Inner rings with CS Lewis
One of the biggest compliments anyone has ever paid me was to say my writing reminded them of CS Lewis. I’ve written before about he’s influenced me more than any other single writer, and I’d like to explore why through one of his most insightful essays.
It’s titled The Inner Ring and I first read it when I was 20. It came as part of a collection of essays which in turn came in a collection of books I got as a birthday present from my aunt who lived in the US.
I’d first read Lewis a few years earlier and he’d been part of my journey to an adult faith. For my big 2-0 I wanted to delve into more of his work, and Amazon wasn’t delivering to Nigeria at the time. It was those books that confirmed Lewis’ position, as the writer who has most influenced me.
The Inner Ring was a talk Lewis gave in 1944 to graduating students of Kings College London.
As with most speeches, Lewis wrote this talk before delivering it, which is why I call it an essay. It’s a reflection on inclusivity and exclusivity in the ways we self-organise that combines some of Lewis’ best thinking on friendship and power and showcases his keen understanding of human psychology and behaviour. It’s also a great example of what my writing teacher, David Perell, calls POP writing: writing that combines play, observation and personality.
The main thesis of The Inner Ring is twofold: a claim and a warning. The claim is that we have a tendency to self-organise into groups (the inner rings) that exist for the purpose of excluding others and this tendency thrives on our need to belong. of our own slide into “scoundrels.” The warning is that these inner rings are a primary way people end up rationalising terrible choices and we will fall for them if we do not recognise the tendency in ourselves and fight it.
There’s a lot to unpack there so let’s get to it.
How Lewis plays
Lewis uses humour a lot. Here he even begins with it, right after his introduction. The essay opens with a reading from Tolstoy’s War and Peace (Lewis was very widely read and often dipped into his wealth of reading in his writing), and the very next thing is a self-deprecating joke:
When you invite a middle-aged moralist to address you, I suppose I must conclude, however unlikely the conclusion seems, that you have a taste for middle-aged moralising. I shall do my best to gratify it.
Lewis was a master of these, and they’re one of my favourite things about him. When most other people joke about themselves, you can usually sense they don’t really mean it and they want you to think the precise opposite of what they’re joking about.
Not Lewis. He abhorred false modesty as much as did arrogance. His self-deprecating gives you the sense of someone who knows their own limits. And so when he deprecated himself it didn’t feel insincere, it felt as straightforward as me saying I’m dark-skinned: he was just stating what was, not trying to make it more or less than it was.
And yet he did it with humour.
I am going to do something more old-fashioned than you perhaps expected. I am going to give advice. I am going to issue warnings.
How Lewis observes
Anyone who’s even read quotes from Lewis will quickly recognise that the insightful and profound observation is hands down his forte. I think it’s mine as well.
This essay, like all his essays, is really observational at heart. Lewis’ writing was all about describing an observation and exploring its underlying idea.
But as Lewis said in Mere Christianity he isn’t going for profundity as such.
Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.
That right there is the secret to how Lewis captured such profound observations: he really just trying to tell the truth. And for Lewis a big part of “the truth” was human motivations: why we do the things we do. He was not satisfied with simple answers, and that led him to deeper insights.
So for instance Lewis notes that the desire to join inner rings is entirely human and probably universal. It’s in the longing to be among the cool kids in school (which I personally grew up feeling—and failing at).
But then he also describes how those who think themselves free of snobbery may well be protected only by their longing for an entirely different ring. I have known creatives who turn their nose up at “the establishment” while unironically building their own cliques.
And from there he gets to his main point:
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.
But the best thing about Lewis is how he applies his observations in a personal way.
How Lewis gets personal
When I first encountered the idea of POP writing, I thought personal meant using your own stories in your writing, which was something you couldn’t quite accuse Lewis of. But I came to realise that for Perell, personal meant connecting with the person: using stories and appealing to emotion. If observational writing appeals to the head, playful and personal writing appeal to the heart.
And once I saw this I immediately realised Lewis excelled at this too. He was a master of weaving metaphor and examples into his writing, and I’ve written long enough to know how much thought it takes to come up with examples that fit as seamlessly and obviously as his appear to.
And so in The Inner Ring Lewis uses several such examples, like this very vivid one:
Often the desire conceals itself so well that we hardly recognize the pleasures of fruition. Men tell not only their wives but themselves that it is a hardship to stay late at the office or the school on some bit of important extra work which they have been let in for because they and So-and-so and the two others are the only people left in the place who really know how things are run. But it is not quite true. It is a terrible bore, of course, when old Fatty Smithson draws you aside and whispers, “Look here, we’ve got to get you in on this examination somehow” or “Charles and I saw at once that you’ve got to be on this committee.” A terrible bore… ah, but how much more terrible if you were left out! It is tiring and unhealthy to lose your Saturday afternoons: but to have them free because you don’t matter, that is much worse.
But then he augments all these examples by a simple method: “you”. He talks directly to the students—and to us—which in itself makes it all very personal. But the you wouldn’t work on its own—it works so powerfully because it’s you in all his examples.
Nowhere is this more evident than in a paragraph near the end:
I have no right to make assumptions about the degree to which any of you may already be compromised. I must not assume that you have ever first neglected, and finally shaken off, friends whom you really loved and who might have lasted you a lifetime, in order to court the friendship of those who appeared to you more important, more esoteric. I must not ask whether you have derived actual pleasure from the loneliness and humiliation of the outsiders after you, yourself were in: whether you have talked to fellow members of the Ring in the presence of outsiders simply in order that the outsiders might envy
Lewis’s observations are profound because they press beneath the surface, but what really makes them powerful is that they are personal. And that is how he closes the essay, with a directly personal appeal:
The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it. But if you break it, a surprising result will follow. If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it… 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.
This is why I love how Lewis writes: he takes you on a journey into reality and you find at the end that you have been on a journey into your own self. And when I read him—including when I reread the essay yet again for this essay—I come away deeply refreshed. It’s like seeing the world more clearly, including its dirt, but also seeing how you can make it a little cleaner. It’s a writing that’s realistic in a hope-giving way.
If I could do that with my own writing, I should be very happy indeed.