Book Review: C.S. Lewis – The Screwtape Letters

C.S. Lewis – The Screwtape Letters (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1942).

I have almost no interest in theology, and actively dislike proselytizing. Yet, I enjoyed The Screwtape Letters. The book consists of 31 letters written by Screwtape, a senior demon, to his bumbling nephew Wormwood, who is having trouble tempting his “Patient” to sin and damnation. Lewis has a sly, avuncular humor throughout that makes his unsubtle didactic aims go down easier. And Screwtape is endlessly quotable. Lewis was a talented writer, and there is a reason people still read him.

That said, Lewis’ post-Victorian-Christian hangups about sex are as amusing as they are unhealthy. Most societies today, and throughout history, have less repressed norms that better fit human biology, and normal human behavior.

Less amusing is Lewis’ apparent belief that people cannot be morally good without religious belief. His frequent criticisms of materalism as immoral make no logical sense. Here, Lewis means “materialism” not in the sense of greed, but rather in the metaphysical sense of rejecting the existence of non-physical spirits.

The trouble with this argument is, well, almost everywhere. High-character people who are not religious are easy to find. In Lewis’ argument, X has no link to Y. And Lewis does not attempt to find one, arguing only by assertion. His broad-brush dismissal of millions of good people is arguably its own moral failing.

Much of Lewis’ other advice is on firmer ground. One need not share his theism to agree that the world would be a kinder place if people were a bit better at resisting temptation.

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