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The Inner Ring – What CS Lewis Thinks

I’m going to write a little bit about CS Lewis’s “The Inner Ring”, but, before I do, I wanted to write a post summarizing what I think are the central parts of Lewis’s argument.  Of course, the speech is not long, so feel free to read the original!

Lewis argues that the desire to break into exclusive cliques – or “inner rings” – is a driving feature of the human psyche:

I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.

This urge is not merely dominant, but utterly controlling:

Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the first day on which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care. That will be the natural thing-the life that will come to you of its own accord. Any other kind of life, if you lead it, will be the result of conscious and continuous effort. If you do nothing about it, if you drift with the stream, you will in fact be an “inner ringer.”

Pursuing the Inner Ring is bad for at least two reasons.  First, it undermines your moral principles and makes you a scoundrel:

Over a drink, or a cup of coffee, disguised as triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still-just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naïf or a prig-the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand: something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about: but something, says your new friend, which “we”-and at the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure-something “we always do.”

And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world…. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.

Second, (and more tragically?), you will find no true satisfaction inside what you thought was the inner ring.  Its charm is exclusivity, a charm that dies with your inclusion:

As long as you are governed by that desire you will never get what you want. You are trying to peel an onion: if you succeed there will be nothing left. Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain.

This is surely very clear when you come to think of it. If you want to be made free of a certain circle for some wholesome reason-if, say, you want to join a musical society because you really like music-then there is a possibility of satisfaction. You may find yourself playing in a quartet and you may enjoy it. But if all you want is to be in the know, your pleasure will be short lived. The circle cannot have from within the charm it had from outside. By the very act of admitting you it has lost its magic.

Once the first novelty is worn off, the members of this circle will be no more interesting than your old friends. Why should they be? You were not looking for virtue or kindness or loyalty or humour or learning or wit or any of the things that can really be enjoyed. You merely wanted to be “in.” And that is a pleasure that cannot last. As soon as your new associates have been staled to you by custom, you will be looking for another Ring. The rainbow’s end will still be ahead of you. The old ring will now be only the drab background for your endeavor to enter the new one.

So how should you live?  Lewis does not reject the importance of friendship.  He admits that “it is (in itself) a good thing, that personal friendship should grow up between those who work together.”  But true friendship must be an organic byproduct of natural affections, not an artificial construct absent them:

And if in your spare time you consort simply with the people you like, you will again find that you have come unawares to a real inside: that you are indeed snug and safe at the centre of something which, seen from without, would look exactly like an Inner Ring. But the difference is that the secrecy is accidental, and its exclusiveness a by-product, and no one was led thither by the lure of the esoteric: for it is only four or five people who like one another meeting to do things that they like. This is friendship. Aristotle placed it among the virtues. It causes perhaps half of all the happiness in the world, and no Inner Ring can ever have it.

Thus, Lewis’s “The Inner Ring”, as best I can condense it.  Tomorrow or sometime next week, I’ll try to have my own thoughts up.

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