Before I did my last cannonball into the cesspool that is politics, I probably left the impression to all the indifferent that I had taken my leave of Iris Murdoch. And so, at the time, I thought I had. I had read two of the three essays in the volume and had decided to take a pass on number three. Then I changed my mind and read it anyway. A flip-flop of a different magnitude. Needless to say, there are essential excerpts to be posted here. You can read them and think about them, or you can continue to scratch your ass and think about what you're going to buy next, and how you can get a better deal on yours than Jones got on his. G'head: flip a coin on it.
I am also reading this book. I saw the author on C-SPAN and decided to check it out. Anybody who didn't live through the 'sixties and would like to get a visceral feel for what they were like from the autobiography of a woman who was totally engaged in what was going down, should check it out.
Now, without further comment, Iris Murdoch, from the essay “The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts” in The Sovereignty of the Good:
Asking what Good is is not like asking what Truth is or what Courage is, since in explaining the latter the idea of Good must enter in, it is that in the light of which the explanation must proceed. …Even the concept of Truth has its ambiguities and it is really only of Good that we can say ‘it is the trial of itself and needs no other touch’.
The indefinability of Good is connected with the unsystematic and inexhaustible variety of the world and the pointlessness of virtue. In this respect there is a special link between the concept of Good and the ideas of Death and Chance. (One might say that Chance is really a subdivision of Death. It is certainly our most effective memento mori.) A genuine sense of mortality enables us to see virtue as the only thing of worth; and it is impossible to limit and foresee the ways in which it will be required of us.
We are largely mechanical creatures, the slaves of relentlessly strong selfish forces the nature of which we scarcely comprehend. At best, as decent persons, we are usually very specialized. We behave well in areas where this can be done fairly easily and let other areas of possible virtue remain undeveloped. There are perhaps in the case of every human being insuperable psychological barriers to goodness. The self is a divided thing and the whole of it cannot be redeemed any more than it can be known. And if we look outside the self what we see are scattered intimations of Good. There are few places where virtue plainly shines: great art, humble people who serve others. And can we, without improving ourselves, really see these things clearly? It is in the context of such limitations that we should picture our freedom.
This attempt…[to turn the] attention away from the particular, may be the thing that helps most when difficulties seem insoluble, and especially when feelings of guilt keep attracting the gaze back towards the self. This is the true mysticism which is morality, a kind of undogmatic prayer which is real and important, though perhaps also difficult and easily corrupted.
Good is the magnetic center towards which love naturally moves. False love moves to false good. False love embraces false death. When true good is loved, even impurely or by accident, the quality of love is automatically refined, and when the soul is turned towards Good the highest part of the soul is enlivened. Love is the tension between the imperfect soul and the magnetic perfection which is conceived of as lying beyond it.
The humble man, because he sees himself as nothing, can see other things as they are. …Simone Weil tells us that the exposure of the soul to God condemns the selfish part of it not to suffering but to death. The humble man perceives the distance between suffering and death. And although he is not by definition the good man perhaps he is the kind of man who is most likely of all to become good.