Iris Murdoch on love, justice and truth

I recently read Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature, a collection of philosophical writings by the late Iris Murdoch from 1951 to 1986.

I bought the book because I enjoyed her novels, although I admit don’t remember the plots of any of them clearly, and because of praise of her by Matthew Crawford, author of The World Beyond Your Head, which I admire and which I am re-reading as part of a reading group.

I admire Murdoch as a thinker, but there is much more in her thought than I could absorb in one reading.

What follows are ideas I took away from reading this book, which may or may not represent her thought.

One idea that, in order to perceive reality as it is, you must cleanse your mind of egotism and wish-fulfillment fantasy, which are the source of illusion.

This is true not only of scientists, writers, artists and religious mystics, but of everyday people.

She said, moreover, that those who look on life with a desire to be just and loving will comprehend the world in ways that the self-centered cannot.

Her example is a mother whose son marries a woman of a lower social class, whom she thinks is lacking in refinement.  She always behaves nicely, and never lets her opinion of her daughter-in-law show.

But then she thinks she may be unfair, and makes an effort to look for good qualities in the daughter-in-law.  She decides she is not vulgar but refreshingly simple, not undignified but spontaneous, not juvenile but youthful, and so on.

Her new perception changes her behavior not one whit.  Nevertheless it has moral significance.

I’m reminded of a remark by Bertrand Russell in The Scientific Outlook.  Russell said there are two motives for seeking knowledge.  One is to better understand something or someone you wish to control.   The other is to better appreciate something or someone that you love.  And, he added, the pleasures of the lover are greater than the pleasures of the tyrant.

Murdoch was interested in the existentialists—Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir—because theirs was a philosophy of how to live.  They believed that the human condition consists of radical freedom.  They believed that you have to choose the credo you’re going to live by for yourself, and not shift responsibility onto society or any external authority..

It is a romantic idea, Murdoch concluded.  The existential hero is like the Humphrey Bogart character in “Casablanca”—disillusioned, believing in nothing, but able to rise to the occasion nevertheless (my example, not hers).

The British analytic philosophers were closer to the existentialists than they realized, she wrote.  They, too, thought moral choice was a matter of personal feeling or choice, and not grounded in any reality.  The difference between them and the existentialists is that they were interested in facts and the existentialists were interested in choices.

But human nature is not like that. As Murdoch pointed out, your values are rarely if ever a matter of choice.  If you are awed by the beauty of a sunset or disgusted by filth, this is something that comes into your mind without a conscious decision.  If you admire heroism or feel indignant at small boys torturing a dog, that is not a choice.

You can’t help believing that some things are good and other things are bad, any more than you can help believing that some things are beautiful and others are ugly, or that some things are true and other things are false.  You can’t stop believing these things by a simple act of will, any more than you can stop believing that 2 + 2 = 4 by an act of will.

You do have to choose whether to act on your moral values.  You have to choose among moral values when they seem to conflict.  Sometimes you learn or experience things that cause you to modify your values.  Sometimes you can invoke a belief by a conscious choice to act as if you believed it.  But rarely if ever do you choose the basic underlying value.

Art criticism can change your perception by pointing out things or relationships that you might have missed.  Good  art criticism helps you to perceive art more clearly.  Philosophy does the same thing for morals. It clarifies your understanding and helps you to perceive things that weren’t obvious.  That perception, of course, may change your mind.

One section of the book is entitled “The Need for Theory.”  She discusses the ideas of Simone Weil, T.S. Eliot, Elias Canetti and Stuart Hampshire, among others.  In one essay, she said the British Labor Party as of 1958 had run out of gas intellectually.  Marxism and the welfare state weren’t enough, she wrote; British socialists needed to get back to their roots in William Morris and other 19th century thinkers who defended traditional ways of life against capitalist disruption.

Greatness in art is not determined by pre-existing theory, she wrote.  Rather you recognize greatness when you encounter it—as in Shakespeare’s plays or Tolstoy’s novels, for example—and then try to figure out what made them so great.  She wrote:

Art and morals are, with certain provisos…, one.  Their essence is the same.  The essence of both is love.  Love is the perception of individuals.  Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.  Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.

We recognize greatness in literature and art, but we also recognize that no work of literature is flawless.  There are degrees of greatness.  Most people perceive that Dickens is a greater writer than Trollope, or Beethoven a greater composer than Brahms.

The same is true of human affairs.  Admirers of John Adams or U.S. Grant generally admit that neither was as great a President as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln.

Now if there are degrees of greatness, if there are greater and lesser degrees of aesthetic and moral imperfection, the comparisons point a trajectory leading to an ideal of perfect greatness.

When you talk about ideals that go beyond any existing things, you wind up with Plato.  Murdoch’s essays on Plato take up the last and longest section of the book.

The last part of the book are two Socratic dialogues written by Murdoch herself.  One is on philosophy and art and the other on philosophy and religion.  The participants include a 20-year-old Plato being questioned and instructed by the 60-year-old Socrates.

These are the best parts of the book.  If you don’t have time to read the whole book, I recommend you read them.  I won’t even begin to try to summarize them.

To me, Murdoch’s writings on Plato and, in particular, her Socratic dialogues are more enlightening and much more readable than Plato’s actual Socratic dialogues.  This of course says more about my limitations than it does about Plato or Iris Murdoch,


Iris Murdoch, novelist and philosopher by Paul Levy for The Independent.

The moral vision of Iris Murdoch by James K.A. Smith for America: the Jesuit Review [Added 5/1/2019]

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5 Responses to “Iris Murdoch on love, justice and truth”

  1. butimbeautiful Says:

    I’ve got a thing for Plato.. maybe I should give iris Murdoch a go..


  2. JOSHUA Says:

    I appreciate this book review, Phil.


  3. Nicky D Says:

    Reblogged this on Nick DiChario and commented:
    I love it when philosophy and literature walk into a bar together, and I’m a great admirer of the existentialists. I don’t know a lot about Iris Murdoch, but I look forward to reading this book, especially her take on Plato.


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