C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) was Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University, a Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge, novelist, philosopher and a lay Anglican theologian. “The Inner Ring” was the Memorial Lecture he gave at King’s College, University of London, in 1944; it was Lewis’s warning to his ambitious Oxbridge students about politics, power, and the temptations and pitfalls that haunt higher office and the allure of favour seekers:
“May I read you a few lines from Tolstoy’s War and Peace?
When Boris entered the room, Prince Andrey was listening to an old general, wearing his decorations, who was reporting something to Prince Andrey, with an expression of soldierly servility on his purple face. “Alright. Please wait!” he said to the general, speaking in Russian with the French accent which he used when he spoke with contempt. The moment he noticed Boris he stopped listening to the general who trotted imploringly after him and begged to be heard, while Prince Andrey turned to Boris with a cheerful smile and a nod of the head. Boris now clearly understood—what he had already guessed—that side by side with the system of discipline and subordination which were laid down in the Army Regulations, there existed a different and more real system—the system which compelled a tightly laced general with a purple face to wait respectfully for his turn while a mere captain like Prince Andrey chatted with a mere second lieutenant like Boris. Boris decided at once that he would be guided not by the official system but by this other unwritten system.
The Renaissance consigliere and political thinker Niccolò Machiavelli has for centuries been portrayed, indeed demonised, as the ideological father of political duplicity, manipulation, amorality and cold selfishness. All of these are identifiable traits common not only among the “political” and mandarin classes but also among those individuals and institutions who pursue their interests, i.e. money, power, market-share, sex, etc., as though in a “society in which the individual stands alone, with no motives and no interests except those supplied by his own egoism”.
The view that Machiavelli’s analysis of the nature and mechanics of political power reflects the values of an individual motivated by a self-interest that overrides all other considerations is not, I believe, one that can be sustained by a careful consideration of his writings. In fact, the very opposite can be said to be the case … Machiavelli argues in both The Prince and The Discourses that all well-ordered principalities and republics are based on mutual understanding between rulers and ruled, and that the state is no more than the sum of the individuals who comprise it. In addition, the state has characteristics and responsibilities that cannot be explained in terms of the properties and ethical relationships to one another of the individuals within society.