What Cs Lewis had to say to college students

Did you know Cs Lewis once gave a commencement address? Cs Lewis is largely regarded as the most influential Christian in the last century. If you could give a commencement address what would it be? For those apart of churches, especially evangelical ones, I think the gospel message would be a priority. For those outside the church, tolerance and personal achievement would be at the forefront. And that is what is so startling about this address. For someone who is such a Christian giant his address doesn’t touch on any topics that would even begin to come to mind in a pastor or evangelist.Deut1.9-15Delegation His address is titled “The Inner Ring” and it focuses on the problem of being a part of the “in” crowd. My goal here is to paraphrase what he said and add my comments as I see fit.

Cs Lewis starts his address by stating that he will not be talking about what many of them assumed he would talk about: post World War 2 Europe. He says this is because most cannot be expected to marginally contribute to this condition in the next 10 years because “You will be busy finding jobs, getting married, acquiring facts.” This was striking to me because it is totally avoid of the modern mentality of “you can do anything” and the idealism that sweeps across modern campuses. He is being real here. He says instead he will give them advice for their lives. The next part is good enough to quote in its entirety:
“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 the Devil. 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 realise 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.”
He goes on to say that in all groups of people the world over there exists an unwritten social code. Some people are “in” and some are “out”. He says many times there are no formal admissions, no formal 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 the outside, if you despair of getting into it, you call it “That gang” or “they” or “So and so and his inner circle”. If you are up 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 talking to the man who is inside, and who may help you if this present conversation goes well, would be madness.
He proceeds though the rest of the essay to show that through all points in all people’s lives there is this intense desire to be “in”. Even those who protest being a part of the “in” crowd form a different group, and view themselves as “in” that group- the group protesting. “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.” He continues to say that trying to be a part of the in crowd (what he calls an inner circle) is a permanent main spring of human action. He says if you have never stayed up at night wondering why you did something to be a part of a group, to be included…then are you are more fortunate than most.
He gives two cautions. The first is that there is a difference between wanting to merely be a part of a group to be a part of a group and being a part of a group with a purpose. A person who loves chess and joins a chess club becomes a part of a ring, but he has found an “inside” worth having- whereas the person who joins the chess club because he wants to be in a club doesn’t really have a reward. The second caution is that Inner Rings are a large part of what allows good people to do bad things.
“And 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 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 naïf or a prig—the hint will come. It will be the hint of 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 skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”

He concludes that the quest to be a part of the in crowd will break you unless you break it. Friendship is necessarily about something else- it is two hearts loving the same thing. He says that inner rings are avoidable- but we can through friendship and true love form something that looks identical to an inner ring.

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.
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. It is like the house in Alice Through the Looking Glass.

One comment

  1. Thanks for the levity forests :)

    “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.”

    Well it is good to know I’m in good company!