Books in Review

Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature

Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 89 (January 1999): 54-58.

The Liberal Neoplatonist?

Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature. By Iris Murdoch. Allen Lane/Penguin. 546 pp. $37.95.

Reviewed by Alan Jacobs

It is time to begin assessing Iris Murdoch’s remarkable and difficult–to–categorize career—and not, or not strictly, because she will soon enter her ninth decade. After all, Murdoch’s finest novels and her most important philosophical book appeared when she was in her late sixties and early seventies, a phenomenon perhaps unprecedented among significant literary or philosophical figures. Until her most recent novel, Jackson’s Dilemma (1996), there had been no signs of diminishment in her remarkable powers, but that book was an unexpected disaster, and in early 1997 a terrible explanation appeared: Murdoch’s husband, the literary critic John Bayley, announced that she had contracted Alzheimer’s disease and was gradually but inexorably losing her mental bearings. (His touching account of their life together and its recent changes appeared in the July 20, 1998 issue of the New Yorker.) Thus, though Murdoch’s life goes on, her career as an artist and a philosopher is surely over.

It is as a novelist that Murdoch is best known, which is not surprising, since novels are more widely read than books of philosophy. But it is also important that, while she wrote twenty–five novels, this collection—along with Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992) and her first book, Sartre, Romantic Rationalist (1953)—constitutes virtually the whole of her philosophical output. Of her earlier philosophical books, all but the two just mentioned were collections of essays, and all of those essays have been reprinted here as the independent entities they once were. Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals will stand as Murdoch’s best work of philosophy, but Existentialists and Mystics is the book to consult if one wishes to survey the whole scope of her philosophical work.

Two themes stand out for the reader of this collection. The first is, in the title of one of Murdoch’s essays, "The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts." What this means can be discovered in a single 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 (always in absolutizing capitals) that she considers it the task of philosophy to explore. All else, including God, is an image of this utter Good, and may be useful to us as we move towards that perfection; but because our human tendency is to substitute the image for the reality, even the worship of God may distract us from our proper pursuit.

Murdoch repeatedly insists that morality cannot justify itself. She rejects the tradition which believes that morality as such can be the ground of a good life; to the contrary, she argues, morality 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 whoever) 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.

The religion Murdoch envisions—as many characters in her fiction come to believe, as her Socrates preaches in the witty and provocative dialogues reprinted here, and as Murdoch herself repeatedly argues—will ultimately become a religion without gods. Not only can we lose God, but if we are to retain Good, at some point we must lose God. For a humanity "come of age," in Bonhoeffer’s phrase, the Good is what persists, what nourishes and sustains us.

But what exactly is the Good? There’s the rub. At times Murdoch neatly escapes this recurrent problem of Platonism by saying that the Good is not revered because it exists, but exists insofar as it is revered. It may be indispensable—unlike God—but this indispensability is 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. In an early (1957) essay called "Metaphysics and Ethics"—a kind of dry run for Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, its likeness to which indicates how little Murdoch’s key ideas altered over the years—she claims that "Man is a creature who makes pictures of himself, and then comes to resemble the picture." If we are to take this claim seriously—and it is more fully developed in Metaphysics—then Murdoch’s almost repetitive earnestness about the "sovereignty of Good" and her consistent repudiation of relativism take on a very different coloration than they might have at first. For the claim suggests that we are the makers rather than the finders of meaning and value, the creators of a Good which we then live by. That this sentence appears as the epigraph to the whole collection we are considering may reveal more about the book’s editor, Peter Conradi, than about Murdoch; but it’s hard to be sure.

The second theme that dominates this collection is, appropriately enough, the relationship between philosophy and literature. It is a relationship much debated today, and for good reason. On this subject philosophers have historically been misled by their admiration of Plato’s Socrates, and are only just beginning to reconsider their familiar categories and hierarchies. Socrates refers (in the Republic) to "the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry," thus providing a simple (in fact a simplistic) way of describing the two pursuits, and unfortunately philosophers have until quite recently simply accepted the Socratic characterization. They have rarely noticed that Plato undermines (or at least interrogates) the Socratic understanding of philosophy through the very literary means he employs to depict Socrates as a character—something noted recently by scholars as various as Seth Bernardete, Jacques Derrida, and Martha Nussbaum.

Philosophy and literature, though, cannot simply be conflated after the fashion of Richard Rorty. And by insisting that philosophy and literature were for the ancient Athenians merely two ways of pursuing the same goal (eudaimonia, meaning happiness, or, better, "human flourishing"), even Martha Nussbaum runs the risk of overlooking how enormously consequential these procedural differences can be. The answers we receive in this life are dependent not only on the questions we ask, but the form in which we ask them.

Just this is one of Murdoch’s key concerns. In several essays in this book, especially those from the late fifties and early sixties, Murdoch criticizes the dominant philosophical models of that era—English analytical philosophy, especially of the "ordinary language" sort, and French existentialism—for placing unnatural and unfortunate restrictions on the kinds of questions we can philosophically ask, the kinds of issues with which philosophy can occupy itself. One thinks of the famous last sentence of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico–Philosophicus ("What we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence") and of the way Anglo–American philosophers used it to sweep many classic philosophical questions from the table as matters about which philosophy can say nothing. And of course existentialism and its successors enforce, or try to enforce, similar constrictions, as in Derrida’s critique of Western metaphysics, the whole "onto–theological tradition" from Plato onwards. (In Murdoch’s later work her censure of existentialism would be replaced by a censure of post–structuralism, and when she was overcome by Alzheimer’s she was working on a book about Heidegger, who coined the term "onto–theological tradition"—though he got the idea from Nietzsche.)

For Murdoch, what these very different ways of thinking have in common is that they suffer, and cause us to suffer, from a "poverty of concepts." Their range of terms and questions is simply inadequate to the complexity and diversity of human experience. (The philosopher Bernard Williams has also voiced precisely this complaint.) In what may be her most famous essay, "Against Dryness" (1961), Murdoch writes,

We have suffered a general loss of concepts, the loss of a moral and political vocabulary. We no longer use a spread–out substantial picture of the manifold virtues of man and society. . . . [W]hat we require is a renewed sense of the difficulty and complexity of the moral life and the opacity of persons. We need more concepts in terms of which to picture the substance of our being; it is through an enriching and deepening of concepts that moral progress takes place.

If such an "enriching and deepening of concepts" is what we need, how do we get it? Murdoch suggests that literature, and more particularly the novel, can help to supplement and nourish philosophy’s meager conceptual universe.

But not just any novels will do. In another essay Murdoch identifies two dominant types of modern novel:

The modern novel, the serious novel, does tend toward either of two extremes: either it is a tight metaphysical object, which wishes it were a poem, and which attempts to convey, often in mythical form, some central truth about the human condition—or else it is a loose journalistic epic, documentary or possibly even didactic in inspiration, offering a commentary on current institutions or on some matter out of history. We are offered things or truths. What we have lost is persons.

It is clear from that last–quoted sentence that neither of the current common types will meet our need for a richer account of the moral life. Murdoch is appealing for a recovery of the nineteenth–century novel. In subsequent pages of the essay just quoted she names Tolstoy, George Eliot, Sir Walter Scott; elsewhere Austen, Dickens, Dostoevsky. Each of these writers offers us persons inhabiting worlds: Murdoch is refreshingly unashamed to say that their characters are "like real people," and that novelists have a kind of obligation to create such characters, if they can.

It would seem that the expansiveness of these writers (Austen alone, perhaps, excepted) links them more closely with the "loose journalistic epics" than with the "tight metaphysical objects." Perhaps the writers of social epics err in the right direction? But Murdoch says forthrightly that "on the whole the small metaphysical novels are better than the social epics. . . . The tightly conceived thing–like books are on the whole better written, more imaginatively conceived, and altogether more inspired and ambitious than the others."

But how do we account for that success? A clue may be found when Murdoch names the books of this kind that she admires: Sartre’s Nausea, Camus’ The Stranger. Clearly, the "tight metaphysical objects" sustain their vision and their coherence by virtue of the existentialist philosophy that animates them. (The bigger books, by contrast, have only a vague and philosophically uninformed political agenda animating them: thus they "lack creative vitality.") So Murdoch’s judgment of these well–wrought urns is twofold: they succeed, relatively speaking, because they are philosophically grounded, but the philosophy that grounds them is an inadequate one. The books are concise and structurally neat because the philosophy they exposit is as well—but such neatness is purchased at an unacceptable price, the forfeiture of the enormous territory of human experience that the nineteenth–century novel took to be its proper inheritance. As Murdoch says in Metaphysics, "The achievement of coherence is itself ambiguous. Coherence is not necessarily good, and one must question its cost. Better sometimes to remain confused."

At this point a vital question arises: what was the philosophy that underlay and animated the great nineteenth–century novels that Murdoch so admires? If philosophers could identify that, and recover it, then perhaps our society could again have the kind of novels we need for our moral health. And indeed, Murdoch knows what that philosophy is, though unfortunately it isn’t a full–fledged philosophy so much as a highly generalized political attitude: it is Liberalism, not in the contemporary sense but, as Murdoch says, in John Stuart Mill’s sense. (She always capitalizes the word to remind us of this distinction.) Indeed, one of the tragedies of modern life, Murdoch suggests, is that Mill wasn’t a better philosopher; today, she says, "we must be willing consciously to defend . . . a conception of the whole human being, the contingent eccentric fellow, the fellow whom John Stuart Mill lovingly envisaged but whom he was unable philosophically to protect, as having a right to exist."

How to achieve this recuperation of Mill’s Liberalism? If we wish to do so, "it is necessary to detach Liberalism from Romanticism"—and by Romanticism Murdoch chiefly means Kant. I once heard one philosopher tell another that "Kant is something you can get over," but for Murdoch Kant is something we have to get over if we want to have a healthy Liberal regard for ordinary people and ordinary life. In Murdoch’s logic, Kant is to Liberalism as God is to the Good. The problem is to imagine what Liberalism would look like if it were completely purged of Kantianism. Actually, I’m pretty sure I know the answer to that riddle: it would look like a novel by George Eliot, or (in a quirkier form) by Charles Dickens. Middlemarch and Bleak House simply are the philosophical discourse of Liberalism, which is constitutionally unamenable to dialectical defense. (This is still more true of modern forms of small–"l" liberalism, which is why John Rawls is a bad philosopher.)

Though everything in Murdoch’s argument leads to this conclusion, I’m not sure she would accept it. While she might agree with Nussbaum’s claim that philosophy and literature in their best forms pursue the same general goal, she insists that they are not and can never be the same thing (see, for example, the 1978 interview on this subject that opens Existentialists and Mystics). What Murdoch wants, I believe, is for Liberalism to have its philosophical demonstrations and its literary explorations, so that the two different genres of thinking and writing can test and illuminate each other. Perhaps that is why she wrote both novels and philosophical treatises. But I would point to the prevalence of the former in her oeuvre—twenty–five novels, many of them quite large, while the complete philosophical works fit neatly into three volumes—as evidence for my claim that the novel is Liberalism’s true and proper genre.

The moderately attentive reader may be asking, indeed may have been asking for some paragraphs now, how this defense of Liberalism comports with Murdoch’s avowed Platonism. That is a question I cannot answer. Indeed, when I came to this volume I was much more familiar with Murdoch the neo–Neoplatonist, and was rather taken aback by the emphasis on Liberalism in many of the essays collected here. It does not seem to me that these are compatible philosophical projects, Plato being anything but a Liberal, and such elements of his thought that are amenable to Liberalism being difficult to extract from their metaphysical context. All that Plato and John Stuart Mill have in common, it seems to me, is an extreme earnestness about the pursuit of what is good and right. I noted earlier that some of Murdoch’s comments, especially in her later work, smack of pragmatism; and there is certainly a distinction to be made between really being earnest and believing that earnestness is socially and personally useful. (To paraphrase Sam Goldwyn, earnestness is the key to morals: once you learn to fake that, the rest is easy.) I hope that in her work Murdoch was as earnest as Plato and Mill, and as she usually appeared to be; if not, then there is a great vacuum at the heart of her thinking, one which neither the Good nor Liberalism nor any other capitalized abstraction could fill.

Alan Jacobs teaches in the Department of English at Wheaton College.