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.


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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