Early on in The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape explains the challenges that human beings face in their lives. God has created humans to be deeply flawed—they have imperfect knowledge of the world and of themselves, they are foolish and irrational, and they often disrespect God. Humanity’s imperfection, Screwtape maintains, is a consequence of its freedom.
In Christian theology, humans are unique insofar as they have free will. While free will is a notoriously difficult concept to define (even Lewis doesn’t try to do so in The Screwtape Letters), one useful “test” of free will was proposed by the important Christian thinker Saint Augustine: if a being commits a wrongful act, the act can only be considered a “sin” if the being, placed under identical circumstances, could have behaved any other way. If the being was incapable of doing anything else, then it follows that the being was not truly “free,” and thus had no choice but to disrespect God.
Because humans have free will, they are constantly vacillating between good and evil, or between God and Satan. Screwtape and Wormwood cannot “force” the patient to do anything, because forcing the patient to behave a certain way would mean that he has not acted freely, and therefore not really sinned. Both God and Satan can only “encourage” the patient to behave a certain way—whether the patient will embrace good or evil is ultimately up to him. While humans’ free will makes them weak and prone to temptation, Screwtape grudgingly admits that free will is also a major problem for devils. Because humans face constant temptation, God respects and rewards them for resisting it throughout their lives. In this way, humans can only redeem themselves and go to Heaven because they are free—if humans had no choice but to be good, there would be nothing impressive about their actions or voluntary about their love.
In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis implicitly asks an important question about free will: if humans, being free, are constantly being encouraged to do good and evil by God and Satan, respectively—in other words, if they’re constantly moving between virtue and sin—then how is it possible for humans to make any real progress toward Heaven? Won’t good behavior always be canceled out by sinful behavior?
While Lewis acknowledges that it’s impossible for any human being to behave with perfect virtue, he thinks it’s extremely important that human beings try to behave this way. This is why the human will is of the utmost importance to Lewis. Screwtape points out that a human’s will is the “closest thing” to his being, followed by his intellect. Screwtape explains that a devil must tempt a human to will evil—in other words, to commit evil actions. By the same logic, God wants human beings to behave morally—in other words, to be able to point to their moral actions, not just their moral thoughts. By translating will into action, humans can “train” themselves to behave morally in the future, ensuring that their behavior is much closer to perfect good than perfect evil.
Ultimately, Lewis concludes that freedom is humanity’s greatest weakness, but also its greatest strength. While freedom may allow humans to sin, and thus go to Hell, it also allows them to overcome their sins, train themselves to commit moral actions, and go to Heaven.
Freedom, Will, and Sin ThemeTracker
Freedom, Will, and Sin Quotes in The Screwtape Letters
There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.
He has a curious fantasy of making all these disgusting little human vermin into what He calls His "free" lovers and servants—"sons" is the word He uses, with His inveterate love of degrading the whole spiritual world by unnatural liaisons with the two-legged animals. Desiring their freedom, He therefore refuses to carry them, by their mere affections and habits, to any of the goals which He sets before them: He leaves them to "do it on their own". And there lies our opportunity. But also, remember, there lies our danger. If once they get through this initial dryness successfully, they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt.
But that is where He is so unfair. He often makes prizes of humans who have given their lives for causes He thinks bad on the monstrously sophistical ground that the humans thought them good and were following the best they knew. Consider too what undesirable deaths occur in wartime. Men are killed in places where they knew they might be killed and to which they go, if they are at all of the Enemy's party, prepared. How much better for us if all humans died in costly nursing homes amid doctors who lie, nurses who lie, friends who lie, as we have trained them, promising life to the dying, encouraging the belief that sickness excuses every indulgence, and even, if our workers know their job, withholding all suggestion of a priest lest it should betray to the sick man his true condition!
He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself—creatures, whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His. We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below has drawn all other beings into himself: the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct.
Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger, than when a human, no longer desiring, but intending, to do our Enemy's will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.
Obviously you are making excellent progress. My only fear is lest in attempting to hurry the patient you awaken him to a sense of his real position. For you and I, who see that position as it really is, must never forget how totally different it ought to appear to him. We know that we have introduced a change of direction in his course which is already carrying him out of his orbit around the Enemy; but he must be made to imagine that all the choices which have effected this change of course are trivial and revocable. He must not be allowed to suspect that he is now, however slowly, heading right away from the sun on a line which will carry him into the cold and dark of utmost space.
Fix in his mind the idea that humility consists in trying to believe those talents to be less valuable than he believes them to be. No doubt they are in fact less valuable than he believes, but that is not the point. The great thing is to make him value an opinion for some quality other than truth, thus introducing an element of dishonesty and make-believe into the heart of what otherwise threatens to become a virtue. By this method thousands of humans have been brought to think that humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools. And since what they are trying to believe may, in some cases, be manifest nonsense, they cannot succeed in believing it.
Hence nearly all vices are rooted in the future. Gratitude looks to the past and love to the present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead. Do not think lust an exception. When the present pleasure arrives, the sin (which alone interests us) is already over. The pleasure is just the part of the process which we regret and would exclude if we could do so without losing the sin; it is the part contributed by the Enemy, and therefore experienced in a Present. The sin, which is our contribution, looked forward.
The truth is that the Enemy, having oddly destined these mere animals to life in His own eternal world, has guarded them pretty effectively from the danger of feeling at home anywhere else. That is why we must often wish long life to our patients; seventy years is not a day too much for the difficult task of unravelling their souls from Heaven and building up a firm attachment to the earth. While they are young we find them always shooting off at a tangent.
There is here a cruel dilemma before us. If we promoted justice and charity among men, we should be playing directly into the Enemy's hands; but if we guide them to the opposite behaviour, this sooner or later produces (for He permits it to produce) a war or a revolution, and the undisguisable issue of cowardice or courage awakes thousands of men from moral stupor.
This, indeed, is probably one of the Enemy's motives for creating a dangerous world—a world in which moral issues really come to the point.
If only we could find out what He is really up to! Alas, alas, that knowledge, in itself so hateful and mawkish a thing, should yet be necessary for Power! Sometimes I am almost in despair. All that sustains me is the conviction that our Realism, our rejection (in the face of all temptations) of all silly nonsense and claptrap, must win in the end.