Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Screwtape Letters: Flippancy

I have begun reading The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis, and I have found it to be incredibly insightful. One chapter in particular has resonated strongly with me because it reminds me of many encounters I have had while travelling the tubes of the internets. Rather than try to summarize the chapter and most likely fail to relay its message, I will copy one of its paragraphs which does a pretty good job of getting the point across:

But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy; it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it.


Ashlee said...

sounds like an interesting book. I'll have to find a copy and give it a go.

Anonymous said...

So, traditonal forms of communications have not seemed to GRASP your attention, so Stephen suggested replying to your blog and then you might respond! :o) From two recent postings, I see that you are still alive and kicking! How's everything else? Kids, house, job, wife, allergies, movement of the sun around the earth? Just the basics! :o)

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

Cameron, the problem with Lewis' discussion of flippancy here is that he was a humorless man who, unlike St. Thomas Aquinas, did not treat risibility as a uniquely human attribute. Rather, like many Brits of his class and status and era, he saw humor as a way of avoiding things like duty, dessert, etc.

What Lewis understood as flippancy is a tendency to not take oneself so seriously. I for one use humor to make sure everyone knows that, no matter how serious the topic, I do not for one moment believe that I have the final answer, or even any of the intervening ones. I take important questions in dead earnest. I do not take myself seriously at all, however.

I can laugh at virtue because yesterday's virtue is today's sitcom setup. I can laugh at vice because I see myself in all those people who have fallen short. The human condition can render us both depressed beyond imagining or so tickled at our own presumptuousness and hubris that laughing might just be a way of providing commentary.

Cameron said...


I never had the priviledge of meeting Mr. Lewis, so I can't vouch for his sense of humor. However, The Screwtape Letters is hardly humorless; it is satire. In the forward to the edition I am reading, Mr. Lewis makes several self-deprecating remarks about his book being a favorite in hotel bookshelves.

So I don't think CS Lewis was as you describe.

Indeed, through reading the rest of this particular chapter, one finds that he understands the true meaning of flippancy. Lewis is not advocating a "humorless" lifestyle at all.

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

The Screwtape Letters is indeed satire. Satire and humor, however, are two different things. Several biographies and personal reminiscences of Lewis all confirm that he was, in the main, a humorless man, distant, haughty, and one who did not suffer fools gladly. Alas and alack, those who do not suffer fools tend, in my experience, to be fools themselves.

I never said that Lewis didn't understand humor, or couldn't use humor. I said that he was a humorless individual. In his personal philosophy - and one need only read his apologetic writings to get the sense of what kind of man he was, apart from bios, etc. - he just did not see humor as something becoming a refined and dignified human being. It was something lower-class people indulged in, a kind of opium for the masses now that religion is declasse. This marks him as a supreme example of a man of his class and era. It also makes him a flawed character, to be pitied. One who thinks that flippancy is rooted in Satanic evil does not understand that, when confronted with the realities of our present world, choosing laughter is sometimes the only survival tool we have left.

TO be honest, I've never liked Lewis much. Not his writings. Not his apologetics. I just see little of redeeming value in him. Sorry.

Adam Graham said...

There's quite a bit redeeming about Lewis. I think the point of Flippancy is well-taken and what Lewis refers to as Flippancy is the attitude we see in those who will mock folks of Faith who refuse to partake in certain behaviors.

What he's referring to as Flippancy is the idea that things such as Chastity, Faith, Honesty, etc. are in themselves silly stupid, or the object of ridicule.

To me, Flippancy is scene in teasing the virgin, or the person whose such a goody too-shoes they won't cheat. It's that joke, that laughter that Lewis is referring to.

Not Taking yourself seriously is not the same thing as thinking that morality is itself merely a joke.

Cameron said...

Thanks Adam.

I would also point out that this chapter discusses how many people avoid talking or thinking about serious/important things through the use of flippancy. I have experienced this very thing, for example, as I have tried to have real discussions with folks about real things but I am met with sarcasm or a flippant joke. It is avoidance, plain and simple.

That, in my opinion, is what CS Lewis was writing about here.

Goat said...

If I understood the passage it has more to do with using flippant insultory humor as a cover for a lack of true intellect. Good post Cameron.