No, this post isn’t about the practice of athletes joining certain teams that increase their odds of winning championships. Instead, it stems from a C.S. Lewis lecture that has new life thanks to the efforts of a few luminaries in the American semi-conservative intelligentsia. David Brooks writes about it here, and Rod Dreher has a couple of blog posts on it; both drew their thoughts from Alan Jacobs’ modestly titled new book, How to Think.
Lewis’s lecture to some Cambridge students in 1944 (read the whole thing) was an education on the banality of evil long before Hannah Arendt minted the phrase. His point was that most of the bad decisions made by the talented, well-reared Cambridge students before him would not be out of sheer malice or evil. Instead, it would come out of an earnest desire to prove oneself in certain circles, to move ever upward into vaunted inner rings. Whether those rings involve high school cliques or local political factions or artist collectives or something akin to high society, they are the unofficial circles that people use to measure their status. Exclusion from inner rings leads to alienation; entering them leads only to momentary satisfaction. Per Lewis, it’s impossible to make it.
The hunger for the inner ring, for acceptance and the comfort of doing the same things as others, drives so many decisions in life. This is especially pervasive in a society that likes to think it is a meritocracy: all people who prove their worth in some form or another are worthy of admission into inner rings, with no inherent barriers based on birth or status. When anything is (allegedly) possible, there are rings galore that we might want to enter. It is also probably more likely to afflict people who spend much of their time on quests for knowledge, and who might like that other people will pay attention to the things they say or write.
Lewis has some ideas for how to resist the siren call of the inner ring. He tells the Cambridge students that they should aim to be “sound craftsmen” who do what they need to do in their work not to climb the ladder, but to be excellent in the task before them, and so earn the respect of other craftspeople who do things right. He counsels them to spend time with people one likes so that rings emerge naturally, without any of the self-conscious exclusion of the inner ring. The guilty truth is that, for many of these Cambridge students, those people are generally going to be people who are fairly intelligent and ambitious themselves. But those traits are not prerequisites, but instead byproducts that lead us to take certain leaps and be in the same place at the same time. And rather than pulling up the ladder to anyone else who might join, this sort of circle is always open to new entrants.
Another trait that will keep a circle open is the ability to level of its members to level with themselves, both individually and with regard to the group as a whole. Dreher is at his best in posts such as this one on the inner ring, in which his writing unfolds in a sprawling fit of self-reflection that exactingly examines his own participation in certain rings. I find that I’m willing to forgive a lot of disagreements with, or errors in the lives of, certain people if they are able to articulate a level of honest, raw self-reflection and criticism. That sincerity speaks more volumes about their character as political actors (using that term broadly) than the stances they take. I want the people in my own closest circles to be capable of that sort of reflection, so that we all thereby do all we can to avoid the risk of falling into closed inner rings.
While I’d like to think I’ve generally resisted the need to belong to certain circles in the way Dreher had it, I do certainly recognize that desire in many phases of my life. Lewis also correctly notes that such resistance can be the source of its own form of conceit, and here I try to stay especially aware of any self-righteousness over my decision not to pursue certain career choices, many of which stemmed from an evolving but meticulous view on how to live a good life. Inner rings can be just as restricting in a corner of northern Minnesota, too, and while I haven’t found any that are too frustrating in one year back here, I also have a sense for how easily they could appear or throw things off. Roots are important, but for a tree to grow upward, it must grow outward, adding a new ring each year. It may not always be a speedy growth, but it can’t ever stop.