The Screwtape Letters

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Fashion, Progress, and Change Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Proving Christianity True by Exploring Evil Theme Icon
Religion and Reason Theme Icon
Love Theme Icon
Freedom, Will, and Sin Theme Icon
Fashion, Progress, and Change Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Screwtape Letters, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Fashion, Progress, and Change Theme Icon

At many points in The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape expresses his satisfaction with the modern European emphasis on fashion, change, and “the new.” This is a signal, of course, that Lewis isn’t at all fond of this emphasis.

At the time when Lewis was writing The Screwtape Letters, Europe’s intellectual history was (and still is) in the shadow of such monumental 19th century thinkers as George Hegel, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Charles Darwin. While it would take thousands of pages to make a thorough analysis of all four of these thinkers, one important thing all four have in common is their emphasis on vast, historical processes. Marx, for instance, believed that all economics would gradually move toward a state of communism, according to which the proletariat (working class) would control the means of production. Similarly, Hegel believed that history is a history of ideas—that an idea that is true and “right” at one time may eventually change into another idea. Nietzsche went even further in saying that truth, as we understand it, was impossible—there were many, contradictory truths.

Part of the problem with these intellectuals’ emphasis on change, at least as Lewis sees it, is that they focus too much on the future. By celebrating progress, thinkers like Marx and Hegel point us toward a bright future. One side effect of this, Lewis believes, is that people learn to think of the present as secondary in importance to the things to come. This is dangerous for morality, because all sin is committed because people think about the future instead of focusing on the present. People steal, for instance, because they need the money in the future—they ignore the feelings of guilt and sin that will afflict them in the present. By the same logic, people often commit murder on the pretext that the murder is necessary in order to achieve some lofty, future goal.

Another reason that Lewis distrusts the emphasis on change is that it makes people distrust the simple notions of truth and falsehood. Thus the reader of Hegel or Nietzsche, comfortable with thinking about “relative” truths, or information which can be true at one time and false at another, will lose sight of the one most important truths: the existence of the Christian God.

A final reason that Lewis rejects the emphasis on change, progress, and fashion is that it encourages people to ignore truthful ideas, simply because those ideas have existed for a long time. Thus, Screwtape notes that humans ignore the late classical philosophy of Boethius, who wrote insightfully about God and free will, simply because Boethius died more than a thousand years ago. Similarly, humans reject the doctrine of Puritanism simply because Puritanism—a good ideology that encourages people to be honest, chaste, and moral—has been around for centuries. The overvaluation of new things encourages people to embrace the new simply because it is new. Lewis has no patience for such foolishness—the existence of God and the supremacy of Christianity cannot, in his opinion, go in and out of fashion.

Ultimately, Lewis is skeptical of change, but he’s not a reactionary. Change, he argues, is neither inherently good nor inherently bad—it just is. There may well be new philosophies and ideologies that are worth studying and practicing, but they shouldn’t be taken up simply because of their novelty. By the same logic, people shouldn’t abandon Christianity simply because it isn’t new.

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Fashion, Progress, and Change ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Fashion, Progress, and Change appears in each chapter of The Screwtape Letters. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Fashion, Progress, and Change Quotes in The Screwtape Letters

Below you will find the important quotes in The Screwtape Letters related to the theme of Fashion, Progress, and Change.
Letter I Quotes

Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn't think of doctrines as primarily "true" or "false", but as "academic" or "practical", "outworn" or "contemporary”, "conventional" or "ruthless". Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church.

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood, The patient
Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:

Screwtape argues that it's now common for "intelligent" people to speak about philosophy in terms of fashion and history, not truth and falsehood. Thus, in studying religions and philosophies, people like the patient are encouraged to learn ideas are in vogue or are controversial, rather than which ideas are actually true. Furthermore, some doctrines (like the ideas of philosophers such as Hegel and Nietzsche) relativize the concepts of truth and falsehood altogether, arguing that a statement isn't necessarily true or false—instead, it might be true at one time and false at another, or somewhat true and false simultaneously.

In all, the passage argues that Christianity is the ultimate rational doctrine—the doctrine that maintains that ideas are either true or false, and nothing else. The passage is important, then, because it sets up the project of Lewis's entire book: to use logic, reason, and careful thought to "prove" that Christianity is correct, and all so-called "intellectual" doctrines are nonsensical.


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If he must dabble in science, keep him on economics and sociology; don't let him get away from that invaluable "real life". But the best of all is to let him read no science but to give him a grand general idea that he knows it all and that everything he happens to have picked up in casual talk and reading is "the results of modem investigation". Do remember you are there to fuddle him. From the way some of you young fiends talk, anyone would suppose it was our job to teach!

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood, The patient
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

The passage reinforces the idea that reason and Christianity are friends, not enemies. Lewis, writing from the perspective of a devil, shows that the best way to corrupt a human being is to make him believe in the vague idea of science, not to practice reason itself. The key point here is that real science is dangerous to the devils, because it supports the principles of Christianity (at least according to Lewis)—so the patient must not be allowed to get too close to science.

By implication, the passage suggests that people choose to believe things because they're novel and interesting, not because they're true or false. The patient chooses to identify as a "scientific" kind of person, not because he knows anything about science, but because he wants to seem intelligent and knowledgeable. As Lewis suggests, a devil's best course of action is to keep human beings bouncing from one trendy ideology to another, never actually teaching anyone anything. The only real source of knowledge about the universe, it's further suggested, is Christianity.

Letter VII Quotes

All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy, are to be encouraged.

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood, The patient, God
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

In this famous passage, Screwtape argues that extremism is always easy to twist into sinfulness (and therefore helpful to the cause of evil)--unless the extremism is a form of devotion to God himself.

There are several senses in which extremism appears to be a danger to the soul. By devoting themselves to an idea or a cause, human beings turn away from God, worshipping a "false idol" instead. No matter what the idol might be—football, Marxism, alcohol, etc.—the implication appears to be that humans are equipped to worship one and only one divine authority. Thus by holding extreme opinions about anything other than God, they're essentially replacing him.

Letter IX Quotes

The mere word phase will very likely do the trick. I assume that the creature has been through several of them before—they all have—and that he always feels superior and patronising to the ones he has emerged from, not because he has really criticised them but simply because they are in the past. (You keep him well fed on hazy ideas of Progress and Development and the Historical Point of View, I trust, and give him lots of modern Biographies to read? The people in them are always emerging from Phases, aren't they?)

You see the idea? Keep his mind off the plain antithesis between True and False. Nice shadowy expressions—"It was a phase"—"I've been through all that"—and don't forget the blessed word "Adolescent"…

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood, The patient
Page Number: 46
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Screwtape reiterates the importance of jargons, trends, and fashion to the devils' cause. Because Christianity is the only true doctrine—and a very simple truth at that—the devils must corrupt humans by appealing to their vanity and their love for "something new." Thus Screwtape suggests that Wormwood fill the patient's head with the word "phase." This word, Screwtape explains, is important to the devils' cause because it can be used to relativize and dismiss truth. Screwtape hopes that the patient will come to dismiss the periods of the patient's life in which he was a Christian, reasoning that these periods were just passing phases. The word "phase" further reflects the intellectual trends of the 20th century, when the doctrines of Hegel and Marx argued that truth was relative—what was true yesterday may be false tomorrow.

Humans, it's suggested, don't know what's good for them. Although Christianity is plain and true, humans have an unfortunate habit of embracing the new for its own sake. Thus, they'll often move past Christianity simply because it's "old news." Because of the embrace of "phases" in the intellectual life of the time, it's much easier for humans to trick themselves into turning their backs on ideas that they once knew to be true.

Letter XVI Quotes

At the other church we have Fr. Spike. The humans are often puzzled to understand the range of his opinions—why he is one day almost a Communist and the next not far from some kind of theocratic Fascism—one day a scholastic, and the next prepared to deny human reason altogether—one day immersed in politics, and, the day after, declaring that all states of us world are equally "under judgment". We, of course, see the connecting link, which is Hatred.

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood
Page Number: 83
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Lewis offers a dark critique of the modern state of the church. Some modern preachers, Lewis suggests, embrace a startling array of doctrines, and use Christianity essentially as a tool to justify them. The preacher Screwtape mentions here, Friar Spike, functions as a caricature of the clergy as a whole: always moving back and forth between new ideas.

That a friar could move between so many new ideas suggests that not even the clergy is immune to the trend of fashion, progress, and change. Priests, no less than other people, will often abandon an idea they sense to be true, simply because they're tired of it. Moreover, Friar Pike's behavior illustrates another important respect in which Christianity can go wrong: Christianity can be used to persecute different kinds of people. Christianity can be twisted to justify anti-Semitism, anti-elitism, anti-imperialism, etc.—but in focusing so exclusively on the hatred of specific groups of people, Screwtape points out, preachers turn away from the most basic tenets of Christianity: that humans should love God.

Letter XVIII Quotes

For humans must not be allowed to notice that all great moralists are sent by the Enemy not to inform men but to remind them, to restate the primeval moral platitudes against our continual concealment of them.

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood
Page Number: 125
Explanation and Analysis:

One of the paradoxes of Lewis's book is that it's designed to communicate some incredibly simply ideas: be kind to other people; don't be bad; love your friends and neighbors, etc. In Lewis's view, humans often forget these basic moral lessons, because the lessons are so simple. Humans feel a natural craving for complex, new ideas (Lewis, a lifelong academic, knows this craving very well). So-called intellectual people dismiss the teachings of the Bible because they consider these teachings simple and old-fashione—thus, it's out with Christianity and in with Marxism, Hegelianism, etc.

Screwtape's argument in the passage also clarifies an important point about Christ and other important moral teachers. The genius of Christ, Screwtape insists, was that he reminded people of what they already knew to be true, not that he offered up any big, complicated theories of right and wrong. It's precisely because humans get bored with moral platitudes that figures like Christ (or, one could argue, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Buddha, etc.) are so important: they cut through man's unhealthy craving for difficulty and complexity and offer up morality in its purest, simplest form.

Letter XXV Quotes

It is here that the general Evolutionary or Historical character of modern European thought (partly our work) comes in so useful. The Enemy loves platitudes. Of a proposed course of action He wants men, so far as I can see, to ask very simple questions; is it righteous? is it prudent? is it possible? Now if we can keep men asking "Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is this the way that History is going?" they will neglect the relevant questions.

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood, The patient, God
Page Number: 138-139
Explanation and Analysis:

Screwtape explains that the recent trends in European intellectual life (he seems to be referring to such movements as Marxism, Freudianism, Hegelianism, etc.) are destructive to humanity—in fact, he claims that devils were largely responsible for popularizing such intellectual movements in the first place. The reason that recent trends in intellectual life are so harmful, Screwtape goes on, is that they distract humanity from the basic, relevant questions about the world—questions about right and wrong.

Lewis was a lifelong opponent of the "big three" intellectual doctrines of the 19th century: Marxism, Freudianism, and Darwinism. (See Background Information.) As has been pointed out many times, all three of these ideologies deprived human beings of their free will by arguing that people do things for more complicated and elusive reasons than had previously been assumed. Suddenly, the basic question, "is this the right thing to do?" was replaced by a flurry of other questions: "what social group will benefit?" (Marxism), or "how's your relationship with your mother?" (Freudianism). In Lewis's view, modern ideologies replace truth with a mountain of irrelevant information, distracting human beings from their most basic moral instincts.

Letter XXVII Quotes

To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge—to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behaviour—this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded. And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is most important thus to cut every generation off from all others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another. But thanks be to our Father and the Historical Point of View, great scholars are now as little nourished by the past as the most ignorant mechanic who holds that "history is bunk"…

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood, Satan
Page Number: 150-151
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Screwtape satirizes the state of modern academia. There's a strange tendency among so-called intellectuals, Screwtape claims, to trust more recent scholars and distrust older ones. Such a tendency is odd, since there's no automatic reason why new thinkers should be any wiser or more perceptive than thinkers who lived 500 years ago. The end result is that even many accomplished scholars would never consider actually basing their behavior around the lessons from long-ago thinkers—they only want to study the historicity of such thinkers. (The quote about history being bunk is usually attributed to Henry Ford, the famous car manufacturer.)

Lewis is notsaying that intellectuals make no progress over time—in fact, he freely admits that often, a later thinker will look over the work of his predecessors and correct an error or a lapse in logic. And most importantly, he reiterates the point that we can gain wisdom of thousands of years simply by reading old writings and actually taking them to heart, instead of having to figure everything out for ourselves or only trusting the most modern, fashionable philosophy.