Screwtape Letters Part 2: Arrogance & Ownership
Screwtape Letters Part 2: Arrogance & Ownership
Last post we left off with a quote from Thomas More, “The Devil…the prowde spirit…cannot endure to be mocked.”
I picked this quote because 1) on the surface it sounds like a bad idea to make fun of the devil, and 2) even though I don’t fully know why, in practice it’s true.
Now as a disclaimer I’m not suggesting you immediately starting doing this buuuuuutt, I’ve learned over the years that one of the better ways to deal with a “difficult” person (aka someone
who’s being a total dick), is not to match their anger or give in to their will, but to be a little sarcastic with them…poke a little fun. Nothing will drive them up a wall more, because deep down they know they’re being ridiculous, and a clever jab will disarm by subtly saying you see right through them – all while standing your ground. It’s a fine line because obviously you don’t want to become the very thing that you’re mocking or add fuel to the fire, but when done well it can break tension and 180 an ugly situation.
You’ll also notice it’s an effective tell of how secure someone is with themselves (constant ribbing with friends defines my high school experience), and a great gauge of your own confidence. Once again there’s a fine line between wittiness and just a mean, bad joke, but when on the receiving end, it’s an honest indicator of where you stand with others. Is it a bonding experience? Sense of weakness? Icebreaker? Are people even comfortable joking with you? Outside perspectives like that may not come often – welcome them when they do.
One of the better answers I heard about why the devil cannot endure to be mocked goes to the origin story…how did Lucifer, the fallen angel, become the devil?
He was arrogant. He thought he knew better than God and was owed a position of power (you don’t oppose unless you believe you’re right). Arrogance and pride mask a being who is ultimately afraid and weak – mocking cuts to the heart of those insecurities.
And we all know this person. We’ve all talked with this person. We all are this person.
C.S. Lewis weaves arrogance throughout the novel. Arrogance may not be the exact word for it, but it’s an attitude that you already know everything there is to know, and that anything outside your current frame is somehow beneath you. Screwtape knows exactly what he’s doing, encouraging beliefs that embitter his host – slowly closing off new ideas and planting seeds for a worldview that can justify horrific acts, or simply miss the point altogether.
The Stream of Senses
Oh but the devil, people with ill intentions, “the Man”, negativity, evil…whatever you want to call it – they’re clever and don’t use a one-size-fits-all model…they have many tricks to play our arrogance. As mentioned in Post 1, the deeper you dive into this book, the more you begin to understand that evil is not obvious. It’s rarely active. It prefers to nudge, condition, and let you do the heavy lifting yourself.
Perhaps the easiest way to do this is through materialism and attending to what Screwtape calls the “stream of senses.” Materialism meaning the only things that are real are what can be experienced through the five senses (of course you shouldn’t ever try to define what you mean by “real”, lest you start thinking about what in life is actually meaningful). Eating, drinking, appearance, houses, and fancy watches are common vehicles for materialism. Not that it’s bad in and of itself, our day-to-day lives can only be lived in a material world. But trouble comes when we’re so fixated on the senses we can’t think of anything else.
Abstract concepts like philosophy, friendship, dreams, creativity, love, and especially any sort of spirituality begin to take a back seat. Even large swaths of science, that are technically material, but so abstract and involve matters we can’t touch or see fall outside the stream of senses. Why think of such a bizarre concept like a giant rock circling a flaming ball of gas when what’s on the news is so much more immediate, much more real…
I wouldn’t consider the stream of senses as arrogant, but this shift in attention is a clever first step along a slippery slope that makes you the priority…sure, you can YOLO down on bottle service and live in the moment, but the moment is fleeting. The Stream of Senses entices the mind to its next immediate reward, and with a little self-centered practice, narrows the gaze. Stare at your feet long enough and you’ll forget where you are.
Self-Reflection (or lack thereof)
I don’t want to rag on materialism too hard. Obviously exploring the natural world has brought about TONS of innovation that’s made our lives longer, healthier, expansive(ier), and comfier. Go out for a good dinner. Take pride in your body. Reward hard work with a nice house, car, clothes, watch, etc. The point here is there’s a healthy balance to materialism, which is ultimately a trap. And a seductive one at that. We’ve all heard a story of someone famous wrecked by their own stardom.
A trap because it consumes your attention away from what provides deep, sustained meaning. Abstract and unique to the individual (relationships, passion in a field of work, art, sporting excellence, meditation, etc.), they’re the type of things you’d do even if there was no material payoff. Pursue them for long enough and you might start thinking about something bigger than yourself.
Screwtape does not want this one bit. He doesn’t even want you to think about it. He doesn’t even want you to think and about thinking about it! That’s where we get into self-reflection (or self-awareness, they go hand-in-hand), in my opinion, the most important quality a person can have. I think of awareness as a pause. Lifting your eyes from the ground and taking a good look around. A chance to map your surroundings. How do I spend my time at work/school? How’s my health? Who am I hanging out with? How’s my living situation? What do I do for fun? What do I feel good about? Bad? Are my actions meaningful? What exactly do I mean by that?
Where will I end up if I keep doing what I am doing?
If you don’t keep a pulse on those questions, you could start to drift down a path that’s very difficult or impossible to backtrack (if you haven’t realized already, the older you get, the more doors start to close). You’ll still have blind spots, but self-reflection will provide a good feel for if you’re where you want to be, and the opportunity to react if you’re not.
How does Screwtape go about blurring awareness?
One effective way is language – both in society at large and how you talk to yourself.
Lewis, via Screwtape, continually uses the phase “ordinariness of things” that reflects an attitude that life just kinda hums along; yeah there’re some ups, some downs, people are out and about doing their thing…nothing to see here. On one hand that’s right, there’s definitely the unsexy, day-in-day-out aspect to life.
But on the other it’s wildly untrue. This is weird. None of this should be here. We were chimps swinging from trees and now we have eyeglasses and air conditioning. My heart knows how to beat itself and my stomach can turn an apple into a bicep. You ever wonder how much of a god our first ancestor to start a fire must’ve been? Or how cracked out people thought whoever invented 0 was? And we’re talking to each other, da fuck’s up with that? Bizarre doesn’t even begin to describe the astronomical chance we’re here.
But if it’s all ordinary there’s no need to think about that.
Another twisted method is the phrase, “It was a phase.” This can be used in any situation where you want to separate you from your past self – whether it be embarrassing or regrettable. Anything you want distance from.
“It was a phase” accomplishes several things at once. It’s arrogance with no reflection. The wholesale dismissal of your past, rather than critically analyzing what you specifically dislike. That wasn’t me, that was drunk me! This is the new and improved me! It’s so clever… a fear of yourself and unwillingness to own your errors, while at the same time mistaking novelty for improvement… it’s the antithesis of humility, and humility makes you whole.
This is where we start creeping into the dark. I mean, take everything I say with a grain of salt, but up to this point I wouldn’t consider any of the above as outright “bad” or “wrong”. It’s more of a thing where the stream of senses and absent self-reflection result in a life that’s not all that it could be. Whether that makes you a candidate for Screwtape and his camp is for you to consider.
But what’s going on here is a shrinking of your sphere (counter to a natural world that’s infinite and expanding), and as the sphere gets smaller, a dangerous cycle starts to unfold. Things continue to not work out (because that’s life and no one bats a thousand), choose not to drill down to the root cause of why they didn’t work, turn deeper to materialism (which does work in the short-term), and repeat. Do that enough times and you’ll become a victim of circumstance, or kindle resentment and anger…the perfect clay for Screwtape.
As David Foster Wallace said in This is Water, “…but the fact is that religious dogmatists’ problem is exactly the same as the story’s atheist’s – arrogance, blind certainty, a closed-mindedness that’s like an imprisonment so complete that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.”
And if you pat yourself on the back for secretly knowing better than everyone else, that’s just the icing on the cake.
Claims to Life (Ownership)
To this point, Screwtape’s been brewing a narrowed, self-centered worldview that doesn’t question itself. This might be more obnoxious than evil, but behind the scenes it sets the stage for an individual who believes they have a claim to something that isn’t theirs. They demand ownership or to be treated a certain way. Plenty of people work hard and are rightfully rewarded – but they come from a place of commitment and can see the big picture. But if it comes from a place of resentment and anger, that’s dangerous, especially within people who believe they’re owed something.
“Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury. And the sense of injury depends on the feeling that a legitimate claim has been denied. The more claims on life, therefore, that your patient can be induced to make, the more often he will feel injured and, as a result, ill-tempered.”
One way this manifests is through ownership, specifically, the ownership of time. There’s nothing worse than having the next day off work so you crack a cold one, have a bite to eat, settle down to watch a little TV and BOOM outta nowhere your co-worker texts you asking if you can open first thing in the morning… “They anger him because he regards his time as his own and feels that it is being stolen.”
Screwtape wants his host to believe they are the “lawful possessor” of 24 hours. Of course it’s important to use the hours wisely and protect against time wasters, but the idea that it’s YOUR time and that you OWN is like saying the “sun and moon” are your own.
It’s an arrogant claim, my time, because I don’t know the first thing about it. I can’t create time, I can’t collect time, I don’t know where it comes from, how it works or why. Knowing how to make a watch has nothing to do with knowing what a minute is.
Time, like all things, is a gift.
“In the long run either Our Father [the devil] or the Enemy [God] will say ‘Mine’ of each thing that exists, and specially of each man. They will find out in the end, never fear, to whom their time, their souls, and their bodies really belong – certainly not to them, whatever happens. At present the Enemy says ‘Mine’ of everything on the pedantic, legalistic ground that He made it: Our Father hopes in the end to say ‘Mine’ of all things on the more realistic and dynamic ground of conquest.”
The point, exactly?
As human beings, we naturally dislike arrogance. I wouldn’t be surprised if we were hardwired to detect it. But if you already know everything, then there’s no motivation to act differently, a risky stance to take in this ever-changing world.
Arrogance greases the two paths to hell presented in The Screwtape Letters. The first, outlined by the Stream of Senses and Self-Reflection, is what most people fall into – they miss the point. They were given a gift and failed to put it to Good use. A “life of quiet desperation” type existence elaborated upon in Screwtape Proposes a Toast.
If there’s a silver lining, at least these people aren’t actively seeking to make the world a worse place – rather, they’re followers of the second group, who are explicitly evil and wish to make the world their own.
As with anything it starts small. If you’re arrogant then you’ll think you’re constantly surround by stupid, bad people who ruin everything, and if you’re constantly surrounded by stupid bad people, resentment is right around the corner. Fuse that with a conviction of rightful ownership, you better believe that person will take advantage the second an opportunity presents itself.
Ownership is the kicker.
Because when you have a claim to life you’ve tacitly given yourself permission to impose your will on others. You might even convince yourself it’s for their own good.
Terrible – terrible – acts started with, “I know better than you…”