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three circles

By Diogenes (articles ) | Oct 31, 2006

Concerning Archbishop Gregory's reflections on what a treat it is to be Archbishop Gregory, and his election day advice squeezed-in among the 33 first-person pronouns, a priest friend comments:

The Archbishop identifies moral issues that are very easy to be courageous about because, in the end, they really hit very few people. How many Catholics in the Archdiocese of Atlanta have executed a condemned criminal? Paid out-of-pocket for a criminal's execution? Driven a daughter or girlfriend to execute a criminal?

Point taken. Those familiar with C.S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters (1942) may remember Screwtape's advice to the junior devil, who was trying maladroitly to damn the soul of one particular Englishman -- his "patient" -- by feeding the resentment of Germans current in the midst of the Second World War. If we replace, in the passage below, England's wartime antipathy toward Germany with contemporary American enthusiasm for capital punishment, we find Screwtape's analysis of wickedness is still timely ("the Enemy," in Screwtape's text, is He whom the rest of us call God):

As regards his more general attitude to the war, you must not rely too much on those feelings of hatred which the humans are so fond of discussing in Christian, or anti-Christian, periodicals. In his anguish, the patient can, of course, be encouraged to revenge himself by some vindictive feelings directed towards the German leaders, and that is good so far as it goes. But it is usually a sort of melodramatic or mythical hatred directed against imaginary scapegoats. He has never met these people in real life -- they are lay figures modelled on what he gets from newspapers. The results of such fanciful hatred are often most disappointing, and of all humans the English are in this respect the most deplorable milksops. They are creatures of that miserable sort who loudly proclaim that torture is too good for their enemies and then give tea and cigarettes to the first wounded German pilot who turns up at the back door.

Do what you will, there is going to be some benevolence, as well as some malice, in your patient's soul. The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbours whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary. There is no good at all in inflaming his hatred of Germans if, at the same time, a pernicious habit of charity is growing up between him and his mother, his employer, and the man he meets in the train. Think of your man as a series of concentric circles, his will being the innermost, his intellect coming next, and finally his fantasy. You can hardly hope, at once, to exclude from all the circles everything that smells of the Enemy: but you must keep on shoving all the virtues outward till they are finally located in the circle of fantasy, and all the desirable qualities inward into the Will.

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