C. S. Lewis – The Screwtape Letters (4) The Rationalization of Evil, Akrasia, or „The Lust of Deceit”

Taken from the C.S. Lewis Study Program ‘The Screwtape Letters’ a six-part video study guide of one of the most popular and profound works of C.S. Lewis. By Dr. Jerry Root – noted C.S. Lewis scholar and faculty member at Wheaton College. CSLewisInstitute

The Screwtape Letters is a satirical Christian apologetic novel written in epistolary style by C. S. Lewis, first published in book form in February 1942. The story takes the form of a series of letters from a senior Demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, a Junior Tempter. The uncle’s mentorship pertains to the nephew’s responsibility for securing the damnation of a British man known only as „the Patient”. The Screwtape Letters comprises thirty-one letters written by a senior demon named Screwtape to his nephew, Wormwood, a younger and less experienced demon, who is charged with lewis holy trinity churchguiding a man toward „Our Father Below” (Devil / Satan) and away from „the Enemy” (God). (Read more, including the plot of the book at Wikipedia)

Here are the six parts Dr. Root covers in 4 separate videos (which I will posts as soon as they each become available):

  1. Background
  2. Doctrine of Hell
  3. Three major themes that run through these letters
  4. Antidote to Screwtape’s wiles and what Lewis might say about how we might protect ourselves against various forms of temptation.

The Screwtape Letters Part 1 – The Background

The Screwtape Letters Part 2 – C. S. Lewis’s Concept of Hell

The Screwtape Letters Part 3 – Pride throughout the letters

Part 4 – The Rationalization of Evil

Akrasia, or „The Lust of Deceit”

We are almost predatory about self deception and Screwtape advises his nephew, Wormwood to help people in that regard, to be self deceived. The word Akrasia means to make excuses and rationalize bad acts. It self justifies. Remember that even when Christ was dying on the cross for our sins, there were those at the foot of the cross who said, „If you’re the Son of God, come down from the cross and save yourself.” We understand the ‘save yourself’ mentality. But, Jesus didn’t come to save himself, He came to save lost humanity. And, Job’s self referential experience, and we’re tender towards Job because he’s suffering, and any time we suffer, we wanna give people in the moment of their crisis a wide swath of understanding and patience. But, Job, even in his hurting moments, God says to him: Gird up your loins like a man, Job, and I will ask you and you will instruct me. It’s a very ridiculous juxtaposition of God as the student and Job as the teacher. And then He says to him, „Will you really annul mu judgments, that you may be justified?”

The bad alternative to repentance is this akrasia, this rationalization. It’s a bad alternative to repentance and the obedience that follows on the heels of repentance. Obedience is the opener of eyes. We might say, akrasia is the closer of eyes. It keeps us from seeing reality. Obedience allows me to live in the benefits of omniscience. I’m a pea brain, I don’t know very much. But, every time God, in His omniscience, calls me to obedience, I can live beyond my own capacities. If I obey Him, I receive the benefits of omniscience. Furthermore, obedience is the splint that God places on a broken life in order that it might mend. But, disobedience and akrasia, in willful blindness, keeps me in that broken state.

We get the concept for akrasia from Aristotle’s ethics. Aristotle wrote: vice is unconscious of itself. It’s a statement that Lewis himself footnotes in the abolition of man, from Aristotle’s ethics. Lewis is very much aware of this concept of self deception. Lewis writes from the preface of Paradise Lost- Continued disobedience to conscience makes conscience blind. Then, of course, Paul in Romans 1:18 – „We suppress the truth in our unrighteousness.” Screwtape urges Wormwood to engage in a corrupted form of rhetoric, to keep his patient blind. (8:25) So we see first:

The rhetoric of Rationalized Behavior:

  • The Unknowing Falsification of Reality
  • Intentional & Dishonest
  • Devoid of Principle or Legitimate Ends
  • Self-referentialism

Photo from http://www.swordofthespirit.net

Screwtape tells Wormwood: Jargon, not reason is your best ally in keeping your patient from church. In his Oxford History of English Literature, Lewis said of the Renaissance humanists, in their reaction to the medieval literature, he said, „They jeer, but they do not refute.” You can call a person a name, you can be dismissive of that other person, but, never engage them rationally to see if your ideas hold muster against the challenges that must come. Screwtape says, „By the very act of arguing you awake the patient’s reason. And once it is awake, who can foresee the result?” Reason is an ally to faith, it’s not an ally to self justification. Real criticism is going to do 2 positive things to my faith. (1) It’s gonna cause me to prune those accoutrements that have surrounded my faith, that are false. Maybe I picked them um blindly from my subculture. I entered into something like a group think, that can sometime occur in religious communities. (2) Or, the challenge can help me to understand my faith more robustly, as I see that my faith position stands up to the challenge, even as I engage in seeing how I can answer the particular questions that are brought up in the moment. Screwtape wants us to avoid that kind of thinking, because that kind of thinking, again, either prunes the falsehood or strengthens the truth and helps us see its vitality.

Truth is not reality, truth is what I think about reality when I think accurately about it. In Letter 1, Screwtape wants to keep those he seeks to destroy in a state of moral blindness. Screwtape writes: Give to him, your patient, a grand general idea that he knows it all, and that everything he has happened to pick up in casual talk and reading is a result of modern investigation. And so, then the person moves towards informal fallacies and logic, and we don’t even realize we’re blinding ourselves in these processes. In Letter 2 Screwtape talks about this rationalized behavior in more detail. He writes to Wormwood: All the habits of the patient, both mental and bodily are still in our favor. Because those habits, especially if they are bad will tend towards the rationalization of the habit. If you move the person again towards reason, then they apply the reason to the habits and they try to adjust the scoliosis of their life to the plum line of reality, and they start to change and get better. Screwtape writes: Keep everything hazy in his mind now, and you will have all eternity wherein to amuse yourself by producing in him the peculiar kind of clarity which hell affords. Screwtape also advises Wormwood to notice hypocrisy in others also, while remaining blind to his own hypocrisies.

Lewis and Tolkien, both often quote this passage from Plato’s laws, where Plato says: An abuse does not nullify a proper use. A lot of time we point to abuse and we think the problem is solved. But, the abuse is usually the anomaly, the misuse of a particular thing. If we judge any segment of society by its worst example, nobody could stand. But, we find then, that we’re moving towards Screwtape’s inculcation of hypocrisy and delusion, when we begin to dismiss an entire class because we’re projecting the bad example on the whole.

In Letter 3, this rationalized behavior moves towards blame. Screwtape advises Wormwood to redirect his patient’s thinking towards unrealities. He says, „You must bring him, your patient to a condition to practice self examination for an hour, without discovering any of those facts about himself, which are perfectly clear to anyone who has ever lived in the same house with him, or worked in the same office. Screwtape advises to keep his patient constantly irritated by things his mother does, without thought how irritating his own actions might be to others. At the end of the day, he has 2 visions of reality. The false vision of his mother, who is not as bad as the one he projects on her, and the false image of himself, which is not as good as the one he projects on himself. Wormwood is instructed to make that imaginary person daily less and less than the real mother. 24:37

There is another rhetoric Screwtape engages in. It’s- The Rhetoric of Rationalized Behavior: Intentional & Dishonest. In Letter 6, Lewis allows us to enter in this particular topic. He is engaged also in The Rhetoric of Rationalized Behavior: Devoid of Principle or Legitimate Ends. He basically creates an illusion of truth, we see this in Letter 23. We can have a kind of very religious illusion of truth. I believe that there are 2 kinds of people in this world. Goofy people who know they’re goofy, and goofy people who are dangerous. Lewis has Screwtape say, „Get your patient on a quest for the historical Jesus, which is always a distraction from reality, because this historical Jesus they’re pursuing is a Jesus of their own construction. First, he says, each historical Jesus is unhistorical. Second, all such construction places their importance of the historical Jesus on some peculiar theory he was supposed to have promulgated, which thus destract men’s mind from who He really is and what He actually did. A third aim, Screwtape writes, is by these constructions to destroy the devotional life. Instead of the Creator adored by his creature, you have merely a leader claimed by a partisan, and finally a distinguished character approved by a judicious historian. Fourth, a religion of this kind is false to history in another sense, Screwtape writes. No nation and few individuals are really brought to the enemy’s camp by the historical study of the biography of Jesus. It is simply his biography. The earliest converts were converted by a single historical fact: The resurrection. And a single theological doctrine: The redemption operating on a sense of sin, which they already had.

And the Screwtape says: About the general connection between christianity and politics our position is more delicate. Certainly, we do not want christianity to flow over into their political life, for, the establishing of anything like a really just society would be a major disaster for Screwtape and his kind. On the other hand, we do want men to treat christianity as a means, just a means. In some senses, devoid of principle, and devoid of particular and righteous ends, preferably, of course as a means to their own advancement. But, failing that, even the means to anything, even to social justice. The thing at first is to get a man to value social justice as a thing the enemy demands, and then work on him to the stage at which he values christianity because it may produce social justice. C S Lewis said: When the means become autonomous from the principle and ends, they become evil. He even says: Even when love becomes a god, it becomes a demon. He’s not saying social justice is inappropriate. He’s saying that even social justice can become a distraction, if it leads away from centering on Jesus.

Screwtape says, in Letter 26: Get your patient to believe this, not because it’s true, but for some other reason. This leads to the Rhetoric of Self Rationalized Behavior: Self-referentialism. While Lewis rightly acknowledged that all judgments rightly imply a standard, judgments are destined to go wrong when the standard is self-referential. And this is the thing we always want to avoid, this kind of rationalization.

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