Recently the Divinity School at the University of Chicago sponsored a conference to investigate and celebrate the theological importance of the writings, especially the novels, of Iris Murdoch. The attitude expressed by many of the theologians involved was one of abject, almost pathetic, gratitude to Murdoch for taking religion seriously—not many noted artists do so, after all, nor, come to think of it, do all of the theologians themselves. Confronted with the spectacle of these highly trained men and women genuflecting in the direction of a novelist, however brilliant, one struggles to recall that theology was once named Queen of the Sciences.
Yet if any contemporary writer, in the English-speaking world anyway, deserves this kind of attention it is Iris Murdoch. Until her retirement a few years ago, she taught philosophy at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, and her five philosophical books would by themselves add up to a pretty substantial career. But her reputation rests chiefly on her twenty-five novels, which collectively constitute one of the more impressive bodies of fiction produced in English in this century. Interestingly, her most ambitious—and, I would argue, most successful—work in both fields has been produced in the last decade, which is to say, well after her sixtieth birthday. She is now seventy-five, and continues to turn out complex, challenging, and lengthy novels at the rate of about one every other year—though she seems, unaccountably, to have broken stride momentarily in order to publish, two years ago, a substantial expansion and revision of her 1982 Gifford Lectures under the title Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (my copy of which weighs in at 520 pages). But when The Green Knight, her most recent novel (and at 472 pages her briefest in more than a decade), appeared in Great Britain in 1993 it became clear that the completion of Metaphysics had scarcely exhausted her energy.
In these two most recent books, Murdoch seems to be reaching, perhaps not a culmination of her work (who knows how many more books she will produce), but a clarification and focus of its key themes. She seems to be expressing her philosophy more directly and forcefully than ever, and connecting it with the whole range of her interests. And, though it may seem inappropriate to say so about so expansive a writer, it would seem that her focus is directed chiefly on a single question, one might even say a single letter, the letter “o”: the presence or absence of that letter can determine the ground of our moral lives.
What I mean can be discovered in a sentence near the end of Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals : “Good represents the reality of which God is the dream.” Or: “We can lose God, but not Good.” Murdoch is a Platonist, to a degree and with a purity almost unknown in modern thought: it is the Good that she seeks, the Idea or Form of the Good. (Platonist thought requires the frequent use of capital letters.) All else, including God, is an image or a substitute for this utter Good, and may be useful to us as we move toward perfection; but because our human tendency is to substitute the image for the reality, the guidepost for the destination, even the worship of God may distract us from our proper pursuit.
Murdoch is convinced that each of us pursues the Good according to our understanding of it; evil, in her thinking, is little more than the natural consequence of misinformation about or a misconception of the Good. As such it gets little attention in her writings: a consideration of the view that people are evil and human life miserable takes up but one part of the shortest chapter in Metaphysics, and most of the characters in her novels are basically decent people who are rather puzzled when they come upon what appears to be evil. In The Green Knight even a murderer seems more confused than malicious. (He is a scholar whose remarkable intellectual integrity suggests that he has simply failed to extend the morality he exhibits in one activity to the rest of his life.) The prototypical Murdoch character is young Edward Baltram in The Good Apprentice (1986). Edward surreptitiously, jokingly, gives a friend a dose of LSD, and when the friend in mid-trip leaps or falls from a high window to his death, Edward, overwhelmed by guilt, begins to seek some understanding of his experience, some moral or spiritual categories within which it can be comprehended, perhaps even some kind of redemption. On the last page he and his stepbrother (whose quest for a moral life gives the book its title) and stepfather drink to “all the good things in the world,” though they admit not being sure what those things are. They drink, one might say, to an unknown Good.
Perhaps this one example is sufficient to indicate that Murdoch takes the moral life more seriously than almost any other well-known contemporary novelist, and, moreover, that the virtues and shortcomings of her work are tightly interwoven. Her insistence that a good life is possible, and that many people actively pursue it, including those who don’t know that they are doing so, marks a fresh and exciting alternative to the more common themes of today’s “serious” fiction: detailed accounts of adultery in the suburbs, or of the mental worlds of serial killers, or of the contents of a kitchen cabinet in a trailer home in rural Missouri. But in order to make the pursuit of goodness seem both attractive and possible, Murdoch tends to avoid raising hard questions about those who quite evidently aren’t interested in goodness, or those who fight with little success against their evil impulses. As a Christian I would say that the great lack in Murdoch’s moral philosophy is an adequate concept of the will. Augustine’s Confessions turns up from time to time in Metaphysics, but any hope that she might at some point consider the philosophy of will elaborated there is disappointed. Her only reference to it merely notes that Augustine “pictures will as a blend of intellect and feeling.”
Nevertheless she does understand as well as any modern novelist just how complicated our moral lives can be, which is perhaps why she tends to write big novels, since their open and expansive form can make room for complexity and for a certain quite realistic lack of coherence. In one particularly stimulating chapter of Metaphysics she questions the preeminent position of tragedy among literary genres: “If it must be a play, is it not necessarily too short and simple?”
Moreover, doesn’t the association of tragedy with death enforce a certain too-neat closure? Murdoch suggests that King Lear would be a still more powerful—indeed, perhaps unbearable—play if Lear did not die at the end, but was forced to go on living with his crushing burden of knowledge and guilt. (This is of course what does happen to Oedipus at the end of Sophocles’ first play about him.) Murdoch suspects the Aristotelian doctrine of catharsis on the ground that a play which obeys it settles too many issues and closes too many emotional doors. More generally, referring to philosophy as well as art, she says that “the achievement of coherence is itself ambiguous. Coherence is not necessarily good, and one must question its cost. Better sometimes to remain confused.” By contrast she praises the novel because “in the traditional novel the people, the story, the innumerable kinds of value judgments both illuminate and celebrate life, and are judged and placed by life, in a reciprocal process. We read great novels with all our knowledge of life engaged, the experience is cognitive and moral in the highest degree.” Such experience is also too diversified to be fully coherent.
One is not wholly comfortable with Murdoch’s suspicion of coherence; it links up too readily with her resistance to stopping the pursuit of the Good with Jesus or Yahweh or Allah. The traditional believer is not confused about the object of his or her worship, which is in Murdoch’s view often unfortunate. But her willingness to tolerate confusion is nonetheless valuable for its recognition that the moral life cannot be reduced to rule-governed behavior. Not that she is against moral rules; they are, she argues convincingly, an “indispensable,” if insufficient, part of the moral life.
Especially interesting in this regard is her rehabilitation of the Kantian notion of duty, so scorned by many modern moral philosophers for “imposing” a supposedly external or, to use Paul Tillich’s word, “heteronomous,” standard upon the moral agent. “A realistic view of morality cannot dispense with the idea,” she argues; “duty is for most people the most obvious form of moral experience.” It is where moral neophytes—a category that includes but is not confined to children—find their starting point. As one grows morally and spiritually, one moves toward a more natural selflessness; but “meanwhile requirements and claims . . . demand to be met.” And it is good for all concerned that we acknowledge and meet those demands.
This position, admirable in itself, Murdoch puts to some troubling uses. Rules, structures, and duties, along with symbols, rites, even gods and all other objects of worship—in short, all given forms of the religious life—are in her view useful primarily as training wheels, to be replaced or removed when the rider no longer needs them. Thus she tends to portray characters who begin their moral quests by seeking a place within the structures of more-or-less traditional religious belief. Bellamy James in The Green Knight, for instance, finds a cloistered priest to serve as his spiritual advisor, and seeks to live a monastic life in the world, hoping that ascetic discipline will give him a clearer vision of Christ. But such characters are not allowed to find lasting satisfaction within those structures: internal and external circumstances tend to force them into more individualistic and amorphous modes of religious experience. Bellamy’s spiritual advisor seems to be speaking for Murdoch when he leaves the church and tells Bellamy to “remember Eckhart’s advice (for which he was deemed a heretic): do not seek for God outside your own soul.” He also says, “You should stay with Christ, that presence need not fade, it can be an icon”—but of course this is a significant demotion, from Savior to mere sign or token of an impersonal and unrepresentable Good. In one of the two dialogues in her book Acastos, Socrates tells a young man that if he prays to whatever God he knows, he will be answered. Yet it is clear that she also believes that, if one is not spiritually stagnant, any God will eventually cease to answer, at which point one must move on to higher and better things.
The French statesman Georges Clemenceau famously remarked that he would disown his son if the young man were not a Communist at age twenty, and would do the same if he were still a Communist at age thirty. Murdoch seems to have the same attitude toward adherence to traditional forms of religion: admirable and necessary in a moral beginner, unforgivable in a morally mature person. It is this conviction that lies behind her claim that she is a Christian Buddhist, or Buddhist Christian: she envisions a Christianity in which Jesus plays the same role that Buddha does in the more sophisticated forms of Buddhism, that of (at most) an avatar of a transcendent Good that he cannot exhaust or even adequately represent.
This should not be confused with what has often been called “ethical Christianity.” Murdoch repeatedly insists that morality, as commonly conceived, is not self-supporting. She rejects the liberal humanistic tradition according to which morality itself can be the ground of a good life; to the contrary, she argues, morality itself must be grounded in religious commitment. Religion, as Murdoch defines it, demands more of us than any mere morality can; it requires our unswerving allegiance, its claims upon us are absolute. In this sense, while the desire to be good or to be a better person may be a merely moral project, the pursuit of the Good is genuinely religious. The true encounter with Christ (or the Buddha, or whomever) will be a mystical vision of the Good that shines through him, not a simple acknowledgment of his ethical superiority and the value of following his example.
Still, the religion Murdoch envisions—as many of her characters come to believe, as Socrates preaches in Acastos, and as Murdoch herself repeatedly argues in Metaphysics—is necessarily, for reasons that by now should be obvious, a religion without gods. Not only can we lose God, but if we are to retain Good, at some point we must lose God. “The ‘demythologization’ of religion is something absolutely necessary in this age.” Moreover, the abandonment of the “old dogmatic literalistic myths” may well, she thinks, be going on right now in churches around the world without anybody noticing. This process can happen silently because “a Christian who loses belief in God and resurrection and immortality, while remaining religious, is not necessarily making a radical change in his value world.”
Murdoch is aware that some people will doubt that the transformation she recommends is so simple:
Can one simply decree this sort of status for the risen Christ and still keep a Christian structure and observance as before, as if it did not matter all that much? The transformation of Christianity into a religion like Buddhism, with no God and no literally divine Christ, but with a mystical Christ, may be, if possible at all, a long task . . . . Or could an individual perhaps one day decide to “look at it in this way”? Do not people so decide? And suppose a good many of them do? Is one being too rigid and solemn about it all? Do not a large number of those who go to church already think in a new nonliteral way without bothering about theology and metaphysics?
This, it seems to me, is wishful thinking. Even the most superficial investigation of the demographic data reveals that, while most Christians would agree that they care little for theology or metaphysics, those who actually go to church on a regular basis (and this is as true in Great Britain as it is in North America) tend to believe pretty literally in the creeds they recite each Sunday. Those who do not tend eventually to stop going to church altogether, finding the Sunday New York Times—that “parish magazine of self-congratulatory liberal enlightenment,” as Alasdair MacIntyre has so vividly called it—a less demanding way to meet their spiritual needs.
One may deplore or applaud this tendency, but one cannot simply ignore its existence, or assert its opposite. Murdoch is quite singular in her assumption that the structures of religion are of greater importance than the beliefs that have historically generated and then undergirded those structures. It may seem obvious to her that, in British Christianity, the abandonment of a belief in a personal God would be of little significance, while the loss of the Authorized Version of the Bible and Cranmer’s Prayer Book marks a religious disaster of the first magnitude; or that if “our minds are . . . full of readily available religious imagery . . . there is no need to expel [it] simply because . . . we do not believe in God.” But it is difficult to imagine that others will find such notions equally obvious, or perhaps even comprehensible. And at times Murdoch acknowledges that those who believe that untrue ideas should simply be dispensed with have an argument worthy of consideration.
Religious forms and structures, then, are important to Murdoch for pragmatic reasons: they are pegs on which to hang spiritual experiences that might otherwise be too amorphous and indefinable to be made sense of. But the Good itself, well, that is another matter—isn’t it? Surely Murdoch, as a self-proclaimed Platonist, believes in something like a “literal way” in the existence of the Good—doesn’t she? One might so conclude, if one had read only the first five hundred or so pages of Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. But right at the end she gives the game away.
There is a story Murdoch tells in this book, a Tibetan story:
A mother asks her son, a merchant setting off for the city, to bring her back a religious relic. He forgets her request until he is nearly home again. He picks up a dog’s tooth by the roadside and tells the old lady it is a relic of a saint. She places it in her chapel where it is venerated. It begins miraculously to glow with light.
On its first telling, this little tale illustrates a point about the role of stories in religion. It does not seem very important. But Murdoch returns to it several times, and finally, near the end of the book it suddenly appears to be something like the key to her whole philosophy:
Keats says that “what the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth, whether it existed before or not.” It must be truth. Simone Weil quotes Valery: “The proper, unique, and perpetual object of thought is that which does not exist.” Here we may make sense of the idea of loving good. “At its highest point, love is a determination to create the being which it has taken for its object.” Here indeed we come back to the Ontological Proof in its simpler version, a proof by perfection, by a certainty derived from love. The good artist, the true lover, the dedicated thinker, the unselfish moral agent solving his problem: they can create the object of love. The dog’s tooth, when sincerely venerated, glows with light.
Murdoch neatly escapes a recurrent dilemma of Platonism, which is to explain the mode of existence of the Good and of all the Forms, by denying that they have an existence at all independent of those who believe in them. The Good is not worshipped because it exists, but exists insofar as it is worshipped. It may, unlike God, be indispensable, but this indispensability is purely pragmatic and heuristic. We cannot live in the way we most want to live, or at least the way some of us want to live, without it. Murdoch’s Good is what the poet Wallace Stevens called a “supreme fiction”: a story, a metanarrative, by which we can direct our lives, and the origin of which is our own creative imagination. If, as Jean-Francois Lyotard has claimed, postmodernism may be defined in a phrase as “incredulity toward metanarratives,” then Iris Murdoch (like Stevens) is a modernist; that is to say, one whose incredulity is limited to metanarratives written by others.
Many of the more curious features of Murdoch’s novels become more comprehensible once one understands this belief that the Good is an imaginative creation: for instance, the seemingly minor yet recurrent instances of paranormal phenomena. In The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983) a man’s life is changed by his vision of a flying saucer; a key episode in The Good Apprentice turns on what appears to be the effects of a love potion; a young girl in The Green Knight exerts an involuntary telekinesis over the stones that she has collected in her room; in the same novel the goodness of a man named Peter Mir (Mir meaning, in Russian, both “world” and “peace,” as several characters note) seems to be contagious, bringing sweet dreams and love to those with whom he comes in contact. But more questions are raised than answered. I will here note only three.
First, why do the various spiritual seekers of her novels tend to move in the same direction, that is, to conceive of or imagine goodness in roughly the same way? There may be several plausible answers to that question, but Murdoch doesn’t give any.
Second—a point noted earlier—how are we to explain those people who do not seem to give a damn for the Good or for moral action in any form? Do they simply have deficient imaginations? Moreover, how should we respond to them? What kinds of arguments, if any, could we formulate that would call them to account for their behavior, and even to see the error of their ways? In The Green Knight, the good Peter Mir confronts the murderer, and seems to have no resources with which to bring about moral conviction in the man; their several conversations end in frustration and no closure is reached. At one point in Metaphysics Murdoch quotes, with apparent approval, Wittgenstein’s claim that certain moral questions cannot be profitably discussed: “There are, indeed, things which cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.” But of course, there are many people to whom such “things” are obviously not manifest. What then?
The third question is the most important. Earlier I quoted Murdoch’s claim that “the ‘demythologization’ of religion is something absolutely necessary in this age.” Throughout the book she takes it for granted that the “old dogmatic literalistic myths” must go, indeed have gone; the only question is what “we” will replace them with. The recurrent use of the plural pronoun and her constant reference to traditional religion in the past tense—“should we let [the word ‘God’] dwindle and go, together with the person whom it used to designate?”—are equally telling. That Murdoch feels qualified to speak for a “we” which presumably includes all of her readers is indicated by the fact that she offers neither a defense nor even an explanation for her determination to demythologize. To Murdoch it goes without saying that historic Christianity is not an option. Yet it does not seem likely that her audience is as uniform as all that; and even those readers who do not share this writer’s commitment to traditional religion may still wonder whether, if we are going to create our own object of worship, the exchange of a personal, loving God for an impersonal, unresponsive Good is an appealing trade. Why—this is my third question—should anyone agree to such an exchange?
Insofar as Murdoch does answer this question, the answer is only implicit, and appears to be a pragmatic one. It is a matter of what “we” can bring ourselves to believe in. From time to time she notes that “we can no longer believe” in traditional Judaism or Christianity—that is, in the notion of a personal God, or a Savior who rose from the dead, or personal immortality in the familiar sense. This is a familiar sort of statement, yet it begs many, many questions. Many people do believe in these things; many people in the past did not. Many contemporary skeptics would find it easier to believe in a personal God than in “a Christ who . . . is to be found as a living force [only] within each human soul.” If indeed Murdoch thinks her philosophy is for the modern person more “believable” than the historic religions, one needs to be convinced and not just told.
This is an important issue because Murdoch implicitly acknowledges from time to time that her Good is in many ways less appealing, less satisfying, than a personal God. Her nostalgia for the ancient Jewish and especially the Christian faith is palpable throughout Metaphysics and, albeit less directly, in many of her novels. “The charm, attraction, and in many ways deep effectiveness of faith in a personal God must constantly strike the critical or envious outsider.” Of the Gospels she writes, contrasting them with the forceful rhetoric of Paul’s letters, that they “are in a sense easy to read, can seem so (even I would think for a complete stranger to them), because they are the kind of great art where we feel: It is so.” And that this is not a merely aesthetic reaction is indicated by these curiously ambivalent words, from the same page: “What happened immediately after Christ’s death, how it all went on, how the Gospel writers and Paul became persuaded He had risen: this is one of the great mysteries of history. It is difficult to imagine any explanation in purely historical terms, though the unbeliever must assume there is one.” The narratives of Christ’s redemptive acts touch Murdoch because they reveal a God who, in the Apostle Paul’s formulation, came to save us while we were yet sinners, before we had loved him. The Platonic Good can be, like the Jewish and Christian God, lovable; “however, God sees us and seeks us, Good does not.”
That Murdoch cannot find a way to accept this God who sees and seeks (who redeems), but instead embraces an impersonal and probably fictional Good, makes it ironic-perhaps contradictory would not be too strong a word-that she would conclude her book with these words from Psalm 139 (in the Authorized Version, of course):
Whither shall I go from thy spirit, whither shall I fly from thy presence? If I ascend into heaven thou art there, if I make my bed in hell, behold thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.
Ironic and contradictory, because each property here attributed by the psalmist to the Lord is that of a person, one whose love is active and (in the old word) prevenient. Murdoch concludes her long, confusing, and stimulating book by appealing to an image of the Ultimate that she has, overtly and firmly, if regretfully, abandoned.
The Gospel—and not just the Gospel, but the fundamental Judeo-Christian belief in a loving personal God—is, according to the apostle, “foolishness to the Greeks.” We believers are fools. But Murdoch’s rejection of God in favor of her supreme fiction, the Good, is worse than foolish, it is empty. Her interpolated “o” adds nothing; in the end it proves to be a zero. Another Fool may have understood, though his words seem harsh: he told his master Lear, “now thou art an O without a figure. I am better than thou art now; I am a Fool, thou art nothing.”
Alan Jacobs, whose “The Second Coming of C. S. Lewis” appeared in our November 1994 issue, teaches in the Department of English at Wheaton College.