Reflections: Bureaucratic Hell

C.S. Lewis’s best-known books is a fictional book called The Screwtape Letters. It's a series of letters, from a senior devil to his nephew on how to tempt an ordinary human. The following are some excerpts from the same book, which explain why C.S. Lewis chose beaurcracy as a symbol for hell.

We must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment. This, to begin with. For the rest, my own choice of symbols depended, I suppose, on temperament and on the age.

I like bats much better than bureaucrats. I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern.

Milton has told us that “devil with devil damned Firm concord holds.” But how? Certainly not by friendship. A being which can still love is not yet a devil. Here again my symbol seemed to me useful. It enabled me, by earthly parallels, to picture an official society held together entirely by fear and greed. On the surface, manners are normally suave. Rudeness to one’s superiors would obviously be suicidal; rudeness to one’s equals might put them on their guard before you were ready to spring your mine. For of course “Dog eat dog” is the principle of the whole organization. Everyone wishes everyone else’s discrediting, demotion, and ruin; everyone is an expert in the confidential report, the pretended alliance, the stab in the back. Over all this their good manners, their expressions of grave respect, their “tributes” to one another’s invaluable services form a thin crust. Every now and then it gets punctured, and the scalding lava of their hatred spurts out. 2


Reflections: Bureaucratic Hell - C.S. Lewis Institute
One of C.S. Lewis’s best-known books is the fictional The Screwtape Letters, a series of letters, on how to tempt an ordinary human.