The ScrewTape Letters by C. S. Lewis: A Commentary, part 4

Literary sources for The Screwtape Letters

        This is part 4 in a series of blog posts that is dedicated to The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. To see part 1, click here; to see part 2, click here; to see part 3, click here. In part 1 we introduced the Screwtape Letters and provided a brief outline of the book. In part 2 we began an analysis of the literary sources that inspired the Screwtape Letters. The two most obvious literary sources for The Screwtape Letters are (1) the biblical teachings on angels, demons, and sin, and (2) John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In this section on the literary sources of the Letters we are considering, first of all, how these two primary sources have inspired Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, and we will then go on to point out some of the other sources that are referred to (and sometimes quoted) in the Screwtape Letters. In part 2 we considered the biblical inspiration behind the Screwtape Letters, and in part 3 we looked at the influence of Milton's Paradise Lost. Today, in this blog post, we will look at a number of other influences, and references to other literature, that can be seen in the ScrewTape Letters (I would love to look at the influence of Dante's Inferno, but circumstances keep me from pursuing this avenue for the time being. Hopefully circumstances will change in the near future.).

Other References in the Screwtape Letters

            Lewis was a prolific reader of all kinds of books, and an expert in ancient, medieval, and renaissance literature. It is, I think, wishful thinking to attempt to note every single allusion to an author, reference to an author, or citation of an author, even in this short book. So, in the rest of this section we will just note some of the more obvious references to other authors and literature.

            In the second letter Lewis mentions the nursery book, Stories from the Odyssey by Jeanie Lang,[1] which is an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey for children. In the fourth letter Lewis has Screwtape quote Samuel Taylor Coleridge, from the Pains of Sleep, to the effect that “he did not pray ‘with moving lips and bended knees’ but merely ‘composed his spirit to love’ and indulged ‘a sense of supplication’.”[2] This quote comes from the very first stanza of Coleridge’s poem, where he says,

Here on my bed my limbs I lay,
It hath not been my use to pray
With moving lips or bended knees ;
But silently, by slow degrees,
My spirit I to Love compose,
In humble trust mine eye-lids close,
With reverential resignation,
No wish conceived, no thought exprest,
Only a sense of supplication ;
A sense o'er all my soul imprest
That I am weak, yet not unblest,
Since in me, round me, everywhere
Eternal strength and wisdom are.[3]

            This poem of Coleridge is presented, by C. S. Lewis, as a type of prayer that won’t bring anyone closer to God. Later in the same letter Screwtape tells the younger demon to keep his subject from praying “Not to what I think thou art but to what thou knowest thyself to be.”[4] This is, most likely, an adaptation of some lines in the opening paragraph of Augustine’s Confessions, though there are similar thoughts in the first chapter of Anselm’s Proslogion. Either way, both of these great books are written as prayers to God, and both of these great authors talk about how great God is, and how much he transcends their weak ideas of Him. This is, surely, the inspiration for the quote above.

            In the first paragraph of the seventh letter Lewis has Screwtape refer to what he calls “Life Force”. This might not mean much to people today, but, in the late 1800s and early 1900s a philosophy began to gain popularity whose distinguishing feature was its reference to the Life Force. We see Life Force philosophy in George Bernard Shaw, as well as in Henri Bergson, both of whom Lewis was quite familiar with.

            At the end of the twelfth letter we find a quote from The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England, “without whom Nothing is strong”.[5] The quote is specifically from the prayer that is to be said on the fourth Sunday after Trinity. The prayer reads, “O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy”.[6] In the thirteenth letter Lewis mentions Childe Harold and Werther as being “submerged in self-pity for imaginary distresses.”[7] Childe Harold is a reference to a four-part narrative poem, written in the 1800s by the Lord Byron, called Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Werther is a reference to The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. At the end of the thirteenth letter we find a quote from Joseph Butler’s The Analogy of Religion, pt. 1, chapter 5, section 2, “Active habits are strengthened by repetition but passive ones are weakened.”[8] When we look at what Butler actually says, we find that Lewis has adapted it for his purposes. Here is Butler’s actual statement, “And from these two observations together—that practical habits are formed and strengthened by repeated acts, and that passive impressions grow weaker by being repeated upon us — it must follow that active habits may be gradually forming and strengthening by a course of acting upon such and such motives and excitements, whilst these motives and excitements themselves are, by proportionable degrees, growing less sensible.”[9]

            Near the end of the 16th letter Screwtape mentions Jacques Maritain, a well-known Thomistic philosopher and theologian of the Catholic church; Thomas Hooker, a well-known puritan theologian; and Thomas Aquinas. These people are mentioned by Lewis, in the hand of Screwtape, to point out that most of the people who actually engage in theological debates about their theological differences aren’t able to explain the positions that Hooker or Aquinas actually held.[10]

            In the twenty-second letter we find the following quote which is said to be a human author’s description of heaven, “the regions where there is only life and therefore all that is not music is silence”.[11] This description comes from one of Lewis’s favourite authors, George Macdonald. It is found in Macdonald’s sermon, “The Hands of the Father”, which is published in the book Unspoken Sermons. In the final paragraph of the sermon, Macdonald says, “Nor shall we ever know that repose in the Father's hands, that rest of the Holy Sepulchre, which the Lord knew when the agony of death was over, when the storm of the world died away behind his retiring spirit, and he entered the regions where there is only life, and therefore all that is not music is silence, (for all noise comes of the conflict of Life and Death)—we shall never be able, I say, to rest in the bosom of the Father, till the fatherhood is fully revealed to us in the love of the brothers.”[12] We have already noted, above, the reference to Milton’s Paradise Lost, but we did not mention the reference to the Life Force philosophy of George Bernard Shaw.[13]

            C. S. Lewis takes Reinhold Niebhur to court in the last couple lines of the twenty-third letter when he has Screwtape note “Only today I have found a passage in a Christian writer where he recommends his own version of Christianity on the ground that ‘only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilisations’. You see the little rift? ‘Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.’”[14] In this case, the other reason that is provided by the Christian writer—Reinhold Neibhur—quoted is, that this particular kind of Christianity will outlast dying cultures and civilizations. It has nothing to do with whether or not it is true, but, rather, with how durable it is. The quote from Reinhold Neibhur comes from his Interpretation of Christian Ethics.

            C. S. Lewis has Screwtape complain, in the twenty-seventh letter, about a certain Boethius may have “let this secret out”—the secret that “the Enemy does not foresee the humans making their free contributions in a future, but sees them doing so in His unbounded Now. And obviously to watch a man doing something is not to make him to it.”[15] There are two things that we might note here. First of all, this approach to divine foreknowledge and human freedom is the classical position held by the great Theologians such as Boethius, Augustine, and Aquinas. Secondly, Lewis is most likely referring to The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, where Boethius considers many questions of this nature. The last line of this letter, “the most ignorant mechanic who holds that ‘history is bunk’”, is a reference to Henry Ford who is reputed as having coined this phrase in 1916, when he said, “History is more or less bunk.”[16]

            At the end of the 28th letter Screwtape says, “A great human philosopher nearly let our secret out when he said that where Virtue is concerned ‘Experience is the mother of illusion’.”[17] This is a reference to Immanuel Kant, who says essentially the same thing in his Critique of Pure Reason.

            These are the primary, and most explicit, references to other literary works that can be found in the Screwtape Letters. There may be more, but we will leave it at that for now. It is already quite impressive to note the number of sources that Lewis used in the writing of these letters. Let us look, now, at some of the key themes that Lewis covers in this short work.

Go to part 5.

[1]Jeanie Lang, Stories from the Odyssey (London: T.C. & E.C. Jack, c.1930).

[2]Lewis, TSL, 25.

[3]Samuel T. Coleridge, “The Pains of Sleep”, in Christabel and the Lyrical and Imaginative Poems of S. T. Coleridge, ed. Algernon Charles Swinburne (London: Sampson Low, Son, and Marston, 1869), 49.

[4]Lewis, TSL, 27.

[5]Ibid., 64.

[6]The Book of Common Prayer (New York: New York Bible and Common Prayer Book Society, 1841), 84.

[7]Lewis, TSL, 67.

[8]Ibid., 70.

[9]Joseph Butler, The Analogy of Religion (1906; repr., London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1927), 66.

[10]Lewis, TSL, 84.

[11]Ibid., 113.

[12]George Macdonald, “The Hands of the Father”, in Unspoken Sermons (London: Alexander Strahan, 1867), 187-188.

[13]Lewis, TSL, 115.

[14]Ibid., 120.

[15]Ibid., 139.

[16]Jessica Swigger, “History is Bunk”: Historical Memories at Henry Ford’s Greenville Village, PhD. Dissertation (Austin, TX: University of Texas at Austin, 2008), 1.

[17]Lewis, TSL, 144.

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