Screwtape has learned from Wormwood that there is a lull in the war in Europe. Wormwood is unsure whether it is better for the devils to fill humans with a foolish confidence or a crippling fear. In order to answer this question, Screwtape raises issues of time, freedom, and eternity.
Even before Lewis answers his own question (which is more sinful, confidence or cowardice?), it’s clear that he’s alluding to the doctrine of the mean once again. Extreme emotions of either kind—bravery or cowardice—can lead to questionable morality. Only moderation can be called virtuous.
Humans live in a single moment in time, the present, yet they are destined to go to Heaven and live in eternity. God wants humans to contemplate the present moment in which they live, as well as the eternity in which they will one day live. As a result, devils have two main strategies for tempting humans: encourage them to live in the past, or encourage them to live in the future. Devils tempt humans to think in terms like “progress,” “evolution,” and “Communism.” These are dangerous ideas because they focus mankind too keenly on the future.
Lewis’s thinking in the subjects of time and eternity are similar to those of Boethius, the last classical philosopher who proposed that God can “see” all time simultaneously. At the same time, Lewis criticizes such modern ideologies as Communism and evolution. Karl Marx, the father of communism, and Charles Darwin, the discoverer of evolution, have often been compared to one another in the sense that they “took man’s fate out of his own hands”—in other words, focused too excessively on the abstract processes of “progress” that pointed toward the future. For more information on Darwin and Marx, see Background Info.
Screwtape explains why an emphasis on the future is dangerous for humans. All human sin is “rooted in the future”—greed, fear, pride, ambition, etc. While it is true that God wants humans to think about the future, too, he wants them to think of the future in simple terms, without “giving the future their hearts.” Devils, by contrast, want humans to be chasing after the future constantly. In this way, humans are more likely to ignore pleasure in the present and even commit sin, thinking that it will be justified at some point in the future.
Lewis’s diagnosis of sin is a disturbing one for humanity. Politicians, philosophers, and intellectuals are always talking about “looking ahead to the future”—but by Lewis’s estimation, this kind of thinking is dangerous. One notable philosopher who agrees with Lewis was Karl Popper. In The Open Society and its Enemies, Popper explained how ideologies—communism, for example—focus excessively on realizing a glorious future. This allows proponents of Communism to justify any actions in the short-term, on the basis that they’re necessary to achieve future aims.
As a result of his arguments about the future, Screwtape concludes that it is equally good for Wormwood’s patient to be afraid of the future or hopeful for the future. In either case, the patient will be dissatisfied with the present, and will ignore the things that make him happy.
Lewis is fond of counterintuitive arguments with this structure (he’ll later make similar points about gluttony, politics, etc.). In a sense, to argue which is worse, fear or love for the future, is to miss the whole point: thinking too much about the future at all is what leads to immorality.