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Murdoch’s moral vision

Iris Murdoch (Getty Images)

July 4, 2019   5 mins

I met the wonderful Iris Murdoch during two very different periods of her life. First, when she came to give a lecture on Plato at the Oxford theological college where I was training to become a priest. I had read many of her books as a philosophy undergraduate and was inspired by them. They had been a crucial part of my moral formation and were an important part of the reason I set out on a path towards ordination.

We shared a taxi back to her home and, with a slightly fan-boy giddiness, I distinctly remember the thrill of being able to share with her my gratitude for the things she had written. Years later, I met her on a number of occasions in Oxford town centre when I had become a College Chaplain. She was suffering from Alzheimer’s and spent her days watching Teletubbies.

My grandmother, too, had Alzheimer’s at the time. She had a difficult life, rejected by the village she lived in for fraternising a little too intimately with German and Italian prisoners of war. For my grandmother, Alzheimer’s proved to be a release from her demons. For Murdoch, it felt more like a tragedy.

In church, we would sing a line from a popular hymn “re-clothe us in our rightful mind”. Iris Murdoch’s rightful mind was that of a writer and intellectual. For my grandmother, dancing around her nursing home with a newfound fondness for bright colours and fancy scarfs, it almost felt as if Alzheimer’s had given her a new lease of life. I will always think of this period of carefree abandon as my grandmother’s “rightful mind”. It wasn’t so for the great philosopher.

Murdoch would have turned 100 next week. Her great contribution to moral thought was to articulate the nature of our rightful mind as an orientation towards the Good. I capitalise the word Good because, like God, the Good was almost a person, a thing in itself, independent of our all-too-human way of seeing things. And, for her, the true journey of the human self – like the journey of the self in Plato’s famous allegory of the cave – was to travel from illusion to true reality. Unlike Plato, and more like the Christianity whose doctrines she found impossible literally to accept, this moral journey required what she called unselfing.

“In the moral life,” she wrote, “the enemy is the fat relentless ego.” A few decades earlier, the great Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple had written “the great aim of all true religion is to transfer the centre of interest from self to God”. Substitute the word Good for God, and that is Murdoch’s philosophy in a nutshell. In her novels and within her academic philosophy, Murdoch sought to describe exactly what this process looked like within real lives and for flawed characters like you and me.

The importance of this insight has to be understood against the background of the prevailing winds of academic philosophy of the time. Much of Oxford philosophy had abandoned the idea that goodness was a challenge for the self, a life’s work to get beyond the constantly nagging, insistent demands of the “fat relentless ego”.

Utilitarianism, partly designed as a moral system that had no need of God, sought to make the moral life into a kind of calculation, an attempt to establish what the best decision might be in particular circumstances. Though there are various formulations, roughly speaking a decision is good if it maximises the sum total of pleasure (or utility) in the world. There is nothing here that speaks of the reconstruction of the self.

Alternatively, the existentialists sought to describe a moral life in which being true to one’s self – being authentic and thus rejecting the demands of social conformity – was its defining feature. Here the task is to create by will and live more fully within one’s ‘true self’ (whatever that is), rather than seek to overcome it. Murdoch had no time for any of these positions.

Murdoch’s novels often describe human beings caught up in ever descending, ever narrowing cycles of self-absorption, of people trapped within their own selfishness. These are people who collapse in on themselves, crushed by inward pressure of their own egos. The ego functioned, for her, as a kind of Freudian version of the Christian idea of original sin. And release from its bondage required a movement outwards, towards others.

This unselfing could be prompted by the needs of other people and also – unlike for Plato – by art. Looking at a work of art demands attention, an important concept in her moral vocabulary. It requires that one allows the work of art the time and the intellectual space to reveal itself on its own terms.

One of the proudest moments as a parent was when my eldest daughter returned home from art school with her first tattoo. Most middle-class parents tend to go spare at this discovery. But my daughter had chosen well. Inked on her arm were words from one of Murdoch’s favourite plays, The Tempest, spoken by Prospero to his daughter: “What see’est thou else.”

The demand to look again, and look deeper were, for Murdoch, as essential to the moral enterprise as they were to the artistic enterprise. It is attention to that which is other – to other people, art etc – that leads us out of the cave-like labyrinth of the self and towards the true reality of the sun, the Good. And this attention needs to be schooled. As Oxford philosopher Anil Gomes rightly put it: “A talented botanist, for instance, sees more in a field of wild flowers than a bored urban walker.”

Likewise, with people. Murdoch’s novels are a study in attention towards flawed humanity, schooled over hours of watching and listening.

And finally, attention is redemptive. In The Sovereignty of Good, she gives the example of looking out of the window, “brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige”, when all of a sudden a hovering kestrel comes into view. All at once, everything changes. The centre of attention is shifted from self to other, to a perception of reality as something other than oneself. And with this shift, the pain of self-regard is momentarily lifted. The gain of morality, of unselfing, is that one is released from one’s demons. One finds one’s rightful mind.

Yes, there are things to quarrel with about Murdoch’s moral vision. For my money, hers is located a little too parochially within the moral concerns of bourgeois, North Oxford academia. Murdoch rarely faces the effects of, for instance, crushing poverty upon the trajectory of unselfing; she’s not always sufficiently aware that there are those for whom the circumstances of their lives mean that their self needs self-protecting, cradling, from the ravages of chance and fate.

I also think she underestimates the role that something like church-going has in the formation of our moral sensibilities. Attention requires liturgies, the discipline of constant practise, mini-rehearsals of organised goodness. Going to the art gallery and the theatre, the whole structure of university life – these things don’t do it for most people.

But these are minor cavils when set against the current and diminished state of moral thought, with its widespread and uncritical acceptable of rights and law as being able to do most of the heavy lifting of moral purpose – see the brilliant John Gray article published here last week. None of these set the self the same sort of challenge that Murdoch proposes. Nor do they offer the increasingly abandoned idea that morality has some sort of redemptive effect.

Iris Murdoch came closest to offering a moral world view for a post-religious world with something of the same dense moral texture of the Christianity she rejected. Though personally, I prefer the real thing. “Reclothe us in our rightful mind” – taken from the hymn, Dear Lord and Father of Mankind – goes on:

“Drop they still dews of quietness
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from out souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess,
The beauty of thy peace,
The beauty of thy peace.

Breathe through the heats of our desire
Your coolness and your balm.
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire,
Speak through the earthquake, wind and fire,
O still small voice of calm.
O still small voice of calm!”

We are back to the kestrel again. This is the promise held out by the sovereignty of the Good. The redemptive power of the transference of interest from self to reality. But it is expressed more poetically, more powerfully, more universally – I believe – by the sovereignty of God.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.


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Nick Russell
Nick Russell
2 years ago

Lovely and uplifting article – thank you. It strikes me that there are close similarities here with Keats’s concept of ‘negative capability’ – a sort of dissolution of the self in appreciation of the external beauty within people, nature and art.