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Iris Murdoch and the Natural World

Loving by Instinct: Environmental Ethics in Iris Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good and Nuns and Soldiers

Aimer d’instinct : L’éthique de l’environnement dans The Sovereignty of Good et Nuns and Soldiers de Iris Murdoch
Lucy Oulton


Un aspect de l’éthique d’Iris Murdoch, lié à l’imaginaire environnemental, semble à ce jour en grande partie méconnu. L’inquiétude que suscitent la crise climatique et son impact sur notre monde naturel donne lieu à un débat éthique qui suggère des échelles spatiales et temporelles tout à fait différentes de nos préoccupations anthropocentriques quotidiennes ordinaires. Cet article étudie l’éthique écologique de Murdoch, exprimée à la fois dans sa philosophie et sa fiction, et sa contribution aux discussions écologiques contemporaines. J’examine le concept murdochien d’attention portée au bien dans La souveraineté du bien et Les soldats et les nonnes et suggère que, lorsqu’elle exprime la primauté d’un amour instinctif de notre monde naturel, elle nous encourage à prêter attention à l’importance singulière du non-humain et de la matérialité de la terre et à repenser notre relation avec eux.

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What does it matter?
Our microscopic melancholies,
Our infinitesimal impatience?
The universe is not interested.
It Moves on.
Murdoch KUAS202/3/4, 14)

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.
Auden 37)

  • 1 Murdoch believed it to be a suitable endeavour for a philosopher to engage with fiction and said so (...)

1Iris Murdoch’s moral philosophy and novelistic art cohere in a form of dialogue.1 In this textual interlocution the philosopher-novelist makes space for the nuanced and the inconclusive. She pictures a real-world contingency that in turn assists in guiding us towards an understanding of the full complexity of her ethical imagination. One aspect of her ethics that appears to have been largely overlooked to date in Murdoch scholarship is situated in her environmental imagination. The paucity of discussion on Murdoch’s ecological ethics is perhaps best explained by the fact that moral philosophy is, by its very nature, anthropocentric, concerning itself primarily with the most human of activities. Nevertheless, concern about our natural world posits a different sort of ethical debate that seems in recent years to be impossible to ignore. For the natural environment to gain our fulsome attention, however, we have first to rethink our anthropocentrically motivated philosophical position. Today when we discuss Earth’s ecology, we speak of the climate emergency and its impact on us, before acknowledging the impending risk of disaster to whole species and the threat to the integrity of the planetary biosphere that will, in due course, affect every living thing. The enormity of the issue renders trivial our more commonplace quotidian preoccupations and when we revisit literature of the past we cannot unknow the crisis, as Jenny Bavidge acknowledges: ‘We are entering a phase where a sense of ecological and climate crisis haunts stories which are not consciously environmental narratives at all’ (Bavidge np). When turning to novels that have always been read for their ethical value, we Murdochians can enthuse about how a redoubled environmental consciousness in the reader brings us to notice new things, rewards us with fresh perspectives on her work and perhaps even allows us to claim a new access route into Murdoch’s fiction. But the environmental movement might consider such a task to lack proper value if it does not appear to contribute anything immediately useful to the ecological crisis in return. Nonetheless, such activity draws us to ask big questions. What purpose can a reconsideration of novels of the past serve to the environment and the ecology of our planet? And, more pertinent to this work, what can an investigation of Murdoch’s environmental imagination in all its manifestations offer to ecological discussions?

2This essay examines the ideas of environmental ethicist Mick Smith, who uniquely applies Murdoch’s moral philosophy in The Sovereignty of Good (1970) to the environment. In doing so, he presents a convincing argument when he asserts that Murdoch’s ethics are not limited to anthropological concerns. Nevertheless, Smith also insists that the lead on environmental ethics he attributes to Murdoch’s work is ‘unintentional’ on her part (Smith 50). This essay offers a reading of one novel in particular, Nuns and Soldiers (1980), and discusses brief excerpts from her philosophy, unpublished journals and poetry that together serve to refute the limitation Smith appears to place on Murdoch’s contribution to environmental discussions. I argue that Murdoch’s approach, while not providing the quick solutions we crave, is indeed deliberate when she pictures for us an ethical vision of how we might proceed towards a more mutually beneficial coexistence with the more-than-human world.

3In The Sovereignty of Good, Murdoch acknowledges that we humans have an inheritable and unalterable propensity to respond to the natural world with a love that simply cannot be explained:

It is so patently a good thing to take delight in flowers and animals that people who bring home potted plants and watch kestrels might even be surprised at the notion that these things have anything to do with virtue. The surprise is a product of the fact that [. . .] beauty is the only spiritual thing which we love by instinct. (Murdoch 2001a, 83)

4The key here is instinctual love by which she means the embodied sense of attention and emotion brought about by an enchanting world. What nature offers us, she says, is ‘a perfection of form which invites unpossessive contemplation’, a perfection which also helps us to resist the ‘selfish dream life of the consciousness’ (Murdoch 2001a, 85–86). Smith discusses Murdoch’s early work on ethics in the clamour of competing philosophical ideas in his book, Against Ecological Sovereignty: Ethics, Biopolitics, and Saving the Natural World (2011). He asserts that Murdoch’s notion of the Good, as something selflessly to aim at, is congruous with the sort of environmental ethics that the world desperately needs—its value in getting us to contemplate the singular significance of nonhumans and Earth’s materiality.

  • 2 Smith draws a parallel, in Giorgio Agamben’s terms (and after Foucault), to the modern machinery of (...)

5Smith calls for the re-establishment of our relationship with the Earth, rejecting the notion of human exceptionalism that regards the planet’s finite resources as ours to plunder.2 The aim would be to recognise the co-reliant interest and shared potential of our animate earth and Smith recognizes in Murdoch’s ethical thinking the tools to contest the sovereign principle of human dominion over our planet. In contemplating the natural world, Murdoch’s starting point is the self-obsession of the sovereign individual when she declares that a

self-directed enjoyment of nature seems to me to be something forced. More naturally, as well as more properly we take a self-forgetful pleasure in the sheer alien pointless independent existence of animals, birds, stones, trees. (Murdoch 2001a, 83)

6Murdoch’s ‘self-directed enjoyment’, says Smith, epitomizes

all those tendencies to envisage others (human or nonhuman) as simply being ‘there for’, as fashioned after the model of, or revolving around, that more or less idealized human being that individuals take themselves to exemplify. (Smith 38–39)

7For Murdoch, the ‘self-forgetful’ encounter with the natural scene is the route to unselfing, a concept inspired by Simone Weil’s décréation. Weil regards herself as the ‘unwelcome third’ in a relationship with Earth and with God and appears to suggest that the world can find perfection once she no longer exists as a part of it, an idea she expresses by quoting Racine’s Phèdre in Gravity and Grace:

  • 3 Weil, or perhaps her editor, appears to misquote Racine’s Phèdre in an English translation of La pe (...)

Et la mort à mes yeux dérobant la clarté
Rend au jour qu’ils souillaient toute sa pureté.3 (Weil 36)

8Phèdre is dying. She is debased by her own deceit and, having admitted to Theseus her responsibility for the death of her stepson Hippolytus, has poisoned herself. Weil uses this drastic, self-annihilating metaphor to convey her own belief that perfection in the world can only be achieved by absenting herself from it. Murdoch, by contrast, sees our role as very much present in a contingent and uncertain world, to see it as it really is, but not in the consolatory form that we might seek to envisage. Rather than removing herself, as Weil suggests, Murdoch’s method is to aspire to a position of selflessness in order to attend to the other and sense the immanence of the world around her. Moreover, Murdoch recognises the value of being in and attending to nature, when it allows us to ‘clear our minds of selfish care’:

I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious to my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing but kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important. (Murdoch 2001a, 82)

  • 4 Murdoch (2001a 83) paraphrases Wittgenstein’s Tractacus (6.44): ‘It is not how things are in the wo (...)

9Smith insists that Murdoch’s encounters with the natural world should not be read merely as indulgent self-acclamation when she appears to direct her concerns inward towards her own concerns rather than outward towards the more-than-human lives she is observing. Murdoch’s act of attention to the other is key. By her unselfing in momentary contemplation of free, independent life, she is resisting ‘the tendency to recuperate and resituate her thoughts within those self-reverential frames that reduce all else (including kestrel) to beings of merely instrumental value’ (Smith 39). In this way, the Murdochian ‘unself’ provides the bedrock for an environmental ethics. When we attempt to attend selflessly to ‘how the world is’, the ‘sheer alien pointless independent existence’ of beings expresses a presence and a materiality that exists freely from us and separately in its own right (Murdoch 2001a, 83).4 Murdoch wants us to attend to the world with a just and loving gaze, to contemplate nature’s perfect form because she believes such perfection hints at what Good is and therein lies its ethical value.

10Murdoch only ever presents the hard work of attending to an imperfect world as bold ambition, but these attempts at humility give us the opportunity to notice the significance of the more-than-human at the mercy of humanity’s long-established sovereign power. Smith, then, argues keenly for a Murdochian ethics that is not limited to anthropological concerns, yet he insists, as I have already mentioned, that her apparent lead on environmental ethics is an ‘unintentional’ one (Smith 50). Reading Murdoch’s fiction, her philosophy, her unpublished journals and poetry, I find I cannot agree with Smith on this last assertion if by ‘unintentional’ he means that Murdoch images the natural world merely to illustrate her ethics of attention.

11In her fiction, Murdoch uses frequent interactions between the more-than-human and the human to convey an apprehension of a ‘magnetic but inexhaustible reality’ and to reinforce her belief in the inherent value of attending to a complex more-than-human world (Murdoch 2001a, 47). Further, there are remarkably frequent entries in Murdoch’s personal letters and journals where, in among ruminations on philosophy, travel, friendships and novel-writing, she records detailed observations of her natural surroundings, noting the seasons, the patterns of growth in the flora, and the migration of birds. This excerpt comes from one of Murdoch’s journals:

  • 5 Wytham Wood is an ancient woodland close to where Murdoch lived in later years and is now a site of (...)

May 16 [1989] Cow parsley viewing along the Cherwell.
May 18 Sun, no wind, quiet air. Walk in the ‘great crowd’ at Wytham.
5 Huge wonderful presences of trees. Vista of tree trunks, green, light beyond green. Empty, no one. Intensely beautiful and frightening and magical.
May 23 Wonderful swim in Thames. Oxey Mead, Witney Road. Earliest? Hawthorn, buttercups, orchids, comfrey, larks, reed warblers, cuckoo. . . . Glossy water (Murdoch KUAS202/1/14, 111).

  • 6 Whilst ‘sacred’ can mean a connection to ‘God or a god’ and is a word often used to distinguish the (...)

12Murdoch’s unwavering sense of deep connection between the human and the more-than-human world is evident in this brief fragment. Moreover, her sensory engagement testifies to her widely acknowledged appreciation of the world as ‘sacred’—a word I interpret in the secular sense, a world worth defending and protecting, rendered inviolate (Conradi 1999, np).6 Peter Conradi tells us, Murdoch’s ‘powers of perception stimulate our own [when she] repeatedly shows us that the world is full of things worth noticing and worth enjoying’ (Conradi 2002, 344). But such ideas risk us reverting towards an objectifying frame of mind. The deep affective bond that Murdoch often expresses for these things is not intended to objectify or reduce the nonhuman, but it does highlight the difficulty of the task we humans have in establishing a new kind of relationship with the natural world when we have only ourselves as arbiters.

  • 7 Abram is credited as the originator of the phrase ‘more-than-human’ when it appeared in the subhead (...)
  • 8 By ‘native cultures’, Abrams means non-Western indigenous communities. The focus of his research wa (...)

13In her most recent book on Murdoch, Anne Rowe directs our attention to the philosopher-novelist’s vision of humanity as ‘part of a living, palpable planet, connected not only to its physical actuality and temporal motion, but also to its eternal ethereal mystery’ (Rowe 112). For the widely travelled cultural ecologist David Abram, his ‘more-than-human world’ is synonymous with the ‘sensuous world’ (Abram iii, ix).7 This is the sort of participatory and fluid engagement that assists in our understanding of Murdoch’s environmental imagination when, sometimes tight into the margins of her fiction, she pictures an ‘age-old reciprocity with the many-voiced landscape’ and conveys her own sensuous conception of a shared animate world (Abram 5). Abram asks whether the ‘relative attunement to environing nature exhibited by native cultures is linked to a more primordial, participatory mode of perception’ when, as he believes, Western civilization has become far removed from the ‘sensory reciprocity’ that he so much admires (Abram 27).8 He condemns the Western tendency to disregard the intelligence and agency of other creatures. Further, our nonhuman encounters have become increasingly mediated by civilization and its technologies, and this merely serves to intensify nature’s commodification.

14I want to demonstrate a concordance between Abram’s appraisal of animism and Murdoch’s evident intuition of it in her philosophy and fiction. Abram sees our perception of the world and all things in it as participatory and in that sense does not recognise any clear distinction between animate and inanimate things (Abram 278). ‘To the animistic sensibility everything is animate—everything moves—although some things, like granite boulders, move much slower than other things, like [. . .] swooping hawks’, says Abram, and he proceeds to illustrate that such sensory and dynamic perception involves crucial interaction and sensory communication with the environment (Abram 278, emphasis in the original). To illustrate the extent of Murdoch’s animistic sensibility, it seems apposite for the purposes of this particular paper to consider one of Murdoch’s characters and the material interplay with the imposing limestone rock of Les Alpilles in her novel partially set in Provence—Nuns and Soldiers.

15Murdoch and her husband John Bayley would regularly visit their great friends Natasha and Stephen Spender in Provence. It is here that the novelist is said to have created a ‘collage of several far-flung focal points of her daily wanderings’ in locating key moments of Nuns and Soldiers (Spender 67). On returning from her explorations, Murdoch would work alongside Natasha Spender in the garden ‘in a calm almost Buddhist atmosphere of contemplation’ as Spender records in an essay written in 1988 and published in 2019 to mark the occasion of Murdoch’s centenary (Spender 66). ‘One caught her compassionate attitude’ to small creatures ‘like an infection’, Spender continues, ‘however minute and unremarkable the creature; one could even come to love green-fly or red spiders’ (Spender 66). In the same essay, Spender celebrates the grandeur of the ‘strangely beautiful land’ of Les Alpilles (Spender 66). She senses the lithic power of the ‘east-west chain of limestone mountains, small in size yet dramatic in scale, which dominates the alluvial plain bordering the Mediterranean Sea’ where she

had felt possessed by its mystery and by the sense it gives one of antique gods—the upward surge of the limestone suggesting the overpowering gesture of some subterranean Pluto hurling them heavenwards. In this little outpost of the great Roman Empire ‘in hither Gaul’ one can scarcely help but feel an echo of the Roman sense of the implacable power of natural forces and the modest brevity of life for any human inhabitant. (Spender 65–66)

  • 9 In a follow up to her Independent newspaper obituary, Robin Waterfield writes of Murdoch: ‘She foun (...)

16Spender’s articulation of the sensory experience of this majestic landscape appears to align closely with the pagan animism that was destroyed by the arrival of Christianity just over 2000 years ago, a felt experience that Abram has encountered in more recent times living among rural indigenous communities in Indonesia and Nepal (Abram 14–15). Lynn White, in identifying humanity’s predicament in a ground-breaking essay in 1967, believes that human ecology is ‘deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny—that is, by religion’ and by the innate obsession of Westerners for ever-greater progress; an obsession that still drives the West and which, according to White, is rooted in Judeo-Christian principles (White 1205). Western Christianity, claims White, is ‘the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen’, when ‘man is made in God’s image’ and its teachings infer that the world is ripe for exploitation (White 1205). In stark contrast, ‘[i]n Antiquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its genius loci, its guardian spirit’, he says, and as such they engendered respect and compassion (White 1205). When Murdoch declares that ‘we take a self-forgetful pleasure in the sheer alien pointless independent existence of animals, birds, stones and trees’, the self-declared Christian-Buddhist is hinting at the sensory recognition of her animistic surroundings (Murdoch 2001, 83).9 White asserts that by ‘destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects’ and create the now centuries-old view of human dominion over nature, the same view that Smith is decrying half a century later (White 1205). In my attempts to counter the man-versus-nature binary, it might appear that I have merely supplanted it with a religious dualism. White’s important essay is more nuanced and finely argued than I am able to offer scope to here, not least in his endorsement of St Francis, describing him as the ‘greatest spiritual revolutionary in Western history’ despite his failed attempt to champion the ‘equality of all creatures’ (White 1207). What is incontrovertible, however, is White’s avowed first precept that: ‘What we do about ecology depends on our ideas of the man-nature relationship’ (White 1206) and Murdoch’s ideas on the human and more-than-human relationship, even as we now prefer to express it, are to be found not only in her philosophical thinking but in her fiction.

17The vast arid limestone peaks of Les Alpilles suggest a shift in both a physical and temporal perspective, and assert an overwhelmingly numinous potentiality in Nuns and Soldiers. Jeffrey Cohen characterizes stone as ‘primal matter, inhuman in its duration’ (Cohen 1). Its lithic presence imposes a temporal reset far from the ‘breathless rapidity of anthropocentric frames and touch[es] a world possessed of long futurity and deep past’ (Cohen 33). At the same time, Julia Jordan asserts that Murdoch’s honourable characters ‘exercise a recognition and appreciation of the alterity of things’ and the novelist-philosopher’s depiction of the nonhuman world often emerges as an ‘exemplar of how to suspend destructive, and all too human, emotion’ (Jordan 365–366). The powerful agency of the mountains intervenes in Tim Reede’s moral progress in Nuns and Soldiers, where these ideas coalesce.

18Lithic materiality asserts its own dynamic in the story and Cohen contends that ‘thinking beyond anthropocentricity’ insists on a reset of temporal perception and, in this case, it reaches far beyond the time frames that either Spender or White contemplate (Cohen 9). Murdoch, then, stretches our temporal perspective when she interweaves the imposing hills of Les Alpilles, the radiant pulsating pool and the fast-flowing canal (inspired by the canal de Craponne) into the actions of Murdoch’s superficial self-believer, Tim Reede, in Nuns and Soldiers. Remove these material elements, ignore the landscape’s lithic and fluid power, and Tim’s story loses meaning. Contemporary ecocriticism endorses such a view. According to Jane Bennett, humans tend to orientate themselves in the world by interpreting it ‘reductively as a series of fixed objects’ (Bennett 58). Yet with rock, for example, we are dealing with ‘mobile, internally heterogeneous materials whose rate of speed and pace of change are [merely] slow compared to the duration and velocity of the human bodies participating in and perceiving them’ (Bennett 58, emphasis in the original). Rock is then ‘a signifying force where human and the unhuman interact’ and Spender’s essay offers prescient and eloquent expression to what Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann today define as ‘storied matter’—producing the signifying interplay of human and more-than-human forces over time (Iovino & Oppermann 1). Murdoch’s depiction of Tim’s embodied interactions with the rocks and the canal are both literally and metaphorically immersive so that, when Tim submits through his sensuous body to the Great Face and the watery features of the landscape, Murdoch is inviting us to interrogate the frailty of human experience in relation to the unyielding, stoney presence of the physical environment.

19When Tim arrives at Gertrude’s house in France, he sees human order in the poplars ‘set in rows with clean light paper-brown trunks and high twinkle of leaves’ across the stream (Murdoch 2001b, 148). Where nature has encroached in an abandoned olive grove, the trees appear to fall about ‘in grotesque attitudes, splitting into huge semi-recumbent forms possessed of elongated faces and writhing bodies’ (Murdoch 2001b, 148). The imposing skyline replete with umbrella pines and magnificent rocks dominate the scene and yet Tim, asserting his sense of human sovereignty as the ‘monarch of all he surveyed’, sees only an uninhabited landscape (Murdoch 2001b, 149). Although Gertrude has commissioned a drawing of the house from him, Tim finds himself intimated yet obsessed by the rocky landscape, but unable to draw it. In Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992), Murdoch declares that ‘what we literally see is important. Perception is both evaluation and inspiration, even at the level of “just seeing”’ (Murdoch 2003, 329). Murdoch believes that the moral life comprises all that we can notice, set a value to and love. For this reason, in Nuns and Soldiers, she goes to some lengths to express Tim’s artistic potential sympathetically, almost affectionately, and to explain how it is his idleness and lack of confidence that fail him. We perceive through all of our senses and Murdoch wants us to recognise Tim’s talent as instinctual, even primal when much that he expresses in his more successful artistic work is sensory, instinctive and learnt through his body: ‘dark knowings were effective in Tim’s mind’, ‘[h]e had a “feeling” about plants’, ‘instinctively understood how feathers had to grow to make a wing’, and ‘[h]is body told him about gravity, about weight, what falling was, what flowing was’ (Murdoch 2001b, 127). Murdoch expresses the natural human, often unspoken, propensity to perceive the world through the body and resonates with Abram’s ‘sensuous world’ which is, in turn, in consonance with Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s work on the world inhabited by the body. This is a common thread, deftly portrayed in Murdoch’s novels, in which characters in the throes of moral crisis experience that critical moment of bodily apprehension that precedes cognition in reacting to events. Horner and Rowe (2015 618) identify a passage in Murdoch’s The Nice and The Good (1968) where, towards the end of the novel, the widowed mother of Pierce, Mary Clothier, is gardening and suddenly overcome by the realisation of her love for her long-standing friend, John Ducane,

something often so much less definite than pictures [. . .] ties our fugitive present to our past and future, composing the globe of consciousness. We think with our body, with its yearnings and its shrinkings and its ghostly walkings. Mary’s whole body now, limp beneath the tall twisted acacia tree, became aware of John from head to foot in a new way. (Murdoch 2000a, 332)

  • 10 I draw a more extensive eco-phenomenological connection between the work of Iris Murdoch and Mauric (...)

20I have written of a similarly embodied moment that occurs in The Good Apprentice (1985), when Murdoch depicts Edward Baltram’s somatic affective response as he experiences an ‘intense infusion [. . .] blowing into his face and enveloping his body’ in the woodland clearing at Seegard (Murdoch 2000b, 129; Oulton, 8). This moment of sensate revelation will set in motion a pathway through Edward’s deep despair, resulting in his coming to terms with the death of his friend Mark, a death for which he is responsible.10

21In Nuns and Soldiers, Tim is exploring his surroundings for the first time close to twilight, when he chances upon a vast intimidating rock that he anthropomorphically sees as a ‘Great Face’ (Murdoch 2001b, 155–156) and a pool beneath it which Tim can ‘scarcely believe [. . .] to be a work of nature’—a ‘large circular pool of very clear water’ (Murdoch 2001b, 155–156). Dusk makes him retreat to the house but, drawn again to the stone basin the next morning, he sees by day it is ‘clearly a work of nature’ but ‘no less awe-inspiring’ (Murdoch 2001b, 157). He is startled by the pool’s radiant beauty which ‘simply quivered in perpetual occult donation and as perpetual renewal’ (Murdoch 2001b, 158). His heart is ‘so filled with joy’ that his instinctual embodied response is to ‘clutch at it with both hands’ (Murdoch 2001b, 158). As his cognitive response comes into play, he decides he will not bathe in the pool for fear of polluting the pure water or ‘interrupt[ing] its sibylline vibration’ although he does allow himself to ‘break the surface with his fingers’ and feel the chill of pure radiant water (Murdoch 2001b, 158). He gets to work unpacking his art materials: ‘He had that pure clean blessed beginning-again feeling. He was full of grace. He sat down, completely happy, and began to draw’ (Murdoch 2001b, 158). Murdoch images what Bennett calls ‘[t]hing-power: the curious ability of inanimate things to act, to produce effects, dramatic and subtle’ (Bennett 6, emphasis in the original). Bennett advocates the ‘vitality of matter’, and perhaps this is the animism, the cherished pre-Christian idea described by Abram, by White before him and also experienced by Spender, that contributes an ‘agentic force’—a force Tim perceives affectively through his body in the numinous presence of the radiant pool and the imposing lithic mass (Bennett x).

22Tim, then, becomes artistically productive among the mighty rock formations when the ‘subject somehow took charge of him and conveyed some of its grandeur into his vision’ (Murdoch 2001b, 159). Later, climbing up over the ‘rocky skyline’ and gazing down ‘into another land’, Tim has lost his imperious air and instead senses pure pleasure at the sight of a ‘flashing river’ and the ‘joyful commotion of its copious waters’ (Murdoch 2001b, 161). A brief swim in the ‘headlong force of grey curling water’ shocks him ‘with cold fear’ when he realises that the water ahead disappears downhill ‘into a white chaos’ and then enters the mouth of a subterranean tunnel (Murdoch 2001b, 162). Tim submits to the overwhelming power of the materiality of Les Alpilles and it makes him, albeit briefly, acutely aware of the ‘fragile mortality of his own body, which comes to most of us as rare reminders, too soon forgotten’ (Murdoch 2001b, 161). However, Tim complicates his talent with his tendency towards deception. He deceives himself as he will deceive Gertrude.

23Later Tim returns to Provence for a second time and, upset by events he misconstrues at the house, allows himself to get completely lost at night in the mountains. The rocks ‘piled round about him, great leaning monumental shafts’ frighten him, rising up ‘in tense quietness, like a symphony of frozen inaudible sound’ (Murdoch 2001b, 422). A sense of physical entrapment causes him to panic until he finds himself once again confronted by the Great Face: ‘For a moment Tim forgot everything except the marvel that was before him’ (Murdoch 2001b, 424). On awakening next morning among the rocks, Tim experiences a grey stillness that sheds an austere light on them and which effects a ‘terrible immobility’ except on the ‘crystal circle of water’ which was pulsating with a ‘different more urgent rhythm’ (Murdoch 2001b, 424–425). He denies himself a drink from the ‘forbidden water’ and thinks that ‘he would like to die’ (Murdoch 2001b, 426, 428). Adrift in the solipsism of his own tribulations, he believes himself to be swimming heroically to rescue a dog when he is swept rapidly over the edge and into the subterranean channel. Only later does Tim have the opportunity to reflect on the high drama of this ordeal: ‘The murderous waters of the canal had beaten and baptized him back to life. Had he then returned to Gertrude purged and punished?’ (Murdoch 2001b, 486). But Murdoch quickly calls time on this self-indulgent inner monologue and declares reprovingly: ‘This was romanticism’ (Murdoch 2001b, 486). Innately suspicious of such solipsistic narrative, Murdoch continues in pragmatic vein: ‘He had come back because he was bruised and bleeding and half drowned’ (Murdoch 2001b, 486). The waters evidently are dangerous, but they are not ‘murderous’. The rocks do not set out to frighten Tim—the pervasive age-old palpable presence of the mountains is of adamantine proportions but of lithic indifference.

24Murdoch is self-mocking inasmuch as she gently mocks her character, Tim. She illustrates just how easy it is in stressful times to turn inward to our own concerns, and our work to avoid such a tendency is never done. Bennett believes that allowing for the ‘agentic capacity’ of landscape is a step towards ecological sensibility but it is ‘too often bound up with fantasies of a human uniqueness in the eyes of God, of escape from materiality, of mastery of nature; and even where it is not, it remains an aporetic or quixotic endeavor’ (Bennett ix). Murdoch sees this as something to work at, to strive to overcome, and part of the project is to acknowledge those beings going about their independent lives, quite indifferent to us (Murdoch 2001a, 78). Yet, insists Cohen, ‘[i]nhuman agency undermines our fantasies of sovereign relation to the environment’ and in her depiction of the mountains in Nuns and Soldiers Murdoch embraces a quasi-religious, animistic sensibility to a numinous material world that exists in and of itself—our place in it subject to chance and fleeting.

  • 11 W. H. Auden visited Badminton School in 1937 and Murdoch seized on the opportunity to ask him to co (...)

25Murdoch’s life-long regard for all sentient beings and for the precious materiality of our animate earth is evident in her published and unpublished work from the inception of her writing career. In her final year at school, Murdoch managed to persuade W. H. Auden to contribute a foreword to a publication she was compiling in aid of the Chinese Medical Fund entitled Poet Venturers (KUAS79 3).11 That was also the year in which she wrote the apparently bleak short poem that I have included as an epigraph at the beginning of this essay. In just a few short lines in her journal, Murdoch sets out an early world view by expressing the unknowable multiplicity of the universe, the precarity and brevity of human life within it and our planet’s apparent ambivalence towards this human life. The second epigraph comes from Auden’s poem ‘The More Loving One’, which was published two decades later. Auden echoes the disconcerting sense of planetary indifference but argues for the deep love we must afford our planet in return. Both poets draw us to reflect on the ineluctable relationship and to our care and responsibility for our world.

26Murdoch’s philosophy and her novelistic art provide clear evidence of her deep respect for a natural world in all its contingent splendour and variety. Her novels in particular afford space to the free independent coexistence of diverse creatures and Earth’s materialities. At the same time, she lays the responsibility firmly on us to work at the attention required to allow such coexistence to succeed. Murdoch’s work envisions a reciprocal and unifying picture of stewardship of our planet which provides, in my view, indisputable evidence of an intentional environmental ethics. She wants us to acknowledge and make space for the ‘sheer alien pointless independent’ lives of the nonhuman world to ensure their survival on a vibrant living planet (Murdoch 2001a, 83). In picturing the majestic flight of a kestrel in The Sovereignty of Good, Murdoch exhorts us to attend to the world with an outward looking loving gaze. As demonstrated here with key moments from Nuns and Soldiers, she hints at what is required—an instinctual love of an ancient and sacred world.

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Abram, David, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (1996), London: Vintage, 2017.

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1 Murdoch believed it to be a suitable endeavour for a philosopher to engage with fiction and said so in her work on Sartre, when she described the existentialist philosopher as an ‘omnivorous writer’ (Murdoch 1999, 8). Nevertheless, she resisted the idea that there might be an interrelationship between her own fiction and philosophy. Miles Leeson  argues convincingly for ‘Murdoch as philosophical novelist’, and the ‘synergy’ between these two areas of her life (Leeson 2010, 3, 2). Today, with a rich archive of newly acquired materials, journals, poetry journals, notebooks and her two libraries, Murdoch scholarship tends towards a wider consideration of her published and unpublished oeuvre and more personal writings. In this essay I refer variously to Murdoch as philosopher-novelist and novelist-philosopher if only to express what I see as the engagement of her environmental imagination with both activities in substantial measure.

2 Smith draws a parallel, in Giorgio Agamben’s terms (and after Foucault), to the modern machinery of biopolitics where even the most democratic of countries seems to rely increasingly on biological information for the governance of populations. Human life is reduced to a ‘DNA profile, the unique patterns of our iris and fingerprints [and] the information in our biometric passports’ (Smith xv). An overlooked but parallel and simultaneous reduction, argues Smith, is of the environment to resource or in Heidegger’s terms, ‘standing reserve’ (xvi).

3 Weil, or perhaps her editor, appears to misquote Racine’s Phèdre in an English translation of La pesanteur et la grâce (1947) with: ‘Et la mort à mes yeux ravissant la clarté’, whereas, in the Racine play, Phèdre says: ‘Et la mort à mes yeux dérobant la clarté’ (V.vii.1641). In Gravity and Grace (1952), Craufurd translates in a footnote: ‘And Death, robbing my eyes of their light, /Restores to the day they sullied all its purity’ (Weil 36).

4 Murdoch (2001a 83) paraphrases Wittgenstein’s Tractacus (6.44): ‘It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists’.

5 Wytham Wood is an ancient woodland close to where Murdoch lived in later years and is now a site of special scientific interest belonging to the University of Oxford.

6 Whilst ‘sacred’ can mean a connection to ‘God or a god’ and is a word often used to distinguish the religious from the secular, it also carries the following definitions: ‘regarded with great respect and reverence by a particular religion, group, or individual’ and ‘regarded as too valuable to be interfered with; sacrosanct’, Lexico (Oxford: OUP, 2019) last accessed at on 22 November 2019.

7 Abram is credited as the originator of the phrase ‘more-than-human’ when it appeared in the subheading of his book, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World in 1996.

8 By ‘native cultures’, Abrams means non-Western indigenous communities. The focus of his research was in rural Indonesia and Nepal.

9 In a follow up to her Independent newspaper obituary, Robin Waterfield writes of Murdoch: ‘She found out that I was a practising Christian and wrote to me of her own beliefs, saying that she was “either a Christian Buddhist or a Buddhist Christian”, she was not quite sure which’ (Waterfield n.p.).

10 I draw a more extensive eco-phenomenological connection between the work of Iris Murdoch and Maurice Merleau-Ponty in a paper presented at the Iris Murdoch Centenary Conference, St Anne’s College, Oxford, 15 July 2019, entitled: ‘“Uninhibited descriptions”: sensing the environment in Iris Murdoch’s The Good Apprentice’.

11 W. H. Auden visited Badminton School in 1937 and Murdoch seized on the opportunity to ask him to contribute a foreword to Poet Venturers. Conradi writes that the volume was ‘her own brainchild, a collection of poems by Bristol schoolchildren published by Gollancz’ (Conradi 2002, 78).

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Lucy Oulton, « Loving by Instinct: Environmental Ethics in Iris Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good and Nuns and Soldiers »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 59 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2020, consulté le 28 novembre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Lucy Oulton

Lucy Oulton is a PhD candidate at University of Chichester’s Iris Murdoch Research Centre. Her interests include ecocriticism and affect theory and she is currently building a case for Iris Murdoch’s Environmental Imagination. With a professional background as a producer editor and teacher, she is currently guest-editing the forthcoming edition of the Iris Murdoch Review. In her spare time, she volunteers in the Iris Murdoch Archive at Kingston University, London, transcribing Murdoch’s journals. Her favourite way of observing the world is by bicycle.

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