Joseph Malikail 


Among the philosophers and novelists of the last half-century, Iris Murdoch is remarkable for her preoccupation with the conception of morality or the vision of the Platonic Form of the Good; her novels depict characters in different versions and degrees of moral goodness, plausible in a contemporary setting. That preoccupation is the subject of this paper.


Murdoch is a moral realist. Moral realists, whatever their differences, hold in common that there are moral truths which we are capable of recognizing and which are there for us to recognize; their existence does not depend upon our recognition of them. In a 1956 paper, "Dreams and Self- Knowledge" (ie. "Vision and Choice in Morality", Conradi 1997, 92, 95-96), she discussed the ontology of moral Goodness. How should the idea of moral Good be conceived? She stood on the side of Vision against Choice. Juxtaposition of the terms was intended to clarify her Platonic (Evans 1993, 35) perspective of post-Kantian moral philosophy, and focus a critique, positive and negative, of positions held by G.E. Moore, and of the various blends of Kantianism, utilitarianism, behaviourism and existentialism prevalent among her language-analyst contemporaries.

According to Murdoch, G.E. Moore has had a major impact on ethical discourse in the century. He was one of the "Cambridge Apostles", of a generation previous to hers. The members were consistently naturalistic in their approach to moral problems and to the definition of morality, as—to quote Stuart Hampshire—being "free from transcendental cant... dismissed the idea of salvation whether in this world or the next" (1980, 53). As Wolfhart Pannenburg says:

Whether as Kantianism or as some form of utilitarianism, moral philosophers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did in fact replace religion among the intellectual elite and those whom they influenced. [However] Both the Kantian and utilitarian forms of moral philosophy continued to affirm the public authority of moral norms, as well as their rational power to convince (1998, 2-9).

Utilitarianism, the legacy of 19th century philosophers, Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mill, found general acceptance among the "Apostles". Some like Moore were dissatisfied with its consequentialist definition of the moral good in terms of happiness, a non-value concept. Moore, as Sidgwick did before him, distinguished between the functional and the moral use of good. In his influential book Principia Ethica (1903) Moore proposed that the word good (in its moral sense) is indefinable and stands for a non-natural quality of states of affairs. Murdoch held that Moore was essentially right on this point (1970, 3-4; cf. Schneewind 1997). The good could be perceived in empirical experience, but its ground transcended experience. In deploring the state of moral discourse after Moore, she says:

A great deal has happened since he wrote, and when we read him again it is startling to see how many of his beliefs are philosophically unstatable now. Moore believed that good was a supersensible reality, that it was a mysterious quality, unrepresentable and indefinable, that it was an object of knowledge and (implicitly) that to be able to see it was in some sense to have it. He thought of good upon the analogy of the beautiful and considered goodness to be "a real constituent of the world" (1970, 14-15; cf. 59-75).

In a 1957 paper Metaphysics and Ethics (Conradi 1997, 59-75) Murdoch explained that Moore "in spite of himself was a naturalist", in the sense of "realist" or "descriptivist" (ibid. 62-63), though it was Moore who coined the phrase naturalistic fallacy (1903, 10, 10-17; cf. Williams 1985, 121-24; Midgley 1989, chs. 15 & 16 ). Murdoch would of course disagree with Moore in his citation of Hume (Treatise of Human Nature III, I.1) that values cannot be derived from facts (Conradi 1997, 64 seq.). Murdoch fears that Moore's seeming endorsement of the Humean separation of value from fact may lead to a "diminished, even perfunctory account of morality... and with the increasing prestige of science may lead to a marginalisation of the ethical''(1992, 25). With no substantial vision of the good, the moral becomes a matter of will's choice. However, she thinks that Moore might (1970, 62) have been citing Hume merely to counter a logical fallacy committed by the utilitarian J.S. Mill, who had held that what is desired is what ought to be. In her 1957 paper Murdoch is emphatic that the Is-Ought or fact-value separation—often called the logical argument—has had a baneful effect on ethical thought. She disputes its faulty pedigree as well as its implications:

Why has it been so readily assumed that the stripped and behaviouristic account of morality which the modern philosopher gives is imposed on us by philosophic considerations? I think this is because the antimetaphysical argument [re: Hampshire, op. cit.] and the logical argument ("naturalistic fallacy") have been very closely connected in the minds of those who used them with a much more general and ambiguous dictum to this effect: you cannot attach morality to the substance of the world. And this dictum, which expresses the whole point of modern ethics, has been accorded a sort of logical dignity. But why can morality not be thought of as attached to the substance of the world? Surely many people, who are not philosophers and who cannot be accused of using faulty arguments since they use no arguments, do think of their morality in just this way? They think of it as continuous with some sort of larger structure of reality, whether this be a religious structure, or social or historical one (Conradi 1997, 65).

As Murdoch conceives Morality to be real, it is an object of knowledge as there is no ubiquitous gulf fixed between factual reality and value. In her Idea of Perfection, she says

... at the level of serious common sense and of an ordinary non-philosophical reflection about the nature of morals, it is perfectly obvious that goodness is connected with knowledge... with a refined and honest perception of what is really the case, a patient and just discernment and exploration of what confronts one, which is the result not simply of opening one's eyes but a ... familiar kind of moral discipline (1970, 38).

Is the transcendence of Moore's good the same as the Plato's? In Moore's transcendental empiricism (Conradi 1998, xii), what is the transcendent he invites one to contemplate (Moore 1903, 188 -189)? Midgley makes a distinction:

Plato held the ideal Forms that were the source of the world's order were also the source of all value and the proper object of worship. ..Moore, by contrast, was trying to assert the supremacy of human contemplation without allowing any substantial value to the non-human world at all except so far as it provides material for human experience, and without invoking any kind of divinity either. He wants an attitude which does not and cannot have any transcendent objects (1989, 151).

Where Murdoch's moral realism stands in relation to that of Plato and of Moore may be the key to an understanding of what she means by real.

For Murdoch, almost all our concepts involve evaluation - the Form of the Good. The activity of discriminating any fact as really relevant to judging a situation involves a prior sense of values. Unlike in the "is-then-ought" conception, factual and moral judgements do not follow one after the other.

Reflection on this concept enables us to display how deeply, subtly and in detail, values, the various qualities and grades between good and bad, seep through our moment -to-moment experiences (1992, 265).

To emphasise that moral evaluation is intrinsic in the way we experience the world, she uses the term Incarnate: "... the good and evil that we dream of may be more incarnate than we realise in the world within which we choose" (Conradi 1997, 200). Or as Pannenburg explains, moral consciousness and moral argument are intrinsic:

There are several reasons why this is the case, not the least being the invincible propensity of human beings to judge the conduct of others... Moral judgement is inextricably entangled with our very nature as social beings... Situations demand it , whether we want to judge or not. It does not matter, at least at this level, whether the normative ideas presupposed in our judgement are fair or not... (1998, 3/9).

Murdoch's term incarnate for the pervasive presence of values does not mean immanent in a pantheistic sense. For Murdoch the Platonist, the good is transcendent. (1986, 106), as well as real. She alludes to the words of Pope John Paul II (The Acting Person) with reference to Oxford positivist A.J. Ayer's "metaphysical belief that values have no real existence (evaluative nihilism)" and "the epistemological belief that values are not an object of cognition (acognitivism)". (1992, 229).

Her affinity to Moore, as we have seen, was only partial, and she also disassociated herself from the moral philosophy of many of her contemporaries. At the meeting of the Aristotelian Society in 1956 (Conradi 1997, 76-98.), she criticised aspects of Kantianism dominant among her Oxford peers. She held that the procedures of universalization leading to categorically imperative action were not grounded in any substantial form of the Good or Perfection. She believed that the emphasis on the Will had inevitably led to not Kantian "universalisability", but to the "supremacy" of an individual's own criterionless (existentialist) choice (Murdoch 1992, 34), as Nietzsche had predicted and wished to happen (Conradi 1997, 224 ; Cf. J. Hare. 1997, Ch.1 & Section 5; Schneewind 1997).

Further, Murdoch charged that even the voluntarist rationalists who claimed to be following Kant had misunderstood him. Kant did not hold that the Good was created by human reason, least of all that it was a creation of the individual will. Thus she says that

Reason itself is for him [Kant] an ideal limit: indeed his term`Idea of Reason' expresses precisely that endless aspiration to perfection with its characteristic moral activity. His is not the 'achieved' or 'given' reason which belongs with 'ordinary language' and convention, nor is his man on the other hand totally unguided and alone [existentialist]. There exists a moral reality, a real though infinitely distant standard: the difficulty of understanding and imitating remain. (1970, 31, 1-46; cf. MacIntyre, 1982, 15).

Murdoch would certainly acknowledge Kant, Steiner says, as one of her masters "among whom Plato towers"; it is probable that her Platonism brings her closer to Kant than to Aristotle (Williams 1993, 158, 216). Hume too appealed to her for his "robust clarity and unworried good sense" (Conradi, 1997, xii). Hume stated

Nature has not left to [our] choice and has doubtless esteemed an affair of too great importance to be trusted to our uncertain reasoning and speculations (Treatise, I. IV.2).

As David Pears rephrases it,

Reason cannot defend the principles which we need to steer us through our lives, and so nature takes over and engraves them on our minds. When rational justifications run out, we just go on in the way we find natural. (cited in Cotttingham 1991, 27).

Murdoch's view that the Good is transcendently real thus has affinity in different ways to Plato, Moore, Kant, and also possibly to Hume.

Murdoch's negative view of prevailing moral discourse may thus be summed up in four points:

1. The Utilitarian definition of moral goodness is inadequate, even as qualified by J.S. Mill or by Richard Hare (Antonaccio 1996, 84-95), because of lack of substance in that conception of the Good. This inadequacy was only partly remedied by G.E. Moore's indefinability condition.

2. Murdoch alleged that a natural consequence of 'Oxford philosophers' not recognising the Good as real was an undue emphasis on 'ordinary language' analysis or on 'language games' played within the court rules of a Kantian morally autonomous will or freedom of choice.

3. She considered Gilbert Ryle's (1949} behaviourist picture of the mind unreal and unhelpful in understanding or advancing moral life.

4. 'Oxford philosophy' had failed to develop a defensible theory of moral motivation; she asked: if the moral quality of an action depended on choice, should not what prepares a person to make that choice be important? (1970, 53). For Murdoch it was the quality of consciousness (Vision) that does and should determine the choice. A discriminating Vision of the Good is achieved by attending.


By stating that moral values are 'incarnate' in the world, Murdoch emphasises that they are real (1992, 250, 259, 398), but not in the sense a Christian may understand that the divine good was incarnate in Christ. How does she see the relationship of the Good of her moral realism to the concept of a personal God? She explored the relationship of the ontology of the Good to the concept of divinity, particularly in the thought of Plato, St. Anselm and Kant. Before an intensive treatment of the subject in 1982 and 1992, she made a forthright avowal in an earlier lecture, "On 'God' and 'Good'":

If someone says, 'Do you then believe that the idea of the Good exists?', I reply, 'No, not as people used to think that God existed' (1970, 74).

She concludes the lecture:

I have throughout this paper assumed that 'there is no God' and that the influence of religion is waning rapidly. Both these assumptions may be challenged. What seems beyond doubt is that moral philosophy is daunted and confused, and in many quarters regarded as unnecessary (ibid. 75-6).

For Murdoch as for Plato, the Good belongs to Plato's Realm of Being not the Realm of Becoming: "value is everywhere, [that] the whole of life is movement on a moral scale, all good, which is a transcendent source of spiritual power, to which we are related through the idea of truth." (1992, 56); and "Good is what every soul pursues and for which it ventures everything..." (Republic: 505 E). However, Murdoch does not read Plato as declaring his faith in a divine being when he says that the Good is

the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and the lord of light in the visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which [one who] would act rationally either in public or private life must have his eyes fixed (Republic 508).

Though she acknowledges the influence of Simone Weil in her reading of Plato, her understanding of Plato on Good and God is not Weil's (1952, ch.7). For Murdoch,

Plato illumines with stories which are deliberately cast as explanatory myths and must not be taken for anything else. Plato's 'sun' (Republic Bk.6) is separate and perfect, yet also immanent in the world as the life-giving magnetic genesis of all our struggles for truth and virtue. Plato never identified his Form of the Good with God (the use of theos in the Republic 579B is a facon de parler), and this separation is for him an essential one. Religion is above the level of the 'gods'. There are no gods and no God either. Neo-Platonic thinkers made the identification (of God with good) possible; and the Judaeo-Christian tradition has made it easy and natural for us to gather together the aesthetic and consoling impression of Good as a person (1992, 38).

As she understands Plato:

The Form of the Good as creative power is not a Book of Genesis creator ex nihilo ... Plato does not set up the Form of the Good as God, this would be absolutely un-Platonic, nor does he anywhere give the sign of missing or needing a real God to assist his explanations. On the contrary, Good is above the level of the gods or God (ibid., 475).

If Murdoch does not see that Good is personified as God by Plato, what is the transcendent Reality of the Good on which her Vision is focused? She examines at length St. Anselm's Ontological argument for the existence of God and its relevance to the existence of the Good in her 1982 Gifford Lectures (which were not formally published), and at greater length in her magnum opus of 1992. In her 1982 lecture, Murdoch paraphrases Anselm:

For purposes of the Proof, God is taken to be En realissimum, ali quod nihil maius cogitari possit, that than which nothing greater, or more perfect, can be conceived. The first formulation [by Anselm] distinguished between what exists (or is conceived of) in the mind (in intellectu) and what exists in reality, outside the mind (in re). To exist in reality is taken to be a quality (or predicate), which is extra to existing only in the mind. So we can understand that God exists, since if he did not he would lack the one important quality, that of existence, and fail to be that than which nothing greater can be conceived (1998, 2).

Murdoch considers that Anselm's argument about En realissimum is derived from Plato, through Plotinus and St. Augustine, through the neo-Platonic transformation of Plato's Form of the Good into a supreme spiritual being and thus to a metaphysical conception of the Christian God (my emphasis, ibid., 3 ; cf. Evans 1993, 51-66).

She attributes to Kant the prevailing view of Anselm's proof: one of uneasiness among "modern secularists", and of dislike by "some modern believers and theologians". Both in the Gifford Lectures and in 1992 (393-394), Murdoch reviews Kant's 'disproof' of Anselm:

Kant's refutation of Anselm summed up as 'existence is not a predicate' runs very briefly put, thus. We do not add anything to the idea of something by saying that it exists. We do not make the least addition to the thing when we further declare that the thing is. Otherwise it would not be exactly the same thing that it exists'. There can be no 'necessary' existence which is contrasted with 'contingent existence' (1998, 4-5).

However, she sees two parts in Anselm's argument, of which only the first on the necessary existence of God is dependent on logic. Kant's objection could be a response only to that logical part. But Anselm's ancillary argument (in Monologion), based on experience rather than logic, interlocks with and supports the first. Murdoch deplores that Kant and the moderns have taken the logical argument as primary, "as if one could talk of God without reference to morality; and [could] have regarded the Platonic background as a mere historical phenomenon" (ibid., 4).

She traces the line implicit in the experience argument:

... as we can recognise and identify goodness and degrees of good, we are able to have the idea of the greatest conceivable good. The definition of God, as non-contingent, non-accidental, is given body by that general perception and experience of the fundamental, authoritative (uniquely necessary) nature of moral value, that if God exists, he exists necessarily, we conceive of him by noticing degrees of goodness, which we see in ourselves and in all the world which is a shadow of God. These are aspects of the Proof wherein the definition of God as non-contingent is given body by our most general perceptions and experience of the fundamental and omnipresent (uniquely necessary) nature of moral value, thought in a Christian context as God (1992, 396).

This recognition is of course a religious vision (ibid.). But unlike Anselm, Murdoch holds that in Plato's mind moral value has "nothing to do with a personal God or gods. "The idea of Good is not God " (1998, 4).

The importance of experience in the vision of the real, Murdoch says, is implicit also in Kant who

introduced his own form of moral necessity and Ontological Proof supported by appeal to experience, in the form of the Categorical Imperative, thereby supplying the unconditional element in the structure of reason and reality... Kant's command of duty, linked to the idea of freedom, is unavoidable in the same sense as Anselm's God or Plato's Good (ibid., 5).

How should one understand Kant's words, that one is not "totally unguided and alone"?

Now a divine legislative will commands either through laws in themselves merely statutory or through purely moral laws. As to the latter, each individual can know of himself, through his own reason, the will of God... The concept of a divine will, determined according to purely moral laws alone, allows us to think of only one religion which is purely moral, as it did of only one God (1960/1934, 91).

As Murdoch sees it:

... in a way it is a matter of tactics and temperament whether we should look at Christ or Reason... The argument for looking outward at Christ and not inward at Reason is that self is such a dazzling object that if one looks there one may see nothing else (1970, 31).

She returns repeatedly to the subject of God or/and the Good. In her novel, Time of the Angels (1966), the issue is raised if one can be a theist without succumbing to the lure of false consolation that may be found in religious belief. Marcus is writing a book called Morality without God in which he attacks those who tried to understand moral judgements as expressions of Will or Choice, a view that Murdoch herself repudiated in her writings. If the alternative to Choice is Vision, should that Vision be of God? If there is no God, is there no morality either? Murdoch said that she had been "more than half- persuaded" (1970. 72), but rejected the view that if God is not credible, then Good too is a superstition (MacIntyre, 1982).

Mary Warnock, her friend and fellow-philosopher, sums up Murdoch's metaphysical view of the Vision of the Good:

She [Murdoch] holds that goodness has a real though abstract existence in the world. The actual existence of goodness is, in her view, the way, it is now possible, to understand the idea of God (1995, 598).

Or as Murdoch herself puts it, "Good represents the reality of which God is the dream" (1992, 496).


Though not a theist, Murdoch is far from subscribing to Lucretius's "such evil deeds could religion prompt" (De Rerum Natura, l. 101), or to our contemporary, Richard Dawkins, who has stated that religion is one of the great evils, comparable to "the smallpox virus, but harder to eradicate" (Wood 1999, 15). She challenges the almost automatic assumption of modern philosophy that ethics is autonomous of religious claims and beliefs (Antonaccio 1996, xii). Though she sees no need for a formal creed, nor postulates a generalised deism, Murdoch deeply respects those who believe "supersensible "(Conradi 1997, xli). She writes:

Our general awareness of good, or goodness, is with us unreflectively all the time, as a sense of God's presence, or at least existence, used to be for all sorts of believers (1992, 509).

Of the historical relationship between morality and religion Murdoch wrote:

Morality has always been connected with religion and religion with mysticism. The disappearance of the middle term leaves morality in a situation which is certainly more difficult but essentially the same. The background to morals is properly some sort of mysticism, if by this is meant a non-dogmatic essentially unformulated faith in the reality of the Good, occasionally connected with experience (1970, 74).

To Murdoch, the most evident bridge between morality and religion is virtue. In the religious tradition, virtue has been treated as something precious to be positively pursued. Has this ideal been fading with the dilution of a religious world-view? (1992, 481). She might agree with the reformed epistemologists that 'bad faith' is the product of unbelief (Philips 1989, 8).

Murdoch emphasises the quality of consciousness generated by the vision of the good (Cora Diamond in Antonaccio 1996, 95 ff.; cf. Mulhall 1997, 6). How describe this mental self?

To describe the self may seem to involve the self as a moral being, to discuss consciousness to involve discerning qualities of consciousness. The self or the soul in these traditional [religious] images is seen to live and travel between truth and falsehood, good and evil, appearance and reality. The theological idea of the soul has been a support to the concept of the soul in philosophy. Now as theology and religion lose their authority the picture of the soul fades and the idea of the self loses its power (1992, 166).

Marxism or existentialism, which she sees as characteristic of our age, deny the concept of the self as a whole person (ibid., 154). She emphatically rejects the prevailing idea of freedom, conceived as unimpeded movement of the Will. To her freedom is true vision which leaves no choice (1970, 53-55, 93-97). On this she agrees with Sartre: "Quand je delibere les jeux sont faits" (ibid., 36). Further, Murdoch does not consider moral life to be easy—what is true in Freudian theory, according to her, is its pessimistic but realistic view of human nature, where the psyche is seen

as an egocentric system of quasi-mechanical energy, largely determined by its own individual history, whose natural attachments are sexual, ambiguous, and hard for the subject to understand or control (1970, 51; 89-91).

"Unselfing" is a prerequisite to gradually directing the moral agent's consciousness towards what Murdoch, following Simone Weil, would call loving attention. "Attending with Love" enables one to counter the powerful and natural egocentric mechanism, to purify and direct its energy towards choosing rightly when occasions arise. She acknowledges as real and contemporary the Pauline challenge: "The good that I would do I do not, but the evil which I would not that I do". What mental exercises can help to meet this challenge? To improve the quality of one's consciousness, what are the objects worthy of attention? Murdoch defers to St. Paul:

Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatever things of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things (1970, 56).

Virtue is not a matter of luck but comes as a reward for a "morally disciplined attention" (1992, 23). Though she emphases the importance of the concept of duty (1992, 8-9), her hope is for the union of thought and exercise, as David Tracy, in an excellent contribution on Murdoch, points out:

[her hope] is not focused upon a Kantian abrupt call for the will to abide by duty... or a radical transformation or conversion of the self from evil to good. Instead her hope is directed to a slow shift of our attachments, a painful education of desire - an education like that which Plato foresaw as our best, perhaps our only, hope for both living and thinking well (Antonaccio 1996, 73, 192).

Endorsing Simone Weil, Murdoch suggests (1992, 500-506) that spiritual exercises inherited from both the classical and various religious traditions are available to anyone—disciplined practices and exercises developed to aid one to lead a life of virtue. David Tracey explains:

Exercises for philosophy [conducive to living well ] were understood by all the ancient schools as analogous both to the exercises employed by an athlete for the body and to the application of a medical cure. In contemporary Freudian culture one could expand the analogy (Murdoch certainly does) to the exercises needed to appropriate one's feelings in therapy. Among the ancients, such exercises include intellectual exercises: recall the use of mathematics to help the exercitant to move from the realm of the sensible to the realm of intelligible in Pythagoras and Plato (and Lonergan).... Among the ancients, in sum, all reflection on the relationship between theory and practice must be understood from the perspective of such exercises, especially but not solely meditation (Antonaccio 1996, 70-71).

Murdoch dwells on the significance of traditional religious practices as devices for attending to worthy objects. Among these, the most practised is prayer:

With it [prayer] goes the idea of grace, of a supernatural assistance to human endeavour which overcomes empirical limitations of personality. ... can those who are not religious believers still conceive of profiting by such an activity? ...I shall suggest that God was (or is) a single perfect transcendent non-representable and necessarily real object of attention [italics as in the original]; and I shall go on to suggest that moral philosophy should attempt to retain a central concept which has all these characteristics (1970, 55).

In the second of her Platonic Dialogues, Acastos, the character Plato tells Socrates that prayers need not be addressed to a person:

Learning can be praying, breathing can be praying. Prayer is keeping quiet and hoping for the light (1986, 108).

The slave in the play sees no point in asking the gods for anything. One may say that the slave's attitude to the gods meets the highest level of contemplation or perfect communion with the divine. For him the awareness of being in the presence of the gods is sheer joy: "What could they give me better than just to be there with me?" (ibid., 129).

Murdoch asks in dialectic self-examination: Pray to whom in a world without God? The religious believer prays to a personal God, in adoration and thankfulness, for consolation and encouragement, and in petition, with a loving and humble sense of dependence. Murdoch reflects on the apparent irony of her advocacy of the practice of prayer, given her "demythologisation" of a personal God:

[Is it not] [to] speak of Good in this portentous manner... simply to speak of the old concept of God in a thin disguise? … It makes sense to speak of loving God, a person, but very little sense to speak of loving Good, a concept ... The picture is not only purely imaginary, it is likely to be ineffective (1970, 72).

But Murdoch would disagree that all specialised or traditional ethical vocabularies are false and should be let go "together with the outdated concept of God the Father" (ibid.).

For Murdoch just to be in loving and patient attention to true art would be prayer too as is contemplation of the Good (Murdoch 1992, 20-25; 1970, 86; Murdoch 1977; cf. Burnyeat 1998 & Scarry 1999). Art should assist one to attend to other persons with imaginative sympathy and love:

To Sartre l'enfer c'est les autres (Hell is other people), for Murdoch by contrast, hell is being walled up inside one's own fat cosy ego without means of egress to the other or to the Good; heaven is the place of true and selfless vision; purgatory is the place of moral effort that attempts to deliver us from the one to the other (Antonaccio 1996, 37).

Murdoch speaks of art as a sacrament:

A sacrament provides an external visible place for an internal invisible act of the spirit. The apprehension of beauty, in art or in nature, often in fact seems to us like a temporarily located spiritual experience which is a source of good energy (1970, 69);

and in its religious context

... images wherein, rightly or wrongly, we rest, and others which are promptings to work. Religious myths are metaphors which come in many kinds. Rituals are images, often simple (washing, eating) often complex (doing the Stations of the Cross). The attention of the devotees is part of the rite. Here the inner needs the outer because, being incarnate, we need places and times, expressive gestures which release psychic energy and bring healing, making spaces and occasions for spiritual activity or events. Plato connects imagery with the work of Eros, the magnetism which draws us out of the cave. (1992, 306-7).

She says that art has helped us to believe not only in Christ and Trinity, but also "in the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, innumerable saints and a whole cast of famous and well-loved scenes and persons" (1992, 82).

She notes that

Absence of ritual from ordinary life [also] starves the imagination; institutions, schools, universities, even churches abandon it. But when we say that 'religion is disappearing' part of what is disappearing is both the occurrence of certain experiences, and also our tendency to notice them and, instinctively or reflectively, to lend them moral or religious meaning. A lack of Eros (1992, 307).

What Murdoch has to say on the value of suffering and renunciation as means to the good is cautiously discriminating. She sees no value in suffering for its own sake (1970, 73). But some suffering can be redemptive: the suffering of Cordelia is redemptive while that of Ophelia and Desdemona is not (1992, 132).

One may claim that Murdoch's ideas on moral consciousness have reached more people through her literary work than her philosophical writings. She did say that

... indeed, I think that though they are different, philosophy and literature are both truth -seeking and truth revealing activities. They are cognitive activities, explanations. .. Of course, good literature does not look like analysis because what the imagination produces is sensuous, fused, mysterious, ambiguous and particular. Art is cognition in another mode..... (Conradi 1997, 10-11).

The significance Murdoch attaches to religious structures and practices are made palpable through situations and characters in her novels. For example, in Nuns and Soldiers (1980), Anne Cavidge, who has left the convent and returned to secular life is living with her a-religious former university friend, now a widow. Though she thinks that she has lost her religious faith, Anne looks back nostalgically to her life as a nun, of self-discipline, to symbolism of the liturgical seasons and ceremony:

Anne thought, it is Lent. What will happen to me at Easter? Easter had always seemed to her like a slow great explosion of dazzling light. She looked at her watch. She knew exactly what they were all doing now back there in the precious holy repetition of their worship of God. 'You have put on Christ like a garment'. Garments can be taken off and laid aside. Had she thrown away the essential, kept the inessential, given herself to an ineluctable corruption? It was very possible (ibid., 241-42).

Anne retains in her sub-conscious association of goodness with Jesus:

Jesus Christ came to Anne Cavidge in a vision. The visitation began in a dream, but then gained a very dreamlike quality. And later Anne remembered it as one remembers real events, not as one remembers dreams...

Anne called after them [angels], 'Tell me, is there a God?...'

When the angels had vanished she heard a sound behind her. She could distinctly hear the crunch of footsteps upon the gravel. She knew that the person following her was Jesus Christ...

He spoke briskly. 'As for salvation, anything you can think about it is as imaginary as my wounds. I am not a magician. You knew what to do. Do right, refrain from wrong.' (ibid., 293-297).

For Anne, Christ is the image of perfect goodness and unselfish love. Does it matter if Anne believes in a personal God? Murdoch believes that

...there is a place both inside and outside religion for a sort of contemplation of the Good, not just by dedicated experts but by ordinary people... an attempt to look right away from self towards a distant transcendent perfection, a source of untrammelled energy, a source of new and quite undreamt-of virtue (Murdoch 1970, 101).


Murdoch is drawn by "the calming whole-making tendencies of human thought "(1992, 7), and to monism, or at least a search for unity (1970, 50). While allowing that a search for unity may be natural, she thinks that like so many natural things it may result in nothing but illusions (ibid., 75-76), and so she resists an attraction to integrate the Good in a coherent "larger structure of reality". In her reflection on an integrated world-view, she alludes to F. H. Bradley's Appearance and Reality (1893):

According to Bradley both morality and religion demand an unattainable unity. 'Every aspect of the universe goes on to demand something higher than itself.' This is [Bradley's] dialectic, the overcoming of the incomplete, of appearance and illusion, the progress toward what is more true, more real, more harmoniously integrated. 'And, like every other appearance, goodness implies that which, when carried out, must absorb it'. Religion is higher than morality, being more unified, more expressive of a perfect wholeness (1992, 488).

However, for Murdoch,

... both morality and religion face the same insuperable difficulty. Morality-religion believes in the reality of perfect good, and in the demand that good be victorious and evil be destroyed. The postulated whole (good) is at once actually to be good, and at the same time to make itself good. Neither its perfect goodness nor its struggle may be degraded to an appearance (something incomplete and imperfect), to make itself good. But to unite these two aspects consistently is impossible (ibid.).

There exists no comprehensive metaphysical framework in which all separate realities or Platonic Forms cohere; Judaeo-Christian religious doctrines such as divine creation, incarnation, redemptive mediation with their elements of fantasy are not credible to the contemporary mind. Murdoch considers it "unfortunate" that the ordinary traditional religious believer is not confused about the object of his or her worship. Though credibility as such is a questionable epistemological criterion (Griffiths 1999, 10-11), her scepticism has been shared in a variety of forms by many in the last few centuries (Quinn 1998, 127-129).

Some, observing Murdoch's advocacy of certain religious attitudes and traditional practices, may be puzzled by her support for demythologisation (cf. Don Cupit in John Hick et al 1977). One may also see an apparent contradiction between her emphasis, well exemplified in her novels, on attention to concrete circumstances and contexts on the one hand and on the other her distaste for incarnational religion (IMNL 1998:11, 10). Though Murdoch often distinguishes the positive imaginative from the neutral imaginary (and imagery) and the negative fantasy, she would probably not admit that imagination is a crucial wheel of the vehicle of faith, that faith is imaginative not imaginary (Gallagher 1984, 117). The religious believer brings imagination to the vision of God as creator of experienced reality, as Murdoch to her vision of Good incarnate in the world.

Of relevance to understanding Murdoch's denial of God, but affirmation of the Good, the words of the American poet, Wallace Stevens, are insightful:

If one no longer believes in God (as truth), it is not possible merely to disbelieve; it becomes necessary to believe in something else. Logically, I ought to believe in essential imagination, but that has its difficulties. It is easier to believe in a thing created by the imagination (Gallagher 1984, 115).

As Gallagher says, often the atheist poet can have more in common with the imaginative modes of scripture than the demythologising theologians (ibid., 116). Murdoch states that "Man is a creature who makes pictures of himself, and then comes to resemble that picture" (Conradi 1997, 75). Is then her Good in a religion without God just a picture made by the human imagination? Is the reality of her Good no more than a form of life? To Wittgenstein,

Religious belief [faith] could be only like a passionate commitment to a system of reference. Hence although it's belief [faith], it's really a way of living, or a way of assessing life. It is passionately seizing hold of this interpretation (Kaufman 1999, 410).

Murdoch's 'religion' may bear comparison also with R.B. Braithwaite's, treated in his 1955 essay An Empiricist's View of The Nature of Religious Belief. Braithwaite says:

The kernel for an empiricist of the problem of religious belief is to explain in empirical terms, how a religious statement is used by a man who asserts it in order to express his religious conviction... I shall argue that ... the religious assertion is a moral assertion (77-78).

Despite the similarity (see Murdoch's 156 Vision and Choice in Morality in Conrad 1997, 76-98), she makes no reference to Braithwaite. Murdoch, of course, is no pure empiricist! It has even been suggested that Murdoch is a "Platonic pragmatist" (Antonaccio 1996, 180).

She refers to Kant's statement: Art having "purposiveness without purpose" as she speaks of the pointlessness of the Good (1970, 86). To quote her:

[that] human life has no external point or telos is a view as difficult to argue as its opposite, and I shall simply assert it. I can see no evidence to suggest that human life is not something self-contained. There are properly many patterns and purposes within life, but there is no general and as it were no externally guaranteed pattern or purpose of the kind for which philosophers and theologians search. We are what we seem to be, transient mortal creatures subject to necessity and chance. That is to say that there is, in my view, no God in the traditional sense to the term; and the traditional sense is perhaps the only sense (1970, 79).

More than once, Murdoch confesses to a sense of the Void (Antonaccio 1994, 279-80).

She means by Void those occasional visitations of a sense that the Good is not real. Even Murdoch with her Vision of the Good must sense an emptiness if, in the words of Pope John Paul II, there is no vision of

... an absolute which might serve as the ground of all things... a final explanation, a supreme value, which refers to nothing beyond itself and which puts an end to all questioning (John Paul 1998, 18).

In the absence of a teleological explanation, survival of individual identity, without the 'larger hope'(Tennyson), enshrined within "larger structure of reality" (Williams 1998, 40), can there be any Ultimate Meaning to existence?

Murdoch's "for-nothingness" of virtue (1970, 87), and the self-contained character of moral life can be contrasted to Kant's belief as well as to that of Dostoyevsky (whom she often cites and with whom she feels a particular spiritual affinity), who says that if there is no God, everything is permitted.

Milosz Czeslaw, a Nobel Laureate, says of moral deserts:

Religion, opium for the people! To those suffering pain, humiliation, illness, and serfdom, it promised a reward in afterlife. And now we are witnessing a transformation. A true opium of the people is a belief in nothingness after death - the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged... there is a scale to weigh sins and good deeds. In Tibetan Buddhism the judge is the Master of Death and in coming to his verdict he is assisted by pebbles, black ones cast on balance by the Accuser, white ones cast by the Defender. All religions recognise that our deeds are imperishable (1998, 17).

Where does Murdoch stand? I quote the final paragraph of her last explicitly philosophical work:

We need a theology which can continue without God. Why not call such a reflection a form of moral philosophy? All right, so long as it treats of those matters of 'ultimate concern', our experience of the unconditioned and our continued sense of what is holy. Tillich refers to Psalm 139. 'Whither shall I go from thy spirit, whither shall I flee 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 wings of the morning and dwell in the sea, even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.' (1992, 511-2).

Anthony Castle was recently quoted as saying of Karl Rahner, the great theologian:

Towards the end of his life Karl Rahner was questioned by an interviewer as to why he believed in God in spite of so many intellectual difficulties over faith today. The interviewer persisted in this line of inquiry to a degree that annoyed the famous theologian, who replied: 'Listen, I don't believe in God because I have worked everything out to the satisfaction of my mind. I continue to believe in God because I pray everyday' (Tyson 1999, 18).

We cannot doubt that Murdoch did pray. Perhaps not every day!


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Copyright © 2000 Minerva. All Rights Reserved.

Joseph S. Malikail is Professor Emeritus of the University of Regina Canada, and is now active in The International Society For The Study Of Human Ideas On Ultimate Reality And Meaning.

Mail to: Professor Joseph S. Malikail

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