Iris Murdoch and the Freedom of Attention

On Learning Obedience to the Loving Gaze

This meditation was written by Ken Wilson.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things. 

Philippians 4:8

There is an amusing scene in Whit Stillman’s 1990 preppie coming-of-age film, Metropolitan, in which a young man named Charlie is ignorantly defending a received opinion about the heroine of Mansfield Park. “You found Fanny Price unlikeable?” asks the surprised woman he’s speaking to, a shy debutante named Audrey. 

“She sounds pretty unlikeable, but I haven’t read the book,” Charlie replies, without a trace of embarrassment.  

“What Jane Austen novels have you read?” asks the now incredulous Audrey. “None,” he answers. “I haven’t read the Bible either. I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelist’s ideas as well as the critic’s thinking. With fiction I can never forget that none of it ever really happened, that it’s all just made up by the author.” 

Just give me the facts, Charlie is saying. Don’t muddle them with mere make-believe. 

I’m not that bad myself, really. I sleep best when I’ve just put down a good novel. I mull over books and characters that I love, and I’m delighted when my favorite novelists discuss their ideas in interviews, or put them down in non-fiction form. 

So I was excited to run across Iris Murdoch’s little book, The Sovereignty of Good — three essays originally delivered as lectures in the 1960s. Murdoch (1919-1999) was not only a fine writer of fiction, but a philosopher whose major subject was the moral life. OK, I’ve read only one Murdoch novel, but I’m intrigued enough to read more. That’s because in the first of these essays Murdoch touches on interrelated ideas I’ve long been drawn to: that we shape our moral behavior through what we attend to, that a correct understanding is a loving one, and that attending carefully leads to loving, which is to be truly free.

I’m strictly an amateur at reading philosophy, an intermittent if enthusiastic grazer, but it’s sentences like the following that hype me up so much I underline them, dictate them into my phone for later reading, and email them to a friend — just about all at once.  

“Freedom,” Murdoch writes, is not a mere free choice made by “the solitary omnipotent will” – “it is a function of the progressive attempt to see a particular object clearly.” Two complementary and enlarging affirmations come to mind. The first is Jesus’s teaching that “if you continue in my word … you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:31-2). The second is the Platonic and Aristotelian insight that true freedom is not unlimited choice, but rather the ability to make the correct choice.

In her case, Murdoch is arguing against what she sees as inadequate and reductive understandings — behaviorist, existentialist, and utilitarian — of moral behavior. She is arguing against the idea that moral good is properly defined by the individual will, with the result that different individual wills rightly aim at different goods. 

Freedom to do good as Murdoch conceives it comes from seeking the truth, and that means from seeking it over time, from making the seeking a habit. It is to set one’s heart on what popular evangelical author Eugene Peterson called “a long obedience in the same direction.”

Murdoch gives the example of a woman she calls M who “feels hostility to her daughter-in-law,” D, whom she recognizes is “quite a good-hearted girl,” yet is “unpolished and lacking in dignity and refinement.” 

Through “sustained attention to reality” rather than moral complacency, M is enabled “not just to see D accurately, but to see her justly or lovingly.” By that “careful and just attention” she can see that qualities she had previously disapproved of in fact deserve her respect. Her loving attention, that is, leads to greater love.

An attentive gaze sees the person for more than their failures and foibles. It is ultimately a loving gaze that mirrors God’s own view of us, overlooking our transgressions and calling us beloved. This is heartening news: the closer we attend to each other, the more we will see to love, and the greater we will be enabled to love. Understanding — seeing through God’s eyes — leads to appreciation, to being willing to discover the good in each other.

I’ve noticed this dynamic at work in my relationship with my wife. When we’re in conflict and I’m willing to really look and listen, I often intuit things more and more from her perspective. My objections seem less significant. 

The most profound way I have ever experienced the love of God was in a moment of doubt, after an argument with my wife. I hadn’t come to see things her way (and I still don’t, but God is patient, hah!), but I was overcome with such love for her anyhow, and from the accompanying conviction — the word is too weak, but it will have to do — that she is categorically, inarguably, incontrovertibly lovable, I knew there must be a Lover who cared for and would protect her in ways I could not. I knew that in the most fundamental, ontological sense, she was loved, and that Love therefore existed. 

Yet here too of course, to use Luther’s words, the will — certainly my will — is bound.We are anxiety-ridden animals,” Murdoch writes. “Our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, usually self-pre-occupied, often falsifying veil which partially conceals the world. 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.” Fortunately, “explicit choice seems now less important: less decisive … If I attend properly I will have no choices and this is the ultimate condition to be aimed at.”

“The ideal situation,” she continues, in what might as well be the operation of grace in the face of human inadequacy, “is rather to be described as a kind of ‘necessity.’ This is something of which saints speak and which any artist will readily understand.” If we consider what the work of attention is like, how continuously it goes on, and how imperceptibly it builds up structures of value around us, we shall not be surprised that at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over. 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.

When a “patient, loving regard” is “directed upon a person, a thing, a situation,” Murdoch writes, the response of the will becomes something very like “obedience.” This, she notes “is what Simone Weil means when she says that ‘will is obedience not resolution.’” It is the freedom to act from necessity, rather than the calculations of supposed freedom. We do what we know and are already free and able to do through the “necessity” of the person in front of us who longs for love.

The Christian life is fueled by reading the scripture,  praying, being in fellowship with other Christians whose words and examples will set me straight when I need it (every day) … these things I can do. But the problem of changing my behavior  — that’s up to God, to teach me to see as God sees. Or as Murdoch so beautifully puts it, reality is “that which is revealed to the patient eye of love.”   

In Saul Bellow’s comic novel More Die of Heartbreak, the romantic travails of a brilliant but hapless-in-love botanist are recounted by his devoted but aghast nephew, Kenneth. “One of my Russian philosophers says that human eyes fall into one of two categories,” notes the nephew, whose penchant for theorizing whenever it’s appropriate and whenever it’s not is by turns enlightening and exasperating. “Some are wide open to reflect the light and some scrutinize everything, on the watch for prey; eyes for which the earth is a Garden of Eden, an eternal now, or else eyes from which there pours an electrifying flood of will. The first was Uncle’s category, of course. Man is what he sees. (Not what he eats, as that literalist German maniac Feuerbach insisted.)” 

LOL. Bellow is a riot, not least when his characters are rummaging around in Western intellectual history and free-associating wildly, forcing the reader, perhaps with the help of a little research, to figure out what’s a serious point, what just sheds light on the character, and what’s just loopy parody. Sometimes I still can’t tell; I have no opinions worth sharing about that literalist German maniac Feuerbach. But working within Kenneth’s categories, what kind of eyes do I have? 

By reminding me that not only the individual but indeed the whole shape of reality is “knowable by love,” and by pointing me back to the patient work of discovering that reality, “the discernment and exploration of which is a slow business,” Murdoch stirs up my faith in God’s providence, and gives me patience with myself when I fail to see properly.

“Love,” says a character in her novel The Bell, is “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.” Reality, the way things really are — isn’t that what Charlie was looking for in literary criticism? If he’d taken time to actually read the novel instead, if he’d actually given Fanny Price his true attention, I believe he would have loved her. 

Featured image: Paris Review

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One response to “Iris Murdoch and the Freedom of Attention”

  1. anon says:

    This is so true. I have family on “both sides” politically, and when I am with them during holidays, I usually feel that my head will explode. Yet it is also during these holidays that I am forced to sit & listen (“attend”), and I also begin to understand/see these people clearly, regardless of their political inclinations. Usually there is some lovable insecurity disguised by political aggression. So thanks for writing this.

    But I tried to read “The Sea, The Sea,” and recall finding it impossible. Maybe I will try “The Bell” instead.

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