The Inner Ring
by C S Lewis
C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), Professor of Medieval and Renaissance
English at Cambridge University, England, was also a novelist, a writer of
children's books, and a popular speaker on moral and religious issues.
"The Inner Ring" was the Memorial Lecture at King's College, University of
London, in 1944. It is included here to illustrate Lewis' ability to get
behind human motivation, to express aspects of our lives which, because
they are so intimately near to each of us, are often hidden - and
therefore all the more potentially both dangerous or rewarding.
May I read you a few lines from
Tolstoy's War and Peace?
When Boris entered the room, Prince Andrey was listening to an old
general, wearing his decorations, who was reporting something to
Prince Andrey with an expression of soldierly servility on his
purple face. "Alright. Please wait!" he said to the general,
speaking in Russian with the French accent, which he used when he
spoke with contempt.
The moment he noticed Boris he stopped listening to the general who
trotted imploringly after him and begged to be heard, while Prince
Andrey turned to Boris with a cheerful smile and a nod of the head.
Boris now clearly understood what he had already guessed, that side by
side with the system of discipline and subordination which were laid
down in Army Regulations, there existed a different and a more real
system - the system which compelled a tightly laced general with a
purple face to wait respectfully for his turn while a mere captain
like Prince Andrey chatted with a mere second lieutenant like Boris.
Boris decided at once that he would be guided not by the official
system but by this other unwritten system.
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. I shall in fact
give you advice about the world in which you are going to live.
I do not mean by this that I am going to attempt to talk on what are
called current affairs. You probably know quite as much about them as I
do. I am not going to tell you - except in a form so general that you will
hardly recognize it - what part you ought to play in post-war
reconstruction. It is not, in fact, very likely that any of you will be
able in the next ten years to make any direct contribution to the peace or
prosperity of Europe. You will be busy finding jobs, getting married,
acquiring facts. 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.
Advice and warnings about things which are so perennial that no one calls
them "current affairs."
And of course everyone knows what a middle-aged moralist of my type
warns his juniors against. He warns them against the World, the Flesh, and
But one of this trio will be enough to deal with today. The Devil, I
shall leave strictly alone. The association between him and me in the
public mind has already gone quite as deep as I wish. In some quarters it
has already reached the level of confusion, if not of identification. I
begin to realize the truth of the old proverb that he who sups with that
formidable host needs a long spoon. As for the Flesh, you must be very
abnormal young people if you do not know quite as much about it as I do.
But on the World I think I have something to say.
In the passage I have just read from Tolstoy, the young second
lieutenant Boris Dubretskoi discovers that there exist in the army two
different systems or hierarchies. The one is printed in some little red
book and anyone can easily read it up. It also remains constant. A general
is always superior to a colonel and a colonel to a captain.
The other is not printed anywhere. Nor is it even a formally organized
secret society with officers and rules which you would be told after you
had been admitted. You are never formally and explicitly admitted by
anyone. You discover gradually, in almost indefinable ways, that it exists
and that you are outside it. And then later, perhaps, that you are inside
it. There are what correspond to passwords, but they too are spontaneous
and informal. A particular slang, the use of particular nicknames, an
allusive manner of conversation, are the marks. But it is not constant. It
is not easy, even at a given moment, to say who is inside and who is
outside. Some people are obviously in and some are obviously out, but
there are always several on the borderline.
And if you come back to the same divisional headquarters, or brigade
headquarters, or the same regiment or even the same company, after six
weeks' absence, you may find this second hierarchy quite altered. 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 suddenly expanded to meet a particular emergency
it calls itself "All the sensible people at this place."
From outside, if you have despaired 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 it in talking to the man who is inside,
and who may help you if this present conversation goes well, would be
Badly as I may have described it, I hope you will all have recognized
the thing I am describing. Not, of course, that you have been in the
Russian army or perhaps in any army. But you have met the
phenomenon of an Inner Ring.
You discovered one in your house at school before the end of the first
term. And when you had climbed up to somewhere near it by the end of your
second year, perhaps you discovered that within the Ring there was a Ring
yet more inner, which in its turn was the fringe of the great school Ring
of which the house Rings were only satellites. It is even possible that
the School Ring was almost in touch with a Masters' Ring.
You were beginning, in fact, to pierce through the skins of the onion.
And here, too, at your university - shall I be wrong in assuming that at
this very moment, invisible to me, there are several rings, independent
systems or concentric rings - present in this room? And I can assure you
that in whatever hospital, inn of court, diocese, school, business, or
college you arrive after going down, you will find the Rings - what
Tolstoy calls the second or unwritten systems.
All this is rather obvious. I wonder whether you will say the same of
my next step, which is this: 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 desire, in one of its forms, has indeed had ample justice done to
it in literature. I mean, in the form of snobbery. Victorian fiction is
full of characters who are hag-ridden by the desire to get inside that
particular Ring which is, or was, called "Society". But it must be clearly
understood that "Society" in that sense of the word is merely one of a
hundred Rings and snobbery, therefore only one form of the longing to be
People who believe themselves to be free, and indeed are free, from
snobbery, and who read satires on snobbery with tranquil superiority, may
be devoured by the desire in another form. It may be the very intensity of
their desire to enter some quite different Ring which renders them immune
from the allurements of high life. An invitation from a duchess would be
very cold comfort to a man smarting under the sense of exclusion from some
artistic or communist coterie. Poor man. It is not large, lighted rooms,
or champagne, or even scandals about peers and Cabinet ministers that he
wants. It is the sacred little attic or studio, the heads bent together,
the fog of tobacco smoke, and the delicious knowledge that we - we four or
five all huddled beside this stove - are the people who know.
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.
Freud would say, no doubt, that the whole thing is a subterfuge of the
sexual impulse. I wonder whether the shoe is not sometimes on the other
foot. I wonder whether, in ages of promiscuity, many a virginity has not
been lost less in obedience to Venus than in obedience to the lure of the
caucus. For of course, when promiscuity is the fashion, the chaste are
outsiders. They are ignorant of something that other people know. They are
uninitiated. And as for lighter matters, the number who first smoked or
first got drunk for a similar reason is probably very large.
I must now make a distinction. I am not going to say that the existence
of Inner Rings is an evil. It is certainly unavoidable. There must be
confidential discussions. And it is not only not a bad thing, it is (in
itself) a good thing that personal friendship should grow up between those
who work together. It is perhaps impossible that the official hierarchy of
any organisation should quite coincide with its actual workings. If the
wisest and most energetic people invariably held the highest posts, it
might coincide. Since they often do not, there must be people in high
positions who are really dead-weights and people in lower positions who
are more important than their rank and seniority would lead you to
suppose. In that way the second, unwritten system is bound to grow up. It
is necessary and perhaps it is not a necessary evil.
But the desire which draws us into Inner Rings is another
matter. A thing may be morally neutral and yet the desire for that thing
may be dangerous.
As Byron has said:
Sweet is a legacy, and passing sweet
The unexpected death of some old lady.
The painless death of a pious relative at an advanced age is not an
evil. But an earnest desire for her death on the part of her heirs is not
reckoned a proper feeling, and the law frowns on even the gentlest attempt
to expedite her departure.
Let Inner Rings be an unavoidable and even an innocent feature of life,
though certainly not a beautiful one. But what of our longing to enter
them, our anguish when we are excluded, and the kind of pleasure we feel
when we get in?
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 ever 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; whether the means whereby, in your
days of probation you propitiated the Inner Ring, were always wholly
I will ask only one question - and it is, of course, a rhetorical
question which expects no answer. In the whole of your life as you now
remember it, has the desire to be on the right side of that invisible line
ever prompted you to any act or word on which, in the cold small hours of
a wakeful night, you can look back with satisfaction? If so, your case is
more fortunate than most.
But I said I was going to give advice, and advice should deal with the
future, not the past. I have hinted at the past only to awake you to what
I believe to be the real nature of human life. I don't believe that the
economic motive and the erotic motive account for everything that goes on
in what we moralists call the "World". Even if you add ambition, I think
the picture is still incomplete. The lust for the esoteric, the longing to
be inside, take many forms which are not easily recognisable as ambition.
We hope, no doubt, for tangible profits from every Inner Ring we penetrate
- for power, money, liberty to break rules, avoidance of routine duties,
evasion of discipline. But all these would not satisfy us if we did not
get in addition the delicious sense of secret intimacy. It is no doubt a
great convenience to know that we need fear no official reprimands from
our official senior because he is old Percy, a fellow-member of our ring.
But we don't value the intimacy only for the sake of convenience. Quite
equally we value the convenience as a proof of the intimacy.
My main purpose in this address is simply to convince you that this
desire is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action. It is
one of the factors which go to make up the world as we know it - this
whole pell-mell of struggle, competition, confusion, graft,
disappointment, and advertisement. If it is one of the permanent
mainsprings then you may be quite sure of this: 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." I don't say you'll
be a successful one; that's as may be. But whether by pining and moping
outside Rings that you can never enter, or by passing triumphantly further
and further in - one way or the other you will be that kind of man. I have
already made it fairly clear that I think it better for you not to be that
kind of man.
But you may have an open mind on the question. I will therefore suggest
two reasons for thinking as I do.
It would be polite and charitable, and in view of your age reasonable
too, to suppose that none of you is yet a scoundrel. On the other hand, by
the mere law of averages (I am saying nothing against free will) it is
almost certain that at least two or three of you before you die will have
become something very like scoundrels. There must be in this room the
makings of at least that number of unscrupulous, treacherous, ruthless
The choice is still before you: and I hope you will not take my hard
words about your possible future characters as a token of disrespect to
your present characters. 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 a 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 na�f, or a prig -
the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which is not quite in
accordance with the technical rules of fair play: 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.
It would be so terrible to see the other man's face - that genial,
confidential, delightfully sophisticated face - turn suddenly cold and
contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and
rejected. 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.
That is my first reason. Of all the passions the passion for the Inner
Ring is most skilful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very
My second reason is this. The torture allotted to the Danaids in the
classical underworld, that of attempting to fill sieves with water, is the
symbol not of one vice but of all vices. It is the very mark of a perverse
desire that it seeks what is not to be had. The desire to be inside the
invisible line illustrates this rule. 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 be really 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 endeavour to enter the new one.
And you will always find them hard to enter, for a reason you very well
know. You yourself once you are in, want to make it hard for the next
entrant, just as those who are already in made it hard for you. This is
natural. In any wholesome group of people which holds together for a good
purpose, the exclusions are in a sense accidental. Three or four people
who are together for the sake of some piece of work exclude others because
there is work only for so many or because the others can't in fact do it.
Your little musical group limits its numbers because the rooms they meet
in are only so big. But your genuine Inner Ring exists for exclusion.
There'd be no fun if there were no outsiders. The invisible line would
have no meaning unless most people were on the wrong side of it. Exclusion
is no accident. It is the essence.
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. This group of craftsmen will by no means coincide
with the Inner Ring or the important people or the people in the know. It
will not shape that professional policy or work up that professional
influence which fights for the profession as a whole against the public.
Nor will it lead to those periodic scandals and crises which the Inner
But it will do those things which that profession exists to do and will
in the long run be responsible for all the respect which that profession
in fact enjoys and which the speeches and advertisements cannot maintain.
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 center of something which, seen from without,
would look exactly like an Inner Ring. But the difference is that its
secrecy is accidental, and its exclusiveness a by-product, and no one was
led thither by the lure of the esoteric. 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.
We are told in Scripture that those who ask get. That is true, in
senses I can't now explore. But in another sense there is much truth in
the schoolboy's principle, "Them as asks shan't have." To a young person,
just entering on adult life, 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. The true road lies in quite another direction.