Inner Rings: Lewis & That Hideous Strength

Lack of discipline paid off once again, as clicking from here to there lead me to this article at The Imaginative Conservative by Fr. Dwight Longenecker, which lead me to The Inner Ring, an address by C. S. Lewis.

Good stuff, go read them. I here expand a little on Fr. Longenecker’s themes by illustrating them with passages from That Hideous Strength.

Longenecker starts by quoting Lewis quoting Tolstoy. (1).

Image result for tolstoy
Can I be forgiven for thinking: ZZ Top? No?

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 the Army Regulations, there existed a different and 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.

Lewis makes the general points that this situation – the existence of both a more or less official structure to an organization and an unofficial Cool Kid’s Club that mans the gates to acceptance and advancement – is ubiquitous and is almost always soul-destroying evil.  Sure, once in a while, when a leader might gather a few good men to his side to get something urgent done, this Inner Circle might even work towards good.  That would be a rare exception to the rule, however.

Longenecker mentions That Hideous Strength, appropriate as the finale of Lewis’s space trilogy is largely a novelization of the concepts presented in Lewis’s address. Here the protagonist is called upon to write propaganda for the newspapers libeling opponents and disguising the true purpose of the N.I.C.E., of which he is a junior member. He is faced with needing to sell, bit by bit, the soul he doesn’t really think he has and in any event has remained nearly completely un- or ill-formed up to now, in order to move into an even tighter Inner Circle:

It was, after all, not so long ago that he had been excited by admission to the Progressive Element at Bracton. But what was the Progressive Element to this? It wasn’t as if he were taken in by the articles himself.He was writing with his tongue in his cheek — a phrase that somehow comforted him by making the whole thing appear like a practical joke. And anyway, if he didn’t do it, someone else would. And all the while the child inside him whispered how splendid and how triumphantly grown up it was to be sitting like this, so full of alcohol and yet not drunk, writing (with his tongue in his cheek) articles for great newspapers, against time, “with the printer’s devil at the door” and all the inner ring of the N.I.C.E. depending on him, and nobody ever again having the least right to consider him a nonentity or cipher.

Simple, normal, healthy relationships put the lie to the allure of Inner Rings. Studdock wants into the Inner Circle so badly that this desire is allowed to kill his normal relationships, even his relationship with his wife.  The N.I.C.E. leadership wants him to bring her to their headquarters at Belbury:

Until the D.D had said this Mark had not realised that there was nothing he would dislike so much as having Jane at Belbury. There were so many things that Jane would not understand: not only the pretty heavy drinking which was becoming his habit but — oh, everything from morning to night. For it is only justice both to Mark and to Jane to record that he would have found it impossible to conduct in her hearing any one of the hundred conversations which his life at Belbury involved. Her mere presence would have made all the laughter of the Inner Ring sound metallic, unreal; and what he now regarded as common prudence would seem to her, and through her to himself, mere flattery, back-biting and toad-eating. Jane in the middle of Belbury would turn the whole of Belbury into a vast vulgarity, flashy and yet furtive. His mind sickened at the thought of trying to teach Jane that she must help to keep Wither in a good temper and must play up to Fairy Hardcastle. He excused himself vaguely to the D.D., with profuse thanks, and got away as quickly as he could.

Studdock, like all well-schooled Moderns, lacks any ground to stand on from which to judge his own actions. There is always a ground of being, of simple, directly-experienced emotions, but without formation by parable and myth, such inclinations or natural reactions can easily be silenced or twisted to almost any abomination.

It must be remembered that in Mark’s mind hardly one rag of noble thought, either Christian or Pagan, had a secure lodging. His education had been neither scientific nor classical — merely “Modern.” The severities both of abstraction and of high human tradition had passed him by: and he had neither peasant shrewdness nor aristocratic honour to help him. He was a man of straw, a glib examinee in subjects that require no exact knowledge (he had always done well on Essays and General Papers) and the first hint of a real threat to his bodily life knocked him sprawling. And his head ached so terribly and he felt so sick. Luckily he now kept a bottle of whisky in his room. A stiff one enabled him to shave and dress.

The whiskey here is a stand in for whatever lies we tell ourselves to allow us to deny that we’re cowards and traitors. While all this is going on, Jane, his wife, is being confronted by the mirror image of Mark’s trials: good people eager to be true friends are trying to help her be true to herself. In both cases, the success of what might be called corporate plans depends on the free surrender of the will of those involves – N.I.C.E. requires surrender to the devil, while the company around Ransom requires submission to the will of God.

In her own way, Jane fights for her membership in another Inner Ring, a vague and largely mythical one comprised of enlightened young women who, as G. K. Chesterton quipped, would not be dictated to and so became stenographers. Jane is a slave to her idea of freedom, one that separates her from husband and friends. and from the commitments that make one free and fulfilled.

Since That Hideous Strength is a fairy-tale, both Mark and Jane win their battles and find happiness. They each take the small, feeble steps of which they are capable, away from evil and toward the Good – then miracles happen.

Towards the conclusion of Lewis’s The Inner Ring, he explains the antidote:

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 Ring produces. 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 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.

In The Inner Ring and That Hideous Strength, Lewis describes how we can personally avoid or mitigate the ill effects of the Inner Rings with which we will inevitably be confronted. But what about the evil such rings can wreck upon institutions and individuals? He is silent on that issue in The Inner Ring, except by the inference that, by staying out of it ourselves, we weaken and oppose it. In That Hideous Strength, those who are invited into the Ring and decline are murdered. It takes divine intervention to defeat the Inner Circle.

Longenecker makes a point Lewis doesn’t emphasize, yet is clearly of the nature of Inner Rings:

Whenever an inner ring is exposed it evaporates. Proof is demanded, but there isn’t any because it was all secret handshakes, winks, and nods all along. It was never a formal organization to start with, so the members simply deny, shift their position, and slide away like the serpents they really are.

I would add that Inner Rings reform the instant the light is shined elsewhere. Thus, the calls to Drain the Swamp and reform the Catholic hierarchy, two cases of Inner Rings gone completely rogue, can only make progress when members are removed from positions of authority, prevented access to others in positions of authority, and publicly named and shamed. Prison would be good, where appropriate. Otherwise, people will be shocked, shocked to find out what was going on – and then pick up right where they left off the moment the lights are turned off.

Warning: not to get too hysterical quite yet, but history shows some members of such rings will murder before they let that happen. There will be enough sociopaths (Inner Rings are ideal playgrounds for those with no moral compass) that starting a war or revolution is completely on the table. Blackmail, character assassination and back-stabbing of all kinds is standard operating procedure for Inner Rings, whether it’s the FBI, a papal dicastery or your local parent co-op preschool. (2) We kid ourselves if we think it will stop there.

Then, there’s always divine intervention. Let us pray that God can find a way to be merciful, and that we can bear whatever part of His justice that we have earned for our sins of commission and omission.

  1. Reminds me of the alternative music scene where you wear the next cooler band’s t-shirt to whatever band’s show you’re attending. So, here, you quote a cooler author. You’d next need to find Tolstoy quoting Dante quoting Homer…  No? Never mind.
  2. The key reason I was appalled at Obama even running for President, let alone winning, is the history of Chicago politics: 100 years of mafia control, Roti takes one for the team in the early ’90’s, BUT EVERYONE ELSE GOT A PASS. Whatever Inner Circles enabled mob control STAYED PUT. That the Anointed One staffed his campaign and cabinet with career Chicago politicians and ‘public servants,’ many of whom got their careers started under Roti, should have been seen as a nightmare come true; the current mishegas should not be a surprise.
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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

5 thoughts on “Inner Rings: Lewis & That Hideous Strength”

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      A completely wholesome and good Inner Circle would be relatively rare only because it isn’t stable – you’ll either become friends who are not interested in snobbishly excluding people, or turn into a bad Inner Circle where exclusion and snobbery are the goal. Here’s what Lewis says:

      “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. And it is perhaps impossible that the official hierarchy of any organisation should coincide with its actual workings. If the wisest and most energetic people held the highest spots, it might coincide; since they often do not, there must be people in high positions who are really deadweights and people in lower positions who are more important than their rank and seniority would lead you to suppose. 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.”

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