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.
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?
Burr longs for “The Inner Ring,” but he calls it “The Room Where It Happens.” ...
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. ...
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?
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. ...
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.”
(Hat Tip: Bob Cochran.) For more on my obsession with interest in Hamilton, see here and: