Screwtape in Late Antiquity

In a piece I wrote last summer for Ad Fontes, I quoted one of my favorite passages from The Screwtape Letters:

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 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”. Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritanism; and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make Liberalism the prime bogey.[1]

I then noted that Peter Brown, who largely deserves the credit for inventing the historical field of what we call Late Antiquity, said something very similar, apropos his own assessment of the late Roman elite:

In every age a governing class thinks of itself as suffering from besetting weaknesses that are the antithesis and, maybe, the unwitting product of its dominant virtues.[2]

As far as I follow him, Brown does not fully elaborate what means here by this aphoristic statement, though I have always been struck by its resonance with Lewis’s sentiment quoted above.

Reading through Brown’s new, massive autobiography, I now suspect he was at least partially channeling Screwtape, whether consciously or not. Brown, you see, encountered Lewis in the flesh at Oxford as an undergraduate, and the don plays the lead role for an entire chapter of the book. It seems Lewis left his mark on Brown, perhaps more through his writings than through the proximity at Oxford:

But I knew Lewis from his writings before I came to Oxford. My own relation to him was more inward-looking, less concerned with his feats as an apologist for Christianity than with his works of religious advice. In my gap year in Ireland, I had read The Screwtape Letters. With their fine-grained analysis of personal motivation (combined with a dash of waspish social satire directed against “worldly” snobs and groupies) they were a natural successor, in my readings, to The Imitation of Christ of Thomas à Kempis. Both books grew, ultimately, from the same deep root of Augustinian interiority that I would later come to know, though I had no inkling of it at that time. There was also a touch of the dour, Low Church Ulster Protestantism in Lewis the moralist’s impatience with highfalutin nonsense, and his insistence in calling a spade a spade, which I recognized and valued.[3]

Like Lewis himself, Brown also came from Irish Protestantism.

  1. C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 137–8
  2. Peter Brown, The Making of Late Antiquity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 40.
  3. Peter Brown, Journeys of the Mind: A Life in History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2023), 146.


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