The Screwtape Letters


C. S. Lewis

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The Screwtape Letters: Letter XXVI Summary & Analysis

Screwtape tells Wormwood that courtship is the time during which the “seeds” of resentment are sown. During courtship, couples think that they’ve solved their problems with love, when, in reality, they’ve only hidden these problems from view for a short time.
Here Lewis clarifies his theory of love. One issue with romantic love is that it’s seen as the solution to all human problems, when on the contrary, it just distracts people from their problems. Then when the emotion of romance wears off, the problems return.
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The great problem of courtship, Screwtape says, is that of charity, which the “Philological Arm” of Hell calls “unselfishness.” Men and women think of unselfishness in different ways, due to the values of Western culture. Women think that unselfishness consists of helping other people as much as possible. Men, by contrast, think that unselfishness consists of not bothering people whenever possible.
In an almost Orwellian turn, Lewis imagines that Hell has a department devoted to creating buzzwords and phrases that conceal the teachings of God. He also takes the opportunity to differentiate between the sexes—or more precisely, between the way Western culture encourages the sexes to behave.
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Another problem with unselfishness is that it sometimes leads to more resentment and anger than selfishness. Screwtape gives an example: a large family tries to plan an afternoon tea. One member of the family politely suggests that he doesn’t want to have tea. In response, the other members unselfishly suggest that they not have tea at all. The original opponent of tea retaliates by politely saying that they should have tea. Soon, a big argument builds, and all the resentment of the parties comes out from beneath the façade of unselfishness.
Lewis is trying to defend Christianity from the charge that it’s excessively fussy, priggish, old-fashioned, or generally lifeless. One of his important arguments comes in this section, when he shows how excessive politeness—a stereotype of the good Christian—can actually be harmful and even sinful. Being a Christian doesn’t mean being polite to a fault, Lewis concludes—it often means speaking one’s mind and being assertively honest.
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As the patient pursues a courtship of his lover, Screwtape advises that Wormwood should try to influence him to be unselfish, rather than selfish. Even though unselfishness seems bad for the devils’ cause in the short term, it often leads to anger and resentment years later. In general, the two young lovers must never realize that love alone is not enough for a marriage to last.
In general, Lewis is skeptical of the modern interpretation of romantic love as eternal and unconditional, because it encourages people to make promises that they’re incapable of keeping. In many ways, Lewis’s interpretation of love feels very contemporary: he’s skeptical of marriages and relationships because they place unfair expectations on both lovers. A good relationship, he maintains, takes love, but also lots of other things.
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