Screwtape and the Crooked Timber

The devil Screwtape, if you recall, concluded his last letter with a request that Ragwort write to him with his “thoughts on what we ought to do about the notion of ‘friendship’, that perversion of natural competition”. It seems Ragwort has risen to the challenge, and although as yet no copy of Ragwort’s letter has fallen into my hands I am able to reproduce for you here Screwtape’s response. Clearly Screwtape can barely stomach the meat of the conversation; equally clearly, Ragwort, despite his position on the diabolical fast-track down the Lowerarchies, still has much to learn from his wily old superior…

My dear Ragwort,

Of course the time of year (as they reckon it) had some bearing on my question. Good cheer? Peace on Earth and good will to all men? It is enough to make me vomit. The very words stink and scald. How revolting, how offensive, is the thought! It affronts all the austere majesty of Hell. That these creatures, these dust-made animals given spirit, should dare to love one another, should dare to love their Creator, should dare to be loved in return – it appals.

For love, as always, is at the root of our problem. It disconcerts even the greatest minds of our strategists. It is the supreme virtue, the thing that is most of the Enemy. No wonder it is so incomprehensible. The merest whiff of it leaves us reeling, nauseated. When Christ said that “where two or more are gathered in My name, there I am also” He knew His presence, His perfect love, casts out not just fear but us also. You know, from your own experience as a tempter, that a man loving God cannot love us as well. He is defended by his own fealty, and that fealty is returned to him by He whom he loves.

This is the model of friendship that is most dangerous to us. It is selfless, it is vulnerable, it gives without seeking recompense – and as such, it is all the more fulsomely rewarded. There are no chinks in its armour, no weaknesses for us to exploit. But fortunately, it is not nearly so common as the humans think or believe. Perfect love casts out fear: very well, what about imperfect love?

In some respects, imperfection is very much our stock-in-trade. We corrupt, we despoil, we erode and we distort. And we have so much material to work with: we, in our way, are carpenters of the crooked timber of humanity, ensuring no straight thing will be made. As part of our unceasing efforts, one of the things we must strive to ensure is that ‘friendship’ becomes self-serving, self-focused, self-oriented.

The crucial word is, as you can see, ‘self’. You are aware, no doubt, of our doctrine of the 3 Ages of Personhood: youth is self-obsessed; middle age is self-satisfied; old age is selfish. We encourage young people to behave as though they are the centre of the universe; we foster in the middle-aged the delusion that they possess all the answers (and terrify them with the suspicion that they might not); we instil in the aged the belief that tyranny, disguised as concern and excused as ‘just being how old people are’, is appropriate behaviour.

These attitudes, if carried over into interpersonal relationships, are poison. It is inevitable that some of them will be: human beings are incapable of divorcing themselves from their own concerns completely. However, if, in submission to the Enemy’s will, they suppress their inherent selfishness, and meet one another first and foremost with the other’s concerns in mind, then our position is, for the moment, untenable. This is fellowship, and it is something we cannot directly assault. It resists every attack we can mount upon it, because it is protected, jealously guarded, by the Enemy Himself.

The real problem we face with friendship and fellowship is not that they are virtues in and of themselves, but that they serve to encapsulate so many others. Friendship affords every person the opportunity to exercise grace, to exercise love, to exercise faith and kindness and patience and every other fruit of the spirit. A friend is someone you love, is someone before whom you place yourself as an equal, and is someone from whom you seek no selfish gain. There are no friends in Hell, Ragwort; there is no nonsense about the abrogation of the self. Here all is competition, all is exclusion, all is isolation. Hell is not other people: Hell is the human lack, the ultimate rejection, the excoriation of all compassion.

You know this already, of course. You want someday to ascend to my position, and I to my superiors’. It is all perfectly natural. You and I are not friends (the very thought revolts) but we are, at least, comrades, insofar as we share the common goal of securing the damnation of human souls. Human beings, on the other hand, have been afforded the opportunity to come alongside one another not simply because they share characteristics or objectives or even mere interests but because they share an essential humanity; being made in the Enemy’s image they have the capacity to love something other than themselves. And it is in friendship, more than any other kind of relationship (even eros is subordinate to agape), that that capacity for love is expressed.

It is best expressed in expenditure. I am not talking about money or material gifts – though, Hell knows, these offer priceless opportunities for corruption in their own right (which is why we ought to encourage an awareness of the financial dimension of a friendship if at all possible – how many marriages have had seeds of dissatisfaction sown in them due to inequalities of pay between the two spouses?). No, I mean rather that friendships cost those involved in them. They cost time. They cost effort. They represent an emotional investment. The Enemy makes no secret of it: “Rejoice with those who rejoice,” that abominable man Paul once wrote, “and mourn with those who mourn”. In the same letter – indeed, virtually in the same breath – he instructs the Christians to “practice hospitality” and “Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves.” It is this selflessness, this horrendous unselfishness, that so dismays our tempters. It represents a fundamental challenge to not merely our mode of operation but also our very essence of being. We are individuals forced through circumstance to ally ourselves with one another to secure a final victory: they are individuals who ally themselves with one another not necessarily to take power or emotional sustenance or to enlarge their egos but to support or care for or help one another. And they enjoy it! The little vermin actually derive pleasure from it!

The picture is a bleak one. It certainly horrifies those of us who see it. But it is not quite the complete picture, because we have developed tactics and strategies to alleviate the effectiveness of true friendship.

Pride is the most beautiful of the vices. It is the most corrosive and it is the most dangerous. It is the vice that opens the door to all the others. And nothing, nothing will demolish a friendship faster than pride entering into it, like a worm devouring an apple from the core outwards. And one particular route by which Pride might enter is Charity.

Charity, of course, is a virtue especially espoused at this time of year. The word is used to mean being benevolent to those less well off than oneself. This is useful to us as it immediately assumes that the charitable person is practicing their charity from a position of superiority. Very well: let us use this helpful little philological slip-up to wreck fellowship. You see, true charity comes not from superiority but from equality: charity ought to be a circle encompassing all believers, not a straight line devolving from the wealthiest / most theologically gifted / most intellectually advanced. Our charity creates a hierarchy and, within that linear structure, a series of cliques; the Enemy’s charity creates a community of believers all of whom draw strength from one another and the One whom they love. If we can invoke our charity in a friendship then we promote the relationship of superior and inferior, not the relationship of two friends who accept one another on equal terms. That done, the friendship – and the fellowship – will swiftly founder on the shoals of competition and envy. Fellowship works through the simultaneous adoption of humility – the idea that no one person is better than any other, though they may have gifts and abilities not available to everyone (the church worship group may be comprised of better musicians than the rest of the congregation, but it is not comprised of better people) – and honesty, the willingness both to be vulnerable in sharing one’s own weaknesses and to be tactful and courageous enough to support those whose weaknesses would undermine them (i.e., everyone). If we can encourage pride then by default we exclude humility; if we can encourage superiority then inevitably honesty will fall by the wayside, since no one who feels themselves superior will be willing to entertain any vulnerability that might demonstrate that their seeming superiority is based on false premises.

This Christmas, I hope you will instruct your underlings to pay particular attention to any patient whom they feel is in danger of becoming either honest or humble. The Enemy Himself is both these things – what was His incarnation, the beginning of which is the very focus of this festival, if not the ultimate expression of humility? – and so we must work to stamp them out wherever we find them in danger of flourishing. Pride, the humans say, goes before a fall. This Christmas, let us do what we can to knock the little wretches over.

I look forward to reading your subsequent report on the success of this campaign. But in the meantime, I remain, as ever,

Your fiend and mentor,


Wholly Dishonourable Under-Secretary for Inhuman Resources


About Gavin

I am a 32-year-old PhD student in Aberdeen, Scotland. I work in QC at an e-learning company. I'm originally Northern Irish, though I've lived here in Aberdeen for several years. I am, essentially, somebody who is very normal, yet to whom very strange things keep happening...
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4 Responses to Screwtape and the Crooked Timber

  1. Eruntane says:

    Screwtape, as a busy fiend, no doubt lacked sufficient time to discuss the very great work accomplished by the Lowerarchies over the past few decades, whereby the apogee of friendship has been presented as “being supportive”. The concept of supportiveness has then been twisted so that in the ear of the beholder it means constant affirmation. An inspired piece of carpentry, transforming friendship and fellowship into mere yes-man-ship. Let us hope that Ragwort misses its significance.

    (An interesting and not entirely unrelated aside: how odd it is that a common response these days to implied, perceived or openly expressed disapproval is “How dare you judge me?” Approval would never be met with such a response, and yet both approval and disapproval are arrived at by means of judgement.)

    • starlingford says:

      In relation to your aside – I have wondered about this myself, and have taken to saying (in the doom-laden tones of many a wizened old Calvanist) “Aye, it’s a judgement on them”, in response to news of unexpected *favour* falling upon friends and acquaintances. The momentary confusion the correlation of phrase and circumstance can cause is quite revelatory.

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