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Iris Murdoch: philosopher, novelist, life coach

Credit: Sophie Bassouls / Sygma / Sygma via Getty

Credit: Sophie Bassouls / Sygma / Sygma via Getty

February 12, 2019   4 mins

“To do philosophy is to explore one’s own temperament and yet at the same time to discover the truth.”

The opening sentence of Iris Murdoch’s classic essay “On ‘God’ and ‘Good’” is as powerful as it is intriguing – as you’d expect from a philosopher who was also a prolific and successful novelist. Though Murdoch does not name anyone specifically, her bold assertion challenges a litany of thinkers who have held that philosophy is or should be a matter of impersonal investigation.

For Murdoch, however, philosophy concerns itself with us as individuals and with the urgent questions of our times. One such question is how to handle ‘the collapse of religion’ against the growing dominance of science. In “On ‘God’ and ‘Good’”, Murdoch worries that we might be losing something important as religious experience declines. It is not that Murdoch is troubled by lower church attendance – though she was fiercely opposed to changing the language of the Book of Common Prayer in the Eighties. Rather, she wonders whether it is possible to create a secular notion of prayer as attention to a Good rather than God. She also proclaims that we need a moral philosophy in which love, a notion so long maligned by philosophers, is again made central.

Love, as conceived by Murdoch, is not a panacea for all moral problems. Nor does it offer an easy answer to the question how we can make ourselves morally better. Love is ambiguous. It can be selfish. Murdoch’s novels provide ample examples of characters whose love is possessive and even destructive. In some cases, they literally lock the object of their love away in an inner chamber, as Charles Arrowby does to the love of youth in Murdoch’s Booker Prize Winner The Sea, the Sea (1978).

Sometimes, love does not even come into it, as when, for instance, we simply need to pay our bills. But what Murdoch objects to is moral philosophy’s attention to such matters at the exclusion of everything else. We are not always rational decision makers. Often when we choose, the die has already been cast.

For this reason, Murdoch tries to move the focus away from the moments of decision and towards the inner life – the domain once catered to by religion. Religious practices, as simple as lighting a candle, were designed to redirect energies that are often hidden to us, and in their absence, Murdoch feared that the inner life would be explained away by the sciences.

It is for this reason too that Murdoch thinks love should be a central concept again. Love can be a force for the good. Love can make us see that other people and other things are real. Nature does not exist for our sake but has its own life and reality. Love is, Murdoch writes, the discovery of reality. As her character explains in Iris, the 2001 film of her life: “Human beings love each other, in sex, in friendship, and when they are in love, and they cherish other beings – humans, animals, plants, even stones.”

To love in this way is difficult, because human beings are selfish. We spend our time consoling our hurt egos. We cannot face any damage to our self-esteem and hide in fantasy or in theological fictions. Through Freud and Plato, Murdoch thus tries to retain some “doctrine of original sin”. Another attempt to secularise (the Christian) religion.

Yet, despite this rather negative view of humans, Murdoch is convinced that humans can be good and can do good. She expresses confidence in the virtuous peasant, the mothers of large families or the aunts. They all ‘know’ and will go on ‘knowing’. She urges her readers to look at art or teach meditation to children, so that they may understand. In her last work of philosophy, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992), she is even more optimistic that we know how to think of what is good, as St Paul cautioned. Oddly enough, she writes, we do.

These different aspects of love and of Murdoch’s moral philosophy are clearly illustrated by her famous example of a mother and her daughter-in-law, introduced in her essay “The Idea of Perfection” (which originated from her 1962 Ballard Matthews Lecture). While the mother-in-law is kind and polite with her son’s new wife, she fears that he has married beneath him. Yet, at some point, she reconsiders her first impressions. As the daughter-in-law is gone, the change of heart is not caused by any change in behaviour, or by any other external reason. She simply reconsiders and finds that her new family member is not “vulgar”, but “refreshingly simple”, “not undignified but spontaneous”.

Murdoch introduces this example to argue for the importance of the inner life against moral philosophy’s focus on decision and action. Even when nothing changes and all behave beautifully, it still matters what we think and imagine. She explains that when the mother looks again at her daughter-in-law, she does so lovingly. It is love that allows her to see her differently and, Murdoch would hold, more justly. For Murdoch, to look at someone with love is not to look at them with rose-coloured glasses, but neither is it to look objectively. To look lovingly is to attend to reality.

What is significant is that before introducing this example Murdoch admits that she could have taken an example from religion, such as for instance ritual. This acknowledgement makes clear how religion is prominently on Murdoch’s mind. It was with her as a constant question, to which she kept returning, rethinking her earlier thoughts, trying out new ones. Her work allows us to continue in the same probing, reflective and creative way.

Hannah Marije Altorf is Reader in Philosophy at St Mary’s University

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