An Uncertain Certainty
How Screwtape Leads the Postmodern Man to Hell
by David Mills
One cause of misery and vice is always present with us in the greed and pride of men,” C. S. Lewis wrote in 1943 in an essay called “The Poison of Subjectivism.” Sometimes, however, misery and vice are “greatly increased by the temporary prevalence of some false philosophy. Correct thinking will not make good men of bad ones; but a purely theoretical error may remove ordinary checks to evil and deprive good intentions of their natural support.”
Lewis did not use the term “postmodern,” but he knew the perennial human temptations so well that he helps us understand the spiritual danger of the fallen creature I call Everyday Postmodern Man: the man who knows just enough of postmodern thinking—almost always in the vulgarized forms passed on through Time and television—to build an effective defense against any appeal to reason and evidence.
A neighbor who has never heard of Lyotard or Foucault or Derrida will tell you that “what you see depends on where you sit,” and that your objection to an error “just depends on whose ox is gored,” and that people like religious leaders make up rules to control everyone else, and that an appeal to principle is just a cover for self-interest, and that words mean what you think they mean. He will defend any behavior of which you but not he disapproves by saying that “it’s all relative” or “it’s a matter of culture” or “people just see things differently.” And he will believe, as he says this, that he is proving his sophistication and wisdom.
And yet, at the same time, he will believe some things to be undeniably true. He will be horrified by child abuse. You will not find, through the length and breadth of the American middle class, a public defender of incest. You will not find anyone advocating slavery, or making women wear burkas, or sending adulterers to the electric chair.
He will believe with equal certainty in a whole host of ideas, depending on his politics, from “a woman’s right to choose” to the constitutional right to keep guns in your house. You may well find him insisting on that truth with jihadist passion and certainty.
If you talk to the Everyday Postmodernist long enough, you will feel as if you are speaking to two people inhabiting the same body. But, and this is the crucial point for our purposes, you cannot get him to recognize the contradiction, much less defend it. He hops from certainty to relativism and back. His philosophy requires no more of him, and justifies him in doing no more.
The genius of this sort of idea is that it protects its devotees from rational challenge. They cannot easily be corrected, and worse, feel this to be a virtue, especially open-mindedness and tolerance. But it is a dangerous point of view, one of those false philosophies likely to increase misery and vice, and it is, unless I miss my guess, the way most of our friends, neighbors, and co-workers think.
Lewis can help us understand the Everyday Postmodernist, and his The Screwtape Letters—letters from an expert tempter named Screwtape to his nephew, the apprentice tempter Wormwood, about the “patient” the nephew is trying to lead to hell—in particular can help us understand the peculiar temptations he faces.
In describing what the devils do to disrupt a man praying, Screwtape notes that, “Mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.” As he notes in explaining to Wormwood how to corrupt a man’s humility (easier than it sounds), “The great thing is to make him value an opinion for some quality other than truth.”
Hell can easily exploit the muddled vision Everyday Postmodernism creates. Men, Screwtape tells the graduating devils in “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” which Lewis wrote some years after the book, “are vermin so muddled in mind, so passively responsive to environment, that it was very hard to raise them to that level of clarity and deliberateness at which mortal sin becomes possible.” Hell tries to “harden these choices of the Hell-ward roads into a habit by steady repetition. But then (and this was [is] all-important) to turn the habit into a principle.”
Everyday Postmodernism keeps out of a man’s mind all the demands and requirements that any consistent system of ideas would present to him, and lets him act with great freedom because he has no fixed principles to which he feels committed. (Other than the fixed principle that there are no fixed principles.)
Of course, having a consistent and systematic philosophy cannot save a man, and indeed presents its own temptations, but it does help brace the man who takes it seriously from giving in to temptations that exploit intellectual flexibility. The man with fixed principles will be tempted to dominate and coerce those who do not agree with him, but if he tries to hold to his principles, however badly, he will be somewhat protected from those temptations that depend on ignoring the truth. If he tries to be a good Christian, or a good Buddhist or Marxist, or even a good Nietzschean, he will have a tradition to obey however he feels and whatever he wants at the moment.
Here I want to offer a summary of three temptations that Everyday Postmodernism eases or invites, and some of the ways such people can be brought to spiritual ruin, as analyzed by Screwtape, though I cannot in the space at hand do any justice to his quite subtle analyses of the human soul and its weaknesses. This is not at all a comprehensive list of the insights into Everyday Postmodern Man the book offers, but a selection, even a taster, offered mostly in the hope that a few good quotes will send readers to the book.
Though a masterpiece, The Screwtape Letters is a book that, judging from conversations, many of Lewis’s fans have not read. And they should, right away. It is a book at once interesting, amusing, compelling, humbling, and convicting.
The temptation to despise the past. “The horror of the Same Old Thing,” writes Screwtape, “is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart, an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship.” Because people so fear the Same Old Thing, they want incessant change.
The devils use this desire in various ways. One is to seduce them by the pleasures of what Lewis elsewhere called “chronological snobbery” and Screwtape calls “The Historical Point of View,” the unearned but still satisfying feeling of superiority to everyone in the past—not least the giants, the Aristotles and Shakespeares and Austens—because you were born now and not then.
Screwtape observes that the devils have been successful with the learned, those thought to be the guardians of our relation to the past. They rarely ask of an old book whether it is true, but who influenced the writer, how the text fits with the other books he wrote, and so on. (Notice the subtlety of the technique: It encourages the learned to learn many interesting things but neglect to learn the most important.) They were equally successful with the unlearned. The great use of this is that
In another letter, Screwtape explains the technique further: “The greatest triumph of all is to elevate this horror of the Same Old Thing into a philosophy so that nonsense in the intellect may reinforce corruption in the will. It is here that the general Evolutionary or Historical character of modern European thought (partly our work) comes in so usefully.” When men should ask if an action is good and wise, now they ask, “Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is this the way that History is going?”
And since they cannot answer those questions, Screwtape writes, “we have the better chance to slip in and bend them to the action we have decided on.” Though he does not put it this way, Screwtape keeps telling Wormwood to remove his patient from his attachments and direct him to a phantasmal future, from realities to unrealities, because then his mind and soul are most vulnerable.
Any modern man feels this temptation to despise the past, but the Everyday Postmodernist is more vulnerable to it because his philosophy cuts him off from the past. He thinks that the past has nothing to say to him, and indeed cannot say anything to him, even if he wants to listen to it.
The Faith Phase
The temptation to treat faith as a phase. Throughout his letters, Screwtape repeatedly notes that men do not realize how much their bodies and the natural course of their lives affect their thought. (He offers a particularly insightful analysis of how the natural development of a marriage can be used to corrupt the soul, beginning with the confusion of erotic infatuation with real charity and the unrealistic expectations this creates in the naive.)
Early in the book, after Wormwood’s patient has become a Christian, Screwtape suggests that he take advantage of his patient’s current low spirits to suggest that his seriousness about his faith is just a phase like others he has gone through and bound to pass away as they had. Screwtape is happy for the patient to remain a Christian, as long as he is the right sort of Christian: “A moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all—and more amusing.”
He tells Wormwood to make the patient assume that all the effects of his simply feeling a little depressed reveal what the world is really like and that the loss of the excitement of the days just after his conversion showed that it was only a phase. He shrewdly notes that a man always feels himself superior to the phases he has gone through in the past, and continues, “You see the idea? Keep his mind off the plain antithesis between True and False. Nice shadowy expressions—‘It was a phase’—‘I’ve been through all that’—don’t forget the blessed word ‘Adolescent’.”
Here again the Everyday Postmodernist has adopted a philosophy that makes him more vulnerable to a common human temptation. Someone with a faith to which he is committed—whether he accepts that “Thus says the Lord” or “Thus says Karl Marx”—knows that what he thinks true will be true no matter how he feels, and that his “phases” may affect how he lives out his faith but not the truth of the faith itself. If his initial commitment was rational, it is still rational, even if he feels the burdens of middle age rather than the impetuous drives of youth.
The temptation to win friends and status by little compromises. Lewis was especially aware of the extent to which we can betray our ideals gradually and accidentally, in the attempt to please others, and particularly to get ourselves into what he elsewhere called “the inner ring.” Screwtape brings up the matter several times. At one point, Wormwood’s patient has fallen in with a group of literary skeptics, and Screwtape asks if he committed himself to them in some useful (damning) way.
Screwtape offers two techniques for exploiting such betrayal. The second works upon the patient’s vanity.
And so, Screwtape concludes with obvious glee, “while being permanently treacherous to at least two sets of people, he will feel, instead of shame, a continual undercurrent of self-satisfaction.”
Someone with a faith to which he is committed can do this, of course, but it is much harder. He is marked as a man of his faith and thus less likely even to be invited into such circles, and when among such people he has a better idea of when he ought to object or dissent. He may not do so, of course, but he knows better when he ought to do so.
The Everyday Postmodernist, even if committed to something, even if committed to Christianity, has at hand a host of rationalizations when his desire for acceptance becomes too great to resist. He suddenly thinks, for example, that their mockery of things he thinks he holds dear may be only “their truth,” and who is he to disturb the party’s good spirits by imposing “my truth” on them?
These are just three of the perennial temptations to which Everyday Postmodernism leaves its followers particularly vulnerable. It does this, I think, because it teaches people to rely on their own insights and intuitions as the only source for their truths or narratives, which is to say, it lets them rely on their feelings without realizing it, and for all the reasons Screwtape explains, their feelings, undirected by thought, will lead them astray—and not only astray, but quite possibly to hell.
And as people rely more and more on their feelings, they are more and more easily misled. Screwtape advises his nephew to try to corrupt his patient’s mind by working on his feelings. Doing so, Screwtape shows through his letters, is (for a “patient”) surprisingly easy.
For example, Wormwood must make his patient “ feel, when he sees human remains plastered on a wall, that this is what the world is really like and that all his religion has been a fantasy.” The devils have successfully confused men about the meaning of “real,” and gotten them to believe
This is, in fact, the way some of the more pessimistic Everyday Postmodernists see the world, encouraged by a philosophy that claims to let them “see through” the illusions, like religion, that others accept naively.
You see the great use of this diabolical technique. The man who thinks this way is thinking very, very badly—is in fact seeing what is not there, and not seeing what is there in front of him—at the very moment he is thinking himself realistic and wise for seeing through the sentimental meanings the less courageous give to things. “Your patient,” Screwtape continues, “properly handled, will have no difficulty in regarding his emotion at the sight of human entrails as a revelation of reality and his emotion at the sight of happy children or fair weather as mere sentiment.”
But the patients who think this cannot be argued out of it. Their belief that all beliefs are subjective, cultural, and personal is a sort of barrier or blinder that prevents them from examining the belief itself, for examination requires a second step they will not allow. They refuse to reason about the unreasonableness of their use of reason. It is a principle or axiom they will not test.
This is the real genius of Everyday Postmodernism as a strategy for avoiding God. “The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy’s own ground,” Screwtape tells Wormwood in his first letter.
The trick is to keep the “patient” always thinking about this world and to avoid any hint that there is more to this world than meets the eye. People find it “all but impossible to believe in the unfamiliar while the familiar is before their eyes,” Screwtape continues, and warns Wormwood to keep his patient away from the “real sciences” like physics because “they will possibly encourage him to think about realities he can’t touch and see.”
As I said above, Everyday Postmodern Man switches at will between relativism and absolutism, as he needs or wants to. The effect of the spread and social approval of relativism has not been to make people consistently relativistic (which is to say, nihilistic) but to make them selectively relativistic. Given the reality of original sin, we choose the paradigm of the moment to satisfy our own interests and desires.
Of course the Everyday Postmodern Man does not see this, because he does not think about it. As a fallen man, he cares less for the truth of an idea than for its use, and he has a philosophy, vague as it is, that makes him feel justified in this. And one, as Screwtape notices, that appeals to his vanity and self-regard. Such a man, Screwtape wrote his nephew Wormwood in the first letter,
Everyday Postmodernism stresses “tolerance” and “openness” and the like more than strength and courage, but the effect is exactly the same. A man busy displaying his tolerance is less likely to ask himself about the ideas of which he feels tolerant.
As Screwtape explains in “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” men send themselves to hell with little steps they hardly notice they are taking. The peculiar danger of Everyday Postmodernism is that by “keep[ing] knowledge out of the mind” and making its devotee “value an opinion for some quality other than truth,” it hides from men the fact that they are going somewhere at all.
You want to steal money from your employer. It’s not much money, and you really do need it, and you feel the company owes it to you because you work harder than everyone else. If you are a Christian, you cannot help but remember that God has said very definitely that you shall not steal. You might still take the money, but you have either to admit that you are stealing or work very hard to convince yourself that you are not.
But if you are an Everyday Postmodernist, you have seen through the law and know that it represents the interests of the rich and powerful. It does not bind you. It has nothing to do with God or eternity or any simple idea of right and wrong. You may feel guilty, because you grew up in a semi-Christian culture, but you know you feel guilty only because you internalized the rules you were raised with. If your boss doesn’t catch you, you’re home free.
This is the kind of muddled mind Screwtape describes:
The social atmosphere of Everyday Postmodernism holds that this is not a very important matter, that it is someone else’s truth, and probably just the religious descendent of the ways a bunch of clerics got control over everyone else in the Dark Ages. It is impossible, given what the Everyday Postmodernist thinks, to argue him out of this belief.
Many people will say that the Everyday Postmodernist has made an honest mistake—he has just accepted what his culture teaches, after all—and should not be penalized for doing what his philosophy leads him to do. I think, and think Lewis would agree, that to become an Everyday Postmodernist at all is a moral choice. You must willfully turn your back on the truths, in J. Budziszewski’s phrase, “we can’t not know.”
Only God knows how he will judge the guilt of any individual soul, but the effect of living by this false philosophy is as Screwtape, ever realistic, says:
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.
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“An Uncertain Certainty” first appeared in the October 2005 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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