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

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. 

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Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real.

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

Iris Murdoch (1959) “The Sublime and the Good” Chicago Review Vol. 13, No. 3, pp. 42-55. See page 51.
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Iris Murdoch on the unity of the virtues

[M]oral advance carries with it intuitions of unity which are increasingly less misleading. Courage, which seemed at first to be something on its own, a sort of specialised daring of spirit, is now seen to be a particular operation of wisdom and love.[…] ​Freedom, we find out, is not an inconsequential chucking of one’s weight about, it is the disciplined overcoming of self. Humility is not a peculiar habit of self-effacement, rather like having an inaudible voice, it is self-less respect for reality and one of the most difficult and central of all virtues.

Iris Murdoch (1970/2013) The Sovereignty of Good, Routledge, p. 93.

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Reading the Rising: The Red and the Green

An open book bearing Iris Murdoch's image.
Detail of Hughie O’Donoghue’s artwork “Red Books” (2013), John Paul II Library at Maynooth University

Iris Murdoch wrote only one historical novel, The Red and the Green1. It follows the events leading up to the 1916 Rising as they affect an Anglo-Irish extended family “in a complex story story of misunderstandings, failures of perception, and ultimate self-discovery” 2.

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Shakespeare, aesthetics and morality

So let us start by saying that Shakespeare is the greatest of all artists, and let our aesthetic grow to be the philosophical justification of this judgement. We may note that a similar method can, and in my view should, be used in moral philosophy. That is, if a moral philosophy does not give a satisfactory or sufficiently rich account of what we unphilosophically know to be goodness, then away with it.

Iris Murdoch (1959) “The Sublime and the Good”, Chicago Review, Vol. 13, No. 3, pp. 42-55. Quote from p. 42.

For the fourth centenary of  Shakespeare’s death, Iris Murdoch’s judgement of him as the greatest artist of all. Murdoch argues against Tolstoy that both aesthetics and morality have to start from the concrete, not from definitions which determine what is art, or what is good.

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Being a woman

I think being a woman is like being Irish... Everyone says you're important and nice, but you take second place all the same - Iris Murdoch

Iris Murdoch (2008/1965) “The Red and the Green”, Random House, p. 36.

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Philosophy’s Two-Way Movement

There is a two-way movement in philosophy, a movement towards the building of elaborate theories, and a move back again towards the consideration of simple and obvious facts. McTaggart says that time is unreal. Moore replies that he has just had his breakfast. Both these aspects of philosophy are necessary to it.

Iris Murdoch, “The Idea of Perfection”, in The Sovereignty of Good (Routledge Classics, p. 1)

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Iris Murdoch on Philosophy and Literature

Byran Magee discusses the areas in which philosophy and literature overlap with Iris Murdoch.

“Style and structure in philosophical writing are compared and contrasted with those in literature. The narrative abilities of Plato, Schopenhauer, and Kant are examined. Philosophy’s predilection for accepting only literature that supports its theories is discussed as a source of antagonism between the two disciplines.”

Many more of Magee’s interviews with contemporary philosophers are available here.

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‘Archives and afterlife’ – The 7th Annual Iris Murdoch Conference, 12th-13th September

Celebrating ten years since the opening of the Iris Murdoch Archives and the inauguration of the Centre for Iris Murdoch Studies, the Seventh International Conference on Iris Murdoch will showcase published and on-going research that has been informed by material in our archives.

Venue: John Galsworthy building, Penrhyn Road campus, Penrhyn Road, Kingston upon Thames, Surrey KT1 2EE

Price: £65-£150

Click here for more information and to book.

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Happiness and Self

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.

Iris Murdoch, The Nice and the Good, (1968), chapter 22.