Remembering Iris Murdoch

The philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch died on this day in 1999. I’ve appreciated what I have read of her work, although I’m sorry to admit that I’ve yet to read any of her fiction.

She was part of a set of formidable twentieth century philosophers that included Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, and Mary Midgley, who passed away last year. You can read about the cohort in this essay, which focuses on Foot. Here’s an excerpt:

“As Murdoch put it to a New Yorker journalist, what they were united in denying was the claim that ‘the human being was the monarch of the Universe, that he constructed his values from scratch’. The four of them, by contrast, were interested in ‘the reality that surrounds man – transcendent or whatever’.

Murdoch’s ‘or whatever’ was a reference to the things that divided them: she herself was drawn to a vision of a Universe where ‘the Good’, if not God, was real; Anscombe was a devout Catholic; Foot – in her own words – was a ‘card-carrying atheist’. But all three of them took seriously the claim that moral judgments are an attempt, however flawed in particular cases, to get at something true independently of human choices.”

My first encounter with Murdoch came years ago through this selection from The Sovereignty of the Good in which Murdoch describes the relationship between love and learning as well as the value of the intellectual virtues:

“If I am learning, for instance, Russian, I am confronted by an authoritative structure which commands my respect. The task is difficult and the goal is distant and perhaps never entirely attainable. My work is a progressive revelation of something which exists independently of me. Attention is rewarded by a knowledge of reality. Love of Russian leads me away from myself towards something alien to me, something which my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal. The honesty and humility required of the student — not to pretend to know what one does not know — is the preparation for the honesty and humility of the scholar who does not even feel tempted to suppress the fact which damns his theory.”

Elsewhere in The Sovereignty of the Good, she reflected on relationship between love, seeing, attention, and freedom:

“It is in the capacity to love, that is to see, that the liberation of the soul from fantasy consists. The freedom which is a proper human goal is the freedom from fantasy, that is the realism of compassion. What I have called fantasy, the proliferation of blinding self-centered aims and images, is itself a powerful system of energy, and most of what is often called ‘will’ or ‘willing’ belongs to this system. What counteracts the system is attention to reality inspired by, consisting of, love.

She added,

Freedom is not strictly the exercise of the will, but rather the experience of accurate vision which, when this becomes appropriate, occasions actions. It is what lies behind and in between actions and prompts them that is important, and it is this area which should be purified. By the time the moment of choice has arrived the quality of attention has probably determined the nature of the act.”

Her discussion of attention, incidentally, was influenced by Simone Weil from whom she says she borrowed the term “to express the idea of a just and loving gaze directed upon an individual reality.”

One last excerpt:

“Words are the most subtle symbols which we possess and our human fabric depends on them. The living and radical nature of language is something which we forget at our peril.”

Needless to say, I think her work remains relevant and even urgent.

For more about Murdoch, see this recent essay in LARB, “Innumerable Intentions and Charms”: On Gary Browning’s “Why Iris Murdoch Matters.”

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