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Freedom is not choosing

April 16, 2016

From Iris Murdoch, “The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited”:

Virtue is not essentially or immediately concerned with choosing between actions or rules or reasons, nor with stripping the personality for a leap. It is concerned with really apprehending that other people exist. this too is what freedom really is; and it is impossible not to feel the creation of a work of art as a struggle for freedom. Freedom is not choosing; that is merely the move that we make when all is already lost. Freedom is knowing and understanding and respecting things quite other than ourselves. Virtue is in this sense to be understood as knowledge, and connects us so with reality.

There’s something quite powerful in Murdoch’s liberal Platonism. I appreciate both her insistence that, although ethical reflection can cause our form of life to change, our form of life is nevertheless not a matter of choice; and her insistence that forms of life are not autonomous, and insofar as they fail to be autonomous, they can be judged to be better or worse.

Aesthetically, Murdoch resembles both the later Auden, in insisting that art must undermine its own attempts at enchantment. It would take some effort to demonstrate, but I suspect that The Sea, The Sea! owes something to The Sea and the Mirror. They both also resemble Bakhtin, in finding modernist poetry particularly susceptible to the entrapment of self-in-self, and thinking the 19th-century novel the form best suited for escaping it. I find these sorts of claims compelling, but also suspicious.

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