C.S. Lewis and the “Inner Ring”

In 1944 C.S. Lewis gave the Memorial Lecture to the young men of King’s College, London (read the whole of the lecture here). His title for the lecture was “The Inner Ring.” His goal was not to lecture about current events, facts, or philosophical ideals. Rather, he sought to give them advice into a well known reality in the world, one that each man and woman knows all too well, but few see for it what it is, and fewer still break free from its clutches. The reality, as Lewis names it, is that of “inner rings.”

Lewis defines the reality as following,

“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 the insiders and outsiders call it by different names. From inside it may be designated, in simple cases, by mere enumeration: it may be called “You and Tony and me.” When it is very secure and comparatively stable in membership it calls itself “we.” When it has to be expanded to meet a particular emergency it calls itself “all the sensible people at this place.” From outside, if you have dispaired [sic] of getting into it, you call it “That gang” or “they” or “So-and-so and his set” or “The Caucus” or “The Inner Ring.” If you are a candidate for admission you probably don’t call it anything. To discuss it with the other outsiders would make you feel outside yourself. And to mention talking to the man who is inside, and who may help you if this present conversation goes well, would be madness.”

In other words, the inner ring is the exclusive group that people outside are trying to get in to. They are everywhere. They are in our workplaces, our schools, our governments, and our churches. They are the unwritten hierarchies that claim to give those who are admitted a place, identity, and value.

We all know the draw of the “inner ring”. It is the group(s) of individuals that we aspire to be a part of. Not so much for the friendships that we think we will find therein, but rather for the value that we think we will find once admitted.

Lewis notes the insidious nature of the “inner ring” as it plays on the heart (not that the existence of such groups is evil in itself–for, they are morally neutral and must exist to some extent). He warns of the futility and the pain of giving our lives to pursuing acceptance into such exclusive, elite circles. He provides two powerful reasons that we should avoid such a desire, and a plea for freedom against such a draw within us.

The Power to Make us Immoral

The first problem with the desire to be a part of such groups is that such a desire often times causes us to do things against our values and ideals in order to find acceptance within them. Lewis notes,

“And the prophecy I make is this. To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colours. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear. 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.'”

What Lewis means here, is that the draw towards becoming a ‘scoundrel’ often comes with choices made to bend our values in order to become accepted within such inner rings. Lewis summarizes this point by saying,

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

A Fleeting Satisfaction

The second problem Lewis sees with the desire to gain admittance to such inner circles is that it is a desire that will never be satisfied. What happens once accepted? We quickly find that the people who we thought could give us identity, value, worth, acceptance, etc. do not have the power to do that–and that there is yet a further ‘inner ring’ to which we desire to be accepted.

Lewis’ analysis is powerful:

“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.”

In other words, the desire to find acceptance and identity from such groups will never be satisfied because there will always be other groups you are not a part of that you believe will provide you with such identity and value.

A Plea for Freedom

Lewis understands the need for freedom in the following assessment,

“Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain.”

He then pleas with the young men of King’s College to break the power of the desire to be found within the inner circles of the world before it breaks their hearts.

“The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it. But if you break it, a surprising result will follow.”

The Gospel and the Inner Ring

Lewis does not lay out the path to freedom in the lecture, though he alludes to it. Reading this lecture got me thinking about the power of the gospel in breaking us free from the power of this desire and allow us to live a different way.

By the free gift of God’s grace we are brought into his family, having peace and satisfaction in God, but also being allowed to live for others rather than for what they can give to us. In the family of God we have been given a place, identity, and eternal value apart from anything in ourselves. Now, in the place of acceptance we can give of ourselves to others–not in order to receive worth, identity, and value, but rather to give of the love that we have been graciously given in Christ Jesus.

I am reminded of a fitting teaching that Jesus gave his disciples to live in a way counter to the prevailing inner ring culture that defines the power systems of this present evil age:

“When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14:12-14)

To God be the glory,


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