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The Dangerous Lure of the Inner Circle

Of all 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.

In That Hideous Strength, the final book in Lewis’ Space Trilogy, a recurring motif is the lure of the Inner Circle. As usual, Lewis has profound insights into the all the ways we compromise our character and slide ever so slowly into evil—hardly even realizing that we are doing it.

I’ve been thinking about this theme as I prepare to teach That Hideous Strength again. And today I ran across this passage in Lewis’ The Weight of Glory, where he spells out explicitly the idea he is trying to show us in his novel:

“To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colours. Obviously, bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear. 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. It will be the hint of something which is not quite in accordance with the technical rules of fair play; something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand; something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about, but something, says your new friend, which ‘we’—and at the word ‘we’ you try not to blush for mere pleasure—something ‘we always do.’ 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 would be so terrible to see the other man’s face—that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face–turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage, and giving the prizes at our old school. But you will be a scoundrel . . . Of all 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.”

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