Iris Murdoch: the virtue of paying attention

Iris Murdoch plaque at Blessington Basin. The houses outside are at the top of Blessington Street where she was born.

Happiness is a matter of one’s most ordinary everyday mode of consciousness being busy and lively and unconcerned with self. To be damned is for one’s ordinary everyday mode of consciousness to be unremitting agonising preoccupation with self.

The Nice and the Good (1968)

I doubt that the description of damnation given by Willie in The Nice and the Good owes anything to that given by CS Lewis in The Great Divorce, but they agree surprisingly well. Lewis’ version of Hell is of an extreme social distancing, of each damned soul retreating from the others to focus on themselves, how they were wronged, how they were misunderstood.

This, of course, is not a state that requires an after-life to experience.  Willie is saying that the difference between damnation and happiness (in the normal run of things) is purely a matter of where attention is directed: internally or externally. As Murdoch pointed out in her philosophical essay “The Sublime and the Good” (1959, Chicago Review, Vol. 13 Issue 3), “love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality”: the recognition of the entire world, not just what is inside ones own head. 

We see such people in Murdoch’s novels, people captivated and held captive by their illusions. Unlike Plato’s Cave, where people are imprisoned and take shadows cast on the wall as reality, many of Murdoch’s protagonists imprison themselves, preferring the shadows in their minds. (See this post on “The Red and the Green” for some examples.) While being in touch with reality cannot guarantee happiness since it cannot exclude disaster (though a Stoic might argue attention would give the disaster only its proper weight), lack of touch with reality almost guarantees disappointment, when people and things do not act as expected. 

To be good is, for Murdoch, intrinsically bound up with this: moving beyond the self to be part of the world as it really is. “The self, the place where we live, is a place of illusion. Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the unself, to see and to respond to the real world in the light of a virtuous consciousness.” (2001, The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts). 

The television show The Good Place (2016-2020) dramatised a search for how to act ethically, set within a fictional afterlife:  “moral philosophy is the beating heart of the program”(Andrew P. Street “The Good Place: How a sitcom made philosophy seem cool”. The Guardian  [January 29, 2018].) But while it did reach a conclusion of sorts about what it meant to be good (a journey of constant moral development rather a checklist or rules to follow), it was lighter on practical reason: what you might do to develop morality.

This is where Iris Murdoch could have come in, as you would expect of a thinker associated with the revival of virtue theory. The four main characters in The Good Place all are hampered by not being in touch with reality, in four different ways. (If you want to watch the series unspoiled stop reading now).

One is blissfully unaware of how the world works, from what society does to bank robbers to what airtight boxes do to life expectancy. Another turns away from the reality that hurt her remaining trapped within her own pain and emptiness, and as a result treating people as things. The third understands how the world works and does good things, but does them to be admired rather than in answer to needs observed in the world around her. The fourth is so focused on discovering what the right thing to do is, that he fails to do anything at all, or does it too late, causing upset and disruption. 

None therefore are in touch with reality. One knows too little, living within the bars of his own whims and fancies. Two are focused on the self, seeking consolation for hurt through withdrawal or pursuit of external validation. One suffers from a very Murdochian problem: the use of philosophy as a kind of consolation and a substitute for living.  Murdoch warns: “Philosophy is an imposition of form on the formless in a vast way. In so far as the philosopher might be aware of this, it’s something he’d be suspicious of in himself. One’s temptation to produce a hasty form in order to console oneself…is one to avoid.” (Iris Murdoch, 1961, Against Dryness, pdf online here). 

In short, Murdoch is as aware as The Good Place of the difficulty of truly living a good life, and how important it was to be aware of that difficulty, be aware of our own human limitations, to avoid trying to escape that recognition via consoling fantasy (including the fantasy that philosophy can straightforwardly give us the answers) and to learn to live by living. Humans can be good while yet being imperfect (a very Good Place message). As Murdoch writes in On Dryness:  

We are not isolated free choosers, monarchs of all we survey, but benighted creatures sunk in a reality whose nature we are constantly and overwhelmingly tempted to deform by fantasy. Our current picture of freedom encourages a dream-like facility; whereas what we require is a renewed sense of the difficulty and complexity of the moral life and the opacity of persons. …  Simone Weil said that morality was a matter of attention, not of will. We need a new vocabulary of attention.

Further Reading

“A Fuller Picture of Human Personality: Iris Murdoch on How Art Helps Us Reimagine Freedom, Moral Life, and Our Inner Worlds” Brainpicker
< https://www.brainpickings.org/2019/07/15/iris-murdoch-against-dryness/ >

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