Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Screwtape and Politics

In commenting online on political matters today I noticed - not for the first time - that I was quoting Lewis on a spiritual matter which had direct effect on political discussion. The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce are particularly apt on such matters. Yet there is little I can think of about politics in either work, nor is there much politics in Lewis's writing in general. I have been reading Screwtape again, and will read it with political eyes for the first time.

This is dangerous. The book is intended to advise the reader on matters of personal spiritual growth, not Man In Society. There is some attention to getting along with others and the barriers we create with our fellow humans, but this is all on a micro level. I would not counsel anyone to overlook that main goal in their effort to find a few quotes to score political points.

But I realised in reflecting on the book that it had a powerful effect in changing my politics. It offered nothing to try and convince me of conservative ideals, yet over the course of a decade it completely undermined all my reasons for liberalism. I took the book's message very much to heart, and was quite serious about examining my motives for what I believed. I found that I had adopted many of my political beliefs not because they did ny society or its citizens any good, but because certain attitudes made me look like a fine and generous person, or allowed me to tell myself what a good boy am I.

It's been pretty easy to hear that in the words of other people since - not that their views themselves are wrong, but that they reveal with embarrassing clarity what their motives are. That's not true of all liberals. But it is true of an enormous number of people who are completely oblivious to what their own words say about them. Sometimes they are generally nice people and I am embarrassed for them. Not to worry. Other progressives seem not to notice, seem unable to enact the simple exercise of asking themselves "how would this sound in my opponent's mouth if he said it about me?"

Lewis has rather a specialty in how evil can disguise itself as good*. I don't think that is inherently a condemnation of any political view, as that door can swing both ways. But in the current milieu, it's X-Ray vision when used on progressive arguments. Terribly sad, and I don't know how to combat it.

*Quite different from Tolkien who picks up the moral questions after most of the disguises are off, and the evil has revealed itself. There are LOTR characters who still seem good to many, though they have decayed terribly - Saruman, Denethor; there are characters whose decay from nobility is part of the plot - Boromir; and there are characters whose evil is near-complete but illustrate the possibility of redemption up to the end - Gollum, Lobelia. But the longest-lived characters are solidly in their places among the forces of evil if they have long rationalised their sin, and the good characters, however flawed, retain a self-honesty.

1 comment:

karrde said...

I, too, was surprised by Screwtape's insight into the way people behave.

Perhaps the most frightening was Lewis' admonishment in the Forward: I live in the Managerial Age, the world of Admin. The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid 'dens of iniquity' that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps...But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.

This was almost an aside, given by Lewis as his reason for avoiding Miltonian (or Dante-esque) visions of demons.

But the lesson sinks in deeply. Evil can be done in a pedestrian way by men who work in cubicles. Evil can be dreamed up by men who look ordinary, and done by men who don't carry an obvious aura of evil.

As far as political application goes, Screwtape has lenghty comments about people holding opinions because they wish to be in agreement with the correct "in-crowd". This could work against any particular political group which has a large number of followers.

More specific instances of political commentary are hard to come by, except for Screwtape's comments about leading people away from the good of the past, mostly by accentuating bad elements of the past and of the present.