Next week, the nation’s leaders will head back to Westminster, to put the country back together again after lockdown. In preparation, we asked our contributors: what should be on the cabinet’s reading list? What book should our politicians bear in mind, in confronting the next term’s challenges? Niall Gooch recommends The Screwtape Letters, by C. S. Lewis.
C. S. Lewis’s clever, timeless book, The Screwtape Letters, is best known as a work of Christian devotion. This is unsurprising: its very conceit rather presumes the truth of Christianity. The book is a series of letters from a senior devil (the eponymous “Screwtape”) to a junior one (“Wormwood”), with instructions on how to corrupt the soul of a human being.
However, it is one of those texts that can profit almost any reader, because it is fundamentally about self-knowledge and examining one’s conscience. I once heard a Catholic priest say he was amazed that Lewis could write with such insight into human weakness and temptation despite having never heard a confession in his life.
Politicians need to learn the discipline of looking at themselves with an unflinching critical eye. So many of the incentives in politics push those in power towards sophistry and deceit, and habitual dishonesty towards others very often leads to self-deception. Or is it perhaps that lying to oneself is a necessary precondition of lying to others? Either way, I find it very hard to believe that any person with even a modicum of self-awareness, whatever their religious beliefs, could read Screwtape without wincing in recognition at least once or twice as Lewis identifies yet another way in which we behave badly or foolishly while convincing ourselves that we are doing nothing wrong.
As our political masters arrive back at their desks after the summer, they will have to start trying to decide what on Earth we do next. They will need prudence and courage and understanding. They will need to take unpopular decisions and face fierce criticism. They will need to be confident that they are genuinely acting for the public good rather than to enhance their own reputation or that of their party.
On the face of it, Screwtape is not about such matters. Many chapters deal with domestic themes, notably the unnamed human’s relations with his mother, and later with his girlfriend. There are some striking insights into the difficulties of harmonious living between different people in the same household, and into the bad habits which couples easily develop.
But there are some searing sections on what you might call sins of the intellect, which are a great trap for politicians. In an early chapter Screwtape instructs Wormwood to distort the thought processes of his subject, to encourage the man not to ask whether something is true, but to ask if it is “strong, or stark, or courageous.” In our age the equivalent would be to keep politicians’ mental focus not on whether some policy is right or necessary, but on whether it places them “on the right side of history”.
Several times, Lewis explores another human weakness against which politicians in particular must guard: sentimentality, that is, a preoccupation with the display of correct feelings instead of the carrying out of our moral duties. Screwtape often instructs Wormwood to keep his “patient” obsessed with his feelings rather than his conduct. For the modern government minister the lesson here is to be on guard against foregrounding your good intentions and your socially acceptable prejudices, rather than thinking about and publicly defending what is the right course of action.
I do not think there are many serious Christians in Boris Johnson’s Cabinet. But there are 22 human beings, with all the normal flaws and blindspots that human beings have. Few books would be as effective as The Screwtape Letters in helping them get to grips with those flaws and blindspots, as we look for a way out of this unprecedented crisis.