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The Screwtape Letters, Part 8

The final chapter.
April 21, 2019
The Screwtape Letters, Part 8

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

My dear, and so very hapless, Wormwood,

You outflanked fool. Your patient was ready to give in to you; all you had to do was press him for one more day. Instead, he kept his wits about him while you lost your head. And now everything that you – that we – have worked for until this moment is undone.

When faced with abandoning his (very Christian) young woman and embarking on a career of hypocrisy, corruption, and dissembling, he turned toward her – and toward the Enemy. He has resigned from his office and cut his ties to the Boss. Worse, he has embraced a new path of humility, hard work, and recommitment both to his fiancée and to his faith.

Your “report” on this fiasco is little more than a series of excuses. No doubt you thought yourself clever by trying to file this rancid attempt to escape responsibility with your superiors before I saw it. You should know that your pathetic explanations – including your barely-disguised complaints that the patient evaded you because of my unhelpful advice – were regarded by my colleagues in the Lowerarchy with considerable bemusement. Whatever scandal you might have hoped to create has been put to rest, and I have been forwarded your insolent comments with a free hand to do with you as I see fit.

And indeed, I have plans for you. But let us first review the errors that have led you to this humiliating impasse.

After his night of tossing and turning, you should have played on the patient’s exhaustion and ill temper, and kept him rooted to his couch — unwashed, unshaven, and drowning in the self-pity that, if handled properly, provides a man with the rationalizations he needs for any number of destructive choices. He should have been in self-imposed exile, nursing his bruised ego, building resentment against his young woman, and yearning to feed off the affirmation of his fellows in the Boss’s office.

Instead, he decided to go to church and to pray. You were completely taken aback at this point, as if it were the first time a Tempter faced a patient who was headed to a place of worship.

And what did you do? You lost your footing and tried to stop him by force majeure. You resorted to second-rate tricks, from coaxing him to walk by a bar – one that was not at that moment open for business, you idiot – and then detouring him ever so briefly to wander among storefronts that offered goods ranging from glittering luxuries to outright pornography. On a Sunday morning. You could have surrounded him with a regiment of prostitutes for all the good it would have done, and I am only surprised that you were not stupid enough to try it.

Your mistake was letting him out of the house at all. You had a powerful temptation at your disposal: his ambition. His career has been fixated on politics. You should therefore have headed off any notion of worship by directing his attention to the addictive stream of political sewage on which he feeds during a typical day.

Instead of trying to bludgeon him with vulgar attacks on prayer, you had a far better chance of keeping him in your grip by quietly insisted that he really should be “working” – meaning, of course, flipping idly through the pages of the weekend paper, watching television, attending to the constant and trivial demands of his electronic devices, and in general wasting his time and burning away the already short candle of the day.

Instead, he ignored your incoherent ravings, and soon found himself before a votive stand with an actual candle in his paw.

I see, even from your self-serving recollection, that you descended into complete panic. You told him he’d be a fool, that his life would be ruined. You promised him power, you offered him obscene riches. Could you not see that these empty assurances about the future did not matter to him at that moment? Worst of all, you attacked his young woman directly, trying to argue with him that she was hardly worth such sacrifice. You even suggested that she was unfaithful to him, an amateurish charge that he laughed off as soon as you said it.

Your only hope at that moment, even on the Enemy’s own ground, was to smother his entire train of thought. You should have immersed him in “real life,” by placing before him such pointless details as the tattiness of the pews, the physical unattractiveness – or attractiveness, either is a reasonable tactic – of other parishioners, the boredom of the readings, the sonorous voice of the pastor. Had you coolly directed him to one meaningless but “real” sensory experience after another, he might well have forgotten all about why he had left his apartment in the first place.

Instead, you strengthened his resolve by joining him in debate at a time when he was almost certain to be receiving direct assistance from the Enemy.

And now here we are. To paraphrase one of the most vexing humans we faced on the English sector during your last outing, your struggle for the man’s soul is not over, but what might have been the beginning of the end is now just the end of the beginning. Your patient is barely thirty years old. You now face decades of struggle in the most unfavorable of circumstances.

We were so close to seeing the patient off on a career under the cynical tutelage of the Boss and the corrosive, deforming influence of the Old Man, the train of his young life rail switched onto a rail to oblivion. So many missed opportunities! So much damage we could have done through your man, using his hypocrisy, his loss of faith, his obedience to the world of politics over the dictates of the Enemy; now, these possibilities have been nipped in the bud.

And so instead of a lifetime of guiding him ever further away from the light, he has plunged back towards the sun like a comet dutifully returning after a sojourn in the darkness. Fortunately, his journey is not over; like a comet, he will round the bend, and head outward again, as is always the cycle of a spiritual life.

And we will be there when he does.

Or, you will be there once you are returned to your post. You are not to be excused so lightly as merely to be relieved of your duty. It is my gastronomic pleasure to inform you that you shall be remanded to my personal custody for special instruction at the House of Correction for Incompetent Tempters, where I shall have my fill of you while personally edifying you on your many errors.

We, as dutiful Uncle and studious Nephew, shall have a splendid time together. Or at least, I shall have a splendid time. But I promise you there shall not a be a dull moment between us.

Your affectionate and toothsome 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.