The Middle-Brow Devil

Justice Scalia’s recent mention of C.S. Lewis’s satirical novel The Screwtape Letters prompted Casey N. Cep to ponder the book’s lasting popularity:

Its appeal, I think, comes from Lewis’s success in writing a theodicy of the everyday. 800px-Vitrail_Florac_010609_06_Démon Unlike Dante and Milton, he eschewed a grand theology of the cosmos, focussing instead on quotidian temptations of the common man. An epistolary novel, “The Screwtape Letters” features a senior demon called Screwtape writing thirty-one letters of advice and encouragement to his inexperienced nephew, Wormwood, who is trying to win the soul of a nameless young man. …

For believers, the letters are theology in reverse, teaching the love of God through the wiles of the Devil, but for all readers, regardless of belief, the letters frame human experience as a familiar sequence of trials, from how you take your tea and what parties you attend to the sort of person you choose for a partner and the sort of politics you espouse. As Justice Scalia said when he invoked “The Screwtape Letters,” “That’s a great book. It really is, just as a study of human nature.” The novel remains wildly popular because whether or not you agree with Lewis and Scalia that the Devil is real, the evils promoted by Screwtape—greed, gluttony, pride, envy, and violence—most certainly are.

I loved the book when I read it years ago. Its success is in telling a story about what sin means in a granular, graspable, middle-brow prose. Parts of Lewis can be clotted and a bit pretentious, but much of it is written in an English as accessible as Orwell’s and successful for similar reasons: readers love stories more than arguments. By embedding an argument in a story of secret correspondence, the Devil comes alive for modern Christians – not as a myth, but as a canny part of our own self-deception. That part reveals how small, trivial concessions to evil can slowly change one’s character altogether over the years. It illuminates not the banality of evil, but its disguises.

(Image: St. Michael Vanquishing Satan by Raphael, via Wikimedia Commons)