‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ – love, hatred, school life and an unexpected lunch with Iris Murdoch

As we emerge from the pandemic, Simon Uttley considers what Catholic schools are for, and the role of love within them, inspired by Iris Murdoch’s philosophy of love and humility.

It was the early 90s. I had sat down, as normal, for lunch at my college in Oxford, following a morning’s lecture on the philosophy of David Hume. At once, my eyes were lifted to what was
the closest we had to High Table, to witness a flock of college grandees hanging on every word of a woman with an engaging smile and a curiously real presence. Murmurs seeped from table to table, first imperceptible and then, slowly, the susurration gave up its constituent syllables. It’s – Murdoch. It’s Iris Murdoch.

Pioneer

At this point, I would love to say that I rushed over and asked the Maestra about the glory days when, with Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot or Mary Midgley, this ground-breaking quartet were facing down the Oxford philosophical establishment, with its sniffy, comfortable, early-mid twentieth century disregard for the veracity – even the meaningfulness – of moral statements. Sadly not. While, back then, I could have instantly told you that Celine Dion’s The Power of Love was number four in the charts that week, the power – or place, or mere possibility – of love, in an invigorated vision of ethics was, like our High Table, somewhat out of my reach. It was many years later that I began to grasp the significance of her statement that ‘Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real’.1 The real power of love, perhaps.

Running a Catholic secondary school: what’s love got to do with it?

While disavowing a personal God, Murdoch’s Anglican Christian conditioning remained formative throughout her life. Fashionable once more, she is seen as a standard-bearer for such zeitgeist tropes and memes as mindfulness, attention, love-speak, compassion, and liberation from the ‘fat relentless ego’2 and its self-serving fantasies. A Platonist who affirmed ‘The Good’ rather than ‘God’, she was, fundamentally, an honest broker in the notion of love to the extent that she relentlessly sought its authenticity. And, for me, Murdoch continues to have something to say to any of us whose belief system uses and, indeed, purports mastery of the notion of that most multifaceted of thick concepts: love.

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