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Best known as a novelist and least known as a philosopher, Iris Murdoch was a contributor to the literature and the philosophical thought of the past century. To read her is to follow a process by which she emerged with international stature.

“Love is the last and secret name of all the virtues.” —Iris Murdoch, A Fairly Honourable Defeat

I. Repudiating The French Flu: Existentialism And “Theory”

“Sartre fears, not loves, this notion of a volcanic otherness within the personality.” —Iris Murdoch, “Sartre Romantic Rationalist”

I’m paraphrasing Dame Iris Murdoch’s Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals where she suggests that philosophy from Descartes to Derrida has become “sinister” and “frivolous.” Linguistic utterances apart from the propositions of natural science are nonsense and should be consigned to silence. The consequence rejects the thesis that philosophy affords knowledge of transcendent reality.[i]

Murdoch’s moral thought is a repudiation and should resonate discussions on the imagination in moral thinking. Maria Antonaccio has argued that Murdoch revitalized “moral theory by appealing to the imaginative possibilities implicit in metaphysical theorizing.” She adds that Murdoch was an “unapologetically Platonic and metaphysical thinker… [which] testifies to the fecundity of [her] thought.”

The difficulty is whether a determination can be made as to her argument for the role of language and moral perception congenial to a Christian ethics of character. Antonaccio notes that although there are tensions in Murdoch’s theory of religion and ambiguities regarding orthodox traditions, her thought is hospitable to the insights of Western theology and with her belief in the priority of language in the formation of moral sensibility is to understand the manner in which her philosophy was “marshaled into the service of a narrative ethic of Christian vision.”[ii]

II. A Forceful Resistance

“People who thought that Stella lived in hell were not wrong; but like all those who do not, they failed to understand that hell is a large place where there are familiar refuges and corners.” —Iris Murdoch, “The Philosopher’s Pupil”

Best known as a novelist and least known as a philosopher, Murdoch was a contributor to the literature and the philosophical thought of the past century. To read her is to follow a process by which she emerged with international stature. What’s at stake was her repudiation of the cultural-historical context of modern philosophy which generated modern aesthetic and political views. Murdoch became a combatant against existentialism by arguing that Sartre and others had overstated their position that morality is private experience which made twentieth century politics an adolescent experience.

Her adversaries are two: existentialism and theory which she discusses in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, and which are related, tending toward moral relativism.[iii] Existentialism was continental and a complement with Freud. By theory she meant analytical philosophy which combined moral theory with language and psychological behaviorism. She adds a critique: “There are innumerable points at which we have to detach ourselves, to change our orientation, to redirect our desire and refresh and purify our energy, to keep looking in the right direction: to attend upon the grace that comes through faith” (25, emphasis mine).

If we are uneasy it’s no simple matter to clarify the problems the uneasiness indicates. Murdoch argues that structuralism theory is “really a vast ragbag of interesting ideas” although many structuralist writers are “explicitly hostile to religion” (7).

As for existentialism, for Murdoch it meant not “being” or “becoming” but authoring her opposition to that “philosophy.” She titles her 1953 critique Sartre Romantic Rationalist and in “The Labyrinth of Freedom,” she notes that “Sartre by-passes… the world of ordinary human relations which is also the world of ordinary moral virtues.”[iv]

Here’s Murdoch on Sartre in more detail:

Jean-Paul Sartre was attracted by the romantic figure of the lonely gratuitous chooser; but he wanted also to present this “authentic” figure as a spokesman for the best aspirations of the human race…. Later he removed value from the free unillusioned [sic] individual will and lodged it in the “new structure” of the ideal Marxist soviet…. Sartre’s description of the quality of consciousness as gluey, liquid, jumbled, cloudy is intended to illustrate the senseless messiness of the “inner” by contrast with the clear clean effective visible nature of “outer”commitment and choices (154).

Her philosophical purpose was to hold up a theory of moral life opposed to Sartre’s solipsistic romantic figure, marooned, isolated, and alienated. Murdoch’s argument rebuts Sartre’s argument that the “will” is dormant, if not detached, but emerging at points of decision largely public. For Murdoch, Sartre’s theory is impoverished and fails to do justice to spiritual realities. Such an argument also prescribes moral acts accountable only in their public effects.

It’s what emerges when modern vocabulary is concerned with consciousness and its phases. Sartre’s existentialism leads to Freud’s psycho-analytics, its quasi-empirical, psychological behaviorism and determinism and thus the problem: consciousness but “devoid of knowledge and spirit.”[v] She notes the spread of Derrida’s ideas which do not use philosophical arguments but should be called “Linguistic Idealism… Monism… Determinism” (285).

The doctrine, “deconstruction,” promotes itself as a morally neutral science but demythologizes the transcendent. When Freud obliterates religion with “theological intensity” (23), a new mode of thinking has been formed and the eras of Descartes and Plato have been sponged away; reality exists in the linguistic medium. Murdoch wonders if such leads to a vanishing point, the process in which we are skeptical of everything, including history, or what can be intuited as transcendent.

As for that vanishing point, Murdoch has in mind “bad art,” which includes abstract expressionism, those gestural brush strokes of Rothko or de Kooning which prompt “false egoistic fantasy.” If representative of modern consciousness, this vanishing neglects ideals of unity and images of virtue and is insincere. What becomes of the “dignity and innocence of the work of art?” (19, 21).

Furthermore, if consciousness is “swampy,” as argued in “structuralist” ideologies, our living is muddled by feelings and “fragmentary awareness.” Murdoch argues, genuine “authentic truthful thought [can rise], shaking itself free… into a new heightened clarified consciousness, able to look about, look ahead, act and prove itself in action” (156).

Does she have a starting point for a different view of our moral sensibilities, a metaphysical guide?

III. Reclaiming The “Virtues” Of Metaphysics

“For most of us, for almost all of us, truth can be attained, if at all, only in silence. It is in silence that the human spirit touches the divine.” —Iris Murdoch, “Under the Net”

She does but first traces the “elimination” of metaphysics from modern philosophy from Descartes, Wittgenstein, Schopenhauer (who gives no coherent structure to his metaphysical theorizing), to Kant and Nietzsche and Derrida. She spares Schopenhauer no mercy: “Schopenhauer keeps moral values out of the ordinary world which is ruled by the Will…. [He] pictures a scene of egoism and suffering from which it is almost impossible to escape.” More so, “Schopenhauer’s Will is with Nietzsche’s and that of Heidegger, one of the nastiest.” The consequence is difficult for “the philosopher and a fortiori for the theologian, to surrender the quest for satisfying sovereign imagery which is to indicate a very, or absolutely, important reality” (60, 61).

Murdoch elaborated a repertoire of moral outlooks intended to broaden moral vocabulary as an “idealized understanding.” Her essay “The Idea of Perfection” was an early version in which she conceptualizes morality that is in some sense transcendent.

But how?

The problem of philosophy is that contemporary philosophers “frequently connect consciousness with virtue, and although they talk of freedom they rarely talk of love” (37). Talk of virtue is understood as the romantic picture of an individual who goes about creating values by choice and will which leaves confusion as to whether virtue and value are synonymous and secular.

Murdoch challenges such stances which present modern liberalism as a questionable logic made to fit private systems. Her point is that we cannot “will” moral “notions” as if they were a closet of clothes we change into depending on the season. When she began her discussion on character, her understanding is that literature and philosophy help our moral health only if we abandon naturalistic ideas of character in which morality is what figures in the will conditioned by behaviorism and grasped only by empiricism.

She finds such an image of man—solemnized by a marriage between Kantian liberalism and Wittgensteinian logic—“both alien and implausible” to which she adds philosophical and moral objections. [vi] The image with its emphasis upon a solitary omnipotent will is utilitarian in its belief that morality is concerned only with public acts. She agrees there are behavioral patterns to which we give names but are they public or are they also private and sovereign? It’s important to note that Murdoch is engaged in explanations she believes are more positive and out of a relation with existentialism and psychoanalytical behaviorist views. She offers two ideas: the “idea of the individual and the idea of perfection.”[vii]

IV. To Speak Of Love Then….

“Remember that all our failures are ultimately failures in love.” —Iris Murdoch, “The Bell”

This “image” or “idea” of the modern super-hero individual neglects ordinary moral experience and Murdoch’s transcendent argument. By the mid-1960s she had come to speak of Sartre’s existentialism as “Luciferian” private will which meant absent of love and goodness.[viii] To speak of love as an imperfection is to argue that love and knowledge “always recede” unless love is an a priori truth and an ideal of perfection. A bit facetiously she notes that Mary did indeed have a lamb and that little lamb loved Mary and surely Mary loved the lamb. There is a word and there is a concept and there is an image; the word remains stable but the concept enlarges such that Mary likely would have a more complicated understanding of love at age twenty than at age ten, and age thirty than at age twenty, etcetera.[ix]

Mary’s “self” is not solipsistic or self-aggrandizing or filled with selfish impulses, and neither is she stripped of her metaphysical character. It’s a nursery rhyme with typological overtones, an evaluative vision with a loving attentive gaze toward an ideal of human good: love that is forgiving and repentant and has an ontological form which one might argue is “incarnate.” She invokes in this nursery rhyme a concrete universal, a duty to love one another.

None of which is new but appear as commonplaces in Plato and the Christian ethic “whose centre is an individual.” Her view “might be put by saying that moral terms must be treated as concrete universals” and it is not the least esoteric to believe that the “central concept of morality is the ‘individual’ thought of as knowable by love,” thought of in the command which Murdoch quotes from Matthew 5:48: “Be ye therefore perfect.”[x]

But we have been left with a philosophy that fails to afford metaphysical knowledge of transcendent reality which has become a linguistic department of logic. To say that the “Good” is to be desired founders because we lack definitions like “yellow” which one can define as a vibration in the light. One might wish good things but if apart from one’s understanding one would be incapable of recognizing the “Good” for what it ideally is.

And so we founder….

V. Two Parallel Domains

“We know that the real lesson to be taught is that the human person is precious and unique; but we seem unable to set it forth except in terms of ideology and abstraction.” —Iris Murdoch, “Sartre Romantic Rationalist”

For Murdoch, any exploration of moral life occurs within two parallel domains: “God” and the “Good.” Much of this occurs throughout Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals but as her biographer notes, “On ‘God’ and Good’” came about as part of study group on cultural unity organized by Michael Polanyi and others.[xi]

For Murdoch, prayer is not just a petition but “an attention to God which is a form of love.” A petition based upon moral perception and an examined life is bound with situational particulars and necessary; but if the petition is rewarded can lead to an over-estimation of one’s moral worth, self-aggrandizement or egoistic fabrication and a continuing inability to see others as they are. It’s as if one were saying, “Be ye slightly improved.”

But with with adoration, there is the possibility of self-criticism which comes with a clarifying mode of self-reflection and the “idea of grace, of a supernatural assistance to human endeavor which overcomes empirical limitations of personality.[xii] She argues that moral philosophy should retain a central concept, i.e., that God is a transcendent and a necessarily real object of attention. Murdoch adds in The Sovereignty of Good that these are not empirical generalizations about the psychology of self-help or good works. As a result of philosophical and theological “demythologizings” ontological proof must now take on increased “importance” which she then adds is not exactly a proof “but rather a clear assertion of faith”[xiii] not rigidly determined by a religious dogma.

“Fact and Value,” Chapter Two in Metaphysics, adds to a thesis that Murdoch’s moral philosophy is spiritual, if not Augustinian, reading. Noting her kinship with Simone Weil, she agrees that “with the idea of strict obligations… [m]oral change comes from an attention to the world whose natural result is a decrease in egoism through an increased sense of the of reality of… other people” (52). The practice is difficult and can be like a psychological fact but if combined with prayer becomes loving attention to God which when answered redeems us from the sinfulness of human nature. Murdoch references in Chapter Five of Metaphysics…, “Comic and Tragic” that the “concept of original sin, the crime of existence itself may be seen as a reasonable generalization about the natural sinfulness of humans. No one is without sin” (103).

A “good” point….

As for the “Good,” what we receive from God is a reciprocal “aid” for good action which saves us from selfish egoism. It’s a bit nebulous but she adds that the “aid” leads to a movement outward and away from the self which one can analogize as “magnetic” attraction between the “Good” and “God.” It’s a step away from the idea of transcendence but Murdoch believes the idea can be related to Plato’s “Idea” of Beauty which in its transcendent “virtue” is indestructible and incorruptible.

The problem is that the “Good” is not as “visible” as the idea of “Beauty.” Here she rejects the romantic notion one finds in Keats that truth is beauty and beauty is truth and the art for art’s sake notion that aestheticism needs no didactic purpose. For Murdoch, the study of “Beauty” is how we can make ourselves better; the acquisition of virtue is approached through the study of “ Beauty.” Murdoch is, as Martha Nussbaum has written, “a source of insight into a kind goodness and beauty that we can, perhaps, grasp no other way” except through “the moral significance of the imagination.” Or “is it a source of egoistic fog and delusion?”[xiv]

Murdoch’s point is that if we think of love and beauty as “things,” then egoistic fog and delusion. But if we think of them as transcendent they point to something beyond even the veil of self-consciousness, and “infinitely beyond our own ‘limited conception.’”[xv]

Such language flies high but as Nussbaum again notes to remain closer to what is beyond our own limited conception, beauty and the good enter through the eyes, water “the parched roots of the soul’s wings” which then begin to grow ‘over the entire form of the soul.’”[xvi]

The more difficult idea is that of transcendence, the word itself, and God as an object of attention and an unavoidable sense of unity. Is transcendence simply a psychological device? Are there false transcendences as in modern empiricism? Does the word “value” belong inside the world of science and factual propositions? If not, “value” must live somewhere else but attached to the human will which is dreary. Is true transcendence “a consoling dream projected by human need on an empty sky?”[xvii]

It’s difficult to be exact but as an image it’s equally difficult to conceive of a good man living out his life in a private dream world. There were unselfish persons living in concentration camps.

Murdoch’s the three essays in The Sovereignty of Good attack the “picture” that dominated the last century’s “moral” psychology. Murdoch is prescient here repudiating the notion that the term “morality” has been confined to external behavior. We need to recognize the importance of internal moral reflection without which we cannot recognize a just view of another person’s moral character especially in that area the “public square.” The “process” involves first vision, contemplation second, and action third. Her argument emphasizes the importance of memory which exposes that person to recall moments that were undignified, unpolished, even lacking refinement. If the consequence is critical, rather than the “will” leaping hazily about willy-nilly, just attention will bring about a refined and honest goodness. Rather than moral psychology, Murdoch offers a rival soul picture by referencing Neo-platonic “thinkers [who] made the identification (of God and Good) possible; and the Judaeo-Christian tradition [which] made it easy and natural for us to gather the aesthetic consoling impression of Good as a person” (38). The irony is that many of what she calls “great philosophers” were able to believe in a personal God in ways inaccessible today.

What is truly good is incorruptible and indestructible which means a standard and an idea of permanence which cannot be reduced to “psychological or any set of empirical terms” (39). Good, not Will, is transcendent and the way to be good is to be good for nothing and one cannot fake-up good. More so, if one does not have a belief in a personal God, then there is no problem of evil but there is an “insuperable difficulty of looking properly at evil and human suffering (71).

VI. Whether God Has Become Eclipsed Or That Silence Which Awaits A New Revelation

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore…

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar

Retreating….

 —Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach”

“A religion is a cluster of spiritual values.” —Don Cupitt, “Taking Leave of God”

Some careful context here.

In Chapter Fourteen of Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, “Descartes and Kant,” Murdoch notes that in modern theological discussions divinity is often discussed as something that was but is no longer: “[W]e are now being forced by an inevitable sophistication to have a demythologized religion or none at all” (431). Those who pursue this line of thought change religion into philosophy. Is room left for faith in the face of radical positions as those occupied by Don Cupitt whose forceful argument suggests that religion has become nostalgia business? Are we then being asked to think of God in new ways and with a language dislodged from the damage done by Derrida, that radical humanism where nothing but language is real and everything else is non-real including even God?

In this chapter, Murdoch offers a “by comparison” reference to Augustine’s Confessions as a “good text book”: “Augustine, conscious of his wounded will which ‘staggers and tumbles’” which she says is a lack of moral strength. But what to do? Murdoch notes that Augustine would appeal to God and although “moderns” we are still the same people “whose dilemmas are described in Greek literature and the Bible.” What’s at stake is not a new view which would effect a rapprochement of religion with modernity. Murdoch takes the moral life more seriously but only if grounded in religious commitment. “We wait, we reflect, we conjure up good things out of our soul, lights, sacraments, attachments” (457, 460).

Murdoch laments the loss of another good text book, the Book of Common Prayer,” and questions whether institutionalized religion can continue. One may even be inclined to cautious withdrawal until theology is shaken and new places emerge where thought can go. It’s clear that religious forms and structures are important to Murdoch since without those “pegs” spiritual experience would be indefinable. There are experiences which glow with light and proof that love of the “Good” reveals a “God” who sees us and seeks us.

In Chapter Fifteen of Metaphysics, “Martin Buber and God,” Murdoch writes that “Buber’s pervasive conception of a dialogue involves, certainly suggests, the retention of the word ‘God’ [which is] the most heavily laden of all human words.” She wonders, as did Buber, whether the word has become so mutilated that the “God who formerly talked to us” has become “dumb.” Her answer has caused contention but Murdoch is also prescient when she argues that the images of God we have created conspire to obstruct our way to Him which has led to what she and Buber refer to as a God-deprived reality (465, 466).

All of which brings the Murdoch scholar to this sticking point: Was Dame Iris Murdoch an atheist? There’s evidence in numerous chapters in Metaphysics in which she discusses how religion gives ordinary life a sort of grandeur but she wonders whether her own past century had become “flawed by irrational superstitious convictions,” tainted even, and complicated by “Death of God” theological schools and that 1960s movement toward religion-less life. Religion seems always something of a mess she writes with Buber in mind, but the “Absolute is there, but veiled; its time will come again” (484).

Following the post-World War II years, questions abounded as to what it meant to be religious when for many Christianity had become “unknown.” There are, for example, unguarded moments in Bonhoeffer’s prison letters in which he contemplates whether mankind has learned to cope with all questions without recourse to God.

To that “lament,” that theology without either the “Good” or “God,” Murdoch’s belief was to argue that the proper way to think of religion was as symbolizing high moral ideas “which then travel with and are more intimately and accessibly effective than the unadorned promptings of reason.” “God” “must exist” and here we find substance in Murdoch’s familiarity with Karl Barth whom she favorably quotes in Chapter Eight of Metaphysics, “Consciousness and Thought”: “We must recover the clarity of sight by which there is discovered in the cosmos the invisibility of God” (466). Barth she adds is quoting Romans 1:20 and is referring to the “omnipresence of the spiritual, and the union of all things in their hope for salvation.”

And in Chapter Thirteen, “The Ontological Proof,” she notes that in his Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Barth “admits that our modern experience may be darkened, but appeals to ‘solid good sense’ and ‘clear honest eyes’ of accessible witnesses” and with our “continual… sense of the connection between the good and the real can lead us to believe in the supreme reality of what is perfect: the unique place of God, or Good, in human life. The part love plays is implicit and what can thus be rediscovered, “mirrored in the world of appearance is “the archetypal, undiscoverable Majesty of God” (484, 486).

It’s a staggering idea in comparison to the reductive if not pathological ideas of “Death of God” theologians and those of Freud and Marx which have degenerated into a vague Shelleyan mysticism and its more popular notion, “stream of consciousness,” a form apart from her idea of the good life and what it means to be good which vectors into religious ethics. In Chapter Nineteen in Metaphysics, her summary essay, Murdoch writes

Good is not an empty receptacle into which the arbitrary will places objects of its choice. It is something which we all experience as a creative force. This is metaphysics, which sets up a picture which it then offers as an appeal to us all to see if we cannot find just this in our deepest experience…. In this respect metaphysical and religious pictures resemble each other” (507).

Such would be valid only if there’s a stable relationship between a word and what the word means. Structuralism and post-structuralism are antithetical arguing that meaning is relative and always deferred. Murdoch is on point in Sartre Romantic Rationalist when she expounds in Chapter Three, “The Sickness of the Language” where she describes the existential condition as “a surrender to the incommunicable” which is the “source of all violence” and resulted in literary “linguistic disturbances.” She has in mind surrealism which “rejected the intellectual fight with language.”[xviii] Words remain on our lips bur refuse to go and rest upon the thing. For Sartre, language “was an absurd structure of sounds and marks behind which lay an overflowing undiscriminated chaos [which concealed] the formless heaving of human consciousness and human history.”[xix]

VII. What Is Deep And Abiding In Human Life?

“Have faith in God and remember that He will in His own way and in His own time complete what we so poorly attempt.” —Iris Murdoch, “The Bell”

The consequence is obvious since unlike moral relativism or Kant’s “oral ought” Murdoch’s metaphysics “displays the moral agent as rational and responsible and free.” Moral words can provide stable meanings and when placed within a person’s inner life become the criteria of application.

With the knowledge from the last century, she conspires with Simone Weil to note that much of modernism failed to picture great evil or great good. Weil criticized Francois Mauriac for making a muddle of things: What “is lacking us the colour of evil… which takes on the monotony of duty” and “in thinking that crime conceals a form of grace, rooted largely in the fact that the unconditional element in the structure of reason and reality was no longer seen, and that therefore the idea of God was imposed on the mind as a ‘strange body’” (101, 102).

It’s a distinction in Murdoch’s discussion on metaphysics combined with her discussion on making ourselves better by repudiating modern moral philosophy which she frequently noted prided itself on being morally neutral.

In “The Ontological Proof,” she cites Paul Tillich and his point that “although the limits of ontological arguments are obvious…, nothing is more important for philosophy and theology than the truth [ontology] contains.” She continues repudiating modern secularism which “is rooted largely in the fact that the unconditional element in the structure of treason and reality was no longer seen, and that… the idea of God was imposed on the mind as a ‘strange body’” (391, 392).

To which one might say, “so what?”

Murdoch is again on point when she quotes Tillich that what was imposed produced the first “heteronomous subjection and then autonomous rejection: which in itself is not dangerous but becomes so when the approach “elaborates the possibility of the question of God.” Murdoch has in mind his chapter “ Being and God” in the first volume of his Systematic Theology. As it is, it’s an unexplored topic for Murdoch scholars but there’s a shared relevance in their accounts of love and the self and their similar engagements with existentialism. When Tillich argues that the term “‘self’ is more embracing than the term ‘ego’”[xx] he’s offering a corrective to modern secularism in much the same manner as Murdoch in her chapter “The Ontological Proof.” The problem is how to further selfless love in an age advocating self-affirmation and self-assertion which are pitfalls presenting full human flourishing. The link between Tillich and Murdoch argues for a belief in a personal God and a reciprocating love which as she writes in an essay “The Sublime and the Good” is not “found in the modern neurotic novel [which] succumbs to neurosis.”[xxi] Much like Tillich, Murdoch retrieves the metaphysical idea that morality owns religious depths which one might call theological humanism.

But how to make the transition from what some existentialists refer to as a charming joke to what Murdoch says is not to be worshipped as an idol or identified with any empirical thing but is indeed enjoined by the Second Commandment? [xxii]

For Murdoch, the most obvious form of moral experience becomes “duty,” with morality dividing between moral obligation as in obligation to be dutiful to the Ten Commandments followed by spiritual change. The “Good” life becomes increasingly selfless through an awareness of the world beyond the self. When we direct our attention to the “Good” that activity excites “Love.”

One can see that Murdoch is interested in finding a liberating force capable of removing the illusions and miseries of mundane egoism resulting in a movement from hedonism upward on a moral scale which in turn means that all knowledge is a moral quest and that the mind does in fact seek reality and desires the “Good” which is a “transcendent source of spiritual power, to which we are related through the idea of truth.”[xxiii] It’s Platonism and Augustinian or at the least the vision we might find in the Phaedrus, that story about how we go about recovering our wings which also owns a heady religious tone.

The issue then becomes the word itself, “metaphysics,” which since Kant has become abstruse or highly theoretical or any speculation that cannot be answered by scientific observations and experiment, suggesting that the moral world can be understood only by the scientific world. Hume made occasional use of the term to mean anything that was excessively subtle. The result of such enlightenment thinking has been the degradation of “Good”-ness. Murdoch again aims to reclaim metaphysics not by new ideas but by old ideas, e.g., the moral thinking and the practical ethics so central to Plato and Aristotle. The thematic feature of Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals is intertextual including Anselm, Augustine, Meister Eckhart, St. Paul and St. Matthew, a capacious hall of reflection.

Here’s Murdoch on morality and religion which she also notes is her thinking about holiness and reverence:

High morality without religion is too abstract, high morality craves for religion. Religion symbolizes high moral ideas which then travel with us and are more intimately and accessibly effective than the unadorned promptings of reason. Religion suits the image-making human animal. Think what the image of Christ has done for us through the centuries. Can such images lie? Do we not indeed adjust our attitudes to them, as time passes, so as to make them true’? This continuous adjustment is an aspect of the history of religion” (484).

Does she have a model of holiness and reverence in mind apart from Christ?

She does and cites the diary of Francis Kilvert, that real English parson in country parishes along the Welsh border, “a religious good man of simple faith and whose diary radiates with a “kindly selfless love of people” brought into being by the love of God. Not to be outdone, she cites Julian of Norwich and our absolute dependence as created beings owing our being to something not ourselves (485, 486).

It’s an oddity for modern philosophy which is devoted primarily to that autonomous character found in Sartre. For Murdoch, if the “Good” is a kind of metaphysical light, and if the moral life is a kind of seeing, the consequence of a submission to the “Good” is like an obedience best learned from saints.

Here’s Murdoch quoting St. Anselm of Canterbury’s “deep belief and disciplined spirituality”:

… who in his preface to the Proof speaks, or prays, to God as follows: “I do not endeavor, O Lord, to penetrate thy sublimity, for in no wise do I compare my understanding therewith; but I long to understand in some degree thy truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand (392).

Here’s Murdoch on what she calls “the purification of an energy which is naturally selfish, in such a way that when moments of choice arrive we shall be sure of acting rightly…. Much closer and more familiar to us are the techniques of religion, of which the most widely practiced is prayer, pureness of heart and meekness of spirit [because] it does seem that prayer can actually produce a better quality of consciousness and provide an energy for good action which would not otherwise be available.”[xxiv]

“If I could only pray, he thought, if there was only some reservoir of force out of which I could draw something extra.” —Iris Murdoch, John Ducane in The Nice and the Good

VIII. William Eastcoate: Dame Iris Murdoch’s “Character” For All Seasons

Metaphysics is an art.” —Iris Murdoch, “The Philosopher’s Pupil”

Apart from her philosophy, Murdoch’s novel The Philosopher’s Pupil is a study of a man whose self-respect parallels his moral decline.

Midway in the novel, however, Murdoch narrates a lengthy moment during a Quaker meeting. The scene shifts from the consciousness of one character and then another and another. William Eastcote then rises to his feet, the urge to speak rising in his heart. “Experts and wise men,” he says have given us “vast counsels suited to vast ills.”

He goes on to remind his “brethren” that we should “love the close things, the close clear good things.”

Repentance, he says, is the “renewal of life,” and such is “not a remote good but very near.”

“Let us then seek aid in pure things, turning our minds to good people, to our best work, to beautiful and noble art, to the pure words of Christ in the Gospel, and to the works of God obedient to Him in nature.”

“Shun the cynicism which says that our world is so terrible that we may as well cease to care and tells us to cease to care and cease to strive.”

“Shun, too, the common malice” which infects us while “excusing our own failures and cherishes our own failures and our own undiscovered sins.”

Rather “mend what can be mended” and “place it in love and faith and in the clear light of the healing goodness of God.”

When William sat down his heart was beating hard and his hands were trembling. He wondered to himself about whatever possessed him to say those high-flown “Beautiful” and Good” words and wherever did they come from? [xxv]

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Notes:

[i] Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, p. 42. Unless otherwise indicated all subsequent citations are parenthetic.

The book is a sprawling work with an enormous range and based upon Murdoch’s earlier 1982 University of Edinburgh Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology, an attempt at an integrating activity and religious in as much as it refers to a transcendent encompassing reality.

[ii] Maria Antonaccio, “The Virtue of Metaphysics: A Review of Murdoch’s Philosophical Writings” in Iris Murdoch, Philosopher, edited by Justin Broackes, p.157.

[iii] Murdoch is on point in Metaphysics . . . when she joins Sartre’s existentialism with structuralism: “Jean-Paul Sartre . . . with his distinction of inert mind from active mind, sets the will free from the conventional (bourgeois) world. The distinction, the setting free or setting apart, appears as the instrument of a kind of revolution, purification or renewal. Such a distinction . . . is to be found in structuralism . . .” p. 52.

[iv] Iris Murdoch, Sartre Romantic Naturalist, p. 60.

[v] For a more extended analysis, see Chapter Six, “Consciousness and Thought I” and Chapter Eight, “Consciousness and Thought II” in Metaphysics . . . .

[vi] Iris Murdoch, Sovereignty of Good. . . , p. 9.

[vii] Sovereignty . . . , p. 27.

[viii] See Peter J. Conradi, Iris Murdoch A Life: Being and Nothingness recognized no value ‘except a Luciferian private will which in effect exalted unprincipled ‘sincerity’, bazaar originality, and irresponsible courage.” Murdoch also argues in the Introduction to Sartre . . . that in his “existential novels he pursued his demonic ‘other’”, p.14.

[ix] Sovereignty . . . , p. 28.

[x] Sovereignty . . . . pp. 28, 29.

[xi] See Iris Murdoch, Philosopher, p. 55n.

[xii] Sovereignty . . . , pp. 53-54.

[xiii] Sovereignty . . . , p. 61.

[xiv] Martha Nussbaum, “‘Faint with Secret Knowledge’”: Love and Vision in Murdoch’s The Black Prince” in Iris Murdoch, Philosopher, edited by Justin Broackes, p.137.

[xv] Justin Broackes,”Introduction” to Iris Murdoch, Philosopher, p. 70.

[xvi] Nussbaum, p. 138.

[xvii] Sovereignty . . . , p. 58.

[xviii] Sartre Romantic Naturalist, pp. 70, 71.

[xix] Sartre . . . , p. 79.

[xx] See Paul Tillilch, Systematic Theology, Part II, “Being and God,” pp. 168-174.

[xxi] See Iris Murdoch, Existentialists and Mystics, “The Sublime and the Good,” p. 217.

[xxii] Anselm of Canterbury is quoted by Murdoch with some frequency throughout Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals especially in “The Ontological Proof.” She notes that Anselm, like Augustine, was an heir to traditions of spiritual practice, one Platonic and philosophical and the other monastic and religious, For Murdoch, Anselm provides a sort of mirror for spiritual exercises that shape the habits of the soul, one of which would be a way of life devoted to the Ten Commandments and “rules” which provide supreme authority for the good life.

[xxiii] Metaphysics . . . , p. 56. It’s unclear the impact of Weil’s Waiting on God may have had on Murdoch compared to the Notebooks. With Gravity and Grace, though, we find a kinship with Weil’s original theology on the nature of love as a kind of sacred longing which comes to us in grace. One can thus argue that this kind of thinking would have been appealing to Murdoch who found herself on the fringes of faith but with consolation.

[xxiv] Sovereignty . . . p. 54.

[xxv] Kilvert’s Diary 1870-1879, ed, William Plomer, David Godine, p. 256.

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