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Chatting With C.S. Lewis

David Cowles

Sep 1, 2023

“It is the very mark of a perverse desire that it seeks what is not to be had… As long as you are governed by that desire, you will never get what you want.”

Proponents of AI, of which I consider myself one, assure me that soon I will be able to hear a debate between Karl Marx and Pope Leo XIII, ‘live’. I can’t wait; I will pay through the nose for this ticket. But I also believe that AI was not invented last night; it’s been around at least since the dawn of written communication. For example, here’s the edited transcript of a conversation I had with C.S. Lewis (d. 1963), thanks to an old-fashioned version of Artificial Intelligence (books). Enjoy!

CSL: (In a passage) 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… The other is not printed anywhere…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. 

AT: So, if I understand you, you’re talking about identity here; you’re saying that people derive ‘identity’ from their ranking on some sort of socio-economic Tennis Ladder? Or to use your terminology, a series of ever tightening concentric rings ascending in an inverted cone, like Dante’s Paradise. Each ring is inside some rings and outside others. So everyone is outside, outside of what? 

CSL: From outside, if you have despaired 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."

AT: I think that perhaps because of differences in our age (50 years) and nationality (the Pond), we are saying similar things using slightly different vocabularies. For example, where you say ‘ring’, I might say ‘rung’. In 21st century U.S. we certainly have our ‘inner circles’ but we also have our justly infamous ‘socio-economic ladder’.

CSL: I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods, between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside. 

AT: Being British, it’s natural for you to think in terms of groups; being American, I’m afraid I think in terms of individuals or, better yet, Groups of One

For us, it’s about the compulsion to be someone and the dread of ending up as no-one. Life is a giant game of Musical Chairs; there’s always a chair for everyone…except one. Ultimately, there’s only chairs enough for one. One winner…all the rest, Losers! 

Being someone might mean being part of an inner circle, as you put it, but it could also mean celebrating some sort of personal triumph (e.g., becoming CEO or earning a million dollars). 

CSL: 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... An invitation from a duchess would be very cold comfort to a man smarting under the sense of exclusion from some artistic or communistic côterie. Poor man—it is not large, lighted rooms, or champagne, or even scandals about peers and Cabinet Ministers that he wants: it is the sacred little attic or studio, the heads bent together, the fog of tobacco smoke, and the delicious knowledge that we—we four or five all huddled beside this stove—are the people who know.

AT: The cognoscenti. What you’re describing sounds like a 21st century, pardon me, 20th century, version of Gnosticism. Being a member of an Anarchist cell is just as much an identity as being CEO of General Motors. Of course, here’s where our terminologies converge. The revolutionary’s cell is every bit as much an Inner Circle as those exclusive country clubs that welcome only the movers and the shakers

CSL: Men tell not only their wives but themselves that it is a hardship to stay late at the office or the school on some bit of important extra work which they have been let in for because they ‘and so-and-so and the two others’ are the only people left in the place who really know how things are run. But it’s not quite true! It is tiring and unhealthy to lose your Saturday afternoons: but to have them free because you don’t matter, that is much worse.

AT: Are you familiar with Victor Frankl? He’s a holocaust survivor who argues that the defining quality in life is ‘having a purpose’. If you don’t matter, you can have no purpose. You are quite literally no-one. People make the mistake of thinking that Being Someone is the same thing as Having Purpose. Being someone is just about self; having purpose involves others.

But shifting gears: would the dreaded adolescent ‘peer pressure’ also fit your model?

CSL: I wonder whether, in ages of promiscuity, many a virginity has not been lost, less in obedience to Venus than in obedience to the lure of the caucus. For of course, when promiscuity is the fashion, the chaste are outsiders. They are ignorant of something that other people know. They are uninitiated. 

AT: Good one! Here, of course, we are talking about ‘to know’ in the Greek sense of gnosis but also in the carnal ‘Biblical sense’. 

CSL: The number of people who first smoked or first got drunk for a similar reason is probably very large.

I must now make a distinction. I am not going to say that the existence of Inner Rings is an 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. Let Inner Rings be unavoidable and even an innocent feature of life, though certainly not a beautiful one: but what of our longing to enter them, our anguish when we are excluded, and the kind of pleasure we feel when we get in?

AT: Identity is idolatry!

CSL: …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… 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. 

AT: That’s me, “too old to care”, but seriously, what you’re saying is incredibly sad. You’re saying that the irresistible desire to be somebody is precisely what ensures that you will never be anybody, that you will forever be nobody, the very thing you dreaded in the first place. 

Perhaps we’re hoping that by ‘being somebody’ we can escape death. We’re hoping to project our frail and mortal humanity into some quasi-permanent physical or social structure. Ozymandias, King of Kings! But by fleeing from our humanity, we shun the gift of being human, the gift of being itself.

CSL: 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 (sic).

AT: So the CEO is just ‘going with the flow’, doing what comes naturally in our culture, while the contemplative monk, the one who seemingly does nothing, is, in fact, the one who is acting, the one who’s swimming against the tide, the one who’s doing something. Thomas Merton, for example, believed that contemplative prayer is what holds the universe together.

CSL: 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… and at the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure…

AT: “We” – the most powerful word in the English language. We pharisees, we band of brothers (or sisters), we police, we mafiosi, we tenured professors, we senators, Sein Fein

CSL: 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 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. 

AT: We tell ourselves that we do what we do for wealth, for security, for comfort, but in fact we do what we do for prestige, for power, for status…in other words, for identity.

CSL: The torture allotted to the Danaids in the classical underworld, that of attempting to fill sieves with water, is the symbol not of one vice, but of all vices. It is the very mark of a perverse desire that it seeks what is not to be had. The desire to be inside the invisible line illustrates this rule… 

AT: To be inside the event horizon of a black hole…

CSL: …As long as you are governed by that desire, you will never get what you want. You are trying to peel an onion: if you succeed, there will be nothing left. Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain.

AT: I’m working on an assembly line, but I desire to enjoy the prestige and the perks of being foreman. I am a professor, hoping to be department head. I am a Senator, working to become President. How high is up? How deep is in?

CSL: This is surely very clear when you come to think of it… If all you want is to be in the know, your pleasure will be short-lived. The circle cannot have from within the charm it had from outside. By the very act of admitting you, it has lost its magic.

AT: “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.” – Groucho Marx

CSL: Once the first novelty is worn off, you will be looking for another Ring. The rainbow’s end will still be ahead of you. The old ring will now be only the drab background for your endeavor to enter the new one. But your genuine Inner Ring exists for exclusion. There’d be no fun if there were no outsiders. The invisible line would have no meaning unless most people were on the wrong side of it. Exclusion is no accident; it is the essence.

AT: Yikes! So no club is worth joining unless it mercilessly excludes the others? The quest for a unique socio-economic identity automatically creates classism, racism, jingoism, even slavery. And yet, there is no such ‘identity’, we are clutching at a phantasm…at the expense of everyone else…and at the expense of ourselves. 

CSL: 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. 

AT: You are describing the ‘Master Builders’ in the 21st century film, The Lego Movie. Honors and accolades are indeed often disconnected from quality, creativity, and productivity. 

CSL: 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. 

AT: Amen!

* C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) was Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University and a Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge. His remarks (above) come to us by way of “The Inner Ring”, the Memorial Lecture given at King’s College, University of London, 1944.


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at


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