In Chapter 25 of The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis describes a subtle, yet vulnerable, human dynamic the devil longs to exploit in order to trap his patient (i.e. the Christian man) into sin, and by doing so to cause division— division between the man and God, as well as division between man and his neighbor:
The use of Fashions in thought is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under.1Excerpt From: C. S. Lewis. “The Screwtape Letters.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-screwtape-letters/id360640935
In every generation, so it goes, the devil attempts to draw men’s attention away from those sinful dispositions that are real threats to their current culture. Satan does this first by focusing the cultural mood against a real vice— a vice, however, which is either not significantly present in the culture, or minimally presents no imminent danger to it. At the same time the devil works to tempt the culture to embrace a virtue that is very near to that vice which really does pose an imminent danger. In other words, the “shadow side” of a particular virtue being actively embraced by a society or nation in a particular cultural moment is what the devil wants to make “endemic” to that culture.
In Screwtape, written during WWII, Lewis does not have Screwtape specify which virtue of the day is in view for wartime Britain, and subsequently which vice (although Lewis provides a sustained attack against “Unselfishness” as a form of spiritual pride). It doesn’t really matter though, so long as whatever virtue is in view at any given cultural moment can be ultimately twisted into a widespread, societal vice. A vice that succeeds in tearing the culture apart, moving it from a higher form of human existence to a lower one. Screwtape suggests, therefore, that when a culture is really going in one direction, say giving itself over to Emotionalism, then this becomes the occasion for repeated warnings about being too rationalistic. On the flip side, when a culture has succumbed to a cold rationalism, it will be the emotions that are stigmatized, as if they might throw the nation into chaos. Either way, the real danger is never addressed, and a nation is left attempting to stem floodwaters with fire extinguishers:
The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under. Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later, when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed against the dangers of the mere ‘understanding’.2Excerpt From: C. S. Lewis. “The Screwtape Letters.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-screwtape-letters/id360640935
But, how might this dynamic be playing out today in light of our own societal upheaval? Was Lewis’ theory correct, and, if so, is the devil still up to his same, old tricks?
A Word on Virtue Theory
In classical virtue theory, which Lewis is clearly referencing in this chapter, there is always an extreme side to any virtue, as well as a deficit side. For example, the classical virtue of courage, or the habits and dispositions that engender it, taken to an extreme would transform courage into a vice—too much courage morphs into something like brazenness or lack of restraint. It becomes an attitude and a behavior marked by recklessness and audacity, not by true fortitude in the face of unwelcome danger. A soldier who constantly rushes off into battle out of pure lust, never reflecting to count the costs associated with the fight, is disposed quite differently from the one who counts the costs of war, recognizes the horror associated with those costs, yet still goes off to do his duty. The first is impetuous, the second is brave.
On the flip side, too little courage would be simple cowardice, or spinelessness. Cowardice is a deficiency of courage, just as wantonness its excess. The goal is to find the right balance, the middle ground that is the virtue itself.
Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics calls this the “golden mean,” suggesting there are vices that can appear virtuous, in that they shadow or mirror a particular virtue, but, in the end, they are neither righteous nor good, but unjust and cruel. The mean is always the goal for the man seeking to be good, and to be genuinely happy (eudaimonia). Further, this finding of the “mean” is itself a virtue— the virtue of prudence. For it is the prudential soul that carefully weighs, assesses, and evaluates all other moral virtues, taking into account the nature of those virtues, and the moral context in which they need to be realized. The one who exercises prudence, will exemplify the golden mean in his life.
Evaluating Today’s Cultural Virtue
Justice is one of the four cardinal virtues: Prudence, Temperance, Courage and Justice. Justice, according to Karen Swallow Prior (paraphrasing Aristotle) is “the morality of the community”.3 Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well. 70 For justice inherently has to do with the proper balancing and harmonization of social interactions. When well-adjusted souls operate in harmony together, there is justice in society. When malformed souls act discordantly toward one another, there is injustice in the community. Fairness is also a form of justice, one that alludes to the aesthetic quality that accompanies a right ordering of things. When things are rightly ordered there exists a symmetry, a beauty in the world that can be experienced, even sensibly. The image of a mother lovingly coddling her newborn is a classic image of a just relationship, one that has the right proportionality between the subjects involved. The image of a mother throwing her child into an alley dumpster does not. One is beautiful, the other grotesque. The justice or injustice of the act is what makes it appear either fair (aesthetically so), or ugly.
To say that the virtue being pursued in our current, American culture is Justice seems almost too easy and too obvious to state. But, sometimes things really do lie right before our eyes, or under our noses. For clearly if there is one virtue that is mentioned more often than any other in our culture today, it is not the virtues of Chastity or Temperance, but that of Justice. The fashionable outcry for social justice places the quest for the virtue Justice at the center of our cultural conversation. This point requires no further elucidation, as we are figuratively and literally inflamed, or “in flames,” over the need, want, and desire for Justice.
But, if Justice is the virtue that is in view, and if Lewis’ theory holds water, then what is the vice nearest to Justice that is the real threat to our nation? Where are we particularly vulnerable to the Devil’s plot to engender a particular vice, a sin, in society that will further lead us down the road of separation from God and each other?
The Shadow Side of Justice: Vengeance
While the Bible may warn mankind that “vengeance is [the Lords]” (Deut 32:35, 41; Isa 35:4) and that His day of vengeance is a sealed promise (Isa 34:8; Psalm 58:10), it is not always the case that human beings display the patience required to wait on divine rectification. As broken and sinful men work toward justice, the temptation for that pursuit to spill over into vengeance is always present, and vengeance just is justice in extremis. It is the excess that runs over.
Vengeance, furthermore, is at bottom fueled by anger, but an anger that rejects the reality of divine providence, and that seeks retribution on its own terms. It goes against the warning of the Apostle Paul to “be angry and do not sin.” Sinful anger, unrestrained by the Spirit of God in man, eventually degrades into bloodlust and violence of various forms and types. What starts out, for example, as a noble, gallic revolution against real human injustice (like gross economic disparity and starvation), turns into “The Terror,” an ecstatic frenzy of political violence— symbolized by the awful image of the guillotine and scores of disembodied heads. Dickens describes it this way:
The men were terrible, in the bloody-minded anger with which they looked from windows, caught up what arms they had, and came pouring down into the streets; but, the women were a sight to chill the boldest. From such household occupations as their bare poverty yielded, from their children, from their aged and their sick crouching on the bare ground famished and naked, they ran out with streaming hair, urging one another, and themselves, to madness with the wildest cries and actions.4 Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 206 quoted in Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well, 77.
As we begin to see more concrete examples of actual blood lust in our cultural pursuit of justice, we must pause and consider whether we have lost our way in the pursuit of the Good and the Beautiful. For if we are lost, and it seems like we are as blood lust targets even the innocent, then the Devil has achieved, or is achieving, his ultimate goal. As we see attacks on authority mount, and protests turn into para-military style operations, it cannot hurt to step back and recall those disembodied heads, or the millions of ‘cracked eggs” that went into making the Marxist-Leninist omelette.
However, the examples of physical violence in the name of social justice still seem fairly limited in intensity and scope, thank God. While we can extend acts of physical violence to include things like the tearing down of statues and damaging of property (for certainly they are that), there are still other kinds of violence that are not physical. Acts that, although not attacking the person bodily, nevertheless target her soul. These non-physical attacks are just as detrimental, sometimes more so, than the dull blows that land on heads, or hands, or feet. Thus, vengeance has many ways in which it can be carried out, and as such, so too has Satan many paths to carry out his plan of dividing and conquering the human man, and of robbing his cultural storehouse.
Forgotten Sins: Calumny and Detraction As Means of Vengeance
Calumny is an older word for what we might today call slander. At the heart of of any act of calumny is always a lie— a lie not meant to keep concealed a surprise birthday party, or to hide a family of Jews from a Nazi search party, but rather a lie told purely for the sake of ruining someone’s good name. Any lie told to destroy a reputation, usually the reputation of someone seen as a social rival, a political threat, or perhaps a former oppressor, is a calumnious one. To commit calumny is to sin against God and man (Exodus 20:16; 23:1 & 23:7), for to attack a man’s name is no less harmful to an image bearer of God than an attack on his body. The ruining of a life can occur just as effectively through a well-placed and infectious lie, as through a gunshot to the belly. In fact, a ruined name can endure long past the physical death of the one whose name was ruined, prolonging suffering for those family and friends left behind with a tainted legacy.
While we do see calumny on display in our culture, especially on our social media sites, and most egregiously in our political sphere and the major news media, there is yet another sin of vengeance even worse than calumny. For it is at least possible that a false accusation against a person can be publicly retracted, or shown to be false by a court of law, or otherwise undone in a forensic and visible manner. Much damage will already have occurred, but if a lie is exposed, there is at least hope that through much time and effort the falsely accused can restore their good name. Detraction, on the other hand, does not allow for this possibility. For unlike calumny, the sin of detraction does not involve a lie, it entails a truth.
Detraction is the intentional, yet unjustified exposure of another’s sins or moral failures for the sake of ruining that person’s good name. The detractor destroys his victim by exposing their “dark secret,” a secret, however, which is true. Because this sin inherently involves a truth, it is something that once committed is almost impossible to recover from. As one Catholic theologian put it, detraction is like throwing a bag of feathers into the wind— good luck trying to collect them back up again.
That is not to say that there are not warranted exposures of sinful acts or intentions. Detraction may not relate, for example, to the parish priest who upon hearing a confession of a serial rapist, goes off and tells the police about the confessor’s future intentions. While those special cases can still be tricky for the Catholic priest, a more common example of a warranted exposure of another person’s sins might be telling a trusted friend or pastor that one’s spouse is a heavy alcoholic who desperately is in need of intervention. Such examples are justified exposures of another’s moral failures.
However, there is a good reason why in grade school the nuns chastised us for being a “tattle tale,” even though we really were reporting the actual breaking of the rules by our 3rd-grade classmate. For, to expose the sins of someone unjustly, and for the purpose of ruining their name, is what is entailed by detraction. That children are susceptible to such wicked intentions is obvious, as we all desire to look better than our classmate, or our workmate, or perhaps even our spouse.
Consider then, for example, a husband who has once cheated on his wife many years ago. He has duly repented, his wife has forgiven him, and they have lived happily in that place of forgiveness for many years. However, now that same husband decides to run for a local public office, and his political rival gets wind of his sexual past. You get the picture. This case should illustrate the clear difference between a justified and an unjustified exposure of sin, which is not to say that every case has such clarity.
Detraction is the sin that our culture swims in today. We are up to our necks in the unwarranted and unjustified exposure of other people’s sins. We play off of it. We feed off it. We get our social media kicks off of it. We call it “shaming,” and its effect on our otherwise noble pursuit for justice is exactly what the Devil has had planned for us all along: for in shaming and detracting our neighbor, we commit a whole new kind of injustice. And in our pursuit to rectify old injustices, like racial injustice, we create a new kind of unjust society, a new kind of injustice that itself needs correction.
Finally, as we see detraction carried out even against figures no longer with us: presidents, pioneers, and even actual saints, figures who left a historical mark significant enough so as to be memorialized with statues or inscriptions, we must again pause and realize the self-destructive nature of this sin of detraction. For one thing we all know is this: once the statue of one sinner has been torn down and tossed into the dustbin of history, there is no end to the exposure of new sins, and thus no end to the tearing down, and the throwing away. But, that is not even the worst of it. For the one who tears down today, is also the one who will be torn down tomorrow. Today’s saint is tomorrow’s sinner, and apart from a genuine appeal to Him who was without sin, every sinner will indeed be torn down.
Calumny and detraction are both violations against justice. Ultimately, both reject the reality of that which is most fundamental, most central, to the Christian message: grace. As such they are representative of that vice closest to justice: vengeance. They are the most common means by which we take part in vengeance, and they are the means through which we become eternally separated from God, and from our neighbor.
Conclusion: Satan’s Vengeance
In an earlier part of The Screwtape Letters, Lewis imagines what Satan’s ultimate goal is, putting that desired goal in the mouth of Screwtape, “To get the man’s soul and give him nothing in return—that is what really gladdens Our Father’s heart.” The “Father” for Screwtape is of course the devil himself. For Satan to destroy the human man is to take his own vengeance on his Creator.
The kind of vengeance culture we are seeing in America today is part of the devil’s plan for humanity— to take from man everything, and give nothing in return. Satan would rejoice to see us doing this to each other– becoming his pawns, in his infernal game. The tools he is using are the sins of calumny and detraction; sins now so commonplace we fail to think about them, and can hardly name them. Yet, all the while we go about spending precious resources on more futile attempts to rectify what is ultimately a problem of the heart, not one of the color of the skin (which really is only so deep).
If we ask ourselves the honest question of whether or not the attempt at Justice we are seeing in our country today is bearing good fruit, is actually moving us to a more just society, we dare not be unaware of the vices that accompany this naturally good desire. It may be good to hope for the “better angels of our nature” to win out, but it would be foolish to deny that the “vicious devils of our hearts” are not always at work.