise reject her values.

You should have intervened to turn this small fire into a blazing conflagration. The fact that she was, for that moment, without an assigned Tempter is no excuse. Human reactions are nearly as dependable as the laws of terrestrial physics, and had you suggested to your patient that he demand greater gratitude from her for his new station in life, she would certainly have reacted by saying that his success was impossible without her. The rest would have come as predictably as a line of falling dominoes.

Instead, the whole business took a disastrous turn, as I can see quite clearly even from your indifferent note-taking, when she told your patient that she fears he is distancing himself not only from her, but from Him.

This kind of expression of spiritual concern is almost always ineffective when used by human beings, not least because they usually don’t mean a word of it. Her sincerity, however, was evident to your man when she told him that she would still fear for him even were they never to see each other again. A more competent and nimble demon would have suggested that he take her up on that offer, but you were obviously distracted while enjoying the pleasant but insubstantial froth of human anger.

Instead, the patient was thunderstruck, and now he is haunted by her words. Not only did you fail to prise him away from her—an apple hanging low before you at that very moment!—but he has begun to doubt the very things, including his job and his political commitments, that we had taught him were more valuable than anything else, including her.

It remains to be seen what we can retrieve from all this. In the meantime, your patient is now engulfed in reflection and reconsideration, which is a very dangerous condition.

Dangerous, that is, for you.

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.