Iris Murdoch and the irresistible attraction of the Good

The writer and philosopher Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) was fascinated by the intimate connection between ‘truth’, ‘beauty’ and ‘good’ in Plato’s dialogues. In the late Timaeus dialogue, written after The Republic, Plato introduces a divine figure, the ‘demiurge’, literally ‘the architect’, who inspired by his love for the Form of the Good creates the universe from pre-existent and therefore necessarily imperfect material. Murdoch sees in the story of the ‘demiurge’ the answer to the previous limitations of The Republic. Through the experience of the hypothetical demiurge, humanity is suddenly touched by love in the way that the Christian God radiates Love throughout his creation. Murdoch was a staunch non-believer but she saw parallels between the attraction of the Platonic soul to the Good and the spiritual experience of the religious mystic yearning for a total union with his God: ‘What is good purifies the desire that seeks it, the good beloved ennobles the lover.’
In the Symposium, a dialogue dedicated to Love, Plato celebrates the power of Eros who drives the lover to his beloved object. Yet, Plato warns against the dangerous power of Eros when it becomes misguided and only motivated by sexual gratification. Platonic love is about love for love’s sake that is an irresistible attraction to the ‘idea’ of Love, more than an intense physical hankering for one particular individual. In the Symposium, Socrates describes Love as desire for Beauty and beyond Beauty towards the Good itself. Eros is, after all, a philosopher not an eternal philanderer. Time and again, Murdoch came back to the central role of the Good in Plato’s philosophy: ‘The Good is distant and apart, and yet it is a source of energy, it is an active principle of truthful cognition and moral understanding in the soul, the inspiration and love-object of Eros … It is a ‘reality principle’ whereby we find our way about in the world.’
Murdoch was not particularly concerned with the philosophical knowledge required by Plato to become fully acquainted with the Good. She was far more interested in its overwhelming power and compelling energy calling for an immediate surrender of the soul to its moral demands. Murdoch failed to draw obvious parallels with Plotinus’ soul being finally united with the One. Instead, the writer referred to ‘our pilgrimage in the direction of reality, good’, strewn all the way with seemingly trivial encounters with fragments or apparitions of that supreme reality. Our world is, after all, a moral testing ground for the soul as it has the unique capacity to see beyond its physical surroundings towards the spiritual level of an otherworldly reality. Eros is, for Murdoch, central to our ‘pilgrimage to the good’ as it is nothing less than ‘the spirit of mankind.’ It is ‘the desire for good and joy which is active at all levels in the soul and through which we are able to turn to reality.’ Eros serves both Art and Philosophy by diverting the soul away from its self-centred preoccupations to the Beautiful (Art) and the Good (Philosophy). Beauty is therefore the medium through which the good soul can rise to the vision of the Good. By contrast, the bad soul is not attracted to Beauty but is literally pulled down by its lower pleasures and immoral goals.

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