Try as he might, Screwtape cannot understand love. As a result, Screwtape cannot understand why God created mankind, why he wants humans to be good, or why he wants to reward them in Heaven for their virtue. Screwtape’s reasoning is impeccable, but his total incomprehension of love means that he’ll never be a Christian. By exploring Screwtape’s misunderstanding of this basic human (and divine) idea, Lewis constructs his own theory of what humans’ love, both for God and for other humans, should be.
Screwtape tries to define love by contrasting it with the devil’s belief in “realism.” The only purpose of life, he insists, is to conquer other forms of life, taking things for oneself so that other beings can’t have them. The technical term for this way of looking at the world is as a “zero-sum game”—any advantage earned by one person is seen as a lost opportunity for food, shelter, or pleasure for another person. Screwtape believes that love is the opposite of “realism,” that love is the belief that two beings can share the same needs, and that they can work together to satisfy these needs. This technical explanation of love may well define love for Screwtape, but it cannot convey love, in the same sense that looking at sheet music can’t convey the sense of music. (It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Screwtape admits that he cannot understand music, either.) In any event, Wormwood reports Screwtape to the authorities because Screwtape dares to suggest that God loves humanity—and this puts an end to Screwtape’s thinking about love for some time.
In the second half of The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape continues his discussion of love with Wormwood, without ever admitting the “heretical” idea that God loves humanity. At the same time that Screwtape criticizes humans’ love for one another, Lewis implicitly asks questions about love, such as, “How should people love?” and “Is it possible to love too much or too little?”
In order to answer his own questions, Lewis, writing in the guise of Screwtape, investigates “modern love.” Modern lovers, Screwtape notes, are too eager to fall in love with others, and wrongly confuse love with lust. Most absurdly, they believe that love is the only reason to marry someone. While Screwtape’s thoughts on love can hardly be trusted, his position is consistent with the beliefs Lewis subscribes to elsewhere in The Screwtape Letters. Lewis maintains that modern human beings are too “extreme” in their thinking and their behaviors. Love, he acknowledges, can often be extreme or excessive. There are many couples who avoid talking about their problems and their feelings, simply because they are in love. The result is that couples’ problems with one another resurface years later, causing resentment and arguments. At the simplest level, Lewis believes, these kinds of modern behaviors are morally wrong because they encourage people to love imperfect things, such as people, more than they love God, the source of all perfection.
In the end, even though the devils in The Screwtape Letters cannot understand love, Lewis spells out his own theory of love. Lewis maintains that love is of vital, indeed, self-evident importance for human civilization, but also that it can’t replace other human virtues. When speaking about the love between human beings, Lewis wants people to moderate their love with other emotions and virtues: respect, loyalty, etc. The only time when love should be extreme is when a human loves God.
Love Quotes in The Screwtape Letters
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.
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.
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.
The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses.
I have been thinking very hard about the question in your last letter. If, as I have clearly shown, all selves are by their very nature in competition, and therefore the Enemy's idea of Love is a contradiction in terms, what becomes of my reiterated warning that He really loves the human vermin and really desires their freedom and continued existence? I hope, my dear boy, you have not shown my letters to anyone. Not that it matters of course. Anyone would see that the appearance of heresy into which I have fallen is purely accidental.
You complain that my last letter does not make it clear whether I regard being in love as a desirable state for a human or not. But really, Wormwood, that is the sort of question one expects them to ask! Leave them to discuss whether "Love", or patriotism, or celibacy, or candles on altars, or teetotalism, or education, are "good" or "bad". Can't you see there's no answer? Nothing matters at all except the tendency of a given state of mind, in given circumstances, to move a particular patient at particular moment nearer to the Enemy or nearer to us. Thus it would be quite a good thing to make the patient decide that "love" is "good" or "bad".
I have looked up this girl's dossier and am horrified at what I find. Not only a Christian but such a Christian—a vile, sneaking, simpering, demure, monosyllabic, mouse-like, watery, insignificant, virginal, bread-and-butter miss. The little brute. She makes me vomit.
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.
Rest assured, my love for you and your love for me are as like as two peas. I have always desired you, as you (pitiful fool) desired me. The difference is that I am the stronger. I think they will give you to me now; or a bit of you. Love you? Why, yes. As dainty a morsel as ever I grew fat on. You have let a soul slip through your fingers.
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.