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CS Lewis' The Inner Ring
March 21, 2013 12:57 PM   Subscribe

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. CS Lewis on The Inner Ring.
posted by shivohum (66 comments total) 57 users marked this as a favorite

 
> It is a terrible bore, of course, when old Fatty Smithson draws you aside and whispers, “Look here, we’ve got to get you in on this examination somehow” or “Charles and I saw at once that you’ve got to be on this committee.” A terrible bore… ah, but how much more terrible if you were left out! It is tiring and unhealthy to lose your Saturday afternoons: but to have them free because you don’t matter, that is much worse.

Do you think this is true? If so, congratulations! You're management material!
posted by The Card Cheat at 1:04 PM on March 21, 2013 [8 favorites]


All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
posted by localroger at 1:06 PM on March 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


This piece brings up bad memories of working in government.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:11 PM on March 21, 2013


The law frowns on even the gentlest attempts to expedite her departure.

Worth the price of admission.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 1:26 PM on March 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


A classic. There's a Peep Show episode that talks about this essay too.
posted by steinsaltz at 1:35 PM on March 21, 2013


Excellent essay.
posted by smorange at 1:37 PM on March 21, 2013


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.

I need someone to read this to me every day
posted by shothotbot at 1:39 PM on March 21, 2013 [6 favorites]


Lewis is fantastically readable and eminently quotable. I have the volume he wrote for the Oxford History of the English Language (which he referred to often as the 'OHEL') and another collection of essays he wrote on Dante and other topics. There are some recordings of him here if you'd like to hear him in his own voice.
posted by jquinby at 1:41 PM on March 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


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.

Also, those people just lost the game.
posted by Foosnark at 1:44 PM on March 21, 2013


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.

And you will be rapidly laid off.
posted by darksasami at 1:46 PM on March 21, 2013


Man, I have my occasional disagreements with Lewis but he was such a sharp observer of humanity.
posted by restless_nomad at 1:53 PM on March 21, 2013 [6 favorites]


Ah, joy through work. Nose to the grindstone, chaps, and never mind the 'igher ups!
One reason for the extravagant boosting that these people get in the press is that their political affiliations are invariably reactionary. Some of them were frank admirers of Fascism as long as it was safe to be so. That is why I draw attention to Mr C. S. Lewis and his chummy little wireless talks, of which no doubt there will be more. They are not really so unpolitical as they are meant to look. Indeed they are an outflanking movement in the big counterattack against the Left.--Orwell
The real Inner Ring is the union, boys.
posted by No Robots at 1:53 PM on March 21, 2013 [10 favorites]


Well now, do you mean the rank and file, or do you mean the Grievance Committee, or the Constitution and Bylaws Committee, or the Executive Committee, or ...
posted by Longtime Listener at 2:02 PM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


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.

Also, those people just lost the game.


The only rule of the game is to never think of the game.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:05 PM on March 21, 2013


tl;dr version: "People suck."
posted by ZenMasterThis at 2:05 PM on March 21, 2013


I'm surprised the cabal allowed this post.
posted by radwolf76 at 2:08 PM on March 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


I just bought Alan Jacobs' Lewis biography a couple of days ago. Dude seems to be in the air a bit lately. He was certainly a hell of a writer.

Ah, joy through work. Nose to the grindstone, chaps, and never mind the 'igher ups!

I have my ideological differences with Lewis (do I ever), but this seems to me a profoundly uncharitable reading of the essay at hand.
posted by brennen at 2:12 PM on March 21, 2013 [5 favorites]


I'm not sure what Orwell is on about, but I'd love to hear more.

Regardless of how lame you might think his apologetics, I've always thought Lewis was an extremely sharp "moralist," as he called himself. He's really good at pointing out ways that people are terrible to each other (and self-serving ways we deceive ourselves about it) that not usually noticed by the Church (and the general culture) or considered sinful.

Although the Catechism of The Roman Catholic Church is surprisingly good in some places as well, such as this passage about Offenses Against Truth:

Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty:
- of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;
- of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another's faults and failings to persons who did not know them;
- of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.

To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor's thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way:

Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another's statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. and if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.

Detraction and calumny destroy the reputation and honor of one's neighbor. Honor is the social witness given to human dignity, and everyone enjoys a natural right to the honor of his name and reputation and to respect. Thus, detraction and calumny offend against the virtues of justice and charity.

posted by straight at 2:13 PM on March 21, 2013 [11 favorites]


I'm reminded of a series of articles from Michael Church about the corporate hierarchy of "Losers, Clueless, and Sociopaths". The sociopaths are the inner ring in this area, and the clueless are those eternally trying to get in, but because of their striving, are excluded from it. The Losers don't give a damn.

Also, for how this plays in politics, you can always go by my old standby of the The Tyranny of Structurelessness.
posted by zabuni at 2:15 PM on March 21, 2013 [7 favorites]


A fun way to get a good dose of Lewis's better writing is this audio book of The Screwtape Letters read by John Cleese. (YouTube link as it seems to be out of print.)
posted by straight at 2:20 PM on March 21, 2013


The inner ring: I have pushed out of it, and I have never allowed anyone in.

My doctor says that will change once a year when I turn 40 though.
posted by Kabanos at 2:23 PM on March 21, 2013


This is good. Unless you understand this yourself, you need to hear a speech like this. And even if you have understood it by yourself, it’s still very rare to see it expressed as clearly as here.
posted by Termite at 2:25 PM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


this seems to me a profoundly uncharitable reading of the essay at hand.

I worked for a die-hard Lewisite. At one of our chummy morning meetings the boss said that the Church had failed to provide a doctrine of work, and thus lost many souls to socialism. The key to a Christian doctrine of work, he said, was for Christians to do the best job they could at whatever job they had, even if it was serving at MacDonald’s. I took offense at this, and replied that nobody ever said that St. Paul was a great Christian because he was such a dedicated tent-maker. There was no reply. In my view, the proper Christian doctrine of work is to fully embrace socialism.
posted by No Robots at 2:44 PM on March 21, 2013 [13 favorites]


Is "the inner ring" like the order of the phoenix? All this pushing and allowing and angst...
posted by pleurodirous at 2:51 PM on March 21, 2013


I read it replacing "inner ring" with "NuvaRing." Makes sense.
posted by prefpara at 2:57 PM on March 21, 2013


Thanks for that first link, zabuni. My college-age son WILL be reading it this weekend.

My only quibble with it is the author's assertion that Losers want to be cool. As an avowed Loser, I don't care what anyone outside of my friends think of me, but I'm aware that, strategically, it's important to be seen as cool. If you ask anyone at my job about me, they will tell you that I'm always in a good mood and very pleasant to be around. This is because of an active choice to be that way, and it serves two purposes. First, it keeps people out of my private business. Second, I can always find people willing to help with whatever task I'm working on -- Strategery.
posted by 1066 at 3:02 PM on March 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Whatever you make of Lewis' conclusions, there's no question that recognizing that such shadowy things exist is a very valuable lesson.

Lewis certainly knew from experience that education has many such rings. One of the least well-known (and most powerful) of them is in charge of "accreditation". Talk about invisible hands.
posted by Twang at 3:08 PM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


He was certainly a hell of a writer.

To my mind, his brother W.H. is even more so. But then, my interests are more historical than religious.
posted by BWA at 3:16 PM on March 21, 2013


> nobody ever said that St. Paul was a great Christian because he was such a dedicated tent-maker.

Paul was probably the worst disaster ever to happen to the church. That said, the proper doctrine of everything is to give your full attention to whatever it is you're doing.
posted by jfuller at 3:32 PM on March 21, 2013 [5 favorites]


That said, the proper doctrine of everything is to give your full attention to whatever it is you're doing.

And what Christians should be doing is establishing socialism.
posted by No Robots at 3:39 PM on March 21, 2013 [5 favorites]


Is "the inner ring" like the order of the phoenix? All this pushing and allowing and angst...

Sort of, apparently:

"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."

In high school, when I realized I had no friends, I tried to break into conversations with other people. This never worked. Either the people in the conversation forced me out - "Rustic, you don't have to hear everything people say" - or I didn't understand anything they said. I heard names, but couldn't attach faces to them. I heard that X was sleeping with Y behind Z's back, or Z with Y behind X's back, but I didn't know why I should have cared. I finally gave up altogether. College was little different.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 3:40 PM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


This was a great read, and a great find. Thanks so much for posting!
posted by hippybear at 4:25 PM on March 21, 2013


Viral marketing was obtuse back in the '40s.
posted by b1tr0t at 4:25 PM on March 21, 2013


A profound moral point. I've linked to it a couple of threads. Glad it has it's own.
posted by Trochanter at 4:34 PM on March 21, 2013


The man was a genius and a great spirtual inspiration, probably the greatest Christian thinker of the 20th century. He died on the same day that JFK and Aldous Huxley died. Wierd.
posted by Seekerofsplendor at 5:27 PM on March 21, 2013


Human beings naturally coalesce into sub-groups. That's what we usually do.

C.S. Lewis and C.P. Snow both went to Cambridge. C.P. Snow mentions these sorts of gangs or cabals throughout his Strangers and Brothers series. My personal favourite is 'The Light and The Dark'.
posted by ovvl at 5:31 PM on March 21, 2013


"In my view, the proper Christian doctrine of work is to fully embrace socialism."

Some would beg to differ.
posted by markkraft at 6:08 PM on March 21, 2013


But really, Orwell was kinda right about C.S. Lewis, no matter how clever he could be at times.

Case in point:
"No man who says I’m as good as you believes it. He would not say it if he did. The St. Bernard never says it to the toy dog, nor the scholar to the dunce, nor the employable to the bum, nor the pretty woman to the plain. The claim to equality, outside the strictly political field, is made only by those who feel themselves to be in some way inferior."
- C.S. Lewis

And it doubles as a lovely defense of slavery, too! Entitled much?!

Somehow, I don't think Jesus would exactly agree, at least when it comes to the spiritual realm.
posted by markkraft at 6:38 PM on March 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


CS Lewis had his weak points (the Lord, Liar, Lunatic false-trichotomy, for one), and one might respectfully disagree with the practicality of his advice to the marginalized, but I believe he was sincere and motivated by a spirit of charity for all people (and belief in a Christian afterlife certainly). His detractors do not strengthen their argument by suggesting a malicious reactionary conservativism as his primary motivation. At worst he was a bit of a blowhard and a fool, but as he gave us Narnia I'd call it even.
posted by fraxil at 6:50 PM on March 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


Thanks for posting this, shivohum; I'm about to transition into a new social/creative/professional environment and this issue has been giving me a lot of distress lately. I'm going to be leaving this essay open in a tab for rereading when my anxieties flare up again.
posted by brieche at 7:29 PM on March 21, 2013


For all those praising the third rate apologist that is C.S. Lewis, I recommend Ana Mardoll's deconstructions of the Narna books. Calling the author of those books (or worse yet "That Hideous Book Strength") "a sharp observer of humanity" is ... dubious at best. (Or to put it another way, Orwell was on to something - and I loved the Narnia books when I was nine but they were destroyed when re-read as an adult, and the only thing I've read by Lewis that stands up is Screwtape - which stands up because he's free to vent the meanness and pettiness that laces his writing).
posted by Francis at 7:52 PM on March 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


the only thing I've read by Lewis that stands up is Screwtape

Till We Have Faces, if you have not read it, is amazing.

I suppose this might be a good thread to drop in this Salon article from a decade ago which tells how Tolkien convinced Lewis that Christianity was a belief system worth taking seriously.

It's one of my favorite little factoids about literary history.
posted by hippybear at 8:01 PM on March 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


This essay really opened my mind when I came across it previously, well deserving its own post.

Ingroups and outgroups in social psychology (Wikipedia)

I've seen the "Tyranny of structurelessness" as mentioned upthread, though I knew it as the Iron Law of Oligarchy.
posted by yoHighness at 8:03 PM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


probably the greatest Christian thinker of the 20th century.

I think this is probably untrue, but his significance as a Christian thinker - measured in terms of the shadow he casts across the more thoughtful subset of Christianity - is considerable.

For all those praising the third rate apologist

I think, seen in absolute terms, C.S. Lewis was (as a thinker) a moral failure and a bit of a sellout, but there's a great deal of value in his better moments. Even at his most populist and marketable, he manages to hit some beautiful notes. Mere Christianity, like all apologetics, is in terms of its essential purpose a swindle, but it can be a surprisingly beautiful and decent one, especially encountered at a certain moment in a certain very common kind of life.
posted by brennen at 8:22 PM on March 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


... the third rate apologist that is C.S. Lewis ...

I just have to know, who are the first-rate apologists?
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 8:42 PM on March 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


God, that thing from Screwtape Letters about "I'm-as-good-as-you" is *horrific*. What vileness.

I used to love and deeply believe every word Lewis ever wrote. I'm always shocked when I read something he wrote and realize that I loathe it. I don't realize how much I've changed over the years till something like that happens.

I still cut him as much slack as I can.

RE: the Inner Ring, I think Lewis maybe overestimated how big a deal that was to people in general. I suspect it was a particularly big deal to him and he projected it, some. But it is true that it's not a well-known or well-recognized vice, and it can be awfully destructive where it does exist.

One thing where I can see the Inner Ring thing happening, is Internet communities. Every so often you learn something about the insane shit that is decided behind closed forum doors and realize that it can only be explained by an Inner Ring which has created an "us and them" world with special rules that only apply to the "us."
posted by edheil at 8:45 PM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


*sigh*

It can't be that people we disagree with are honest and sincere, albeit wrong. No, they have to be bad people. Something must be wrong with them. I'd wonder why this were so, but Lewis helpfully answered that question in his essay.
posted by smorange at 9:43 PM on March 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


"No man who says I’m as good as you believes it. "

..Somehow, I don't think Jesus would exactly agree, at least when it comes to the spiritual realm.

..that thing from Screwtape Letters about "I'm-as-good-as-you" is *horrific*. What vileness.

So I'm up late and find this a fascinating topic, both "what did Lewis really think?" and what is the right way to balance democracy and individual value. For instance, the quoted speech from Screwtape reminds me of the Kurt Vonnegut story. Lewis too fears a future in which "dunces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils," resulting in artificial suppression of talented individuals.

Might Lewis have held that there was a deeper value which unites rather than distinguishes us? It seems that way in The Great Divorce. There is an important artist who finds to his chagrin that in Heaven "great men" are not "distinguished-no more than anyone else...They are all famous." Then there is an "unremarkable" girl who is revealed in queenly form, and the narrator remarks that "Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things." Of course this echoes his essay The weight of glory. "It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses... There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal."

So how do you reconcile these quotes, (I don't discount the possibility that Lewis made some blunders one way or the other) and generally how do you honor individuals while avoiding Ayn Rand style individualism? Probably has something to do with the last being first...
posted by TreeRooster at 12:27 AM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


It can't be that people we disagree with are honest and sincere, albeit wrong.

All the fiction and apologetics I have ever read by C. S. Lewis are animated by this belief: that anyone who disagrees with Christianity (and in particular, Lewis's version of it) must be a driven by some deep seated resentment or the victim of a logical error.

Once you strip away the chummy tone, underneath Lewis is a very judgmental, aggressive and mean-spirited person. He is not a safe guardian of a child's trust. Towards the end of his life, he started to become a bit more honest and a bit more broad-minded, but I always revisit the Narnia books with great sadness because, for all that they are imaginative and suspenseful and fun, for all that I loved them as a child, they are so full of all sorts of horrible, spiteful asides ("the head who was, by the way, a woman", Eustace's parents who like to sleep with the windows open, the virago villains, the girls with chubby legs, the treatment of Susan) that the experience soon turns sour.

What was best in Lewis was what he borrowed from Edith Nesbitt, a far kinder, wiser and more honest writer. This essay rightly rejects the desire to be a part of an "inner circle" in business life, but Lewis's fiction is about nothing so much as it is being a part of the inner circle of right-thinking, right-feeling people, living the kind of life that he considered important, i.e. the spiritual life. Even if you despise modern management culture, I think you could find a better reason to do so than because managers are the wrong kind of 'saved'.

The George Orwell review that No Robots quotes above can be found here. It neatly sums up my own view of Lewis's cod-rationalism. Orwell also reviewed That Hideous Strength, saying "by the standard of the novels appearing nowadays this is a book worth reading".
posted by lucien_reeve at 1:46 AM on March 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


Pretty good essay, but I think some of us here know what he was really trying to say.
posted by orme at 2:08 AM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


For instance, the quoted speech from Screwtape reminds me of the Kurt Vonnegut story. Lewis too fears a future in which "dunces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils," resulting in artificial suppression of talented individuals.

For what it's worth, I read somewhere that Vonnegut intended "Harrison Bergeron" as a satire of the worldview you ascribe to Lewis.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 6:29 AM on March 22, 2013


..Vonnegut intended "Harrison Bergeron" as a satire of the worldview you ascribe to Lewis.

From the two bits of Lewis's writing we were looking at (Screwtape and Glory) there is at first a cognitive disconnect: how can he warn us against trying to pretend people are equally skilled while asking us to treat everyone as divinely wonderful, with equally valuable potential? Of course it might just be that he doesn't know himself, and he's trying to have it both ways. Rather I'd guess there would be an ethical resolution of the apparent paradox: our innate and learned talents are one sort of lower value, how we use them in service of others reveals how much of our true, universally possessed potential we are realizing. Harrison Bergeron's persecution is one danger, also warned against by Lewis in Screwtape. The greater danger is failing to realize the vastly more important sort of potential--as Lewis describes in Glory--which is independent of our physical and mental skill-sets.

So what is Vonnegut satirizing? It reads to me as a straightforward critique of a certain kind of enforced social equality.
posted by TreeRooster at 7:31 AM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Thanks, lucien, for the Orwell link. Some very good criticism of Lewis's tone and general weaknesses in his apologetic arguments. I can definitely also see the danger of Lewis's Screwtape speech, Inner Ring essay, and even Harrison Bergeron being read as anti-leftist dog-whistles. I have no idea what Lewis had to say about the need for economic social equality. I can't recall any clear examples of his being anti-union or lending moral support for perpetuating class divisions, unless he is guilty by omission.
posted by TreeRooster at 7:47 AM on March 22, 2013


Vonnegut would be making fun of right-wingers who saw New Deal programs, etc., as an unacceptable sop to the poor, the untalented, and so on, by showing what a really oppressively "fair" society would do. But this is if I'm remembering it right, which I'm probably not, and I can't find a source for this. I could well be wrong.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:51 AM on March 22, 2013


..that thing from Screwtape Letters about "I'm-as-good-as-you" is *horrific*. What vileness.

Only if you take it completely out of context.

Imagine meeting Dick Chaney in a context where you were able to really tell him what you think about his role in the decision to invade Iraq and to normalize torture. Then imagine him coming back to you with, "Oh get off your high horse. You're no better than me. I'm as good a person as you are."

Would it be "horrific" to object to that rhetoric? Because in context, Lewis is warning us about the belief that any of us is "equal to everyone he meets in kindness, honesty, and good sense." Have you really never met anyone kinder or more honest than yourself? Is it "horrific" to even suggest that maybe you have?
posted by straight at 8:23 AM on March 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Till We Have Faces, if you have not read it, is amazing.

Oh yes. This is an amazing, beautiful, fascinating book. It's a re-telling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche from the perspective of one of Psyche's sisters who convinced Psyche to suspect that Cupid was actually a monster.

It was the last work of fiction Lewis wrote, written after his marriage to Joy Davidson, and while it still has it's problems, the treatment of female characters is several light years beyond what you find in Narnia or the Space Trilogy. It's also the least concerned of any of his fiction with shoehorning in Christian apologetics. It's there, but much less prominent, and much less strident. He's saying things about God and theodicy, but I think they are ideas that someone who is not a Christian might find more worth engaging with, even if you don't agree with them.
posted by straight at 8:32 AM on March 22, 2013


I appreciate Lewis, so perhaps I read him more charitably than others. Additionally, as a high school teacher, I run into the same attitude that ultimately harms many students. "I'm-as-good-as-you" is how they explain that knowledge has equal value to ignorance or that there are no grades of morality. They do this to relieve themselves of action to improve; if their ignorance is fine, they need not learn anything. I've also seen this same attitude with things like climate change: "Do these scientists think they're smarter than me?" At worst, it means that there is no expertise, no greater striving, no need to reflect and become better than what we are already. As much as elitism can be dangerous to society, so can such a wrong-headed application of "equality". Justice and injustice are not the same, and we injure the just when we consider it so.

Lewis's other point about glory, I think Lewis would be the first to admit that even if we're not all the same as far as individual talents and morals, we all have equal worth. I might not be as smart as some, or as strong as some, or as good as some, but I still have infinite moral worth as a human life. I see no contridiction on both of these being true.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 8:50 AM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Those essays of Orwell's that lucien reeve linked us to (thanks for that) are disappointing. The first is almost completely ad hominem, engaging with nothing that Lewis said other than criticizing his tone. Orwell basically says, "We've seen this kind of thing before and by the way some of those earlier folks were pretty reactionary." Not a word explaining what Orwell thinks is political in Lewis's writing.

In the second, Orwell is weirdly silent about stuff in Lewis's Space Trilogy that I would consider sexist and reactionary. I feel like Lewis unfairly demonizes (literally) scientists but Orwell finds them all to plausible in the wake of the atom bomb: "Plenty of people in our age do entertain the monstrous dreams of power that Mr. Lewis attributes to his characters, and we are within sight of the time when such dreams will be realisable."
posted by straight at 9:00 AM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Lewis is hard to pin down on economics. Jared Lobdell in his book The Scientifiction Novels of C.S. Lewis tries to make the case that Lewis subscribed to G.K. Chesterton's philosophy of Distributism.

In Mere Christianity, Lewis writes that that in a fully Christian society “we should feel that its economic life was very socialistic and, in that sense, ‘advanced,’” and that it would be “what we now call Leftist.”

He also writes “Some people nowadays say that charity ought to be unnecessary and that instead of giving to the poor we ought to be producing a society in which there were no poor to give to. They may be quite right in saying that we ought to produce that kind of society. But if anyone thinks that, as a consequence, you can stop giving in the meantime, then he has parted company with all Christian morality.”

Lewis said, "If our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot because our charitable expenditure excludes them."

And he appears to have practiced that kind of charity, both in terms of giving away a lot of his money and in more personal gestures. Walter Hooper tells of a time when he was out walking with Lewis and Lewis gave some money to a beggar:

I made the usual objection: "Won't he just spend it on drink?"

Lewis answered, "Yes, but if I kept it, so would I."

posted by straight at 9:14 AM on March 22, 2013 [6 favorites]


On the other hand, Lewis wrote an essay called, “Is Progress Possible? Willing Slaves of the Welfare State,” in which he is deeply suspicious of the growth of government power:

"I believe a man is happier, and happy in a richer way, if he has ‘the freeborn mind.’ But I doubt whether he can have this without economic independence, which the new society is abolishing. For economic independence allows an education not controlled by Government; and in adult life it is the man who needs, and asks, nothing of Government who can criticize its acts and snap his fingers at its ideology."

"We must give full weight to Sir Charles's reminder that millions in the East are still half starved...We must give full weight to the claim that nothing but science globally applied, and therefore unprecedented Government controls, can produce full bellies and medical care for the whole human race: nothing, in short, but a world Welfare State."

"We have on the one hand a desperate need; hunger, sickness, and the dread of war. We have, on the other, the conception of something that might meet it: omnicompetent global technocracy. Are not these the ideal opportunity for enslavement? This is how it has entered before; a desperate need (real or apparent) in the one party, a power (real or apparent) to relieve it in the other. In the ancient world individuals have sold themselves as slaves in order to eat"
posted by straight at 9:24 AM on March 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Once you strip away the chummy tone, underneath Lewis is a very judgmental, aggressive and mean-spirited person.

I think it is or should be obvious that Lewis was writing in a different time. The world has changed a lot over the last (almost) century. In my view, there's no sense in judging him against contemporary standards of morality. Now, Lewis certainly had his moral convictions, some of which we may not agree with, but he's upfront about what those are. That's what Screwtape is, for example. For better and worse, people don't often write that way anymore. But I see in Lewis a desire to see the improvement of individual human beings, a desire to enable them to heal themselves from the worldly wounds inflicted upon them. And I see him treating people as moral agents.
posted by smorange at 9:24 AM on March 22, 2013


Maybe I'm reading Lewis wrong or reading too much into him, but I don't think there is any tension at all between that passage in Screwtape and the one in The Great Divorce. In the Screwtape passage, the claim being made is a descriptive one about human psychology. Maybe it's false. It's certainly empirical. The claim is something like this. If person x has greater ability than person y with respect to some activity or quality z, then x will not say to y, "We are equally good at z." The person who is better has no need to say such a thing. Perhaps the idea is that the better person has fewer insecurities or knows her own ability. However, the person who is not as good might want to say such a thing as a defense. The person recognizes, however dimly, that she is not as good at z. Saying, "I'm just as good as you at z," is a kind of defense against reality. It is a kind of self-deception.

Notice that what Lewis says here is completely compatible with the demand that people who are obviously not equal along some dimension be made equal to satisfy the demands of justice. That is, one might agree with Lewis here and still say, "In some cases, where one recognizes inequality, it is not that one is just as good as the superior but that one ought to be as good as the superior." This is my own reaction to wealth inequality. It is not that I think I am just as wealthy as the super-rich. That would be a silly self-deception. But seeing the truth, does not mean I have to accept my station in life. I may, without contradiction, say that wealth should be more equitably distributed, and I may, without contradiction, work to bring it about.

The sentiment in the passage from The Great Divorce (see also Chapter 14 of Screwtape, incidentally) is about the value of persons. This is very, very different than a measure of abilities or qualities. Again, I may be reading in too much, but it seems to me that he is making a very basic Kantian point here. (Not one I agree with, but it's hardly a pushover.) The point is that there are two very different kinds of valuation. There is valuation of abilities or qualities a person has, like good looks or wealth or the ability to invent clever stories, and there is valuation of the person as such. What I think Lewis is saying in the second passage is that people are all equally valuable as persons. And this value is simply incommensurable with the value of qualities and abilities. Give a person all the talent and beauty you want -- make her better in whatever ways you like, with respect to whatever qualities you like -- so long as she is compared in value with respect to her person, the scales will always be even against other persons.

Notice that Lewis could endorse the view that people are all equally valuable as persons and also say that people are typically susceptible to another kind of self-deception: neglecting their own value as persons. Here, if one says, "I'm not as good as you," one is making a mistake. Similarly if one says, "I'm better than you." Mistakes like this arise, one might think, because people confuse the value of their qualities and abilities with the value of their person.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 9:38 AM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Johnathan Livengood, in the Screwtape passage, the demon is talking about the act of deadening one's conscience by telling yourself, "They're no better than me. I'm no worse than anybody else."
posted by straight at 10:16 AM on March 22, 2013


Thanks, straight, for the thoughtful presentation on Lewis' political-economics. It seems he had a fairly nuanced view. All the same, it is important to point out that some of his statements are easily used to bolster the dominant social structures.
posted by No Robots at 11:34 AM on March 22, 2013


straight,

I'm not sure what you mean by "deadening one's conscience" in this context. Deadening it with respect to what? To what end?

I guess I'm not sure whether you mean to be disagreeing with me or not ... and about what, exactly.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 12:11 PM on March 22, 2013


Well, it's complicated, because Lewis is talking about lots of different things in that essay (the quote is from "Screwtape Proposes a Toast").

But one of the things Lewis is getting at is our tendency to excuse our morally bad behavior by saying, "I'm no worse than anyone else," and particularly refusing to listen to anyone who might call us out by saying, "You're no better than me!"

If someone says, "Dude, that joke you told to her was really demeaning in a sexist way," I can respond by owning up to it, apologizing, and paying closer attention to whether I'm telling jokes that are hurtful. Or I can get all defensive and say, "Oh yeah? What about that joke you told last week?" One of those responses strengthens my conscience, the other weakens it.

Now in that Screwtape essay, Lewis is also ranting about the alleged problem of people using the language of "democracy" to tear down people they envy. The whole Harrison Bergeron thing of denigrating academic excellence or physical excellence lest someone feel inferior to those who are smarter or more athletic than they are. That may be a legitimate problem, but some of the language in that essay seems uncomfortably elitist:

The basic principle of the new education is to be that dunces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils. That would be “undemocratic.” ... Entrance examinations must be framed so that all, or nearly all, citizens can go to universities, whether they have any power (or wish) to profit by higher education or not. At schools, the children who are too stupid or lazy to learn languages and mathematics and elementary science can be set to doing things that children used to do in their spare time. Let, them, for example, make mud pies and call it modelling.

And preoccupation with that kind of thing is something we tend to associate with right-wing racists and meritocracy apologists. It's hard not to read that as saying some people deserve better treatment because they are better or more valuable, even though Lewis draws very clear distinctions in other places between a people's moral, cultural, social, or intellectual excellence and their moral worth as persons. (Lewis would say we have a responsibility to pursue moral excellence--to be good people--but that our moral worth, our rights, & the obligations other owe us as persons do not depend on our success at being good.)
posted by straight at 1:33 PM on March 22, 2013


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