Last year, I fell down the rabbit hole of the musical Hamilton. I’ve always been a fan of musicals, and the combination of music, character development, and Revolutionary history was irresistible.
One of the most memorable characters is Aaron Burr, who achieved fame primarily by fatally shooting Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Burr is the narrator of the musical and a complex character with mixed motivations. On my fourth or fifth time through the soundtrack, I came to a realization: Aaron Burr is grasping for what C. S. Lewis calls “The Inner Ring,” and this striving explains much of his destructive behavior.
The Inner Ring
Lewis, in his essay “The Inner Ring,” uses the term to describe that place where many of us long to be. We want to be in the know—one of the essential people. We want to be part of that tight circle that’s most important, wherever it may be: in a family, a circle of friends, at work, or at church. Lewis writes:
I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.
This is certainly true of Aaron Burr. Most of his time in the play is spent watching Hamilton and resenting his upward progression. Though Hamilton has no family connections and no natural reason to succeed, he doesn’t shy away from asking for advancement.
He just continues to climb, and this eventually leads to his position as George Washington’s right-hand man. Burr can’t understand how Hamilton’s lack of discretion leads to non-stop success and a seat at important tables.
Why is Hamilton always on the inside when Burr is left out in the cold?
The Room Where It Happens
Burr longs for “The Inner Ring,” but he calls it “The Room Where It Happens.” In a rowdy, brassy show-stopper, he expresses his desire to be in the room where “decisions are happening over dinner”—in this case between Hamilton, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson. But as usual, Burr has been excluded. This is the moment when Burr finally says explicitly what he wants: just to be on the inside.
Lewis describes Burr’s longing:
Poor man—it is not large, lighted rooms, or champagne, or even scandals about peers and Cabinet Ministers that he wants: it is the sacred little attic or studio, the heads bent together, the fog of tobacco smoke, and the delicious knowledge that we—we four or five all huddled beside this stove—are the people who know.
But, he goes on, it’s more sinister than that. It’s not just being included that we desire—it’s our delight that others have been excluded:
Your genuine Inner Ring exists for exclusion. There’d be no fun if there were no outsiders. The invisible line would have no meaning unless most people were on the wrong side of it. Exclusion is no accident; it is the essence.
In Aaron Burr’s story, this struggle escalates until the end of the show finds him bitterly revisiting his constant exclusion in favor of Hamilton. Denied Hamilton’s endorsement for president, he had lost the election to Thomas Jefferson.
Burr writes Hamilton: “You’ve kept me from The Room Where it Happens—for the last time.”
The exchange closes with an agreement to duel: “Weehawken. Dawn. Guns drawn.”
Emptiness of the Quest
Poor Burr! If only he could have given up the quest to be on the inside. Lewis assures us of the emptiness of this quest:
Once the first novelty is worn off, the members of this circle will be no more interesting than your old friends. Why should they be? You were not looking for virtue or kindness or loyalty or humor or learning or wit or any of the things that can really be enjoyed. You merely wanted to be “in.” And that is a pleasure that cannot last. As soon as your new associates have been staled to you by custom, you will be looking for another Ring. The rainbow’s end will still be ahead of you. The old ring will now be only the drab background for your endeavor to enter the new one.
The desire for the Inner Ring creeps into friendships easily, doesn’t it? We are fearful people, desiring acceptance and love. Social media show us tight circles of friends, inside jokes, and meet-ups we weren’t invited to, all providing fertile soil for jealousy. Instead of looking to the Lord for help with our own duties and challenges, we look around, wondering how our life would be different if we were in that circle . . . with those friends . . . living that life.
“That life” is a mirage, of course, and if we were to experience it, we would find it just as fraught with trouble as our own. The rainbow’s end will remain out of reach, as Lewis tells us. If he had been invited in to The Room Where It Happens, Burr would still never be satisfied. He would not have found the wholeness he sought. The problem was within himself, just as it is with us. Our hearts deceive us and tell us that other people are to blame. The truth is that our idolatry and wrong desires are the problem.
True Joy Is Outward
What is the antidote to this ongoing distress? Turning outward. God creates us for community not to serve ourselves, but to serve one another. “Through love serve one another,” Paul reminds us (Gal. 5:13). Or elsewhere, “In humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3–4). What is a quest for the Inner Ring if not looking to our own interests?
What is a quest for the Inner Ring if not looking to our own interests?
As we turn our focus outward, looking to serve and enjoy the Lord and others, we may in time, quite by accident, find the reward of true friendship and fellowship. As Lewis puts it:
And if in your spare time you consort simply with the people you like, you will again find that you have come unawares to a real inside: that you are indeed snug and safe at the center of something which, seen from without, would look exactly like an Inner Ring. But the difference is that the secrecy is accidental, and its exclusiveness a byproduct, and no one was led thither by the lure of the esoteric: for it is only four or five people who like one another meeting to do things that they like. This is friendship. Aristotle placed it among the virtues. It causes perhaps half of all the happiness in the world, and no Inner Ring can ever have it.
The joy brought by true fellowship in the Lord can never come from clamorous striving for the Inner Ring. For Aaron Burr and his desire to be in The Room Where It Happens, self is on the throne. And as long as we aspire to the same, we’re not in a place to love, serve, and eventually share true selfless community with others. As Lewis concludes, “The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it.”