Think about it: The Phenomenon of the Ring

“Of all the passions, the passion of the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.” — C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis was 65 years old when he died on Nov. 22, 1963, 55 minutes before President John F. Kennedy was shot. And though that was over 50 years ago, his influence continues as strong as ever through some of his well-known fiction books like “The Screwtape Letters,” “The Chronicles of Narnia,” and “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and his non-fiction books like “Mere Christianity,” “The Problem of Pain” and “The Weight of Glory.”

As a literary critic, lay theologian, novelist, poet, lecturer and academic, he also wrote thousands of letters to friends and acquaintances with personal advice. He always signed his letters by the name most of them called him, “yours, Jack.”

One of Lewis’ most famous essays was shared before the student body of Kings College, University of London, in 1944 that has been titled “The Inner Ring.” He began the lecture by reading a few lines from Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” in which Prince Andrey shifted his attention from an old general with whom he was speaking, to turn and speak to Boris Dubretskoi, a second lieutenant who had just entered the room. Lewis observed two sets of hierarchies in the room, i.e., the traditional military rank and one which was outside of that.

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Lewis went on to explain that at every social level there are certain “inner rings” which are often hardly noticeable but their lines reveal insiders and outsiders. You can find them in hospitals, universities, businesses, courts, schools, communities and just about everywhere organizations are found.

In his words, “There are no formal admissions or expulsions. People think they are in it after they have in fact been pushed out of it, or before they have been allowed in: this provides great amusement for those who are really inside. It has no fixed name. The only certain rule is that insiders and outsiders call it by different names.”

Lewis acknowledges that these “inner rings” are not in and of themselves evil. In fact, he says, “It is certainly unavoidable. There must be confidential discussions: and it is not only a bad thing, it is (in itself) a good thing that personal friendship should grow up between those who work together.”

But he does share this warning, “The desire which draws us into the inner ring is another matter. A thing may be morally neutral and yet the desire for that thing may be dangerous … My main purpose of this address is simply to convince you that this desire is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action.” And it is that quest to be an “inner ringer” which is “… most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”

According to Lewis, if we allow that artificial quest to take over our lives, we soon discover it cannot be resolved because once we are inside, “The circle cannot have from within the charm it had from the outside. By the very act of admitting you, it has lost its magic. Once the novelty has worn off, the members of this circle will be no more interesting than your old friends.”

Eventually, “the quest of the inner ring will break your hearts unless you break it.” Lewis does explain the unique associations that arise naturally from legitimate giftings and interests. They are substantive and like true friendship, they endure beyond a superficial effort to get into this ring or that one or the next one.

He closes with some sound advice: “To a young person, … the world seems full of ‘insides,’ full of delightful intimacies and confidentialities, and he desires to enter them. But if he follows that desire he will reach no ‘inside’ that is worth reaching.”

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is president emeritus of the University of Valley Forge, Phoenixville. Connect via dgmeyer@valleyforge.edu, Facebook.com/DrDonMeyer, www.DrDonMeyer.com, Twitter and Instagram: @DrDonMeyer.