Lewis: The Equality-Pride Connection

After C. S. Lewis wrote his enormously popular Screwtape Letters, he often said he never wanted to go back to that style of writing, putting himself into the mindset of hell to explain heavenly things. But in 1959, sixteen years after Screwtape appeared in print in the US, he consented to pen an addendum of sorts to his famous book.

“Screwtape Proposes a Toast” was an article Lewis wrote for an American publication, the Saturday Evening Post. It took the form of an after-dinner speech by Screwtape to the Tempters’ Training College. It was just as witty and biting as the original.

The themes in the article showed up in earlier Lewis essays, particularly “Equality” and “Democratic Education,” but in an obviously different format. In one of the passages on equality, Lewis adds to what he said in the previous essay, illustrating that those who press the most for equality may actually have more pride than those we might suspect of that sin. Here’s how “Screwtape” puts it:

No man who says I’m as good as you believes it. He would not say it if he did.

The St. Bernard never says it to the toy dog, nor the scholar to the dunce, nor the employable to the bum, nor the pretty woman to the plain.

The claim to equality, outside the strictly political field, is made only by those who feel themselves to be in some way inferior. What it expresses is precisely the itching, smarting, writhing awareness of an inferiority which the patient refuses to accept.

And therefore resents. Yes, and therefore resents every kind of superiority in others; denigrates it; wishes its annihilation. Presently he suspects every mere difference of being a claim to superiority.

Do you see what Lewis has done here? Normally, we think those who have everything are the ones most infested with pride. And certainly there is the temptation to lord it over others if you are capable of doing things well—are “superior” in some way.

However, looking deeper, Lewis sees that those at the bottom—whether it be in the social scale, in economic terms, or just in outward appearance—may be the ones with the greater pride problem. They seek to drag others down to their level out of resentment and/or bitterness. “We deserve more,” they seem to be saying, and make their own claims to superiority. They do it, though, in the name of “equality,” thereby making it acceptable, for who doesn’t believe in equality, right?

As always, Lewis offers insights well worth pondering.

Lewis: False Equality

What could possibly be wrong with the concept of equality? C. S. Lewis shows us that it has its boundaries, and he also reveals its darker underside. Here are his thoughts, taken from two separate essays:

When equality is treated not as a medicine or a safety-gadget but as an ideal we begin to breed that stunted and envious sort of mind which hates all superiority. . . .

The demand for equality has two sources; one of them is among the noblest, the other the basest, of human emotions. The noble source is the desire for fair play. But the other source is the hatred of superiority. . . .

Equality . . . is a purely social conception. It applies to man as a political and economic animal. It has no place in the world of the mind. Beauty is not democratic; she reveals herself more to the few than to the many, more to the persistent and disciplined seekers than to the careless. Virtue is not democratic; she is achieved by those who pursue her more hotly than most men.

Truth is not democratic; she demands special talents and special industry in those to whom she gives her favours. Political democracy is doomed if it tries to extend its demand for equality into these higher spheres. Ethical, intellectual, or aesthetic democracy is death.