Brockwood Park 1984
Brockwood Park 2nd Conversation with Iris Murdoch 18th October 1984
K: You start.
IM: Well I am still trying to formulate some fundamental question which I can't grip or entirely see at the moment. Perhaps I could sort of walk round it a bit and ask one or two different sort of questions for a moment.
You feel - the idea of duty is a fundamental one in most moral systems, philosophers argue about it but there it is. People are taught when they are growing up they are taught duties that they ought to tell the truth for instance, and other things being equal, perhaps if they don't always tell the truth. You shy away from the idea of duty.
K: I feel responsibility is better than duty.
IM: Well, all right, then a sense of responsibility would be a sense of duty, under some circumstances, one could extend the two ideas in different directions, but you would rather call it a sense of responsibility?
K: Yes, responsibility because responsibility implies care, affection, a sense of communication with the other person, not doing something because you are obliged to do, or disciplined to do, or told to do, but be responsible. If I undertake to build a house, I am responsible for building a house. If I am responsible for my children, I would be responsible completely, not only until they pass out of my house, but I would see that they live properly, brought up, no killing, you follow?
IM: There would be no limits to responsibility.
K: No limits to responsibility.
IM: Yes, I mean perhaps one connects duty with very definite things which have to be done. On the other hand, if you take something like a duty to tell the truth, that's something so fundamental.
K: Telling the truth is part of my responsibility. I wouldn't be dishonest to myself.
IM: Well don't let's worry then about the word duty. But this is a case where one's dealing with an aspect of human life which belongs to the continuity of life. Would you say that just by that being so that it is an everyday notion, which is part of the decent moral continuity of a society's life, would you regard it as being essentially different from what we were talking about this morning, from the real thing, and from love?
K: Yes, yes. I would consider it different.
IM: But I don't see quite where the division comes. I mean I am always trying to build up structures, I want to see where the division comes between ordinary what we would call goodness, or moral behaviour and this fundamental thing.
K: Could we start: why are we fragmented? Why do we look at life and all our actions and our business, whatever it is, always this fragment, business, religion, love, hate, you follow? It is all so broken up. Why do we do this?
IM: Well life has to be dealt with every day.
K: Yes, but why should I accept life to be dealt with in this way?
IM: I think because to unify it, I mean to have a unitary. You seem to feel that we should have some kind of completely unitary selflessness, which then isn't divisible.
K: Yes, that's it.
IM: But then I mean let's say the words like truth and love...
K: ...are one. If there is love there is truth, there is beauty.
IM: Yes. This is so, if one is looking at it in a philosophical sense. But somebody...
K: No, in actual sense, I mean if I really love there is beauty in it. One can't be dishonest.
IM: Yes, beauty is a more difficult concept for this purpose, at least I feel. What worries me is the point of connection between the truth which is love, the fundamental truth, and ordinary conceptions of truth as in tell the truth.
K: Suppose I have lied. And I record that I have lied. I record if I have been angry. That is honesty. That is the truth in the ordinary sense of the word. I don't cover up my lie with lots of phoney stuff. I say I have lied, I have been angry, sorry I have been brutal. I think we are so trained to cover up all this kind of thing, to escape from all this, not being terribly honest to oneself.
IM: Yes, well how does this connect with - one of the things which I think you are very much concerned with, is overcoming conflict, and overcoming separatist, and so on, this then does suggest that you make these distinctions between desire and love, for instance, and you then bring truth into the centre by saying that love is truth.
K: Yes of course.
IM: But this doesn't seem to me to connect very easily, and this is where the idea of my idea of purifying desire, or something, would come in. This doesn't connect very easily with ordinary moral life. It looks as if one would have two judgements of morality, you would say he is a good man in the ordinary sense of the word, but is an imperfect man in your sense of the word. And isn't it important, I can't think of a way of putting this, for you, I am thinking of you as someone wishing well to men, isn't it important for you to make connections?
K: Yes, I see this. Look: I would ask myself, or I would ask my friend, why are we fragmented first.
IM: Oh, you want to go back to a metaphysical question first.
K: Of course, from there you have to start.
IM: This is your feeling that we must be right at the beginning all the time.
K: Yes, all the time.
IM: Yes, I like this too, in a way, what you say about new, what you want is something new, you used the word new, that is not the acquired collection of what one has but something new.
K: I mean I have asked the students in many of our discussions: why is it we are fragmented like this, broken up, what has gone wrong with us? After millions of years we are still fighting each other, killing each other, we are angry - you follow what I mean? What is wrong?
IM: Well there is a sense of conflict or fragmented, which is bad, which means fighting, but there is also ordinary discursive reason and how we set about getting to know things, which isn't necessarily bad.
K: Yes, yes, I use my reasons to see why the world is divided into these kind of things, like nationality, religion. You know what is happening in India, the Sikhs, and the Jews, the Arabs, why? Why do we accept this way of living?
IM: Well, yes but I think there is a kind of empirical, ordinary answer to this that we can try and stop it by doing all sorts of things, like people do when they talk to other people.
K: But we don't madame, the fact is we have never done it, we haven't stopped this division. I mean if I had a son, or a woman had a son, a Jew with an Israeli woman, what am I to do, they are fighting?
IM: Yes, Part - you wouldn't deny this, would you - that part of what you want to communicate is something which would have practical effects in politics.
K: It has practical effects, yes. Politics, religion, daily life.
K: Which is, I would say look, don't let's start with theories and all that, let's start with why we human beings right throughout the world are so broken up, so divided now, so...
IM: But it seems to me it is partly an empirical question in that you could say we could find out why a certain religion held certain views at a certain time and separated off. One could study Christianity in this way, but there is a sort of metaphysical question, which I would think is partly unanswerable. I mean it is like saying why are there human beings? One must say, well I don't know. I mean people who believe in God would say that God created the world.
K: And the scientists have different reasons.
IM: If you exclude the empirical answer, you are asking a kind of metaphysical question which in a way can't be answered.
K: I think it is fairly simple. I would like to ask: is it that thought itself is fragmented?
IM: Well I think thought itself is fragmented. And it seems to me in a sense unavoidably so. I mean what we are doing now, using a natural language and concepts and using words, which we have learnt to understand and so on, this is something which depends on spreading out of interest to the world in many, many different ways. I mean the word discursive sort of covers this kind of notion that the intellect has to spread itself out, it has to emerge into language and so on. It can't be a compact, it can't be one, which many philosophers want. They want this one. But in your objection - you don't seem to me to allow... put it this way, the redemption of the world, I mean the bringing of the world into the centre, into goodness, into truth, love.
K: I say, yes it must be.
IM: Well yes, but then one can't get rid of all fragmentation. One has got to redeem it, if you see what I mean, to get rid of fragmentation.
K: All right, let's redeem it. Now human beings, why are they like this? Let's redeem that. Not intellectually explaining, but the fact, daily fact, why is it that there is such conflict, such violence?
IM: Well again there are many reasons. Take Ireland, for instance, I mean there are many reasons.
K: Of course.
IM: Historical reasons why there is a conflict in Ireland. But you are thinking of much deeper things.
K: Much deeper things, naturally.
IM: It seems to me, well if somebody asks me that I would say I can't answer the metaphysical question but what I can say is why ought it not to be so. And this uses the word 'ought' which you don't want. We have a conception of goodness from which we spread, as it were, all kinds of thought and action into the world - this is putting it very badly.
K: I understand.
IM: Hoping that gradually we can make the world better and remove conflict in the superficial sense, and in the deeper sense too.
K: We have lived on this earth, according to the scientists and all the rest of it, at least two or three million years, evolved. We are still at it.
IM: Yes, we are.
K: I mean just look what is happening.
IM: And who can say what the future holds?
K: The future is what we are now. If we don't do something now we will be exactly the same tomorrow.
IM: Yes but what we can do now is something very limited really. We can do something to ourselves and we can do something to a small number of people.
K: Yes, but ourselves is the world.
IM: And we can also take part in politics, which is a way of doing something in the world.
K: But I am the rest of the world, because my consciousness is like the rest of mankind.
IM: Yes, you mean that if you can do it other people can do it.
K: If I change I affect the rest.
IM: Yes, well there is also the fact that one has a very limited amount of time in which to achieve this insight.
K: That's why don't let time interfere with this question. I am a human being. My way of life, my way of thinking, my action, is comparatively like the rest of mankind. They may have outward differences, but deeply I am the rest of mankind. I am mankind.
IM: Well except that you are a very unusual person. But leaving that aside.
K: No, no. I am mankind because we all suffer, we all go through a hell of a time. So I am the rest of mankind, so I am humanity. That is real love.
IM: Yes but how does this...
K: Therefore, you see I will show you.
IM: If somebody says all right, you are just you, you are by yourself, I mean you may be showing what is a human potential.
K: Come and join me, come and join me.
IM: Yes, well.
K: Let go your petty little nationalisms and all the rest of it, and join me, let's be free and look at the world differently, and not always keep in conflict with each other. Every husband, wife, madame, this is happening every day of one's existence.
IM: Yes, but I can't help putting the problem in terms of how much influence...
IM: ...can one have. And if one is going to teach people, don't let's think of you and me now, but if anybody wants to influence people in order to bring about the end of this period of conflict, they have to involve themselves in persuasion, in politics. And many people would say, many people do say now to worry about your own soul and whether you are selfless or not is a waste of time, you must simply go and help other people, go and stop them suffering.
K: Help other people. See what is happening with those people who are helping and those people who are helped.
K: You can see it, there is very little. Hitler wanted to help. Buddha said too, mankind suffers, there must be an end to suffering. And look what they have done: suffering is going on.
IM: Yes. When you think... sorry I keep wanting to turn it round a bit so that I can get a bit more light. When you speak of overcoming conflict, overcoming suffering...
K: ...not overcoming, ending...
IM: ...ending, yes, are you thinking of a kind of - I mean is this anything like what a Buddhist would think of as Nirvana?
K: Apparently Nirvana means, from what I have discussed with people, a state in which the self is not. The self in the sense of... Come to that point, don't discuss what Nirvana is, you will find out.
IM: I would understand something like this as meaning that one is in a selfless condition and the denial of the world is the meaningless of all these other things.
K: That is what they have done. Deny the world. But I don't say deny the world. On the contrary, you have to live here.
IM: Yes. I mean if one thinks of Plato's image of the cave that you are in the darkness and then gradually you move out into the light. He also speaks about coming back into the cave, by which I think he means that you find some kind of liberation for yourself but then you have to liberate everybody else as well.
K: That's the point. You know the whole sense of Bodhisattva and all that, I won't go into all that, but if you change fundamentally, won't it affect the mankind?
IM: You will affect a certain number of people.
K: No. Look: Christianity has affected, how many, millions.
IM: Yes certainly. I was about to say there are cases, like the life of Christ, whether Christ really existed as an historical man or not, the image of Christ has changed people's lives.
K: Therefore I am saying through propaganda they have changed - right? They have etc. Now Buddhism has affected the whole of Asia.
IM: Yes, all right, but you would go on to say well nevertheless...
K: I say let a few of us work at this, then we will change the world.
IM: But I think we have had great teachers who have had a great deal of influence, who have, as far as I can see, advocated a kind of selflessness which is not unlike what you are speaking of.
K: Yes, freedom. Freedom from the self.
IM: What is one to do? It doesn't seem to me...
K: Oh no. What is one to do requires sitting down, talking about it, going into it - right? Naturally. And breaking down barriers between us.
IM: We have come perhaps onto a slightly different kind of question: a question about influence and...
K: I don't want to influence anybody. That is the worst thing to happen because if I influence you somebody else can come along and influence you too in another direction. But if you see something for yourself it is clear.
IM: Ah well yes, that again is something which we agree about, that you have to do the thing yourself. It is no good being told by somebody else.
K: Therefore no propaganda, no programming.
IM: This is some thing which I think theologians are realizing now that you can't have God thrust upon you. I mean whatever the spiritual life is it is something you have to discover for yourself.
K: In the spiritual world there is no authority.
IM: Yes, I...
K: But now everything is that. They want authority, people want some kind of security in authority.
IM: Yes, well I don't myself see any answer to the problem of how the discovery of spiritual truth, or whatever this may be, can change the world. You perhaps have more hope for the world than I have.
K: No, I am neither pessimistic nor optimistic, but I see that unless there are a few of us radically change the psychological structure we are going down the hill all the time. That's all.
IM: Well I agree with that too. If the world lost people who are concerned with what you are concerned with I think that it would lose its centre.
K: Yes, that is what I mean. There are very few people who are concerned to be totally free from all this.
IM: But then you want, to put it sort of bluntly as it were, you want there to be more of such people, but at the same time you reject traditional methods, for instance ideas of duty, ideas of asceticism and so on, which have been, as it were, part of the training of people who achieve perhaps this state.
K: No. Why should I be trained? If I see something to be true I stick to it. Why should I be trained?
IM: Yes, but I think you have probably had a gift of grace, of what a Christian would call grace, which a lot of people haven't had. What you achieve easily would be very, very difficult to achieve for the majority of people.
K: Perhaps that might be. But I mean after all there must be... all right, if you use the word grace, all right. Be in a state to receive that, which means don't be selfish, don't have conflict, have some kind of inward silence.
IM: Yes, I agree entirely, entirely with this. Yes, I think, I mean don't let's argue about the question of influence or politics, because I understand your position there. I would think, I mean I would feel it is perhaps important to try in certain ways to influence one's surroundings, but I know that this is full of difficulties. I would rather in a way stick to the question we were worrying at this morning, though I don't quite see how to find the way of enlightening myself on this subject. It is partly to do with the question of time and fragmentation, that time is fragmentation.
K: Yes, that's it.
K: To be free of time, that means no movement forward.
IM: Free and in the truth, and love, and not to be acquiring and not to be planning. Would one, if one had this kind of insight, or however you are going to put it, would one know that one had it?
K: I think one wouldn't know but it would show in your actions, in your daily life.
IM: But you do accept then that there are two - it seems to me that you are thinking in terms of two entirely different planes. And I am wanting to connect the two.
K: No. There is the physical plane.
IM: Well there is the psychological plane also. That is what we are talking about.
K: Psychological plane, why should there be division there? Why should there be superior psychology, or lower psychology, it is whole psychology.
IM: Yes. I mean some kind of redemption - I introduced the word redemption.
K: It doesn't matter, I understand.
IM: ...of the psychological hurly burly of one's mind seems to me can happen in a quite ordinary way. I mean people wouldn't be puzzled by it, it would just be a natural function.
K: You see, to be redeemed by whom? If I look to you to be redeemed I am lost.
IM: Yes, I not thinking of being redeemed in the Christian sense. I just mean by redeemed, I just mean that something which is fragmented is drawn in - I am using an image...
K: Yes, I understand.
IM: ....of a centre and of outlying parts. I mean picture - I am all the time trying to discover just where this divide is, you make a divide between say the life of a very good man in the ordinary sense, an ordinary very virtuous man who is being very unselfish in the ordinary sense and done a lot of good to people and so on, between that life and the life of truth.
K: Ah, that is totally different.
IM: Well why is it totally different?
K: Of course it is.
IM: I mean it seems to be a metaphysical remark to say it is totally different.
K: I know.
IM: You don't mind?
K: I don;t mind. And after all the self is a very subtle, cunning thing. It can hide under prayers.
IM: Oh absolutely.
K: It can hide under every little action thinking it is noble, I am helping mankind, I am influencing for the good.
IM: I am really a remarkable person admired by everybody - in brackets, as it were.
K: So to understand that, what the self is, requires such observation, such daily looking at it, not just say "I am free at one moment" and that is it, but it requires such attention to everything that you are doing.
IM: So you would think that if somebody was entirely absorbed in outward action, as it were, it wouldn't be in truth.
K: That is a most dangerous thing.
IM: So a certain amount of fundamental quietness, I mean this could be compatible with leading an active life, couldn't it?
K: That silence is not the product of thought.
IM: Yes. OK that is good.
K: That silence is not to be cultivated.
IM: Yes, I think I believe in that group silence too.
K: Silence, quietness, inside there is no movement.
IM: And this would connect with what you say about living in the present?
IM: Yes, and timelessness.
K: You know meditation is an extraordinary thing if you know - I have talked to various types of people who meditate, Tibetan, Hindu, Buddhists, Zen, you know all the rest of it - it is all a conscious deliberate effect. It isn't something you do for the love of it. You can love and yet be selfish. But I mean in the sense to do meditation without conscious effort.
IM: Yes, I think any means that one adopts towards goodness is likely to become a barrier.
IM: It is likely to because one seeks idols. I mean we are idol worshippers.
K: That is finished. That is not meditation.
IM: I mean if one seeks a consolation in the feeling that you are doing something. Yes, but nevertheless doing it could help you.
K: No, I have talked to people who have spent years - please, I mean it - twenty five years and a man came to me who was about seventy, much older than I was, and he said, "I have spent twenty five years in the jungle, wandering over and I have deceived myself all along."
IM: Well he should be congratulated, I suppose.
K: I know. That shows something.
IM: He was prepared to say something like that because people don't often admit.
K: To be really quiet is something you can't cultivate, you can't get it by practise and all the rest of it. It is your daily life you have to be quiet.
IM: It comes by a gift perhaps.
K: No, daily life madame, otherwise what is the value of your quietness, if your daily life is not affected, if your daily life isn't without conflict?
IM: Well, of course, I am constantly wanting to say that the connection with one's daily life is a fundamental idea. I mean if somebody claimed to have this quietness but behaved badly in ordinary life I would be sceptical.
K: I know, so am I.
IM: So I think my own thoughts on this subject are influenced by Plato and I think, or I feel perhaps that something that you are insisting on, which he also insisted on, is the absolute separateness of this idea of the timeless and eternal. That it is quite separate from what we ordinarily think of as goodness, which is a kind of idolatry.
K: Yes, idolatry.
IM: And he uses the images of destroying idols. If you destroy images you destroy idols and you go on. But of course he does picture life as a pilgrimage in a way in which I think you don't.
K: No. If I have no images in myself about anything, there is no self in that.
IM: Yes. You are really picturing what many spiritual people have thought of as the end of the journey. I mean at the end, except that you want to insist that of course one is already in a sense potentially at the end, that there is only...
K: One has to be careful of that too because the Hindus believe there is god, there is atman inside and that give him a chance, peel off your ignorance and then you will be like that! That is an assumption. I don't want to assume anything.
IM: Well I think there is a metaphysical - I wouldn't call it assumption because it is something I agree with.
K: It is an idea. It is an idea.
IM: Yes. This is a metaphysical assertion, or religious - only you wouldn't want to use the word religious because that might be misleading.
K: I am only suggesting: a concept which has been cultivated, which has been traditional, and that has no meaning, because, look, I have this concept 'the god is in me' and then I go and kill somebody.
IM: Well, yes, anything involving the idea of a god is of course already in a sense an idol.
K: That is all I am saying.
IM: Yes, yes.
K: We are idol-worshippers, whether it is handmade or mental, made by the mind.
IM: Yes. Yes, the absoluteness of the division for you, and I think I perhaps see what you mean, I am not quite sure, between the ordinary process of life and this being in the truth which is something which lives in the present in a way in which something eternal must live in the present, if you see what I mean. You must insist on it being quite separate from the worldly idols.
K: Absolutely, of course.
K: After all man's search has been for eternity. They make an idea of it...
IM: ...which is not a continuation of time. It is quite different.
K: It is the end of time.
IM: Yes. Yes. Well I think, thinking about Plato I come to some understanding of what you have been saying.
K: It is half past two.
IM: I think we must end here. Oh dear, thank you very much.
Brockwood Park 1984
Brockwood Park 2nd Conversation with Iris Murdoch 18th October 1984
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