We are looking in this special series at how to develop a persuasive argument for what we believe. The process is known as rhetoric.
CS Lewis is known as one of the great intellects and rhetoricians of the 20th century. We presented evidence for that claim in the first part of our series.
We have chosen to look at two of Lewis’ early writings to learn more about developing persuasive arguments. We begin with The Screwtape Letters.
The Screwtape Letters
We turn now to a book that started as a newspaper series during World War II. The Guardian newspaper was a religious weekly publication in England. The editors published Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters one letter at a time for 31 straight weeks in 1941. The letters became chapters when they were published as a book the next year (1942).
Let’s pause for a moment to revisit the process of developing an argument using the Canons of Rhetoric and see how well Lewis used that in The Screwtape Letters.
Five Canons of Rhetoric
Invention is the process of finding ways to persuade. Everyone who wants to persuade other people about something they think/believe will go through a rhetoric process. This is where we look for material, information, statistics, etc., that we’ll use in your presentation.
The next step in rhetoric is to determine the order in which you will present your argument, whether in writing or speech. This is the structure phase of building a persuasive argument. Outlining is a common way of arranging a paper or talk.
Style is the process of determine how you’ll present your persuasive argument. Stirring emotions will part of developing the style even as you focus on the logic of the argument. Drafting and rewriting are common ways of developing style for a paper or talk.
Memorizing a speech (or at least major points) is a good way to ensure you’ll present a complete argument. Being able to keep eye contact with your audience is also a great way to keep the persuasion process personal. If you’re writing a paper, being able to remember important things you’ve read or thought about the topic in the past helps bring the most powerful points to bear in your written persuasion.
Delivery is where you present your argument through speech or writing. This can include the choice of words, examples, voice strength, gestures, movement in front of the audience, etc.
Screwtape Letters Rhetoric
So, how did Lewis do “rhetorically” with The Screwtape Letters?
Let’s compare each of the “canons” with Lewis’ writings
Lewis was a master at finding ways to persuade people. Keep in mind that he had been a Christian for only ten years when he wrote The Screwtape Letters. Yet, he already had a strong idea about Christianity and how it worked and should work. Lewis used what he had learned during the process of converting from atheism to Christianity and reading the Bible along with a decade attending church and talking with other Christians about Christianity and various worldviews (e.g. J.R.R. Tolkien, Hugo Dysen).
Lewis was a professor at Oxford University (Magdalen College) prior to and during the time he wrote The Screwtape Letters. He authored several works prior to the Screwtape series including The Pilgrim’s Regress, Out of the Silent Planet, The Allegory of Love, Rehabilitations and other essays, The Personal Heresy, and The Problem of Pain.
Lewis reportedly came up with the idea of a senior demon mailing letters to his young nephew and protege. This meant inventing unique ways that demons would communicate with each other. The topics in the letters were those that people living in England in the early part of the 1940s would have certainly understood.
Was Lewis’ inventive technique persuasive? I believe it was. Millions of people have read The Screwtape Letters and many have given it high marks for both invention and persuasion.
“A masterpiece of satire, this classic has entertained and enlightened readers the world over with its sly and ironic portrayal of human life from the vantage point of Screwtape, a senior tempter in the service of “Our Father Below.” At once wildly comic, deadly serious, and strikingly original, C. S. Lewis gives us the correspondence of the worldly-wise old devil to his nephew Wormwood, a novice demon in charge of securing the damnation of an ordinary young man. The Screwtape Letters is the most engaging and humorous account of temptation—and triumph over it—ever written.” Goodreads Choice Awards
“The Screwtape Letters, published in 1942, is one of Lewis’s best-loved books–it is probably more widely read than any of his titles, with the exception of Mere Christianity and The Chronicles of Narnia. It might even be said that in certain respects it was the most important book he ever wrote, if only because it ‘made Lewis a household name,’ according to biographer A. N. Wilson. Would we know Lewis if he had never written Screwtape? Probably. But it’s a little like asking whether we’d know Shakespeare if he had never written Hamlet–removing it from his opus diminishes him. Anybody who has dipped into the book can sense its power. The concept of a devil writing letters to his subordinate is pure genius, and The Screwtape Letters if full of crackling-good prose.” National Review
Search for Screwtape Letters in Google and more than a million websites will be available for you to read more about how inventive and persuasive the book is and has been for many decades.
Lewis’ “arrangement” is in written form: first by way of a weekly series of columns in a newspaper and second through a book. The form Lewis chose is that of a letter-writing conversation between two demons. The arrangement is orderly and follows a logical process. Each letter (chapter) has its own theme and compares basic strategies of Satan and God. Lewis did not include the letters of the younger demon (Wormwood), but the older demon (Screwtape) referred to the points presented in his nephew’s letter.
Lewis communicated Christian truths through the lives of several literary characters:
- The Enemy (God)
- Our Father Below (Satan)
- Screwtape (older demon)
- Wormwood (younger demon)
- The Patient (the human assigned to Wormwood)
- The Woman (Christian and Patient’s love interest)
- Slumtrimpet (demon assigned to the Woman)
- The Patient’s Mother
- Glubose (demon in charge of patient’s mother)
- The Patient’s Worldly Friends
- The Vicar
- Slubgob (director of tempters’ training college)
- Toadpipe (Screwtape’s demon secretary)
These literary characters help Lewis develop a coherent argument for Christianity.
“Few people in 1947 were writing about demons and their ilk, and still fewer believed in them enough to bother speculating on this question: What if we could see what the temptation of our souls looks like through the eyes of the other side? In other words, what if we could interview a demon? That was Lewis’s premise for one of his most durably popular works, perhaps his single most popular work among non-Christian readers; in an ingenious preface, Lewis purports to be beneficiary of the intercepted correspondence of diabolical counsel from a senior devil to an apprentice devil.” CSLewis.com
Lewis stirred the emotions through the lives of his literary characters – what they thought, what they believed, what they did, how they acted and reacted. Lewis used “temptation” as a primary tool of demons with humans to present various concepts of how Christians live and should live.
“As an apologist for Christianity, Lewis’s used his imagination to seek fresh ways to communicate orthodox Christian faith. The idea for Screwtape actually occurred to him while he sat in church during a lackluster sermon (an experience with which many men and women might identify).
It is a classic reversal story—that is, it turns upside down our expectations and affiliations; for example, Satan is reverenced and referenced as “Our Father Below,” while Jesus is termed, simply, “the Enemy.” By turns comic, sobering, satirical, enlightening, and challenging, Screwtape prepares us to bolster and extend our faith in the face of opposition and deliberate sabotage.” CSLewis.com
Lewis demonstrated memory in at least two ways.
- Lewis wrote the Screwtape Letters over a period of many weeks, which necessitated remembering both what he wrote before and what he had intended to write next time. Keeping a consistent flow of thought and purpose when writing a series over a long period of time is challenging.
- Lewis was consistent in his characterization of Screwtape and what he knew about Wormwood’s process along the way.
“Screwtape’s timeless brilliance lies in depicting the everyday and showing how from a demonic point of view, the devotion and care Christians show to their fellow men and women, mirrors of the love God has shown to them, is unfathomable to the desperately lost and unreflectively wicked.” CSLewis.com
Lewis’ delivery was powerful in written form and it also translated well in speech. The book was adapted into a play many years after Lewis’ death and has also been recorded for personal listening by several companies.
“Perhaps the most enduring lesson to be learned from The Screwtape Letters is that diabolical lies can be resisted and refuted by steadfastly holding on to the truth of Who God is, and who we are in Him, and by being knowledgeable and vigilant to oppose the devil’s schemes, through prayer, Scripture, worship, and, most of all, the company we keep.” CSLewis.com
In the next part of our series about Rhetoric and C.S. Lewis we’ll look at Mere Christianity.
[Image credit: The Wade Center]