Iris Murdoch is remembered now as a novelist rather than a philosopher. For many years, however, she taught and wrote philosophy. It was often against the prevailing current of mainstream academic philosophy but connected with older traditions of wisdom and enquiry, and gave them new life and direction.
In her book, The Sovereignty of Good (1970), Murdoch has a fascinating reflection on the relationship between prayer, art, and morality:
Prayer is properly not petition, but simply an attention to God which is a form of love. With it goes the idea of grace, of a supernatural assistance to human endeavour which overcomes empirical limitations of personality… The chief enemy of excellence in morality (and also in art) is personal fantasy: the tissue of self-aggrandizing and consoling wishes and dreams which prevent one from seeing what there is outside one… We cease to be in order to attend to the existence of something else, a natural object, a person in need. We can see in mediocre art, where it is perhaps more clearly seen than in mediocre conduct, the intrusion of fantasy, the assertion of self, the dimming of any reflection of the real world.
Paying attention to what is outside one. In a recent letter to the Guardian another keen observer of our society, Frank Field MP, wrote that, ‘Voters’ loyalties move out from their loved ones, getting progressively weaker as they view their community, our nation and then the world.’
If we lose the capacity to look beyond ourselves and pay attention to what we find there, that is not just a social and political matter; it is a spiritual crisis, for we lose contact with the God who is always beyond us, drawing us forward out of our comfortable certainties.
February begins with Candlemas. A candle gives light and warmth, but it does so by losing itself; it is consumed by the flame. ‘We cease to be in order to attend to the existence of something else’, writes Iris Murdoch. That could be a fruitful theme to ponder this Lent.