The Light of the Sun
The Sovereignty of Good by Iris Murdoch (1970)
When Iris Murdoch published The Sovereignty of Good, she no longer believed in moral philosophy. Since the time of Kant and Hegel, beliefs about reason and history had undermined the common-sense view of what she called “the substantial self.” Aspects of our behaviour—psychological, social, religious—were no longer discussed as a whole. They were cordoned off from one another, made amenable to logical or scientific inquiry, and then handed over to new intellectual disciplines: psychology, theology, sociology, economics, and so on.
Then, in the decades following English philosophy’s “linguistic turn”, ideas of goodness, virtue, sin, and evil were also thrown out. Morality was steadily emptied of its metaphysical conceits. Systems of ethics were contrived to take its place. Murdoch found the result such a dead-end that, after publishing The Sovereignty of Good, she subsequently left the academy to spend the next few decades writing novels instead.
This book brings together three essays written while Murdoch was still a tutor at Oxford University. The first essay, The Idea of Perfection (TIoP), is a direct rebuke to a book by one of her colleagues, Stuart Hampshire. That makes it less accessible than the other two essays, On God and Good (OGaG) and The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts (TSoG), where she finally begins to develop her own ideas.
Thus, The Sovereignty of Good begins in medias res. Stripped of the old religious concepts, philosophy was left with the task of developing a new, secular vocabulary of morality. But it was on shaky grounds. Philosophers could no longer make assumptions about social roles or psychological states-of-mind. Nor could they appeal to our culturally-bound virtues and vices. Only the will remained as the supreme moral directive.
Philosophers saw the will as that part of us which thrusts towards particular ends in explicit moments of choice. They looked for the substance of morality in these “outward movements”: actions, decisions, obligations, and other publicly observable events: “Our personal being is the movement of our overtly choosing will. . . morality is a matter of thinking clearly and then proceeding to outward dealings with other men.” (TIoP 24) A good person tames his will by the application of reason and directs it towards good actions or outcomes; moral behaviour follows from a rational will the same way a conclusion is logically implied from its premises.
These philosophers were mistaken, says Murdoch. The will cannot simply escape its physical strictures. What we consistently think and feel will, over time, condition our behaviour. If we always do that which is most convenient for us, we never develop a sense of how our actions affect others, nor the patience for anything demanding more effort than a moment’s choice. And when we brood about the wrongs done to us, or fixate upon the small hypocrisies of other people, we are naturally inclined to fasten onto their most insignificant offences, lashing out at them for our own satisfaction. But if we attend to the real existence of other people and their needs, then, when the time comes, often quite without knowing how, we become capable of great acts of love or bravery:
... if we consider what the work of attention is like, how continuously it goes on, and how imperceptibly it builds up structure so value round about us, we shall not be surprised that at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over. (TIoP 57)
Outward movement morality was never clear about the path between will and action. It did not account for how one’s psychological make-up might influence his behaviour. Murdoch, taking inspiration from Freud, fills in the gap with her idea of the “substantial self”. It is more accurate, she thinks, to view myself as an “egocentric” system of “quasi-mechanical energy.” All the contingencies of my life—the “residue” of my “personal history”—accrue in a psyche, a complex solution of jealousies, guilts, joys, compulsions, angers, and satisfactions. It is precisely this volatile mixture which, in the moment of decision, tends to force my hand.
The Oxonians rejected the psyche. They found it too vague and shadowy to be philosophically rigorous. We cannot, for example, take our emotions apart and inspect them, as we might a mechanical clock. And emotions often lead us to do things which are wrong: we can be instinctively cruel to people we view as unworthy losers (e.g. bullying); and when we are angry, we might say or do things that hurt others far out of proportion to whatever caused the anger.
However unclear the psyche’s operation, it still influences our moral behaviour: “. . .choices and visible acts of will emerge at intervals in ways which are often unclear and often dependent on the condition of the [psyche] in between the moments of choice.” (TIoP 53) This is just something we have to live with. It is not as though Murdoch is asking us to choose feels over reals. Both sides of the equation are important. The will and the psyche must both accept the idea of goodness on their own terms; philosophy can help by reconciling the two.
On seeing Freud’s name invoked, a sceptical reader may turn up his nose. Aren’t his theories of mind thoroughly discredited by now? I don’t think it matters either way. It is better to read Murdoch’s discussion of the psyche as painting a picture in broad strokes. She is not giving a literal explanation of how the brain works. It is suggestive, a way of framing the situation to help us obtain insight in any moral dialectic. This becomes clearer in light of Murdoch’s ideas on metaphor.
Metaphor is essential to morality because our moral vocabulary is highly idiosyncratic. It is not given to us in a rigorous language of scientific precision. We discover and develop it through highly personal observations of broadly manifested concepts: truth, justice, greed, etc. We need metaphor to speak about these things. We do it so often on such a basic level that we sometimes forget about it: anger is “hot”, a kind-hearted person “warm”; we “boil over” with rage, while turning a shoulder on a friend in need is “acting cold”. Maybe we could describe the same range of cowardices and courages in more objective language, but metaphor already says so much in so few words.
During the linguistic turn, some philosophers thought we could do away with metaphor outright. Much philosophical progress in the 20th century was of this kind. It peeled away the extinct idioms that had fossilised into our language. But purging all of the historically and religiously loaded words did not free us from every unjustified belief. It only delivered us into a new set of axioms which were all the more misleading for their proclaimed neutrality. Philosophers must embrace the metaphor, says Murdoch. They must clarify—perhaps discard—those which already exist, and come up with new ones to help us see what it means to be a good person.
The metaphors we turn to often reflect the times in which we live. A generation of Oxonians, having fought in the trenches, carried something of the machine-gun and the howitzer over into their preferred metaphors of movement and action; moral behaviour is a dynamic sally by a courageous will into a dangerously unstable vortex; good is he who, having deduced the rational ends of destiny, deigns to inscribe them into our world.
Murdoch’s metaphors are almost the opposite. In place of movement and action, we are invited to see and contemplate. The only motivation we need to be moral is reality itself. Goodness is the light in which reality is seen. Once we personally experience virtue—however imperfectly—we are drawn to imitate or attain it. Goodness is not just a word we affix to events after the fact. It is a real if somewhat ethereal quality haunting the world around us.
Seeing things as they really are is not always easy. When we open our eyes, we often see what we want to see, not what is actually there: “Our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, usually self-occupied, often falsifying veil which partially conceals the world.” (TSoG 82) An example of this might be when you meet a new person. Everyone knows you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover; we do it nonetheless. Without even thinking, our ego makes up something which becomes our idea of that person. Subsequent interactions are coloured by the first impression. Our ego veils what the other person is really like. So it goes with everything.
To pierce the veil, we must attend to the world behind it. Murdoch adjusts this idea from Simone Weil. Man is “. . . a unified being who sees, and who desires in accordance with what he sees, and who has some continual slight control over the direction and focus of his vision" (TIoP 61). With each conscious decision in his waking hours, he may slowly vest some of his energies into comprehending reality. He might redirect his thoughts, rearrange his habits, vow new resolutions, or pursue certain activities.
Some activities are worthy because they help us to progressively comprehend reality. Examples include science, the honing of a craft, the learning of a language, caring for a child or elder, or the appreciation of nature or art. In the honest pursuit of these things, we concede our mastery over the world to more keenly observe it. Where we might once have walked through a forest, not able to distinguish any of the sounds around us, we slowly begin to hear birds, to name them by their songs, to identify the meaning of each call: this bird is happy, that one is scared. We are led away from ourselves towards qualities and standards that exist apart from us in things which our ego cannot “take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal.” (TSoG 87)
Let’s zoom in on nature or art. When we experience beauty, in whatever form, we are a brief witness to something that is indestructible and incorruptible which nonetheless coheres in a perishable medium. I am reminded here of Sonnet 18:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can live and eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Though Shakespeare’s poem is just words on a page (pixels on a screen, even), though a painting is just oil and pigment on canvas, though our lover is already sagging at the hips and the mother’s caring eyes are ringed with tiredness, to experience their beauty is to witness a resounding goodness shining through them. When this happens, our ordinary vision of the world is disrupted. The edges of the psyche blur into, and are absorbed by, something far greater than itself. Murdoch describes this when she writes about the kestrel:
I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel. (TSoG 82)
Murdoch winds up the last essay with some ruminations on goodness via a discussion of Plato. In Book VI of The Republic, Socrates admits to Glaucon that he cannot give a definition of goodness. The best he can do is describe it by comparison to the sun: though we cannot look directly at the sun, we can see things in its light, and in turn see the sun’s reflection in them.
This is all frustratingly vague. What is goodness? The answer is nothing special. Goodness is when you hide Jews from the Nazis. Goodness is when a bird chirps in the sunshine. Goodness is when you play with a baby. Goodness is when you hang out with your friend to cheer him up. Goodness is when you put the shopping trolley back where it’s supposed to go. Philosophy is, as Murdoch says, often about finding the right context in which to say the blindingly obvious.
Murdoch does, in an off-handed way, pull a kind of philosopher’s definition out of her back-pocket when she writes: “The background to morals is properly some sort of mysticism, if by this is meant a non-dogmatic essentially un-formulated faith in the reality of the Good, occasionally connected with experience.” (TSoG 72) There is maybe nothing we can say about what is essentially good. We just have to experience it by attending to reality. Morality is not some fact to be learned by rote. It is an intrinsically personal thing each person must internalise for themself.
This kind of philosophical position can be hard to defend. By admitting that goodness will always elude our investigations, you are not allowing yourself to say much about it. That granted, I find Murdoch’s writing a little too subtle. Her arguments sometimes delve too far into the history of philosophy, and have to lean on her fluency to survive, and while her ideas are substantial, they form an imposingly complected mass which tends to obscure the rather simple points being made. This abstract approach to discussing goodness was no doubt meant for her peers at Oxford; those of us at Apposition might have liked some more concrete examples. I say: more kestrels, less Kant. Perhaps that’s why Murdoch wound up writing fiction.
However many words are spilled about the matter, goodness ends up being something we just have to experience. It is inherently personal and infinitely varied, connected, as it is, with “the unsystematic and inexhaustible variety of the world. . .” (TSoG 96) Learning to recognise it is an idiosyncratic and incremental process, one we never quite complete; yet having acknowledged that is goodness is a distant star, it allows us to begin the journey. Recognising its light as it shines throughout reality, we begin to look upon things with a deeper appreciation for what they are, moving towards that “distant transcedent perfection, a source of uncontaminated energy, a source of new and quite undreamt-of virtue.” (TSoG 99)