Screwtape on Pleasure

A former student of mine, now teaching seniors in a public high school, told me that she briefly reads out loud each day. One book she read was C. S. Lewis’s saga of the devil’s mind, The Screwtape Letters. I knew that I had a copy, but I had only read parts of it, so I decided to imitate by reading a daily chapter.

I earlier recalled Screwtape’s advice to Wormwood, a minor devil assigned to keep a young atheist corrupted. Screwtape told him to watch his reading, for “the young atheist cannot be too careful of the books he reads.” Every time I think of that passage, I laugh. Atheists have to be careful lest their open minds corrupt their closed doctrine. Lewis himself is a dangerous read for an atheist; so is Chesterton. Catholics don’t usually have the reverse problem. We like to read the atheists to brush up on our logic with their frequent lack of it.

In the Ninth Letter, Screwtape advises Wormwood about how a devil ought (or ought not) to handle pleasure. The classic discussion of pleasure is in Aristotle. Basically, he tells us that every human activity, including thinking, has its own proper pleasure. Pleasure is intrinsic to the act in which it occurs, the pleasure of seeing or smelling. We would want to see or smell even if no pleasure went along with it. The rightness or wrongness of pleasure depends on the rightness or wrongness of the act in which it occurs. The pleasure, as such, is always good, part of the good of creation itself.

Thus, when we do something for the pleasure in the act instead of the intrinsic purpose of the act (its own end), we shift our attention away from what is really going on. In effect, we choose to make pleasure our immediate end, not the act’s end in which it occurs. This is as true when we drink beer as if it is not also a food or use contraceptives to “enjoy” the pleasure of sex but ignore the act’s own inner purpose.

Just how we manage to do these things is also found in Aristotle. Basically, we use our will to select what we want to do. We suppress a consideration of what the act is about to focus on its pleasure. Then we give a thousand “reasons” why it is all right to do so.

With such background in mind, Screwtape explains to Wormwood why even the devils have to be careful with pleasure. It is much trickier than they realize. The devil is initially in the business not of eradicating pleasure, but of skewering or diminishing it, changing its meaning, isolating it so that, as Aristotle stated, it cannot “blossom” to enhance the normal act for which it is designed.

So Screwtape first advises Wormwood: “Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground.” (The Enemy here is God; “we” are the devils.) This is Genesis! Devils can sometimes tell the truth. The fact is — and this bothers them — normal pleasure is God-given. This is “mere Christianity,” to use Lewis’s phrase. The devils know their catechism.

Screwtape admits that the devils manage to win many souls over with the pleasure tactic. Still, “He [God] invented it.” By themselves, devils have not managed to produce a single pleasure. What the devils can do — and this is Screwtape’s advice — is to take those pleasures that “the Enemy [God] has forbidden” (i.e., the Commandments) in the wrong ways, at the wrong times, or in the wrong degrees.

Thus, the devils “always try to work away from natural conditions of any pleasure, to that in which it is less natural, less redolent of its Maker, and least pleasurable.” What an extraordinary sentence! That sentence alone exposes the folly of most of our favorite sins. And, on top of it all, every mis-location of pleasure ends up being precisely “less pleasurable.” This ironic insight is simply the empirical experience of most people, if they would but admit it.

So what Screwtape concludes, rather philosophically, is this: “An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula.” The decrease in pleasure is proportion to the deviation of the act from its natural purpose. To accomplish this little deception is, in the devil’s view, “better style.” The word “style” is in italics in Lewis. How perfect — the “style” pages!

The great diabolic ambition is “to get a man’s soul and give him nothing in return.” Screwtape claims this latter feat “gladdens Our Father’s [Satan’s] heart.” What a perfect ending! The logic of the improper use of pleasure is, finally, no pleasure at all. This too is the modern world.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His newest books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His most recent books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017) and The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018).

  • Dan Deeny

    Excellent article. Now, please write one on Beauty. How does it differ from Glamour, for instance?

  • Katie

    Great article. Such a great book, and so well applied to many of the problems of our age!

  • John O’Brien

    What a good reminder to pull Screwtape off the shelf for another go. John Cleese (Monty Python) does a wonderful reading of Screwtape.

  • Seth Woolwine

    The Devil is a gentleman, and asks you down to stay
    At his little place at What’sitsname (it isn’t far away).
    They say the sport is splendid; there is always something new,
    And fairy scenes, and fearful feats that none but he can do;
    He can shoot the feathered cherubs if they fly on the estate,
    Or fish for Father Neptune with the mermaids for a bait;
    He scaled amid the staggering stars that precipice, the sky,
    And blew his trumpet above heaven, and got by mastery
    The starry crown of God Himself, and shoved it on the shelf;
    But the Devil is a gentleman, and doesn’t brag himself.

    O blind your eyes and break your heart and hack your hand away,
    And lose your love and shave your head; but do not go to stay
    At the little place in What’sitsname where folks are rich and clever;
    The golden and the goodly house, where things grow worse for ever;
    There are things you need not know of, though you live and die in vain,
    There are souls more sick of pleasure than you are sick of pain;
    There is a game of April Fool that’s played behind its door,
    Where the fool remains for ever and the April comes no more,
    Where the splendour of the daylight grows drearier than the dark,
    And life droops like a vulture that once was such a lark:
    And that is the Blue Devil that once was the Blue Bird;
    For the Devil is a gentleman, and doesn’t keep his word.

  • M&M

    “We like to read the atheists to brush up on our logic with their frequent lack of it.”
    I really love the arrogance. What atheists have you read? William Rowe? Graham Oppy? J.H. Sobel? Nicholas Everitt? Michael Martin? Or did you mean Richard Dawkins? That seems more likely. Unless you have read some of the atheists on my list I don’t think you are in a postion to say that we need to be careful about what books we read. Before you ask, I haven’t read Chesterton(but I will now), but I can tell you that C.S. Lewis is a prime example of how not to argue for Christianity. There is a reason that almost no one in Philosophy of Religon brings up his arguments. They are terrible.

  • UltraMontane

    I agree, being well-educated in theology, psychology, philosophy and logic in general, gives one a freedom to read whatever one wishes, and not fear the sophistry of atheists. I find most “lay” atheists very insecure in their stance, and therefore having to resort to hatred rather than indifference against religion, particularly Catholicism. The above comments highlight a few atheistic authors that I have not heard, but I have read numerous others, other than the prominent neo-atheists, and they are nothing to fear. Most atheistic arguments could have been advanced centuries ago, and very well have been. The only ones worth reading of this century that I have encountered would be Bertrand Russell and Theodore Dalrymple (a conservative author, not an atheist propagandist). I guess it doesn’t hurt reading well-written skeptics, since even those with wrong premises can reach truth in certain matters. Also, it gives you questions to deepen your faith. What sparked my interest in Catholic theology was encountering an adamant atheist when I was young, and his questions led me to deeper investigate the reasons why I hold my beliefs. The questions they pose can deepen your faith if approached correctly, after all, truth has nothing to fear from science or philosophy, since truth cannot contradict truth, it is only contradict if one has incorrect or incomplete knowledge, an inappropriate use of logic and reason, or an erroneous perspective and interpretation of the information, that one is led into error. But more importantly for many of us, what one wishes to believe, the emotional reasons, cloud most people from reaching truth, not any less those that claim exclusivity of reason.
    “Reason and Faith are like two wings by which humans can contemplate Truth – Pope John Paul II

  • M&M

    “The questions they pose can deepen your faith if approached correctly, after all, truth has nothing to fear from science or philosophy, since truth cannot contradict truth, it is only contradict if one has incorrect or incomplete knowledge, an inappropriate use of logic and reason, or an erroneous perspective and interpretation of the information, that one is led into error.”

    To my mind that seems like the wrong way to approach beliefs. You should evaluate your beliefs as if you were an outsider. It seems obvious that if you are working under the assumption that your beliefs cannot be disproven that you will never change your beliefs. The problem is that this works for anything. Would you accept what you wrote from a Hindu, Muslim, protestant, or atheist? I think not. I would suggest that you always evaluate your beliefs skeptically and as an outsider. I mean if your religion is true then there is nothing to fear right? All of your beliefs should be vindicated by the evidence. Also, I feel very disheartened when people, like the author of this article, try to make the case that atheists are only atheists because they haven