|New Respect for C.S.Lewis
Over the last few weeks I have been reading the C.S.Lewis parody "The Screwtape Letters." I posted once before on a quick impression one of the early ones made on me, and now that I have completed it, I will post at greater length.
The book itself is a compilation of the mythical correspondence between Screwtape, an Administrative level devil, and Wormwood, his apprentice who is charged with the corruption of a single soul in England at the onset of World War II. As parody, it must be understood not to be taken literally; in fact, the author himself writes "Readers are advised to remember that the devil is a liar. Not everything that Screwtape says should be assumed to be true even from his own angle."
That said, this is a remarkable work of prescience. Many of the "techniques" Screwtape attempts to confer upon Wormwood have actually been recognizable patterns of thought in recent memory. I am sure that Lewis is merely commenting on trends that he noticed in his own lifetime, but it is remarkable that this is so relevant 60 years after it was written.
Most interestingly, I found myself constantly making mental references while I was reading to the current political season. Believe me, I set out to read this as a meditation on good and evil and humor; I had no desire to mire myself even further in the political world. But it intruded.
As an example: In letter 29 Screwtape writes
"We have made men proud of most vices, but not of cowardice. Whenever we have almost succeeded in doing so, the Enemy [God] permits a war or an earthquake or some other calamity, and at once courage becomes so obviously lovely and important in human eyes that all our work is ondone,. . .In peace we can make many of them ignore good and evil entirely; in danger, the issue is forced upon them in a guise to which even we cannot blind them."
Sound familiar? In the late 90's it was fashionable to seek international approval and a sense of colleagiality about employing military efforts, and at that, only when it could be accomplished with a minimum of loss of life--in other words, with a minimum investment of courage. Even when the most obvious of atrocities is being perpetrated on the world (the Iraqi gassing of the Kurds, evidence of which was confirmed in 1993, and the Rwanda genocide), we managed to justify not getting involved, though the obvious courageous thing to do would have been to step in.
Even the big news of the last cycle confirms cowardice in its ascendancy. When asked why President Clinton never contemplated direct action when video of Osama was in his hands, Richard Clarke replied in part "you have to remember that this was a President who was accused of a 'wag the dog' scenario when he employed force on prior occasions." In other words, because his political courage was insufficient to rise to the necessities of his responsibilities as the Commander-in-Chief of the United States.
He sees as well as you do that courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty, or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or hones or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky. Without taking the obvious shot at the "chastity" piece, let us consider the actions of the firefighters and police in the wake of 9-11, and the public perception of the same in the months prior to that day. Remember, in the summer of 2001, the only time you heard the police in the national news was when they were being accused of being racist and brutal, particularly in Cincinnatti. It seemed as if the Thin Blue Line was under assault from every quarter, often just for doing their jobs. Thankfully, that changed on September 11.The country was able to recognize and applaud the real courage of men and women who make your safety their vocation. The country acted as if having seen that courage for the first time in many years, and to continue in that lucidity as a President talked to emergency personnel and threw a pitch from the most exposed location on earth (the mound at Yankee Stadium) within days of that horrific event. In natural fashion, that adoration transferred over to the troops who went and did the country's business in Afghanistan.
Contrast that recognition with the words of John Kerry thirty years ago. This from a man who had been in combat, served with men doing their country's business, and who had little relish for their jobs, much less for the disdain of a public that could not find it in their political myopia to recognize their service. Such a betrayal by John Kerry could be contemplated if anything in his public life since demonstrated the kind of courage that a conscientious objector would carry with them. Unfortunately, Sen. Kerry has developed a laughable habit of avoiding taking courageous stands on nearly every issue since. Or, to be more accurate, to take two contrary stands on nearly every issue since.
Sadly, how quickly we slip back into old habits--Screwtape would be proud! In a later letter he extols the virtue of not stepping out from the crowd or being excellent, on the grounds that corruption of the spirit to be as small as everybody else is a deliciously simple form of damnation.
Sounds like the United Nations.