The Philosopher Who Feared Hope
The first course I took as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Oregon, in the fall of 1987, was Ethical Theory. (Actually, I wasn’t a Ph.D. candidate; I was a provisional admit. Essentially, UO said, “Come and take a class and see how you do.” After I wrote a paper, they admitted me to the program.) William Davie, the professor, had us read Iris Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good. Through that book and others, Murdoch greatly influenced my thinking during my time at Oregon. My dissertation, Learning to Love: Philosophy and Moral Progress, is heavily indebted to Murdoch. In later years I discovered Diogenes Allen, a longtime professor at Princeton Seminary, whose book, The Path of Perfect Love, was equally shaped by Murdoch’s ideas. Allen, now deceased, and I are both Christians who learned much about love from the same explicitly non-Christian philosopher.
Murdoch was a 20th century Platonist who believed in the Good, but not in God. She quite consciously borrowed or adapted Christian ideas, giving them nontheistic treatments, as part of her moral philosophy. For instance, Murdoch thought modern psychology, with its notion of an unconscious mind, gives a pretty good picture of original sin. Human beings are often unaware of the drives and fears that condition our behavior; our selfishness consists in the way we see and evaluate other people and things by their roles in our lives. It is natural for us to see other people as furniture in our worlds. So we have to fight against our natural tendencies. In the moral life, Murdoch wrote, the enemy is the “fat, relentless ego.”
Moral progress is rarely easy, Murdoch thought. We struggle to see our neighbors accurately. Sometimes, as if by magic, a person might be freed (for a time) from egocentricity. Murdoch’s novels (she wrote many) often describe a character jarred loose from the fat ego, perhaps by illness or injury, or by a sudden recognition of having sinned, or by a realization of death’s approach. Murdoch does not hesitate to label such unexpected interruptions in egocentricity as “grace,” though she did not believe in any God who might be the source of such grace.
It’s really quite remarkable. Murdoch obviously knew Christian theology. Sin, grace, prayer, spiritual exercises—she used them all. And she endorsed familiar Christian virtues: love, humility, graciousness, etc. She just didn’t believe in God.
Over the years, I’ve revisited Murdoch’s book many times. In recent weeks I’ve had opportunity to re-read Murdoch yet again—along with Diogenes Allen—as part of a directed study with a student. I’ve been struck by the Christian virtue Murdoch did not endorse.
Repeatedly, in The Sovereignty of Good, Murdoch warns against “consolation.” She takes it as clearly true that people ought to live morally good lives. We ought to struggle against selfishness, even if we have evolved in such a way that egocentricity is natural to us. We ought to strive to see other people justly and lovingly, even if experiences of clear vision are hard to find and fly away quickly. Murdoch thought the “Good” was real and ought to be the end goal of moral pilgrimage, even if we only get small glimpses of it. The moral life is hard. Therefore, Murdoch thought, we will be tempted to believe in things that promise to make it easier. And religion is full of such consolations. We are tempted to believe in a personal God who graciously helps us overcome selfishness. We are especially tempted to believe that God will reward us in the end. Thus we will be tempted to believe in fictions.
We must try to be good, to fight the relentless ego, without consolations. In the end, Murdoch thought, we die. Our lives are tiny flickers in an unimaginably old, dark universe. We must pursue the good, but without hope. We must, Murdoch thought, be “good for nothing.” Without expectation of reward, without hope for final triumph, Murdoch believed the almost impossible task of fighting egocentricity was obviously right. And yet, morality is not democratic; some people may not see the importance of trying to see the world as it is, and there is nothing in philosophical argument that can force them to see it.
It seems that Iris Murdoch feared hope.
Perhaps she thought that if she admitted consolation into the moral life, it would undermine the project of seeing rightly. How can I rightly love the other—how can I see the other justly and lovingly—if I think all the while that my love will benefit me? The “just and loving gaze” can be corrupted into merely another way of protecting and enlarging the ego.
I say “perhaps.” I am not certain why Murdoch feared consolation so much. But it strikes me as sad—and unnecessary. Honesty often compels us to admit we do things with mixed motives. Any husband, upon very little reflection, will realize that doing kind things for his wife will redound to his own advantage. “If my wife is happy, I’ll be happy.” So the consoling, egoistic motive is there, if he wants to pay attention to it. But the other-focused motive is also there; it is enough to see that the kind deed will bless his wife.
I hope for the resurrection of the dead, for a new heaven and new earth, for eternal friendship with God. These hopes are tremendously consoling. That fact alone, that these hopes are consoling, does not move me to abandon them.