Thoughts on the inner ring
I enjoyed C. S. Lewis’ The Inner Ring, and recommend you read it. It basically claims that much of human effort is directed at being admitted to whatever the local in-group is, that this happens easily to people, and that it is a bad thing to be drawn in to.
Some quotes, though I also recommend reading the whole thing:
In the passage I have just read from Tolstoy, the young second lieutenant Boris Dubretskoi discovers that there exist in the army two different systems or hierarchies. The one is printed in some little red book and anyone can easily read it up. It also remains constant. A general is always superior to a colonel, and a colonel to a captain. The other is not printed anywhere. Nor is it even a formally organised secret society with officers and rules which you would be told after you had been admitted. You are never formally and explicitly admitted by anyone. You discover gradually, in almost indefinable ways, that it exists and that you are outside it; and then later, perhaps, that you are inside it.
There are what correspond to passwords, but they are too spontaneous and informal. A particular slang, the use of particular nicknames, an allusive manner of conversation, are the marks. But it is not so constant. It is not easy, even at a given moment, to say who is inside and who is outside. Some people are obviously in and some are obviously out, but there are always several on the borderline. And if you come back to the same Divisional Headquarters, or Brigade Headquarters, or the same regiment or even the same company, after six weeks’ absence, you may find this secondary hierarchy quite altered.
There are no formal admissions or 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 inside it may be designated, in simple cases, by mere enumeration: it may be called “You and Tony and me.” When it is very secure and comparatively stable in membership it calls itself “we.” When it has to be expanded to meet a particular emergency it calls itself “all the sensible people at this place.” From outside, if you have dispaired of getting into it, you call it “That gang” or “they” or “So-and-so and his set” or “The Caucus” or “The Inner Ring.” If you are a candidate 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.
My main purpose in this address is simply to convince you that this desire is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action. It is one of the factors which go to make up the world as we know it—this whole pell-mell of struggle, competition, confusion, graft, disappointment and advertisement, and if it is one of the permanent mainsprings then you may be quite sure of this. Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the first day on which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care. That will be the natural thing—the life that will come to you of its own accord. Any other kind of life, if you lead it, will be the result of conscious and continuous effort. If you do nothing about it, if you drift with the stream, you will in fact be an “inner ringer.” I don’t say you’ll be a successful one; that’s as may be. But whether by pining and moping outside Rings that you can never enter, or by passing triumphantly further and further in—one way or the other you will be that kind of man.
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.
His main explicit reasons for advising against succumbing to this easy set of motives are that it runs a major risk of turning you into a scoundrel, and that it is fundamentally unsatisfying—once admitted to the ingroup, you will just want a further in group; the exclusive appeal of the ingroup won’t actually be appealing once you are comfortably in it; and the social pleasures of company in the set probably won’t satisfy, since those didn’t satisfy you on the outside.
I think there is further reason not to be drawn into such things:
- I controversially and uncertainly claim that even the good of having especially high social status is a lesser kind of good relative to those available from other arenas of existence. Though I suppose it increases your life expectancy somewhat.
- It is roughly zero sum, so hard to wholly get behind and believe in, what with your success being net bad for the rest of the world.
- To the extent it is at the cost of real craftsmanship and focus on the object level, it will make you worse at your profession, and thus less cool in the eyes of God, or an ideal observer, who are even cooler than your local set.
I think Lewis is also making an interesting maneuver here, beyond communicating an idea. In modeling the behavior of the coolness-seekers, you put them in a less cool position. In the default framing, they are sophisticated and others are naive. But when the ‘naive’ are intentionally so because they see the whole situation for what it is, while the sophisticated followed their brute urges without stepping back, who is naive really?