Iris Murdoch thought our inner lives are too often clogged by the “fat, relentless ego”. By contemplating beauty in nature and art, however, we can deflate this ego (a process Murdoch describes as “unselfing”) and open our eyes to reality.
Iris Murdoch (1919 - 1999) was an Irish-British philosopher and writer best known for her moral philosophy and philosophical novels.
A formidable and original thinker, in her philosophical work Murdoch developed and defended a unique ethical system; her contributions to literature, meanwhile, include 26 award-winning novels, some of which are celebrated as among the English language’s most interesting literary works of the 20th century.
One of Murdoch’s major ideas in moral philosophy is her concept of “unselfing”.
Murdoch thought our inner lives are too often clogged by what she calls the “fat, relentless ego” — but that by contemplating beauty in nature and art, we can deflate the brooding, grasping self and open our eyes to reality.
In her 1970 philosophical work The Sovereignty of Good, Murdoch eloquently describes the process of “unselfing” in action:
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.
Unselfing thus involves turning away from ourselves and being attentive to the world before us: holding, as Murdoch puts it in her 1964 essay The Idea of Perfection, a “just and loving gaze directed upon an individual reality.”
Being attentive in this way might sound relatively straightforward, but to practice it properly is far from easy.
Murdoch warns that we must be careful not to force it, for unselfing is not about shouldering our way into a scene to demand calmness and serenity; it is about letting go. She writes:
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.
By detaching from our egoistic concerns, we observe reality more clearly and create space for true connection. Murdoch famously articulates this idea in a passage from her one of her early novels, The Bell (published in 1958):
Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.
Murdoch’s idea of ‘unselfing’ might bring to mind the Buddhist concept of anātman, or no-self. By deflating the grasping (and ultimately illusory) ego, we create room for compassion.
The 20th-century German writer Herman Hesse, in the collection Butterflies: Reflections, Tales, and Verse, also expresses a deep resonance with this idea.
Reflecting on Goethe’s exclamation, “I am here, that I may wonder!”, Hesse describes how truly contemplating nature — truly attending to and feeling wonder for nature — can help dissolve the separations we artificially impose on the world.
In moments of awe, Hesse writes in a substantial yet beautiful passage, we experience the unity of all that exists:
Wonder is where it starts, and though wonder is also where it ends, this is no futile path. Whether admiring a patch of moss, a crystal, flower, or golden beetle, a sky full of clouds, a sea with the serene, vast sigh of its swells, or a butterfly wing with its arrangement of crystalline ribs, contours, and the vibrant bezel of its edges, the diverse scripts and ornamentations of its markings, and the infinite, sweet, delightfully inspired transitions and shadings of its colors — whenever I experience part of nature, whether with my eyes or another of the five senses, whenever I feel drawn in, enchanted, opening myself momentarily to its existence and epiphanies, that very moment allows me to forget the avaricious, blind world of human need, and rather than thinking or issuing orders, rather than acquiring or exploiting, fighting or organizing, all I do in that moment is ‘wonder,’ like Goethe, and not only does this wonderment establish my brotherhood with him, other poets, and sages, it also makes me a brother to those wondrous things I behold and experience as the living world: butterflies and moths, beetles, clouds, rivers and mountains, because while wandering down the path of wonder, I briefly escape the world of separation and enter the world of unity.
Beauty in art and nature thus provides the impetus for unselfing — it inspires a change in consciousness, Murdoch observes, that deflates the ego and minimizes our selfish concerns. Commenting on the power of great art to move us in this way, Murdoch writes in The Sovereignty of Good:
Both in its genesis and its enjoyment [great art] 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.
Unselfing through such “unpossessive contemplation” reconnects us to reality as it really is, Murdoch thinks — and there is a moral dimension to this.
For, while the existentialist philosophers of the 20th century respond to Nietzsche’s declaration of the death of God by claiming we are each responsible for creating our own meaning and values, Murdoch maps a different route.
By rejecting God, we need not reject all structures of objective value, Murdoch tells us.
In fact, our concept of God can be replaced by a Platonic-like concept of “the Good” — for, despite what the existentialists say, there is an objective moral reality that exists beyond the self, that can be known by human persons, and that motivates us to act morally.
This moral reality is evidenced, Murdoch suggests, in cases of clear moral virtue — like acts of courage, honesty, and kindness. From such simple acts, we can then “ascend” in our analysis to reflect on the Good they express.
Importantly, the Good is nothing transcendent on Murdoch’s picture. It is not some mysterious otherworldly force beyond the realm of our everyday experience.
Rather, we get in touch with it simply by moving our egos out the way, by “unselfing”, and by paying careful and loving attention to the individual realities of other persons.
This is what “transcendent” really means in moral philosophy, Murdoch suggests: moving the self out of the way to see reality as it is. She writes:
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.
Of course, while we can aspire to “pierce the veil of selfish consciousness”, the task is not easy. As Murdoch finishes the passage:
It is an empirical fact about human nature that this attempt cannot be entirely successful.
The good life for Murdoch is thus a life that attempts to transcend its egoistic concerns. In this way, genuine attentiveness, careful observation, and even the production of art are themselves moral achievements.
By unselfing, we connect to the Good. Through our patient efforts to see reality and other persons clearly, we express virtue — and, ultimately, our capacity for love.
If you’re interested in learning more philosophical approaches to the self and living a good life, you might enjoy the following related reads:
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