C.S. Lewis on the Historical Point of View

As Screwtape passes on his wisdom in how to keep people out of the Enemy’s camp (and thus away from Christianity), we find that one of the main tactics of the demon is ignorance. 

As always, the first step is to keep knowledge out of his mind.

For example, the Enemy (God) wants us to be concerned with eternity (thinking about Himself) and the Present, Wormwood is reminded that his chief task is keeping the patient distracted and focused elsewhere.

Our business is to get them away from the eternal, and from the Present. … [The Past] is of limited value, for they have some real knowledge of the past… It is far better to make them live in the Future. … [as] nearly all vices are rooted in the future.

Another tactic is to replace neutral words, describing reality or those things that the Enemy (God) would want us to do, with words that bring up negative images and emotions.

For the descriptive adjective ‘unchanged’ we have substituted the emotional adjective ‘stagnant’.


The tactics used by the demons is tailored to each time period so as to be most effective. In one letter, Screwtape explains:

Some ages are lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them yet faster asleep. Other ages … are unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame them.

The key is to work against each age’s vices and virtues so that they are least likely to end up in the Enemy’s camp.

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 …

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 mere ‘understanding’…

The demons are always wary of how they will tempt and distract a patient. The challenge is not to be too aggressive or overt in any approach so that in the end produce real knowledge in the person.

One of the greatest fears of the demon is that “meddlesome human writers” will let the  “secrets out”. This threat is most likely to be realized when people read “ancient books” (see some of Lewis’ thoughts on this here). As we have seen, every time period is different and must be handled accordingly.

we [demons] 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.

Unfortunately the demons are not as worried about this threat as they used to be.

Only the learned read old books and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so. We have done this by inculcating the Historical Point of View. 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 what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years … To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge – to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or behaviour – this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded.

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