A Fuller Picture of Human Personality: Iris Murdoch on How Art Helps Us Reimagine Freedom, Moral Life, and Our Inner Worlds
“The connection between art and the moral life has languished because we are losing our sense of form and structure in the moral world itself… We need a new vocabulary of attention.”
By Maria Popova
“Man cannot stand a meaningless life,” Carl Jung observed as he contemplated human personality in a BBC interview at the end of his life. But how do we wrest meaning from existence, or rather make meaning through the force of our personhood?
That is what another titanic mind of the twentieth century — the rare philosopher-novelist Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999) — took up in the year of Jung’s death, in an essay titled “Against Dryness,” originally published in the literary magazine Encounter and later included in the sublimely insightful posthumous collection Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature (public library), which also gave us Murdoch on art as a force of resistance to tyranny and the key to good writing.
With an eye to how the landmark developments of the twentieth century — chiefly, the way scientific materialism has enfeebled the dogmas and precepts of religion — have left us triangulating uncomfortably between the traditions of the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and Liberalism, Murdoch writes:
We have been left with far too shallow and flimsy an idea of human personality… [The Anglo-Saxon] conception consists in the joining of a materialistic behaviourism with a dramatic view of the individual as a solitary will. These subtly give support to each other. From Hume through Bertrand Russell, with friendly help from mathematical logic and science, we derive the idea that reality is finally a quantity of material atoms and that significant discourse must relate itself directly or indirectly to reality so conceived. This position was most picturesquely summed up in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus.
This is one side of the picture, the Humian and post-Humian side. On the other side, we derive from Kant, and also Hobbes and Bentham through John Stuart Mill, a picture of the individual as a free rational will. With the removal of Kant’s metaphysical background this individual is seen as alone. (He is in a certain sense alone on Kant’s view also, that is: not confronted with real dissimilar others.) With the addition of some utilitarian optimism he is seen as eminently educable. With the addition of some modern psychology he is seen as capable of self-knowledge by methods agreeable to science and common sense. So we have the modern man*, as he appears in many recent works on ethics and I believe also to a large extent in the popular consciousness.
A century after John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor’s trailblazing partnership of equals shaped the scaffolding of Liberalism, Murdoch points out a crucial blind spot of this otherwise noble-minded and far-seeing tradition of thought:
For the Liberal world, philosophy is not in fact at present able to offer us any other complete and powerful picture of the soul.
Our central conception is still a debilitated form of Mill’s equation: happiness equals freedom equals personality. There should have been a revolt against utilitarianism; but for many reasons it has not taken place.
She considers what we have lost by blindly adopting this worldview and what we were never given in the first place:
We have suffered a general loss of concepts, the loss of a moral and political vocabulary. We no longer use a spread-out substantial picture of the manifold virtues of man and society. We no longer see man against a background of values, of realities, which transcend him. We picture man as a brave naked will surrounded by an easily comprehended empirical world. For the hard idea of truth we have substituted a facile idea of sincerity. What we have never had, of course, is a satisfactory Liberal theory of personality, a theory of man as free and separate and related to a rich and complicated world from which, as a moral being, he has much to learn. We have bought the Liberal theory as it stands, because we have wished to encourage people to think of themselves as free, at the cost of surrendering the background.
We have never solved the problems about human personality posed by the Enlightenment. Between the various concepts available to us the real question has escaped: and now, in a curious way, our present situation is analogous to an eighteenth-century one. We retain a rationalistic optimism about the beneficent results of education, or rather, technology. We combine this with a romantic conception of “the human condition,” a picture of the individual as stripped and solitary: a conception which has, since Hitler, gained a peculiar intensity.
Writing at a time when W.H. Auden — one of her great intellectual heroes — insisted that “the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act,” and in concord with her own lifelong insistence that art is essential for a democratic society, Murdoch considers the role of art and of literature in particular in furnishing a fuller, truer model of human personality, necessary for a thriving political conscience:
The temptation of art, a temptation to which every work of art yields except the greatest ones, is to console. The modern writer, frightened of technology and (in England) abandoned by philosophy and (in France) presented with simplified dramatic theories, attempts to console us by myths or by stories.
The connection between art and the moral life has languished because we are losing our sense of form and structure in the moral world itself. Linguistic and existentialist behaviourism, our Romantic philosophy, has reduced our vocabulary and simplified and impoverished our view of the inner life. It is natural that a Liberal democratic society will not be concerned with techniques of improvement, will deny that virtue is knowledge, will emphasise choice at the expense of vision; and a Welfare State will weaken the incentives to investigate the bases of a Liberal democratic society.
In a refreshing counterpoint to the contemporary critic, who tends to merely point out the flaw in a system, with varying degrees of self-satisfaction, without a lucid and largehearted vision for solutions, Murdoch considers what it would take to remedy this impoverished Liberal model of human personality:
We need a post-Kantian unromantic Liberalism with a different image of freedom.
The technique of becoming free is more difficult than John Stuart Mill imagined. We need more concepts than our philosophies have furnished us with. We need to be enabled to think in terms of degrees of freedom, and to picture, in a non-metaphysical, non-totalitarian and non-religious sense, the transcendence of reality. A simple-minded faith in science, together with the assumption that we are all rational and totally free, engenders a dangerous lack of curiosity about the real world, a failure to appreciate the difficulties of knowing it. We need to return from the self-centred concept of sincerity to the other-centred concept of truth. We are not isolated free choosers, monarchs of all we survey, but benighted creatures sunk in a reality whose nature we are constantly and overwhelmingly tempted to deform by fantasy. Our current picture of freedom encourages a dream-like facility; whereas what we require is a renewed sense of the difficulty and complexity of the moral life and the opacity of persons. We need more concepts in terms of which to picture the substance of our being; it is through an enriching and deepening of concepts that moral progress takes place. Simone Weil said that morality was a matter of attention, not of will. We need a new vocabulary of attention.
In consonance with the poet Mary Oliver’s lovely assertion that “attention without feeling… is only a report” and with Ursula K. Le Guin’s bold conviction that “literature is the operating instructions” for a noble and fulfilling life, Murdoch insists upon the power of literature to furnish a vocabulary of feeling with which to better express who we are and what we value — the supreme language of human personality, of our morality, of our personal and political ideals:
Through literature we can re-discover a sense of the density of our lives. Literature can arm us against consolation and fantasy and can help us to recover from the ailments of Romanticism. If it can be said to have a task, that surely is its task. But if it is to perform it, prose must recover its former glory, eloquence and discourse must return.
Since literature rests upon language, it is language that needs to be reinvigorated. A century after Nietzsche weighed how language can both conceal and reveal truth, Murdoch adds:
I would connect eloquence with the attempt to speak the truth.
Form itself can be a temptation, making the work of art into a small myth which is a self-contained and indeed self-satisfied individual… Real people are destructive of myth, contingency is destructive of fantasy and opens the way for imagination… Too much contingency of course may turn art into journalism. But since reality is incomplete, art must not be too much afraid of incompleteness. Literature must always represent a battle between real people and images; and what it requires now is a much stronger and more complex conception of the former.
In morals and politics we have stripped ourselves of concepts. Literature, in curing its own ills, can give us a new vocabulary of experience, and a truer picture of freedom. With this, renewing our sense of distance, we may remind ourselves that art too lives in a region where all human endeavour is failure. Perhaps only Shakespeare manages to create at the highest level both images and people; and even Hamlet looks second-rate compared with Lear. Only the very greatest art invigorates without consoling, and defeats our attempts, in W. H. Auden’s words, to use it as magic.
Every page of Existentialists and Mystics is saturated with Murdoch’s uncommonly eloquent insight into the richest, deepest strata of human experience. Complement this portion with Toni Morrison on the fullest meaning of freedom, Jeanette Winterson on how art redeems our inner lives, and Susan Sontag on storytelling and what it means to be a human being, then revisit Murdoch on language as a bastion of truth, how love gives meaning to our existence, and her almost unbearably beautiful love letters.