The Screwtape Letters

The Screwtape Letters Letter I Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The chapter is written as a letter, addressed to “my dear Wormwood.” A yet unnamed writer encourages Wormwood to influence “our patient” by controlling what he reads and who he talks to. The writer points out, however, that Wormwood is naïve to believe that the best way to influence the patient is to use logic—this has ceased to be the case for at least a few centuries. The writer mentions that Wormwood must keep the patient away from the “Enemy.”
From the first, Lewis’s point is very clear: the path of reason leads directly to Christianity. His novel is an attempt to prove this by disproving the “contrapositive”—in other words, showing that the path to evil is caused by ignorance, which is encouraged by devils like Wormwood and Screwtape. It’s not yet clear who the characters are, but one can guess that this is a religious book, and thus the characters are religious entities like angels and devils.
Themes
Religion and Reason Theme Icon
The writer explains how humans have changed in recent times. Humans used to believe in truth and falsehood, but nowadays, they’re trained to study dozens of beliefs that contradict one another. The patient thinks of beliefs as being useful or useless, not true or false. For this reason, Wormwood’s best strategy is to use jargon, not logic, to convince the patient to stay away from “the Church.” Wormwood’s goal is to make the patient believe in the doctrine of Materialism. The writer’s point, however, is that Wormwood should “sell” this belief on the grounds that it’s “strong,” not that it’s correct.
One of Lewis’s most important arguments is that Western society has moved away from doctrines of logic in favor of “moral relativism”—the notion that there are multiple truths, some of which are “truer” than others, or may be true at one time and false at another. This isn’t an unreasonable assessment of Western thought in the 19th century: philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche and George Hegel wrote about the multiplicity of “truths” in their works, influencing their readers to adopt relativism.
Themes
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Fashion, Progress, and Change Theme Icon
The writer recalls a “young atheist” he was trying to keep away from the Enemy. One day, the atheist was thinking “the wrong way.” Instead of trying to convince him to think the opposite, the writer tried to convince the atheist to eat lunch. The Enemy tried to convince the atheist to continue thinking, but the writer managed to get him to go eat. During lunch, the atheist became distracted by reality—streets, newspapers, cars, etc.—and soon he forgot his train of thought. The atheist is now “safe in Our Father’s house.”
Here, Lewis suggests that by default, people continue thinking in the terms they’ve already adopted for themselves. This may sound like a simple point, but it has some surprising implications. People, Lewis suggests, aren’t as clever as they’d like to think they are: once they’ve decided something, they have a tendency to forget about it and cease questioning it. For Lewis, the consequences of maintaining a false belief—that God doesn’t exist, for example— can lead to disastrous consequences and so it is important to keep reasoning and questioning one’s beliefs. It’s also in this section that Lewis outlines the “players” in his novel. “Our Father” is Satan, ironically—not God, the usual “Father.” Similarly, “the Enemy” is God, the opponent of Satan.
Themes
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Freedom, Will, and Sin Theme Icon
The writer tells Wormwood that Wormwood must impress upon human beings the ordinariness of the world. Trying to influence humans using science is counterproductive, he argues, because it encourages humans to think abstractly. Wormwood’s goal, the writer concludes, is to confuse the patient, not educate him. He signs the letter, “Your affectionate uncle, Screwtape.”
Here, Lewis claims science for his “side,” the side of Christianity. While science might appear to “explain away” the existence of God, Lewis believes that it actually encourages people to think about the entire universe, and approach it with a tone of wonder and amazement. It’s interesting that Lewis argues all this “negatively”—that is, he writes about the opposite point of view, as articulated by Screwtape, and then shows it to be absurd. This style of logic is known as reductio ad absurdum, and Lewis uses it skillfully throughout his book.
Themes
Proving Christianity True by Exploring Evil Theme Icon
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Get the entire The Screwtape Letters LitChart as a printable PDF.
The screwtape letters.pdf.medium