January 9, 2013

Screwtape and The Historical Point of View


(Photo source:Horizon Research Institute)

By Nathaniel Torrey

In C.S. Lewis’ classic epistolary novel, The Screwtape Letters, the elder devil Screwtape counsels his young nephew on how best to lure a young man away from God and securely into Hell. One of the techniques he suggests to Wormwood is inculcating what Screwtape calls “The Historical Point of View.” He writes:

“The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how the far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (specially by the learned man’s own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the ‘present state of the question.”[i]

The crux of “The Historical Point of View” is that to understand anything essentially, you must know when and where it happened. Also, because this is not readily accessible to everyone, one must defer to experts on when and where things happened. For anyone “to regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge—to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behavior,” Screwtape writes,”—this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded.”

Instead of asking ourselves whether Aristotle, Shakespeare, St. Paul, or Tolstoy could be saying anything that could be relevant to readers nowadays, the reader with “The Historical Point of View” asks “What was going outside the author’s window that would have made him write this?” He does not ask, “What is this author saying about living a good life?” because there is no good life that transcends particular times and places. From “The Historical Point of View” we can only learn about the good life of a Greek aristocrat, an Englishman, a former persecutor of Jews, or a Russian landowner. Those people can never have anything to say about the life of someone in the 21st century.

Thinking this way makes impossible an understanding of what a life worth living is independent of time and place. Reading old books cannot even rise to the level of a mere corrective for a particular age’s vices. There is no unity or essential part that we could call human throughout all the times and places; man is merely a lump sum of the events of his time. This is precisely the attitude Screwtape hopes to instill in human beings since it truncates the possibility of imparting wisdom from one age to the next. He writes:

“And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is most important thus to cut every generation off from all others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another.” [ii]

The diabolical battle plan as described by Screwtape is to surround and cut off each generation from the previous one, making each author irrelevant and dated for the generations to come. As far as Christian salvation is concerned, it is precisely old books, namely the Bible but also other theological writings, that foster and cultivate faith. When a reader dismisses St. Paul or St. Augustine as being a prude or hung up on sexuality because of when and where he lived, the reader misses out on an opportunity to take either of their claims about the human condition soberly and seriously. Before any claim can be said to be “true” from “The Historical Point of View” it must undergo a series of forensic analyses and background checks. By that the time, the author has been so emasculated that his views pose no threat to whatever the reader already thinks is right. Examining things “historically” just becomes an excuse to continue to believe what he already did. Reading becomes an exercise in self-congratulation on how far we’ve come as a species; the reader can rest assured that “progress” is taking care of everything.

A serious reader should not be so naïve as to think his own age, equally determined by outside forces according to “The Historical Point of View,” is the first to see things clearly. Nor does he have to be so curmudgeonly as to say that the only good books are old. The fact that the books are old is not in and of itself important. What is important is a thirst for the truth. Fortunately for us, there are many ancient and salubrious springs in dusty, old books.


[i] Lewis, Clives Staples. 2001. The Screwtape Letters. HarperCollins. Pg.150-151.

[ii] Pg.151


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  • http://cpmoellering.wordpress.com Chris Moellering

    Yes and amen.

    “Nor does he have to be so curmudgeonly as to say that the only good books are old.” Maybe….but that is my default setting. ;-)

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  • http://etzeichen.wordpress.com Rastko Koschka

    This is a fantastic reminder of a great read. I’m very interested in theories of history as they relate to the individual. The historical human being is situated (that is, in time/space) & wouldn’t it just be the work of a devil like Screwtape to keep him there tied to the chains of time! For Lewis, religion is the infinite — that thing beyond timelines that has neither a future nor a past. Although we as readers (& sublunary beings) have to access it through the particular, there is a great deal of the universal to be found in books, it’s true.
    ‘Philosophical Fragments’ by Kierkegaard may interest you; it has a philosophical explanation of the division between historical & ahistorical & interestingly argues that no matter where you belong in a timeline you are in an equally good position to read any text — even as much so as contemporaries. This tries to undermine ‘The Historical Point of View’.