Printer Friendly



It is hardly striking that Iris Murdoch has an elevated view of art. She is, after all, both a novelist and a philosopher--an artist who believes the artistic enterprise is the best means of conveying goodness to a secular, post-Christian world. Art takes the place of science, philosophy, and religion in making truth accessible to the person-in-the-street; it is a `high substitute for the spiritual and the speculative life'.(1)

Yet surprisingly, Iris Murdoch also writes as a Platonist, which is problematic since Plato clearly believes art is beyond redemption. This difficulty inspired The Fire and the Sun, a book that is both exposition and disagreement, and which undergirds the positive reinterpretation of Plato's aesthetics found in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals.(2)

The first section of this article, `Images of Moral Deformity', will track the moral, metaphysical, and religious features of Plato's negative view of art, highlighting Iris Murdoch's creative reply--her claim that `art reveals the real' (F&S, p. 84). In place of Plato's divided epistemology of rational knowledge versus irrational opinion, she substitutes the unified, post-Kantian, Romantic imagination. This `Aesthetic Imagination' is the subject of the second section, for its elevation allows Iris Murdoch to overcome Plato's distinction between philosophical truth and art and to secure the redemption of the aesthetic realm.


(i) Plato has a `layered' critique of art. At one level his objection is an ethical one--art does not promote moral rectitude. The offerings and images of the artist are `baneful' because they possess the power to infect the moral well-being of the nation's youth. Plato would like to `obliterate many obnoxious passages' from the writings of Homer and Hesiod on this account (Republic 386). It is not that there is anything unpoetic or aesthetically unpleasing about these texts; on the contrary, the danger Plato associates with art increases with the level of `poetical charm'. The greater the poet, the more seductive the lie.

For Plato, art is born in the irrational part of the soul, the home of passion and sensation. It fosters immorality in the young and impressionable and it must, therefore, be suppressed, controlled, and finally overcome.

How does Iris Murdoch deal with this moral objection to art--Plato's view that it imitates that which is neither good nor true? Firstly, she says quite baldly that Plato did not do justice to `the unique truth-conveying capacities of art' (F&S, p. 85). She attempts to rectify this failure by distinguishing between good art and bad art, a distinction that allows her to leave the basic structure of the Platonic critique intact. Art can still be an object of scorn. Yet she is careful not to place too harsh a prohibition even against bad art. It is far better, she says in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, to read a silly magazine than to brood about vengeance. Earlier, in The Fire and The Sun she puts it more strongly:
   How, when, whether bad art (of which of course there is a great deal) is
   morally damaging is, as we know, a deep question not easily answered. For
   great art to exist a general practice of art must exist; and even trivial
   art is a fairly harmless consolation, as Plato himself seems prepared to
   admit in the Laws. (F&S, pp. 77-78)

On another, deeper level, Iris Murdoch is not prepared to rest content with this distinction. Both good and bad art are capable of being redeemed. It is possible for the artist as well as the philosopher to make the journey out of the Cave. To facilitate this movement she blurs Plato's sharp distinction between the visible world of changing appearances and the eternal still world of the invisible Forms. Plato is adamant that there is no access to the Forms from the visible world. Yet for Iris Murdoch, the visible world is a place where the vision of the Form of the Good can readily be accessed. The reality of the ordinary reveals the Good.

When the artist `attends' closely to his or her subject matter, something approximating the `vision of the Good' is realized. Iris Murdoch uses an example from painting, a still-life by Cezanne. The artist lovingly contemplates the objects before him until he sees them `as they are'. The vision of reality is then translated into a composition on canvas. In company with a fairly substantial tradition, Iris Murdoch has the artist seeing the truth about the world. With the help of the art object the client also sees things `as they are'. Even if this is so, it is not Plato's view. For Plato, to `see' the physical world and its artefacts, is to see that it is essentially illusory, or at best changeable. Attending to the physical world will not reveal the sort of moral knowledge or even the aptitude for moral knowledge that Iris Murdoch finds in this process of aesthetic `attention'.(3)

She wants to strengthen the relation between art and ethics by arguing there is more to art than mere opinion or shadowy, unreal appearances. So she turns to Kant who bridges art and ethics with his claim that beauty is (or can be) a symbol of morality. Kant allows the world of sense, with its naturally beautiful objects and its man-made artefacts, to figure or symbolize the moral in ways that Plato does not. He sees the relationship between the moral and the beautiful as plainly demonstrable. We use morally laden terms to describe beautiful natural or art objects. We talk about `majestic trees' and `modest colours'. Furthermore, the sorts of feelings and `states of mind' evoked by beautiful objects (artworks included) are akin to the high states `produced by moral judgements'.

Iris Murdoch seizes upon this concession to art, but takes it a lot further than Kant, who was careful to point out the limitations of the analogy. For Iris Murdoch, art not only symbolizes the good, it practically incarnates it. She does not have Kant's residual Platonic mistrust of sensuous objects to hold her back. Art is not debarred from the higher realm of morality simply because of its strong connection with the material world.

(ii) Aside from the moral cavil, Plato also has a deep metaphysical objection to art, an objection that is tied up with his understanding of the way human beings think and know. In terms of his hierarchy of opinion and truth, the knowledge of artists languishes along with that of the sophists in the bottom-most, basest realm of opinion (eikasia). It is a debased, false knowledge--mimetic, imagistic, and irrational. There is a clear-cut division between this lowly sphere and the higher sphere of true knowledge. In the higher domain the lovers of wisdom attain to greater and purer degrees of imageless rational truth. Truth such as this cannot be found between the pages of a book, carved in marble, or splashed across a canvas. Even poetry directly inspired by the gods fails to attain to the purity of rational truth.

For Plato, then, truth cannot be reproduced in art or as art. Not even great art escapes the critique, for it `shares in the same spirit' (Republic 377) and, one might add, structural constraints of lesser art. A metaphysical objection affects both good and bad examples. This is a significant point, since Iris Murdoch wants to save great art and use Plato's critique as ammunition against bad art only.(4)

The distinction between good art and bad art might serve Iris Murdoch's purposes very well, but it is scarcely consistent with Plato, who believes that all art shares the same spirit. Plato might say, even of good art, that it mimes the philosophical process of attaining truth. The artist or client attains the false transcendence of an imaginative journey out of the Cave. The fact that a particular work is an unusually effective imitation of the truth or of truth-seeking cannot alter its ontological status.

In order to raise art to the same level as morality, Iris Murdoch makes a fundamental change to Plato's metaphysical schema. The redemption of art goes right to the metaphysical roots. Iris Murdoch breaches the sharp division Plato sets up between the intelligible and the sensual, between the world of opinion and the world of knowledge. Art is no longer restricted to the darkest depths of the Cave. Even Plato's Good is coloured by the paintbrush of the artist, and the world of the senses becomes a place where the Good can, after all, be found. Iris Murdoch is against the separation of the Forms, and as a result the sharp and explicit distinctions Plato makes are lost or blurred. She sees the possibility for this within Plato himself. `He kept emphasizing the imageless remoteness of the Good, yet kept returning in his exposition to the most elaborate uses of art' (F&S, p. 87).

This unavoidable paradox in Plato's system is perhaps the most obvious justification for the `redemption of the aesthetic'. What of Plato's own considerable artistry? The dialogues are works of art adorned by many a vivid word-picture. If Plato is an artist, then art must be acceptable at the highest level. But perhaps this blurs the clear line Plato has drawn around his target. Philosophy does not shade off into some or other art-form. It is only in this century that the boundaries around art and non-art have become so blurred. Art, for Plato, is clearly definable. It is music, theatre, poetry. It is `craft'--making things. Philosophy is another case entirely. When it comes to philosophy he recommends the plainest possible style. It is to be discursive, rational, imageless. Iris Murdoch makes good use of the fact that he does not always adhere strictly to this; that image and metaphor and myth are often in evidence.

The classic example is the Timaeus, a dialogue Iris Murdoch finds particularly helpful. It is, she believes, both work of art in its own right and portrait of the ideal artist or Demiurge. She builds her aesthetic round these two important notions. The Demiurge, she says, is moved by love of the Forms to
   attempt to imitate them in another medium. Like the mortal artist he fails,
   both because the other medium cannot (as he is well aware) reproduce the
   original, and because the material resists his conceptions and his powers.
   The result is a quite different entity, which is the `best possible'. (F&S,
   p. 52)

Iris Murdoch says, as Plato does not, that the Demiurge figure functions as an ideal artist, one who serves as a model for all creative activity. If the imagination of the artist is fixed attentively, unpossessively, and humbly upon goodness, he or she cannot fail to produce good art. It will not be perfect--perfection eludes even the greatest artists--but it will be `the best possible'. In order to create good art the mortal artist must share in the nature and operation of the Demiurge.

She is careful not to make her mortal artist into a small-scale version of the Demiurge, however. The sort of art that Iris Murdoch sees her holy, wise artist producing is humble. There is no attempt to rival the great artistic enterprise of the Timaeus. The small, contingent art-forms of Zen Buddhism and the imageless patterning of Islamic art are good examples of the sort of art Iris Murdoch believes meets the implicit Platonic criteria. It is art in which the artist has surrendered `his personal will to the rhythm of divine thought' (F&S, p. 58).

There are several problems with the way Iris Murdoch creates an opening for art through the loophole of the Timaeus. Firstly, her paean to Eastern art (some of which might even qualify as anti-art) is not quite consistent with the way she elsewhere defends the traditional grand novel or play. Zen art, she says, rejects the tropes, illusions, and references of Western art. It has, by contrast, a throwaway simplicity. (`In a few strokes, the pointless presence, the thereness, of the plant, the animal, the man.'(5)) Zen art has an affinity with Platonism because both aim at achieving a pure cognitive state in which subject and object `simply exist as one' (MGM, p. 245). This, says Iris Murdoch, is an experience of what truth is like. It is a place where the moral and the aesthetic join. Rejecting the grandeur of Western art, Zen art reflects the sort of `quality of consciousness' that Plato was driving at. So far so good. The problem lies in the fact that Iris Murdoch wants to save the grand Western aesthetic tradition as well. It is not only Zen art that reveals truth. So also do Shakespeare and Henry James.

The humble role assigned to the quiet unpretentious non-art--the `surrender to the divine rhythm' that she finds exemplified so well in Zen art--starts to swell out into precisely the sort of rival metaphysical system that Plato sought to counteract. When she champions Western art, Iris Murdoch starts making metaphysical claims about the scope of artistic vision that Plato would not accept. This is the second problem with the adoption of the Timaeus myth as a model of artistic method. Iris Murdoch is allowing, as Plato did not, that on some level, a vision of the Forms is accessible to the artist; that the artist is somehow capable of emulating the Demiurge and capturing this vision in word, or paint, or note.

Aesthetic contemplation yields a clear vision of the way things are--as in the Cezanne example. But can Plato's Timaeus really be interpreted this way? In Plato's terms, imaginative contemplation of the natural world cannot hope to produce the sort of result Iris Murdoch wishes. Cezanne could stare at a bowl of fruit for all eternity without ever discovering its deeper truth. It simply does not have one. The most that can be said of the material object is that it points to an immaterial reality existing beyond it.

Iris Murdoch's analogical use of the Timaeus myth creates a further problem. Art becomes an exercise in metaphysics.
   Good art `explains' truth itself, by manifesting deep conceptual
   connections. Truth is clarification, justice, compassion. This
   manifestation of internal relations is an image of metaphysics. (MGM, p.

There are times when she even privileges art over metaphysics. In The Sovereignty of Good she calls it the place of humanity's `most fundamental insight' and `the centre to which the more uncertain steps of metaphysics must constantly return'.(6) Iris Murdoch appears to be arguing that art can demonstrate a Platonic unity of parts and whole; that it can show the interconnectedness of the Forms. What is more, it can do this even more effectively than traditional philosophy.

Underlying this whole discussion is a critical difference between Iris Murdoch and Plato: her view of art as omnipresent, ubiquitous. It is not possible to escape the reach of the aesthetic. There is art at all points along the divided line. There is artistry involved in the simple retelling of the day's events. We are all artists. Experience itself is `aesthetically worked'. Religious activity and belief are also cluttered with images and artistry. Even the Good itself, the elusive object of the highest philosophical attention, is not free from art. At the end of Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals Iris Murdoch calls the Form of the Good a `metaphysical picture', an aesthetic creation.

The old `quarrel' between philosophy and poetry, metaphysics and art, ends in a peaceful pact, `like the pact in the Philebus between reason and pleasure' (F&S, p. 87).

(iii) This pact is extended to cover the religious dimension of Plato's quarrel with art, his belief that art can damage the spiritual well-being of the populace through its false, anthropomorphic claims about the gods. Instead, Plato believes that that which is higher--truly moral and truly divine--is ultimately imageless.

Although Iris Murdoch agrees high religion is ultimately imageless and that the key iconoclastic insight is in principle sound, she nevertheless sees the visible world and its artefacts as a sacrament of the highest spiritual reality. She does not want a world without icons, myths, and stories.
   Good art, thought of as symbolic force rather than statement, provides a
   stirring image of a pure transcendent value, a steady visible enduring
   higher good, and perhaps provides for many people, in an unreligious age
   without prayer or sacraments, their clearest experience of something
   grasped as separate and precious and beneficial and held quietly and
   unpossessively in the attention. (F&S, pp. 77-78)

This is the religious benefit of art. It is presented here as a sacrament purifying the aesthetic consciousness. There is no such sacrament in Plato. For Plato the gap between the Good and art is too great for art to have a mediating, sacramental role. It is a qualitative as well as a quantitative difference. This is why he chooses mathematics rather than art as a bridge between the world and the Forms. It is doubtless harder--though not impossible--to make a pseudo-sacramental, magical intermediary out of a geometrical theorem. Mathematics, for Plato, has a purity that art does not share. By pointing beyond itself, it can image the divine, and lead us to a vision of the Forms. Iris Murdoch, on the other hand, says art leads us to the Forms, but this showing occurs within the parameters of the material work--as its value dimension. The religious objection to art is overcome through a relocation of the divine within the world. (`There is nowhere else.')


The key to Iris Murdoch's `redemption of art' lies in her promotion of the imagination as the successor to Platonic and Kantian Reason. She divinizes the aesthetic sphere by elevating imagination over Reason, or merging the two into a single faculty.

Plato's separation of poetry from philosophy and art from morality, stems from his division of the soul into parts, rational and irrational. The higher part of the soul knows the eternal truths of Reason, the Forms, the Good. Imagination, however, belongs in the lowest sphere, the element which does not `understand the discourse of Reason' and most readily falls `under the spell of images and phantoms' (Timaeus 71).

Reason, then, is divine, immortal, and pure, and has only that which is highest as its object. Imagination, by contrast, is fallible and mortal with a correspondingly lowly object. While the immortal part of the soul is able to make right judgements about the sensible, the lower has no part in the higher. This schema does little for the status of art and Iris Murdoch does not dwell upon it. She turns instead to Kant who also distinguishes between imagination and Reason, and for whom imagination gains a new importance.

The imagination, for Kant, is at the very hub of human understanding and existence. From a position of centrality it performs a mediating role. Mediation occurs in two directions. Firstly, in the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant says the imagination is a faculty mediating between sense and thought. This is its epistemological function. It constructs the spatial and temporal environment within which sensory objects are recognized and conceptualized.

Secondly, Kant believes the imagination comprehends something of the world beyond the senses--the noumenal sphere, or the supersensible, although he does emphasize that we cannot have determinate knowledge of this realm. The `knowledge' of the supersensible afforded by the imagination is reflective, heuristic.

When he talks about judgements of beauty, about judgements of sublimity and teleology, Kant implies that the imagination can provide reflective knowledge about how things really are. This is where the connection with art comes in. An artist of genius produces a poem about the majesty of God, for example, in which he or she employs symbols to `express' the inexpressible Ideas of Reason. Only those who know how to ride freely on the wings of imagination will be able to find the appropriate forms of expression for these Ideas. The artist of genius mediates, then, between the indeterminate supersensible realm and the realm of nature.

Plato's split between imagination and Reason is now breached as the two faculties are brought together into a productive partnership. Iris Murdoch takes all this a step further. In her view imagination is rational, rationality is imaginative. In an early essay, `Vision and Choice in Morality', she calls the imagination `Reason's alter ego'.(7) This unified faculty no longer has distinct objects of knowledge: sensible/supersensible; changeable/eternal, etc. There is only one reality and it is located firmly upon the Earth. The imagination is now concerned with both the objects of sense and the objects of Reason. Kant's `supersensible' and Plato's `intelligible' share the same immanent reality as Cezanne's bowl of fruit. It is no longer necessary to embark upon flights of any kind. Here is all there is and the art object reveals this `hereness' in all its solidity. Unifying the faculties somehow reveals a unified reality. (`Dualism is overcome: not such an arcane idea after all' [MGM, p. 245].)

This view, with its Kantian underpinnings, completely undermines Plato's divided line. Because she is keen to minimize her break with Plato, Iris Murdoch introduces the distinction between imagination and fantasy to replace Plato's reason/imagination dichotomy. She then reads her distinction back into the Dialogues. `Fantasy' is presented as the debased `other' of the imagination. Like imagination, fantasy can be found at work in art, ethics, and religion. While imagination, properly exercised, is a sort of `unselfing', fantasy feeds the greedy ego with lies. There is a place, she says, for a `distinction between trapped egoistic fantasy, and imagination as a faculty of transcendence' (MGM, p. 86). Plato, she says, `teaching by images and myths ... acknowledges high imagination as creative stirring spirit, attempting to express and embody what is perfectly good, but extremely remote, a picture which implicitly allows a redemption of art' (MGM, p. 320). The new categories of `high imagination' and `debased fantasy' give a sense of what Plato was driving at--the distance separating truth from falsity--`without claiming to think both sides of the barrier' (MGM, p. 321)

Basically what she is saying is this: high imagination is as far removed from debased fantasy as Reason is from opinion. The Cave is to be rebuilt within the sensuous world. There is still a deep divide between truth and falsity. Murdoch's plausible argument falters because she is forced to admit that even great art can be defiled by fantasy. The good art-bad art, imagination-fantasy distinction falls down at the grey place in the middle where one shades into the other. Plato has a divided line, not a continuum. There is a qualitative as well as a quantitative distinction. Reason is divine, immortal. Imagination is fallible and mortal.

In summary, Iris Murdoch `demythologizes' Plato's distinction between imagination and Reason. Imagination does the job of Reason; it is no longer possible to separate rational moral philosophy from creative, aesthetic pursuits. Thus ethics (which used to be the domain of Reason) and art (the product of imagination) become entangled. Plato sees virtue as knowledge and knowledge is always a product of Reason. When it comes to morality, Kant also separates imagination from Reason, although, as noted, he does allow the imagination a greater scope than Plato. Kant nevertheless still keeps ethics and aesthetics firmly separate. Beauty symbolizes morality; it does not dissolve into it. Iris Murdoch, who has taken the relationship between Reason and imagination even further than Kant, cannot argue that virtue is rational knowledge. Virtue has to be re-envisaged. In her reinterpretation, imagination becomes the source of both art and morality. The quality of imaginative attention brought to bear writing a novel, painting a mural, or even tidying a house, is equivalent to the quality of attention brought to bear upon moral decisions. `Virtue is dynamic and creative, a passionate attention directed toward what is good' (MGM, p. 320). Virtue is now an art-form, indeed the highest art-form.

Herein lies the deep contradiction unsettling Iris Murdoch's philosophical system. She eschews relativism and seeks to retain moral absolutes. It is unlikely, however, that her creative, yet misleading interpretation of Plato's aesthetic theory allows her to promote art as a vehicle for moral knowledge, without doing violence to the original Platonic schema.

(1) I. Murdoch, The Fire and the Sun (hereafter F&S) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), p. 86.

(2) In Fictional Points of View (Ithaca, NY: Cornell U.P., 1996), Peter Lamarque offers a more sympathetic interpretation of Iris Murdoch's position than the one presented here, arguing that a shared commitment to truth and goodness overrides this particular difference between Iris Murdoch and her primary mentor.

(3) For an alternative interpretation of the so-called `realism' of Iris Murdoch, see Genevieve Lloyd, `Iris Murdoch on the Ethical Significance of Truth', Philosophy and Literature, vol. 6, nos 1 and 2 (1982), pp. 62-75. Lloyd takes the view that Iris Murdoch's `Good' is the activity of artistic self-transcendence, rather than an objective reality.

(4) This distinction is accepted without criticism by Elizabeth Dipple in her discussion of Iris Murdoch's `Art and Theory' in Work for the Spirit (London: Methuen, 1982).

(5) I. Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (hereafter MGM) (London: Penguin, 1993), p. 245.

(6) I. Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), p. 73.

(7) I. Murdoch, `Vision and Choice ill Morality', in I. T. Ramsey (ed.), Christian Ethics and Contemporary Philosophy (London: SCM Press, 1966), p. 212 (footnote).

Margaret Whibley, 9 Mamari Street, Kilbirnie, Wellington, New Zealand.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Oxford University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Whibley, M. E. L.
Publication:The British Journal of Aesthetics
Date:Oct 1, 1998

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |