Screwtape discusses whether or not Wormwood should reveal the existence of devils to the patient. Devils should conceal their existence, Screwtape argues. In the past, however, devils would occasionally reveal themselves to humans. The paradox of evil is that when devils conceal their existence, humans don’t believe in God, but they also don’t act directly on behalf of evil. On the other hand, when devils reveal themselves, humans sometimes ally with the devil directly, but they also believe in God more fervently. If only it were possible to create a “materialist magician,” Screwtape thinks: a man who acts directly on behalf of evil and yet doesn’t believe in God.
There’s a famous movie quote: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” Here, Lewis elaborates on this witty saying. It’s interesting that Screwtape admits that devils face a challenge here: when humans are at their most conscious of the existence of evil, they’re also least willing to do evil. Unbeknownst to Lewis, Screwtape’s desire for an “evil” man who doesn’t believe in evil anticipates men like Stalin and Pol Pot, who committed acts of immense brutality but disavowed the existence of God altogether.
Screwtape takes up the problem of whether to make the patient an extreme patriot or pacifist. In the end, he suggests, it doesn’t matter what the patient is, as long as he’s an extremist of some kind. Extreme thinking always favors the devil, except when it’s extreme Christianity.
Lewis, a brilliant scholar of classics, alludes to Aristotle’s famous “doctrine of the golden mean.” For both Aristotle and Lewis, moderation is the goal: to be extreme about anything (except, for Lewis, God) is to be irrational and thus immoral.
If the patient is a physical coward and an uneasy believer in God, as Screwtape guesses he is, then Wormwood should try to make him a pacifist. As a pacifist, he will be a member of a small, vocal, unpopular group of people—this will undoubtedly alienate him from his newfound Christian community.
Here Lewis critiques the antiwar movement in the United Kingdom, both during World War I and World War II. Elite intellectuals like Bertrand Russell bemoaned Britain’s aggressive foreign policy and explicitly attacked the church for supporting war. Obviously, Lewis wasn’t terribly fond of Russell’s school of social activism.
Whether Wormwood makes the patient an extreme pacifist or patriot, he should try to convince the patient to incorporate Christianity into his newfound belief. The result of this will be that the patient will use Christianity to “prove” patriotism or pacifism, and slowly, Christianity will become incidental or secondary to the patient’s belief in patriotism or pacifism. Screwtape notes wryly that there are plenty of people “down here” who have gone down such a path.
Lewis remains insightful about Christianity and extremism: his argument isn’t just that extremists reject Christianity, as Russell did—he’s saying that they include Christianity in their beliefs, and then ignore it altogether. The implication of this is that Christianity should never really be a part of politics, because it will inevitably end up being secondary to a specific political goal. This is a complicated issue, and Lewis will return to it toward the novel’s end.