In his essay, “The Inner Ring,” C. S. Lewis writes about two conflicting hierarchies. There is one of formality and another of informality. The formal system is recognized by all. It is externally prevalent and interpreted. “A general is always superior to a colonel, and a colonel to a captain.” There is a pre-established order. However, the informal system is “not printed anywhere.” Rather, it exists either in our minds or behind a code of secrecy with “officers and rules that would be told after you were admitted.” Now, this is not trying to establish one system or hierarchy as greater than the other, though we may naturally place a greater emphasis on the hidden system because of its mysterious and undisclosed nature.
I believe that the informal code appeals to our personal nature. We desire to be known by a group of people. The problem that exists is finding those people and establishing the codes and guidelines that will be followed. Anybody is permitted within the group. However, there is the necessary issue of creating an inner ring, those who know. Outside are the other people, those who don’t know and can’t get in. Perhaps that is our draw to groups such as inner rings. We desire to be known exclusively by only so many people because after a while, with more members, the personal connection and secrecy is lost. Thus, the inner ring loses its mystery and purpose. The group goes from personal to impersonal.
The formal code I believe represents an impersonal system. Here, positions and accomplishments matter. The past is recognized versus simply living and concerning oneself with the present. The formal code is recognized by all men. It is almost a most primitive system glorifying the survival of the fittest attitude suggested by Charles Darwin. Those who are more powerful and successful attain a higher rank than those who are trampled below and have trouble surviving. There is a universal recognition of status and importance, a list of pre-established rules to follow.
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the inner ring is our longing to be in the ring. Naturally, we place ourselves on the outside, separate from others and living without what we desire. We want to become part of the inside, to use the slang or the group. The slang of the group becomes a set of religious creeds and sacraments. There is meaning and membership by using the word “we” as opposed to Tony and me. There is that exclusive dialogue we wish to be included in. And, the “exclusion (of the Inner Ring) is no accident; it is the essence.”
The irony of the inner ring is found in C. S. Lewis’s analogy of an onion. The inner ring is like the skins of an onion. As you enter into an inner ring or peel off a skin, there is always another deeper layer. Each time you find another inner ring. There seems to be no end to the rings and desiring. It seems that even when we do get what we want, or finally are admitted to that inner ring we desire, we end up being unsatisfied. The excitement of potential admission is gone. The mystery of the group is lost. Instead, we just begin to search for a new inner ring to join. The cycle never stops; it’s an endless progression from skin to skin, peeling away more and more layers only to discover more still, deeper and harder to remove.
C. S. Lewis does not frown down upon inner rings, but yet does not approve of them. In fact, he agrees that it (the inner ring) is almost a natural occurrence in life. However, there are two observations that C. S. Lewis makes. The first is that 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.” The man surrenders himself to the caucus, laying aside his personal beliefs for the price of admission. The second reason is that often when seeking the Inner Ring, we seek what cannot be had. “As long as we are governed by that desire, we will never get what we want.” Our goal teasingly flees from us, keeping just beyond our grasp. The Inner Ring does not guarantee happiness. And thus, “until we conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider we will remain.” Without understanding this we will eternally search for our Inner Ring. We will forget the simplicity of friendship, an informal system transcending the laws of the Inner Ring.