Balancing Humility and Ambition for the Inner Ring

In his new book How to Think, Alan Jacobs brings up a 1944 lecture by the British writer C.S. Lewis that summarizes well the state of politics three-quarters of a century later and an ocean away—not surprising perhaps, given that his observation is one that humanity has experienced for millennia.

In his lecture at King’s College at the University of London, Lewis cites the phenomenon of “The Inner Ring,” the unofficial group of people that really run things—whether it’s a grade-school playground, a men’s club lodge or even a national government. “I can assure you that in whatever hospital, inn of court, diocese, school, business, or college you arrive after going down, you will find the Rings—what Tolstoy calls the second or unwritten systems.”

“The pastor is not always the most influential person in a church, not the boss in the workplace,” Jacobs explains. “Sometimes groups of people with no formal titles or authority are the ones who determine how the organization works. They form its Inner Ring.” To Lewis, all men have not only a desire to be part of this Inner Ring, but a “terror”—his word—of being left outside.

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Politically, we can see this Inner Ring at work in what has been called “the deep state,” the idea that career bureaucrats are really the ones running things in Washington and, one assumes, other levels of government. There is some truth to this; whether it’s true to the degree the accusers claim is another matter. Just about every conspiracy theory, whether it’s about the assassination of JFK or the terror attack of 9/11, hinges on the idea of an Inner Ring.

It’s the underlying moral issue that needs to be considered robustly. We all want to be part of the Inner Ring, Lewis asserts. It’s the perennial drive to be “popular” and esteemed by all. The question is: What are we willing to do to reach that point, to join the Inner Ring?

For C.S. Lewis in 1944 and Alan Jacobs in 2017, the answer is the same. Lewis notes that the desire to be part of the Inner Ring is what can corrupt someone—“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.” It can be as simple as bullying someone at the lunchtable who does not fit in, or taking part in a whisper campaign against a coworker. Jacobs sees this also in How to Think: “The draw of the Inner Ring has such a corrupting power because it never announces itself as evil—indeed, it never announces itself at all.”

When it comes to the Inner Ring, Jacobs argues that this is the opposite of a true community of people. One finds this in his “Thinking Person’s Checklist” at the end of the book, after reminding people that they don’t have to respond to every opposing comment: “If you do have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness, or else lose your status in your community, then you should realize that it’s not a community but an Inner Ring.”

Rather, Jacobs asserts, it’s true community we should be striving for, one where differences are respected and make the whole stronger, not the Inner Ring, where everyone must think and do the same.

Among Lewis’s voluminous writings one also finds a series of letters to an Italian priest, Don Giovanni Calabria. Calabria had sent Lewis a copy of the Catholic devotional Litany of Humility in 1948, to which the Anglican writer responded, in part: “You did not know, did you, that all the temptations against which he pours forth these prayers I have long been exceedingly conscious of?”

The Litany of Humility is the sort of prayer a person can certainly find difficult to pray, for all the right reasons—most of all, because it challenges our modern assumptions about career and ambition. It asks us, for example, to pray to be delivered from the desires of being praised, preferred to others, consulted and approved. Rather, we would pray for the desire that others may be esteemed more than us, that others may be chosen and we set aside, that others may be praised and we unnoticed, and that others may be preferred to us in everything. It’s a prayer that makes us a little uncomfortable, as all such prayers should.

Does this mean we give up ambition and advancement? No; rather, it means we strive to do it on our own terms. Recently in the New York Times, Adam Grant of the Wharton School wrote about the trend toward career networking, and that what people often forget is the other part of it, that we can build better and stronger networks by standing out in our work first. And it’s an idea with Christian roots that Lewis would find appealing.

In a curious detail lurking in a local gender discrimination lawsuit and related complaints about a major business group in St. Louis, a woman alleges that during a performance review, her supervisor encouraged her to pray the Litany of Humility and stop seeking a promotion. Perhaps needless to say, the employee was not receptive to the idea and rightly found it wrong-headed in a secular professional setting.

In his Times article, Grant cites the work of sociologist Robert Merton, whose research indicated what he referred to as the “Matthew Effect,” based on the biblical parable of the talents. “If you establish a track record of achievement, advantages tend to accumulate,” Grant writes. “Who you’ll know tomorrow depends on what you contributed yesterday.”

This may not help the poor woman in the lawsuit, but it shows a path forward. If we work hard at what we are supposed to be doing, a network arises naturally and a way forward—even at another employer if one is in a bad spot with a bad boss—can more easily present itself.

This is exactly what Lewis is striving for at the end of his lecture: “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.”

Lewis concludes: “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.”


  • K. E. Colombini

    K. E. Colombini is a former journalist who served as a political speechwriter before a career in corporate communications. A Thomas Aquinas College alumnus, he also studied English literature at Sonoma State University in Northern California. In addition to Crisis, Colombini has been published in First Things, Inside the Vatican, The American Conservative and the Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He and his wife live in suburban St. Louis, and have five children and ten grandchildren.

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