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The Screwtape Letters, Part 6

The dark night of the soul.
April 7, 2019
The Screwtape Letters, Part 6

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

My dear Wormwood,

All human beings at some point experience what they call “a dark night of the soul,” a time of anguish and reflection. It is an expression that has little meaning to us, as we exist in an eternity of darkness, our natural – and far preferable – condition. The dead of the terrestrial night, however, is often when many human beings confront the terrors and fears of the day, including their own sins, without distraction.

Your man is in the grip of such a moment. The falling out with his young woman over his behavior at the Boss’s party left him sleepless and distraught, and had you used this time wisely and pressed your advantage, you might have recovered the ground you lost during their quarrel. Instead, your situation has worsened considerably.

Thought and reflection are only of use to us when they confirm a human being’s conscious choice to sin rather than to obey the Enemy. Should a moment of pause or reflection go too far, however, we face immense risk. Titrating this balance, between unthinking animal impulse and a minimal but sufficient amount of self-awareness, is the central task of a competent Tempter. The ancient Greek humans – whose wisdom, thanks to us, is now mostly forgotten – understood this even before they knew the Enemy. They did not refer to “repentance,” but to metanoia, to “thinking again.” It is a condition in which years of work can dissolve before you in a matter of minutes.

Your man entered this condition during the night, and it continues even now. It must be stopped at once.

You will no doubt protest that you extracted a fair amount of pain from your patient, by repeating his own charges against himself in order to provoke the feelings of shame and anger upon which you fed for the moment.

This was a singular error on your part. Instead of taunting him, you fool, you should have been soothing him. As an emissary of Hell, you are the voice of reason and reassurance, the calm baritone – not too threatening and not too chatty – that should have been explaining to him patiently that he is perfectly normal, that his young woman is an unreasonable and emotional female (“hysterical” is a word we often teach men to use at such moments), and that he should join his co-workers and the Boss while lifting their glasses to the Old Man, because they, after all, are doing the great work of the Enemy, even if the patient’s lover, friends, and family cannot possibly fathom the new and exciting way in which it is being accomplished.

Of course, this is all a pack of lies and nonsense. But lies are the greatest weapons in our arsenal, and yet you left them undeployed in your temporary enjoyment of the patient’s suffering.

Your missed opportunities are too many to number. He was insensitive to his lover, but instead of goading him to salve his shame by abandoning her, he is determined to seek her forgiveness. He spent the evening at the Boss’s party as a blathering hypocrite, praising the Old Man for things he knows to be sinful, but instead of convincing him to redouble his efforts – to be Just Like Folks, to fit in – he is seeing his colleagues, and especially himself, in a new and unflattering light.

And where were you? Prancing about and laughing, exhorting him to hate himself, because you found it entertaining. How often must I warn you that the immediate physical or mental suffering of any one human being is of very little use to us, and even poses great hazards to our cause? Do you not remember that the Enemy’s greatest counterattack, in the last moments on a Cross, occurred after days of unimaginable torture?

Meanwhile, you ignored any possibility of dragging your man toward the lights of the busy and sinful city — favorable ground to which I thoughtfully had you assigned precisely for such a contingency — because you forgot yet again that we damn human souls through forbidden pleasures as often, if not more, than through the despair of pain.

It is clear to me now, however, that you would not have been able to exploit Pain or Pleasure in this instance because you allowed your man something that is useless to us but precious to human beings: Time. You must never, in any circumstance, whether misery or elation, allow any human a moment’s peace in which to reflect.

If a man is suffering, we must crowd out all further reflection and torment him with pointless questions about “why,” leading him as speedily as possible to the conclusion that the Enemy (who has the power to grant all their wishes) must be to blame for his affliction. If he is experiencing pleasure – moments admittedly offensive to us – we must react instantly to defeat any notions of joy or gratitude, and instead to convince him that the way he feels at that moment is the way he might feel forever if only the Enemy were not such a scold as to demand that at some point he push away from the table, get out of a bed, or walk away from a pub.

When faced with true Pains and Pleasures, we are, in some sense, on the Enemy’s territory. This is why we always endeavor with alacrity to prevent them from truly tasting or appreciating either of them. (Yes, Wormwood, they even embrace Pain, once they progress far enough with the Enemy.) We must force them to experience these moments like the animals they are, ramming our contaminated versions of these feelings down their gullets and preparing them like geese from whom we will later extract their diseased, fattened livers for our delectation.

The patient will soon head back to his office, where there is still a chance to immerse him in the meaningless bustle of his work and thus to convince him that his thoughts in the middle of the night are just so much nonsense. Focus on your work and see to it that he reaches no other conclusion.

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.