Saturday, February 2, 2008

Reflections: All That and a Place for Grace

Iris Murdoch concludes her essay “The Idea of Perfection”, on which I based a previous post, with the following sentence:

[The] sketch which I have offered, a footnote in a great and familiar philosophical tradition, must be judged by is power to connect, to illuminate, to explain, and to make new and fruitful places for reflection.

Her purpose in the essay was to refute the analytic, positivist, existentialist-behavioralist proposition that morality meets reality only in action. I think that she proves her point. But I do not want to paraphrase her argument here. Her book is in print and, if you care to, you can find it and read it for yourself. What I will do, in the spirit of her closing sentence, is provide a few excerpts containing ideas that helped me understand the plotting of her thesis, and which, in themselves, are “fruitful places for reflection”:

In suggesting that the central concept of morality is ‘the individual’ thought of as knowable by love, thought of in the light of the command, ‘Be ye therefore perfect’, I am not, in spite of the philosophical backing which I might here resort to, suggesting anything in the least esoteric. In fact this would, to the ordinary person, be a very much more familiar image than the existentialist one.
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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. But as I say, so long as the gaze is directed upon the ideal the exact formulation will be a matter of history and tactics in a sense which is not rigidly determined by religious dogma, and understanding of the ideal will be partial in any case. Where virtue is concerned we often apprehend more than we clearly understand and grow by looking.
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As Plato observes at the end of the Phaedrus, words themselves do not contain wisdom. Words said to particular individuals at particular times may occasion wisdom. Words, moreover, have both spatio-temporal and conceptual contexts. We learn through attending to contexts, vocabulary develops through close attention to objects, and we can only understand others if we can to some extent share their contexts. (Often we cannot.)
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The notion of privileged access to inner events has been held morally suspect because, among other things, it would separate people from ‘the ordinary world of rational argument’. But the unavoidable contextual privacy of language already does this, and except at a very simple and conventional level of communication there is no such ordinary world. This conclusion is feared and avoided by many moralists because it seems inimical to the operation of reason and because reason is construed on a scientific model.
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It is totally misleading to speak…of ‘two cultures’, one literary-humane and the other scientific, as if these were of equal status. There is only one culture, of which science, so interesting and so dangerous, is now an important part. But the most essential and fundamental aspect of culture is the study of literature, since this is an education in how to picture and understand human situations. We are men and we are moral agents before we are scientists, and the place of science in human life must be discussed in words.
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I have used the word ‘attention’, which I borrow from Simone Weil, to express the idea of a just and loving gaze directed upon an individual reality. I believe this to be the characteristic and proper mark of the active moral agent.
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If we ignore the prior work of attention and notice only the emptiness of the moment of choice we are likely to identify freedom with the outward movement since there is nothing else to identify it with. But if we consider what the work of attention is like, how continuously it goes on, and how imperceptibly it builds up structures of value round about us, we shall not be surprised that at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over. This does not imply that we are not free, certainly not. But it implies that the exercise of our freedom is a small piecemeal business which goes on all the time and not a grandiose leaping about unimpeded at important moments. The moral life, on this view, is something that goes on continually, not something that is switched off in between the occurrence of explicit moral choices.

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Moral change and moral achievement are slow; we are not free in the sense of being able suddenly to alter ourselves since we cannot suddenly alter what we can see and ergo what we desire and are compelled by. In a way, explicit choice seems now less important : less decisive (since much of the ‘decision’ lies elsewhere) and less obviously something to be ‘cultivated’. If I attend properly I will have no choice and this is the ultimate condition to be aimed at.
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This is something of which saints speak and which any artist will readily understand. The idea of a patient, loving regard, directed upon a person, a thing, a situation, presents the will not as unimpeded movement but as something very much more like ‘obedience’. … This is what Simone Weil means when she says that ‘will is obedience not resolution’.
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If we picture the agent as compelled by obedience to the reality he can see, he will not be saying ‘This is right’, i.e., ‘I choose to do this’, he will be saying ‘This is A B C D’ (normative-descriptive words), and action will follow naturally.

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We often receive an unforeseen reward for a fumbling half-hearted act: a place for the idea of grace.

Amen to that!

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