An Occasion for Unselfing: Iris Murdoch on Imperfection as Integral to Goodness and How the Beauty of Nature and Art Leavens Our Most Unselfish Impulses
“The self, the place where we live, is a place of illusion. Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the unself… to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.”
By Maria Popova
To recognize that there are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives is to step outside the self, beyond its particular conceptions of beauty — which includes, of course, moral beauty — and walking beside it with humble, nonjudgmental curiosity about the myriad other selves afoot on their own paths, propelled by their own ideals of the Good.
Such recognition requires what the great moral philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999) termed unselfing — a difficult, triumphant act for which, Murdoch argues in her 1970 masterpiece The Sovereignty of Good (public library), nature and art uniquely train us.
A century and a half after Emerson observed that “the question of Beauty takes us out of surfaces, to thinking of the foundations of things,” Murdoch defines what we commonly call beauty as “an occasion for ‘unselfing’” — an occasion most readily experienced in our communion with nature and our contemplation of art. She writes:
Beauty is the convenient and traditional name of something which art and nature share, and which gives a fairly clear sense to the idea of quality of experience and change of consciousness. 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. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important. And of course this is something which we may also do deliberately: give attention to nature in order to clear our minds of selfish care.
Oliver Sacks would come to echo the sentiment decades later in his observation that meeting nature on its own terms and timescales broadens our perspective by effecting “a detachment from the timescale, the urgencies, of daily life.” But this unselfing, Murdoch cautions, cannot come by through a straining of the will, for the will is a clenching of the very self which true beauty decondition; rather, it comes as a gladsome relaxing of the spirit, of our essential nature, into the shared pulse of existence:
A self-directed enjoyment of nature seems to me to be something forced. More naturally, as well as more properly, we take a self-forgetful pleasure in the sheer alien pointless independent existence of animals, birds, stones and trees.
This “self-forgetful pleasure” calls to mind Jeanette Winterson’s wonderfully paradoxical notion of active surrender as the crucible of our joy in art and the fulcrum for art’s transforms power over the self. But while there is a distinct difference between how nature and art each effect unselfing, Murdoch argues that what separates great art from the bad and the mediocre is precisely this capacity for stripping down the self rather than inflating the ego — a notion evocative of Tolstoy’s insistence that “a real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist.” Murdoch writes of this dissolution of the self in the presence of great art:
The experience of art is more easily degraded than the experience of nature. A great deal of art, perhaps most art, actually is self-consoling fantasy, and even great art cannot guarantee the quality of its consumer’s consciousness. However, great art exists and is sometimes properly experienced and even a shallow experience of what is great can have its effect. Art, and by “art” from now on I mean good art, not fantasy art, affords us a pure delight in the independent existence of what is excellent. Both in its genesis and its enjoyment it is a thing totally opposed to selfish obsession. It invigorates our best faculties and, to use Platonic language, inspires love in the highest part of the soul. It is able to do this partly by virtue of something which it shares with nature: a perfection of form which invites unpossessive contemplation and resists absorption into the selfish dream life of the consciousness.
And yet, Murdoch argues, any real understanding of goodness is necessarily an embrace of imperfection — something philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in many ways Murdoch’s only worthy intellectual heir, would argue brilliantly a generation later in her incisive case for the intelligence of emotions. Murdoch writes:
The concept of Good… is a concept which is not easy to understand partly because it has so many false doubles, jumped-up intermediaries invented by human selfishness to make the difficult task of virtue look easier and more attractive: History, God, Lucifer, Ideas of power, freedom, purpose, reward, even judgment are irrelevant. Mystics of all kinds have usually known this and have attempted by extremities of language to portray the nakedness and aloneness of Good, its absolute for-nothingness. One might say that true morality is a sort of unesoteric mysticism, having its source in an austere and unconsoled love of the Good. When Plato wants to explain Good he uses the image of the sun. The moral pilgrim emerges from the cave and begins to see the real world in the light of the sun, and last of all is able to look at the sun itself.
We may also speak seriously of ordinary things, people, works of art, as being good, although we are also well aware of their imperfections. Good lives as it were on both sides of the barrier and we can combine the aspiration to complete goodness with a realistic sense of achievement within our limitations.
With an eye to the legacy of the Romantics, who married nature and art in their model of happiness and transcendence, Murdoch returns to the notion of unselfing and the beautiful tessellation of possibility and limitation that defines our nature:
The self, the place where we live, is a place of illusion. Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the unself, to see and to respond to the real world in the light of a virtuous consciousness. This is the non-metaphysical meaning of the idea of transcendence to which philosophers have so constantly resorted in their explanations of goodness. “Good is a transcendent reality” means that virtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is. It is an empirical fact about human nature that this attempt cannot be entirely successful.
The Sovereignty of Good is an immensely insightful read in its entirety. Complement this particular fragment with Robinson Jeffers on nature and moral beauty and Oliver Sacks on the healing power of gardens, then revisit Murdoch on art as a force of resistance to tyranny, the key to great storytelling, and her uncommonly beautiful love letters.