C. S. Lewis, the Inner Ring, and Friendship

Lately I have been spending my spare moments with C. S. Lewis. We’ve been friends for over twenty years; however, it has been quite a while since I have slowed down in order to engage him in conversation and really listen to what he has to say. Lewis and I do not always agree. In fact, on topics such as monarchies and certain alleged hierarchies we vehemently disagree; but on other topics such as desire, love, longing, loss, and the Christian journey, Lewis’s wisdom has been a steady source of inspiration, instruction, encouragement, and healing.

After a recent hour or two well spent with Lewis, I found myself ruminating over a chapter called, “The Inner Ring,” in his book, The Weight of Glory. Lewis begins the chapter with an excerpt from Tolstoy’s, War and Peace. The passage highlights two different “systems” of social relationships. One is a written rulebook of sorts delineating relations of superiors to inferiors. A prime example of this system is found in the military where generals are always higher in rank and importance than colonels and the same with colonels and captains. Here relational rankings are clear and rather fixed. In contrast, an unwritten system of social relationship exists as well. Here the rules are nebulous and often morph, but they too create standings and statuses, namely, insiders and outsiders. Describing this second, informal system of rankings, Lewis writes: “You are never formally and explicitly admitted by anyone. You discover gradually, in almost indefinable ways, that it exists and that you are inside it” (144). Those on the “inside” take pride in their having made it (all the while anxiously hoping not to lose their status). They immediately begin name-dropping, making sure that everyone knows that they are now part of the “we” that doesn’t include “you.” Those on the “outside” longing to cross that invisible insider-status line speak derisively of so-and-so and their gang—otherwise known as, the Inner Ring.

This Inner Ring phenomenon that Lewis so lucidly describes is something with which all are familiar, having participated variously as outsiders, insiders, or hopeful borderline candidates. Given my own experiences with Inner Rings and my observations of others, I find convincing Lewis’s claim that over the course of our lives “one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside” (146).

Of course, Inner Rings are both multiple and diverse—some are rather shallow and meaningless, others more substantive. Lewis, in fact, does not judge the mere existence of Inner Rings as morally wrong or bad per se. Social relations of this sort are unavoidable and in many cases appropriate and warranted. For example, one ought to choose carefully those with whom one shares his or her deepest desires, struggles, fears, and the like. Yet, Lewis—like Augustine and Plato before him—moves immediately to the heart of the matter, desire, which of course has everything to do with the heart and our tangled, twisted, and often disordered and misplaced loves. Although Inner Rings are likely necessary yet not necessarily evil, “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” (149).

Desire, longing, passion—here we plunge into the murkiest of waters, a realm rife with potential and wonder yet so frequently misdirected and sorrow-ridden. That is, so often our longing to be on the “right” side of the invisible line demarcating whatever our Inner Ring happens to be, as Lewis observes, can result in the worst sort of self-compromise. Equally bad, our desire for insider status can drive us to abandon those who were or could have been genuine and loyal friends. Why? Simply because at the time we saw them as obstacles hindering our ability to cross the coveted the invisible line. Thus, we have the first main point of Lewis’s chapter, “[o]f all passions the passion for the Inner Ring is most skilled in making a man who is not yet very bad do very bad things” (154)

This brings us to the second main point in Lewis’s musings:

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. 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 (154).

As noted earlier, Lewis is not denouncing all social rings nor is he here speaking to unjust social systems that exclude according to race, gender, and sexuality. His point is rather that if what drives us is a desire merely to gain access to so-and-so’s group, then whatever pleasure we derive from our being in and your being out will be short-lived and deeply unsatisfying. Lewis likens it to “the torture allotted to the Danaids in the classical world, that of attempting to fill sieves with water” (154). Rings of this sort are built upon exclusion and futility.

Thankfully, Lewis doesn’t leave us despairing but points us to a hopeful although paradoxical path—one might even call it a death and resurrection path. That is, if we can manage to walk away from those hollow, heart-wrenching rings and devote ourselves as best we can to those activities that we have known to be true and life-giving, we will find that we “have come unawares to a real inside” (157). Here we will find likeminded others—others seeking not the lure of numbers, secret knowledge, or rings of power and prestige; rather, others with whom we can form lasting and genuine friendships—friendships based on virtue, fidelity, and a common pursuit of what is good and what promotes mutual flourishing. Such friendships are exceedingly rare in our day and even more difficult to cultivate and maintain given our ever-increasing mobility and highly technologically mediated lifestyles. Such difficulties notwithstanding, those few and uncommon genuine friendships that I have been fortunate to experience have indeed been the source of intense joy over the course of my life. Thus, Lewis, yet again you remind me of what’s really important: “[friendship] causes perhaps half of all the happiness in the world, and no Inner Ringer can ever have it” (157).

The Artistry of Zenos Frudakis: Freedom Embodied

Sculpture, "Freedom" by Zeno FrudakisI was recently introduced to the artwork of Zenos Frudakis. Zenos is both creative, as is evident in his work, and extremely generous. He has agreed to allow me to use (without charge) a picture of his beautiful sculpture aptly entitled, “Freedom.” (My husband did the cover art design, which is pictured in this post.) Here are few excerpts from Zenos’s statement as to his vision for this particular work.

“I wanted to create a sculpture almost anyone, regardless of their background, could look at and instantly recognize that it is about the idea of struggling to break free. This sculpture is about the struggle for achievement of freedom through the creative process. Although for me, this feeling sprang from a particular personal situation, I was conscious that it was a universal desire with almost everyone; that need to escape from some situation – be it an internal struggle or an adversarial circumstance, and to be free from it.” […] Although there are four figures represented, the work is really one figure moving from left to right. The composition develops from left to right beginning with a kind of mummy/death like captive figure locked into its background. In the second frame, the figure, reminiscent of Michaelangelo’s Rebellious Slave, begins to stir and struggle to escape. The figure in the third frame has torn himself from the wall that held him captive and is stepping out, reaching for freedom. In the fourth frame, the figure is entirely free, victorious, arms outstretched, completely away from the wall and from the grave space he left behind. He evokes an escape from his own mortality.”

To read Zenos’s statement in its entirety, click the following link.

In this age of hyper-capitalism, I am extremely grateful for artists such as Zenos who still love art for art’s sake.

Invitation to My Dissertation Lecture, August 29th

To all in the D/FW area interested in the topic, I would like to extend an invitation to participate in my dissertation lecture. My dissertation is entitled, “Constructed Subjectivities and a ‘Thick’ Account of Agency: A Foucauldian Dialogue with Douglass, Fanon, and the Augustinian-Franciscan Tradition.” The lecture shall begin at 6:30pm at the University of Dallas, Gorman Faculty Lounge (#6 on the campus map) on Monday, August 29th. A brief question and answer period and a reception shall follow the lecture. If you are interested, promise that you won’t throw tomatoes or any other objects, and can make it, I would love to see you there! You may read the dissertation abstract here.


Dissertation Abstract: Constructed Subjectivities and a “Thick” Account of Agency: A Foucauldian Dialogue with Douglass, Fanon, and the Augustinian-Franciscan Tradition

If everything goes according to the plan, I am scheduled to defend my dissertation the last week of August (at this time the exact date has not been given).  Below is a copy of my dissertation abstract for those interested.

Constructed Subjectivities and a “Thick” Account of Agency: A Foucauldian Dialogue with Douglass, Fanon, and the Augustinian-Franciscan Tradition


Cynthia R. Nielsen, Ph.D.
University of Dallas, 2011
Director: Philipp W. Rosemann


Michel Foucault offers penetrating analyses of how subjectivities are constructed. His statements regarding the ubiquity of power relations have been misinterpreted as both a denial of human agency and a death blow to the subject. Against this entrenched view, I argue that his understanding of power relations presuppose free subjects and, in fact, creates a space for resistance possibilities.

Foucault articulates a “metaphysically thin” account of agency. That is, a free subject is one whose relations with others produces a field of possibilities for acting on one’s own as well as others’ actions. That field may, of course, become severely restricted. Nonetheless, even in extremely oppressive situations, an agent retains her freedom as long as she is able in some way to resist.

Here our dialogue with Douglass and Fanon proves fruitful. Douglass, for example, was forced to live in an inhumane slave society; yet, he engaged in subversive acts, allowing him to re-narrate his subjectivity. Although Douglass’s freedom was constrained, he was not rendered completely passive. Through examining Douglass’s and Fanon’s concrete experiences of oppression, I demonstrate the empirical validity of Foucault’s theoretical analyses concerning power relations and subject-(re)formation.

Unlike Foucault, Douglass and Fanon were forthright concerning their moral evaluations. That is, they condemned as intrinsically evil the practice of slavery and colonization. Foucault’s reticence to make transcultural moral judgments signals a weakness in his account not unrelated to his reticence to affirm universal structures of human being. Consequently, Foucault’s anthropology and “ontologically minimalist” view of agency creates an obstacle for our modern and premodern dialogue partners.

I then turn to Augustine whose critique of Roman narratives, awareness of social conditioning, and processive view of the self exhibit striking similarities to Foucault’s reflections. However, Augustine’s ambiguous position regarding agency coupled with his (strong) doctrine of sin is, for Foucault, unpalatable. Enter Scotus. Scotus’s notion of agency affirms the power for opposite acts, and his “thick” account of the will and freedom establishes a basis for transcultural, moral critique. Scotus thus serves as a via media, facilitating constructive dialogue with (post)modern thinkers evincing emancipatory concerns and attunement to social construction.


A Movie that Will Move You: Kite Runner

My husband and I recently watched an excellent movie by Khaled Hosseini entitled, “The Kite Runner,” about which my husband gives his reflections here.  If you have a soft spot for orphans (as we do) and love films that speak to issues of friendship, loyalty, the value of human beings, and the possibilities of the transforming power of love, then this movie is a must see. 

Philosophical Musings of a Three-Year Old

My beautiful, brilliant and extremely delightful daughter, Ashley, has recently been showing signs of a budding philosopher (as well as a budding ballerina, a budding botanist, and a budding comedian).  Below are some of the more philosophical comments and inquiries that she has posed recently:

  • (1) Application of the principle of non-contradiction. How so? We use a timer that we call a “dinger” when we put her in “time-out” for disciplinary purposes. Our dinger recently bit the dust, and we have yet to replace it. A few days ago, I needed to put her in time-out, and after doing so realized that we still are without a dinger. So I told Ashley that I would be the dinger, seeing that she was protesting that without a dinger she didn’t or couldn’t possibly stay in time-out. Right before I left the room, Ashley, with a very serious look on her face said, “How can you be the dinger? You are the momma?”
  • (2) Am I my body? Before turning out the lights and saying goodnight, we often ask Ashley what her job is, that is, we pose the question, “what are you supposed to do?” To which she answers, “Stay in bed and go to sleep.” Lately, we’ve had a difficult time getting her to stay in bed, as she likes to explore in her toy box and make up all kinds of imaginary worlds, which each get their own song and characters. So we’ve added, “show us with your body that you will stay in bed”-meaning show us with your actions not just your words. To this, Ashley asked, pointing to her toe, “Is this my body?” “Yes,” we said. Then she pointed to her elbow, “is this also my body?” “Yes,” we answered. Ashley looked puzzled, as if she wanted to ask, “shouldn’t we then say bodies, and not body?” or “how many bodies do I have?” Then she touched the bedpost and asked, “Is this my body?” “No,” we replied. Pointing back at herself, she asked, “Am I my body?” Pretty good question for a three-year old.