Monday, May 29, 2006

The Good Apprentice by Iris Murdoch

I have talked to you about the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch before, but I want to do so once again, not only because I think she is an extraordinarily important thinker and writer, but also because I think she demands of us what too few writers do these days, namely, to be and do good. Indeed, the very title of the book I am going to talk about today is The Good Apprentice, and I see it as an invocation for all of us to be apprentices to good. I am completing my fifth or sixth reading of this novel because I am teaching it in a class, but instead of boredom, I find myself newly inspired by this reading, and convinced yet again of her importance as an ethicist and novelist. Yes, she writes long and complicated and sometimes apparently bleak novels, but her deeply moral message makes her well worth the effort.

A common theme running through much late 19th and early 20th century philosophy is a kind of call to conscience and a call to action. Certainly, one can see that in Karl Marx who insists that the task is not merely to understand history, but to transform it. But in many ways the attempts to scientize philosophy and the humanities dulled or even made fun of such evangelism. The logical positivists insisted that ethics was not a cognitive discipline at all, that moral judgments had no cognitive content; instead, they are merely emotive outbursts, neither true nor false, but simply expressions of approval or disapproval. There is the suspicion, sometimes stated, sometimes only implied, that moral judgments are merely remnants of outdated religious beliefs, and that both need to be put to rest in the name of science and objectivity.

Certainly, the existentialists are exceptions to this trend. In Sartre and Camus there is clearly a call to action, an insistence that human history is in human hands (not God’s), and an insistence that each person throw herself/himself into life, commit entirely to one’s project, and live authentically. Martin Heidegger claims that the underlying angst that all of us feel (if and when we allow it to surface) is simply the call to act on our ownmost possibilities, to reject the they-self mode (valuing what ‘they’ say to value, doing what they say we should do), and becoming our authentic selves. In all of these thinkers I see an underlying call of conscience not so unlike the religious notion of a mission, a call from some higher power to act for the good.

However, although these thinkers were so opposed to the cold analytic methods of the positivists, their rejection of religion and their suspicions of prevailing systems of value led them either to distance themselves from ethics or to adopt theories of value that inevitably led to conclusions very close to the positivistic one described above. Sartre, in his zeal to emphasize human freedom, insists that there is no such thing as a common human nature (which others had used as a ground for some sort of objective ethic). Instead, says Sartre, we are the authors of our own existence; we create our essence by the choices we make, and all value is created by choice. How different is this from the claim that judgments of value are simply expressions of approval or disapproval?

All of this as a very rough and quick preface to Murdoch. As sympathetic as Murdoch is to the existentialists’ passionate call to action, she is convinced that the rejection of a common human nature is a fatal and false move for ethics. So, too, any value theory that claims that value is literally created by choice. “The ordinary person does not, unless corrupted by philosophy, believe that he creates values by his choices.” Not only is there a common human nature, but ethics is somehow grounded in that commonality, and good, while difficult (in fact impossible) to analyze into simpler component parts, is real and objective.

Morality is objective rather than subjective because it depends on what is the case (with other humans as well as sentient creatures other than humans), not on what we believe to be the case or wish to be true. Thus, in agreement with Plato, Murdoch insists that good and truth are (though not identical) intimately connected. We must see others as they really are in order to act justly towards them. Not such an easy matter; “It is a task to see the world as it is.” We are, continues Murdoch, selfish by nature, and what we call looking at the world is usually simply looking through the veil of our own cares and concerns. Thomas, a psycho-therapist who is one of the good characters in The Good Apprenctice puts it this way, “We are all wrapped in silky layers of illusion, which we instinctively feel to be necessary to our existence.” Murdoch invites us to shed those layers of comfortable illusion.

Although Murdoch rejects the value theory of Sartre (and some other existentialists), she agrees with them that there is no external telos, no human-independent purpose for human existence. “I assume that human beings are naturally selfish and that human life has no external point or telos.” She does not argue for these claims about our selfish natures and the absence of an external telos, but neither, she insists are they merely assumptions, nor products of the despair of our age. Rather, these beliefs are the products of “the advance of science over a long period,” and if they increase our anxiety about death, they also can serve as springboards for morality and active political lives.

So the condition in which we find ourselves can be summed up, “….the world is aimless, chancy, and huge, and we are blinded by self.” One might conclude from the above that Murdoch is hostile towards religion, since religions insist not only that there is an external telos, but that they have in some sense discovered it. However, many of Murdoch’s best characters are religious, e.g., in The Philosopher’s Pupil, a Jewish man who has converted to Christianity, indeed has become a priest, and yet calls himself an atheist who happens to have a personal relationship with Christ. And in the book I am talking about today, the apprentice to good is a young man named Stuart who insists that what is needed is religion without god, and who recommends prayer without god. But isn’t this all just pointless doubletalk? Murdoch thinks not. The key to morality she thinks rests in the struggle to see something greater than the self, but that something greater is not a god or transcendent being, it is simply the world (and others) as they really are. Morality involves the attempt to really attend to others, and attention requires (if only for moments) a transcending of self and of the veil of illusion that concerns for self create. Prayer and meditation are not important as literally ways to converse with some mythical being, but rather as serious and systematic attempts to un-self, as a kind of practice in seeing things as they really are. Prayer as conversation with some father-god is merely a way of soothing the anxiety-ridden self and its anxiety with its own death, but when disconnected from myth and magic, it can be a path to genuine morality. Our natural condition is a condition very like Plato describes us in his allegory of the cave; we think we are seeing the world as it is, but are seeing only shadows of shadows, reflections of what are, themselves, merely cardboard cutouts. Getting out of the cave is no easy task, since the cave of self is “…a cloud of more or less fantastic reverie designed to keep the psyche from pain.,” but nevertheless, we are ‘called’ to leave the cave, and to be good, and “….anything which alters consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity and realism is to be connected with virtue.”

I can see that I have bitten off considerably more than I can chew in this attempt to quickly overview Murdoch and also say something concrete and constructive about this particular novel. Let me try to sum up by saying that for Murdoch the call of conscience is the call to be good, to see the world as it really is rather than as we would like it to be. Instead of being embarrassed by this evangelical message, she embraces it, and I see each of her novels (as well as substantial parts of her essays) as invitations to apprehend the world as it is, and then to act on that comprehension. “The only think which is of real importance is the ability to see it all clearly and respond to it justly which is inseparable from virtue.” We must not allow ourselves to be frightened out of talk about and reflection on good, talk about truth and justice. Indeed, we must heed the call to do good.

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