Plato’s Friend

Ian Hacking

  • Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals by Iris Murdoch
    Chatto, 520 pp, £20.00, October 1992, ISBN 0 7011 3998 6

I was completely gripped by this astonishing monologue, but the next person to pick up my review copy said it looked like one long run-on sentence. What is it, besides a monologue? ‘How weird your categories are! It’s philosophy, if you like – but what does that mean it’s thinking, and it’s a programme of action.’ That’s Crimond, the high-flyer, in Iris Murdoch’s 1989 The Book of the Brotherhood, replying to a question about his projected book. His envious interlocutor Gerrard asks:

  ‘So it’s like a very long pamphlet?’

  ‘No. It’s not a long simplification. It’s about everything.’

  ‘Everything?’

  ‘Everything except Aristotle. I regard him as an unfortunate interlude, now happily over.’

By the end of The Book of the Brotherhood, Crimond has finished his overpowering work, financially supported by a club established by Gerrard and others, and Gerrard sets out to write his own book refuting Crimond – but not until after everyone believes, falsely, that it was Crimond who shot the story ’s saint.

We have come to expect novelists to layer books within books, but Iris Murdoch trumped them by publishing a novel about the conception of two murderously competing books about philosophy (‘if you like’) while she was writing her own book of philosophy. There is no mistaking the self-references. Aristotle is distinctly absent from Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. Murdoch’s indexer strove valiantly to inject a little Aristotle, managing 13 entries. This feat was achieved by, for example, including a reference to the Aristotelian Society, a present-day London club for all-purpose philosophical discussion. Aside from using Aristotle as evidence that ‘the Greeks regarded slavery as a fate,’ Murdoch speaks of Aristotle exactly once. His account of tragedy ‘is superbly apt and lucid’. Indeed. Future studies of Murdoch’s fiction must begin with the Poetics and her reading of it.

But Plato! The excellent indexer, who gives full details for every other entry, was daunted and wrote only: ‘Plato, passim.’ Jung said that we are born Platonists or Aristotelians. It is remarkable that both Plato and Aristotle spoke to the same central topics, truth and virtue, and yet their conversations, compositions, lectures and improvisations are sufficiently different in style, instinct, content and moral force that they continue to mark a deep cleavage in Western philosophising. Jung may have meant that we start out as realists or nominalists and follow our assigned destinies. His maxim reaches far beyond that. We are either Plato’s friend or Aristotle’s friend. Murdoch brings her friends, Schopenhauer, Simone Weil, Anselm, Hume, Wittgenstein, Martin Buber, but above all Plato. Perhaps you will warm to her book only if most of her friends are your friends. This has little to do with philosophical doctrine. I happen to be an entrenched nominalist and don’t for a moment believe in Plato’s Ideas or even many of his ideas, but I read him avidly and can’t take much Aristotle. Most of Murdoch’s more-or-less contemporaries in Oxford were friends of Aristotle, and they hardly get a look in. The exception is the late A.J. Ayer, whose cameo appearance is just right. ‘I first read Ayer’s book’ – Language, Truth and Logic – ‘in 1940 when I began to study philosophy and was, together with many others, amazed and impressed by the wonderful clarity and simplicity.’ Fifty years later: ‘Ayer’s book, which may now seem to us as brilliant and ingenious, but also unsophisticated and dotty ...’ I do believe that Ayer would have loved that; and on rereading him a little, I can now see him, unexpectedly, as a friend of Plato’s. Certainly he did not enjoy the Oxford Aristotelians. Sorry for the gossip, but this is a gossipy monologue.

Beyond the gossip, a direct thesis underlies the wonderfully rich texture of Murdoch’s writing. People have two aims, truth and virtue. In Plato these are somehow one, in the powerful sense that the love of truth and the love of virtue are identical.

The contrast between states of illusion (selfish habits or egoistic fantasy) and honest clarified truthful serious thinking suggests a moral picture of the mind in a continuous engagement with an independent reality. ‘Truth’ is not just a collection of facts. Truthfulness, the search for truth, for a closer connection between thought and reality, demands and effects an exercise of virtues and a purification of desires ... Thought, goodness and reality are thus seen to be connected.

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