Thursday, August 22, 2013

C.S. Lewis and the Inner Ring

A number of years ago I was asked to stand in an election for a position, and, I lost the election. I had received a premonition of this but I was unprepared for the inner emotional turmoil that ensued. At one point I said to myself: it’s time to re-read C. S. Lewis’ The Inner Ring.

Lewis wrote in multiple formats and genres with one message, the truth of Christianity, which truth, in and of itself, is the everlasting Glory of God. It was his intention that everything that he wrote, even his scholarly works, was to point the reader to this transcendent glory. 

God’s glory should be seen shining through us, through our lives, which means quite simply that the Christians holiness is part of the apologetic/evangelism project which intentionally shapes all of his writings. Here I wish to explore this interface as it happens with his exploration of the relationship between the Christian and one of her three enemies, in this case, the World.

Lewis revealed the architecture of his conception of “the inner ring” in an address by that title in an address to King’s College University of London in 1944[1], which is the address I decided to read again in order to get my own sense of loss into alignment with God and his Goodness once again. Once you see this architecture you realize that it forms the underlying structure in many of his writings. Most notably of course in the novel That Hideous Strength which he himself called a novel of the inner ring. But it also appears in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe where part of Edmond’s temptation is to leave his brother and sisters and join the secret society of the witch. Recently I suddenly woke up to the fact that I was reading it again as I re-read Surprised by Joy.

The moral structure of Surprised is formed, as I mention above, by his adherence to the classic tripartite coalition of evil: the world, the flesh and the devil. The world, in Surprised, is what Lewis encountered at the public school Wyvern College. There he encountered human society in miniature which might be summed up with the word hierarchy, or, the system of inner rings, a system there that was structured around those students called “Bloods,” of whom he says: “the adored athletes and prefects were an embodiment of all worldly pomp, power and glory.”[2] He was tricked into a supposed insult of a “Blood” named Porridge, which brought him the rebuke: “Who are you? Nobody. Who is Porridge? THE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON THERE IS.”[3]

For Lewis this rebuke summed it all up, that is, the school provided a system where students were expected to aspire to becoming The Most Important Person There Is, so that every waking moment was to be spent attempting to adopt the right tone of voice, giving a cheer at games with the proper look on ones face as well as the expected volume, shining the shoes of “Bloods” with an attitude of servility. He speaks of these humiliations as not being the real problem, but as being symptoms.

These were symptoms of something more all-pervasive, something which, in the long run, did most harm to the boys who succeeded best at school and were happiest there. Spiritually speaking, the deadly thing was that school life was a life almost wholly dominated by the social struggle; to get on, to arrive, or, having reached the top, to remain there, was the absorbing preoccupation. . . And from it, at school as in the world, all sorts of meanness flow. . . .[4]

Lewis reacted against the system. He does not appear to have done so because he at that point recognized the corrupt temptation of the inner ring, but because of his fierce desire not to be interfered with, for he simply wanted to be alone, to be able to read and learn, and little more, a life that he would later live with Professor Kilpatrick, but which he would eventually label as “almost entirely selfish.”[5] But that still lay in his future. At Wyvern he choose not to succumb to the allure of reaching the top of the social hierarchy by joining an ideal hierarchy the members of which he did not know, but he knew that somewhere they existed. He knew himself to be superior to others in the one thing that mattered, intellect and knowledge. “. . . Wyvern made me a prig.”[6]
And if “our “taste, then—by a perilous transition—perhaps “good taste or “the right taste.” For that transition involves a kind of Fall. The moment good taste knows itself; some of its goodness is lost. Even then, however, it is not necessary to take the further downward step of despising the “philistines” who do not share it. Unfortunately I took it.[7]

So, autobiographically Lewis identified what he considered to be the two great temptations of the world, namely, to provide us with identity and status apart of God, or, to resist a particular group by telling ourselves that we are in fact already “too good for them,” but only to find that in fact we are merely searching for yet another “inner ring” from which we hope to milk identity and status.

I think that Lewis’ analysis of “the inner ring” is in truth the best phenomenological analysis (pure description) of the New Testament concept of the world that currently exists. We think of the Greek word cosmos in moral passages (such as 1 John 2:15) as meaning the structure and, shall we say, the offerings, of society. Often we see “the world” as meaning such things as fame and fortune, but Lewis is driving us more deeply still. He wants us to ask: “what did it take to become famous? What did it take to have riches? How much of my integrity did I toss into the toll booth collection basket along this broad highway?”

[1] C. S. Lewis. The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. Harper, 1949, and on line at the site of the California C. S. Lewis Society,

[2] C. S. Lewis. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955. P. 83
[3] Ibid. p.91.
[4] Ibid., p. 108
[5] Ibid., p. 143
[6] Ibid., p. 101
[7] Ibid., p. 104