Archive for April, 2011

Murdoch: The Sovereignty of Good

April 29, 2011

The Sovereignty of Good
Iris Murdoch (Ark, 1970)
106 p.

This slim volume consists of three related essays — “The Idea of Perfection”, “On ‘God’ and ‘Good'”, and “The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts” — that were originally published in the 1960s. Her purpose in writing was to criticize a theory of the moral life that had gained (and continues to hold) considerable influence, and to propose in its place an alternative view influenced by Plato.

The conception of morality against which she wrote treated the will as the most important element of the moral sphere, and conceived of the will as something detached and sovereign that ‘darts forth’ at points of decision, but which is otherwise dormant. It is the sort of picture that emerges when man is immersed in a materialist universe, when his spiritual reality has been whittled away to a minimum. In this view of things the will is the last remaining shard of transcendence piercing the otherwise seamless fabric of physical cause and effect, a residual godlike power, something isolated and even unconditioned in its action, basically inaccessible to scrutiny, and discernible only through its public effects. Yet, perversely, the will cannot be responsive to (putatively non-existent) goodness and is thrown back upon its own resources, saved from oblivion only by its own unaccountable assertiveness. In short, this view of the moral life sees

…the fearful solitude of the individual marooned upon a tiny island in the middle of a sea of scientific facts, and morality escaping from science only by a wild leap of the will.

Murdoch characterizes this view as ‘behaviourist, existentialist, and utilitarian’: behaviourist because of its lack of interest in the interior life, existentialist because of its emphasis on the ‘solitary, omnipotent will’, and utilitarian because it ascribes moral weight to public acts alone. As such, she regards it as a thoroughly inadequate moral theory, misguided in key ways and too conceptually impoverished to do justice to experience.

Against this view, she declares that ‘Good, not will, is transcendent’, and it is the Good, so conspicuously lacking in the theory described above, that forms the heart of her conception of the moral life. In the second essay, “On ‘God’ and ‘Good'”, she offers a definition of ‘God’ — ‘a single perfect transcendent non-representable and necessarily real object of attention’ — which, though she is herself not a theist, gives a reasonable starting point for her understanding of what she means by ‘Good’. Central for her is the reality of the Good; it is a light that reveals things as they truly are, and to enter into contact with it is to focus on truth and to reject fantasy. Crucially, she argues that to attend to real things with sufficient attention requires love; it is love, therefore, that is the principal means by which the soul is liberated from fantasy and enters upon an encounter with the Good.

She believes, therefore, that we must restore the centrality of love to morals. Perhaps under the influence of Simone Weil (whom she mentions several times) she stresses the role of ‘attention’, “a just and loving gaze directed upon an individual reality”, as both characteristic and proper of moral agents. Implicit here seems to be the idea that we cannot truly act well if we do not see clearly, with clarity as to facts and as little interference from our own ego as possible. (Is this an echo of the older moral tradition that made prudence a foundational virtue?) She believes that the nature of the reality upon which we fix our attention forms our own moral sensibilities. “Our ability to act well ‘when the time comes'”, she says, “depends partly, perhaps largely, upon the quality of our habitual objects of attention.” For this reason we should meditate, with a “just and loving gaze”, upon those things that appear to be good and beautiful.

Notice that for her the moral life is continuous, not something that is turned off between explicit moral choices. In fact, she goes so far as to say that the moral life is not finally about choices at all: “If I attend properly I will have no choices and this is the ultimate condition to be aimed at.” The objective is to be so in tune with the Good that action in concert with goodness follows readily and easily, rather than resulting from conscious deliberation. This might seem an odd way to think about morality — certainly its downplay of the importance of the will is contrary to those moral theories that put all of the emphasis on choice — but I hear in it an echo, once again, of the older moral tradition; that good habits result in good actions performed with ease and joy is natural in Aristotelian and Thomistic moral theories, for instance. “The nature of virtue lies more in good than in difficulty.” (Summa Theologiae, II-II, 123, 12 ad 2.) (I must add, however, that she explicitly denies that human life has any natural telos and so cannot herself be accounted an Aristotelian/Thomist.) Murdoch even comes around to a word that one hears very infrequently indeed in an age devoted to ‘autonomy’; she writes: “The idea of a patient, loving regard, directed upon a person, a thing, a situation, presents the will not as unimpeded movement but as something very much more like ‘obedience’.” This kind of obedience, in which we submit to the Good under the aspect of the real, is something that she believes is best learned from saints and artists, both of whom (when genuine) are obedient to truth.

The idea that the Good is a kind of light, and that the moral life is a kind of seeing, naturally raises the question of the place of beauty in moral formation. Murdoch believes that beauty is essential to the apprehension of goodness, because they are closely related:

Goodness and beauty are not to be contrasted, but are largely part of the same structure. Plato, who tells us that beauty is the only spiritual thing which we love immediately by nature, treats the beautiful as an introductory section of the good. So that aesthetic situations are not so much analogies of morals as cases of morals.

I’ve not seen the point made in just that way before. Surely she is right. Speaking for myself, I experience beauty as a moral challenge: is my attention and response worthy of the object? am I willing to receive the something that beauty discloses to me? can I witness and love the object without then seeking to possess it? Murdoch speaks of the apprehension of beauty as an occasion for “unselfing”, and I believe that I understand why. In this we see beauty and love embrace. For all that aesthetics is typically consigned to the realm of the ‘merely subjective’, with a recitation about eyes and beholders, I have never been convinced. Indeed, what an impoverished thought, and so untrue to experience! This is one of the points on which modernity alienated me long before I found a satisfactory, and more than satisfactory, alternative.

These essays are my first exposure to Iris Murdoch’s writing. There is much to admire. I judge her intention to be basically praiseworthy: to tear down a thin and inadequate theory of morals, and of man, and to restore an older and richer understanding of both. Is it correct to say “restore”? Her proposal is obviously redolent of Plato, but I am not sure of the degree to which she adheres to each jot and tittle of Plato’s moral theory. In any case, these are but short essays and can hardly be expected to be more than suggestive. I wonder if these ideas have been developed at greater length elsewhere? Reading this short book has convinced me that I would like to read more of her writing, including her novels. (But where to start?)

I close with a few quotations from the book:

It is always a significant question to ask about any philosopher: what is he afraid of? (On ‘God’ and ‘Good’)

[Art and detachment]
…great art teaches us how real things can be looked at and loved without being seized and used, without being appropriated into the greedy organism of the self. The exercise of detachment is difficult and valuable whether the thing contemplated is a human being or the root of a tree or the vibration of a colour or a sound. Unsentimental contemplation of nature exhibits the same quality of detachment: selfish concerns vanish, nothing exists except the things which are seen. Beauty is that which attracts this particular sort of unselfish attention. (On ‘God’ and ‘Good’)

[Freedom and humility]
Freedom, we find out, is not an inconsequential chucking of one’s weight about, it is the disciplined overcoming of self. Humility is not a peculiar habit of self-effacement, rather like having an inaudible voice, it is selfless respect for reality and one of the most difficult and central of all virtues. (The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts)

[Love and the Good]
…Good is sovereign over Love, as it is sovereign over other concepts, because Love can name something bad. But is there not nevertheless something about the conception of a refined love which is practically identical with goodness? Will not ‘Act lovingly’ translate ‘Act perfectly’, whereas ‘Act rationally’ will not? It is tempting to say so.” (The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts)

[Love and the moral life]
Love is the general name of the quality of attachment and it is capable of infinite degradation and is the source of our greatest errors; but when it is even partially refined it is the energy and passion of the soul in its search for Good, the force that joins us to Good and joins us to the world through Good. Its existence is the unmistakable sign that we are spiritual creatures, attracted by excellence and made for the Good. It is a reflection of the warmth and light of the sun. (The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts)

Of Gods and Men, and monks

April 27, 2011

I finally had opportunity to see the recent French film Des Hommes et Des Dieux (translated, and transposed, into English as Of Gods and Men). I noted this film a few weeks ago when it first appeared in theatres. It tells the true story of a small group of Cistercian monks who were killed in Algeria by jihadists in 1996.

It is an extraordinary film from start to finish, and it has justly been winning praise from all quarters. The film is focused on the period in which jihadist violence was increasing in Algeria, and on the monks’ earnest and sometimes agonizing deliberations about whether to stay or to leave the country. The screenwriter has allowed not only considerations of safety and human solidarity to complicate the decision, but the monks also wrestle with the nature of the monastic vocation and the demands of Christian discipleship. Indeed, I cannot think of another film in which sound and serious Christian theology has been integrated so naturally into an intensely dramatic and emotionally compelling story, without any trace of didacticism. The screenplay had to navigate a minefield of political correctness and oversimplification; that it succeeded as well as it did is something of a miracle. There were a few bold decisions made by the director, especially in one crucial scene, that might divide opinion, but personally I thought they worked. The actors do full justice to the material. In short, it is a film of high moral beauty (and cinematic beauty too, not incidentally).

A few years ago I wrote some notes about a book, The Monks of Tibhirine, by John W. Kiser, that tells the same story as this film. (The linked post includes spoilers.)


A documentary about monks has recently been made by Salt + Light Television, the Catholic television station in Canada. This film, called This Side of Eden, is about the lives of the monks of Westminster Abbey in Mission, British Columbia. I have been to this monastery myself, many years ago. (In fact, it was the first monastery that I ever visited.) I have not seen the film myself, though I would like to do so. Fr. Raymond de Souza saw an advance screening, and he liked it. Apparently it has recently aired (or will soon air) on both Salt + Light and EWTN. Has anyone here seen it?

This is the trailer. It is nice to see so many young monks.


Finally, on Easter Sunday the programme 60 Minutes aired a segment about the monasteries of Mount Athos in Greece. Television cameras are generally not allowed on the island – it has been twenty years since the last crew was invited – so this was a rare glimpse into the spiritual heartland of Orthodox Christianity. I found it fascinating, quite respectful, and, as is often the case with 60 Minutes, candid. There were perhaps a few moments in which the “Golly gee” attitude that marred, for instance, Oprah’s forays into religious life was evident, but for the most part the interviews were well done, with a not inappropriate element of delighted curiosity.

Here is the first half of the segment. A higher resolution video can be seen at the 60 Minutes site. Part 2 is here.

Cantate Domino canticum antiquum!

April 26, 2011

On the weekend the National Post ran an article about Gregorian chant and its place in Catholic liturgy. I was surprised to see that the article focused on the Gregorian schola at the parish of St. Vincent de Paul in Toronto, which is the parish that we have begun attending in the past year. I was surprised because we usually attend an early morning low Mass, at which there is no choir and no Gregorian chant (apart from the Mass Ordinary, which the congregation sings), so we have not had opportunity to hear the schola.

We did hear them sing at the Triduum liturgies during these past few days, however, and they were excellent — better, I think, than any parish schola that I have heard before, and certainly better than any schola in which I have sung. They are an all-male group, which gives their sound a solid, resonant quality. It was wonderful to hear them. In fact, putting it that way is too weak. I was greatly edified and even transported by their singing. I seemed to hear in it all the mystery and ancient beauty of the faith — at least when I wasn’t dashing after a toddler.

The National post article is accompanied by this short video showing the schola in rehearsal. It was recorded in a rather arid acoustic; they sound better when singing in the church. At the end there are some amusing, and even slightly touching, clips of the choir director, Philip Fournier, trying to teach the reporter, Charles Lewis, to sing a few notes of chant.

Anyway, it is nice to see Gregorian chant getting some attention simply for being sung in its natural habitat.

(As is always the case when I try to write something in Latin, corrections to this post’s title are welcome.)

Easter Sunday, 2011

April 24, 2011

I got me flowers to straw thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.

The Sunne arising in the East,
Though he give light, & th’ East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.

Can there be any day but this,
Though many sunnes to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we misse:
There is but one, and that one ever.

– George Herbert (1633)

Here is the joyful opening section of Bach’s Easter Oratorio. Happy Easter to one and all.

Holy Saturday: Lamentation of Jeremiah

April 23, 2011

The Tenebrae used to be sung (or said) on each day of the Triduum, either in the early morning hours before sunrise or late on the previous evening. The texts were drawn from the epistles of St. Paul, the writings of St. Augustine, and, most famously, the Biblical book of Lamentations (attributed to Jeremiah). The Tenebrae service was marked especially by the gradual extinguishing of candles in the church as the service proceeded, giving it a wonderfully dramatic structure. The observance of this office was, I understand, deleted in the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, so that it is rarely encountered today. I have experienced it only once, and that at an Anglican church.

Many composers set the Lamentations of Jeremiah to music. Here is Victoria’s setting of the first reading for Holy Saturday (which is the only one I can find in decent sound).

Misericordiae Domini,
quia non sumus consumpti:
quia non defecerunt miserationes eius.

Bonum est viro
cum portaverit iugum ab adolescentia sua.

Ierusalem, Ierusalem,
convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum.


It is of the LORD’s mercies
that we are not consumed,
because his compassions fail not.

It is good for a man
that he bear the yoke in his youth.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem,
return unto the Lord thy God.

(Lam. 3: 22, 27)

Good Friday: The Reproaches

April 22, 2011

Popule meus, quid feci tibi?
aut in quo constristavi te?
responde mihi.

O my people, what have I done to you?
How have I offended you?
Answer me.

Catholics who belong to the Latin Rite (which is most of us) should all be hearing the Reproaches from the Cross today, in one way or another. I consider them to be among the most dramatic and moving words we hear all year. Sadly, many of us will not hear them at all. If your parish skipped them, you can click on the video above to hear the Gregorian setting. Full English translation here.

Holy Thursday: O sacrum convivium

April 21, 2011

Although it is an antiphon for Corpus Christi, and not for Holy Thursday, it is hardly an inappropriate thing to hear today. The first setting is Gregorian; the second by Messiaen.

To everyone who will be celebrating it, I extend my best wishes for a blessed Triduum and Easter.

O sacrum convivium!
in quo Christus sumitur:
recolitur memoria passionis eius:
mens impletur gratia:
et futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur.

O sacred feast!
wherein Christ is received:
the memory of His Passion is renewed in us:
our souls are filled with grace:
and the pledge of everlasting glory is given to us.

The Heliand

April 21, 2011

The Heliand
Anonymous (Oxford, 1992 [9th c.]; trans: G. Ronald Murphy, S.J.)
256 p.

In the opening section of The Everlasting Man, Chesterton remarked that the average modern man is inoculated against the Gospel by his belief that he already knows about it. Its very familiarity prevents his seeing it clearly. What is needed, Chesterton suggested, is a way to see our own history anew, as though it were a tale from the Orient:

Their anti-clericalism has become an atmosphere, an atmosphere of negation and hostility from which they cannot escape. Compared with that, it would be better to see the whole thing as something belonging to another continent, or to another planet. It would be more philosophical to stare indifferently at bonzes than to be perpetually and pointlessly grumbling at bishops. It would be better to walk past a church as if it were a pagoda than to stand permanently in the porch, impotent either to go inside and help or to go outside and forget. For those in whom a mere reaction has thus become an obsession, I do seriously recommend the imaginative effort of conceiving the Twelve Apostles as Chinamen. In other words, I recommend these critics to try to do as much justice to Christian saints as if they were Pagan sages.

The Heliand is not exactly what Chesterton had in mind, but it might very well serve the purpose. This is a ninth-century Old Saxon verse telling of the life of Christ. It is more than a straight-forward translation of the Gospels; rather, it is a re-imagining of the life of Christ as though it had taken place in the medieval warrior culture of the Germanic tribes of northern Europe. God the Father becomes “the Chieftain of all mankind”, Christ a lord, the Apostles his vassals sworn to fealty, Jerusalem a “bright-shining hill-fort”, and so on. We do not know who wrote it, but he was clearly a missionary to the Germanic people, and his effort to accommodate the Gospel story to the conventions of Germanic epic is startling to a modern reader, and also, I am tempted to say, quite brilliant.

Let’s look at a few examples. Here is a long excerpt describing the birth of Christ, and it gives a good idea of how the story has been adapted to the new setting. (Notice, for instance, that the shepherds watching over sheep have become sentries watching over horses.)

At that time it all came to pass, just as wise men had said long ago: the the Protector of People would come in a humble way, by His own power, to visit this kingdom of earth. His mother, that most beautiful woman, took Him, wrapped Him in clothes and precious jewels, and then with her two hands laid Him gently, the little man, that child, in a fodder-crib, even though He had the power of God, and was the Chieftain of mankind. There the mother sat in front of Him and remained awake, watching over the holy Child and holding it. And there was no doubt in the mind or in the heart of the holy maid.

What had happened became known to many over this wide world. The guards heard it. As horse-servants they were outside, they were men on sentry duty, watching over the horses, the beasts of the field: they saw the darkness split in two in the sky, and the light of God came shining through the clouds and surrounded the guards out in the fields. Those men began to feel fear in their hearts. They saw the mighty angel of God coming toward them. He spoke to the guards face to face and told them that they should not fear any harm from the light. “I am going to tell you,” he said, “something very wonderful, something very deeply desired. I want to let you know something very powerful: Christ is now born, on this very night, God’s holy Child, the good Chieftain, at David’s hill-fort. What happiness for the human race, a boon for all men! You can find Him, the most powerful Child, at Fort Bethlehem. Take what I now tell you in truthful words as a sign: He is there, wrapped up, lying in a fodder-crib — even though He is king over all the earth and the heavens and over the sons of all the peoples, the Ruler of the world.” Just as he said that word, an enormous number of the holy army, the shining people of God, came down to the one angel from the meadows of heaven, saying many words in praise for the Lord of Peoples. They then began to sing a holy song as they wended their way through the clouds towards the meadows of heaven.

Adapting the life of Christ as a warrior epic is bound to run into certain difficulties; in the bona fide original there is a lack of battle scenes, sword-play, and whatever else properly belongs to the genre. The author has accordingly taken some liberties with his adaptation. The scene of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, for instance, is portrayed, subtly but clearly, as a battle scene between the tempter and Christ, the warrior, whose bloody drops of sweat are portrayed as battle wounds. The author has also gone some distance toward casting Jesus in the role of one of the stock figures of Germanic epic: the wizard. His miracles are portrayed as a kind of magic, and his words as incantations that are powerfully effective.

In pre-Christian Germanic religion it was, according to the notes accompanying this translation, Fate which ruled the affairs of men. The author portrays Christ’s Divine status by showing that his own will is identical with the decrees of Fate. Consider, for example, this passage about Christ’s death, the apotheosis of his life and mission:

One of the enemy came closer, hate in his mind, carrying a well-nailed spear tightly in his hands. With incredible force he thrust it, cutting a wound in Christ’s side with the spearhead, opening up His body. The people saw that both blood and water were pouring out from there, welling out of the wound. All of this was just the way He wanted it and had predetermined beforehand for the benefit of mankind, the sons of men. Now it had all come to pass.

That is accommodation at a higher level than simply swapping horses for sheep. There are certain points where the author decided that certain details from the Gospels should be cut. When Christ enters Jerusalem, for instance, the donkey on which he rode has been quietly deleted, perhaps because it would have too greatly offended the sensibilities of his listeners. But where it really counts — in the moral teaching which conflicts so sharply with the warrior ethos — there is no evasion. He girds up his loins and gives it to them straight:

Now I say to you truthfully, with greater fullness for the people, that you are to love your enemies in your feelings, just as you love your family relatives, in God’s name. Do a great deal of good for them, extend friendly loyalty to them with a clear mind — love versus their hatred. This is long-lasting advice for every man, this is how a person’s feelings against his enemy should be directed. Then, you will have as your own, the gift that you can be called the Heaven-King’s sons, His happy children — and you cannot obtain anything better than that in this world.

The Heliand was written in verse, but Fr. Murphy’s translation is prose. In a way this is a pity, but we know that not every scholar also has the literary talent to produce effective verse in the style of the original. As it stands, his translation is clear and readable. I enjoyed the book greatly.

In that corner, Ayn Rand, and in this…

April 19, 2011

I do not really consider myself an anti-Randian; she hasn’t seemed worth the trouble. I have noticed, however, that the recent release of a film based on Atlas Shrugged has called forth several responses, either fresh or exhumed, from those who, for one reason or another, do oppose or dislike her work. I confess that I have found them quite enjoyable.

First is a short video of W.F. Buckley in conversation with Charlie Rose. This is a brief but, I would say, fairly nuanced appraisal of Rand and her philosophical project, ‘objectivism’ (nuanced, at least, in comparison to what is coming further down in this post). Rand is usually called a ‘conservative’ on account of her opposition to anything resembling collectivism or social welfare, but Buckley’s remarks make it clear that many conservatives don’t want her in their corner either.

The review by Whittaker Chambers of Atlas Shrugged to which Buckley refers is here. It is worth reading.

Meanwhile, writing in the May 2011 issue of First Things, David Bentley Hart delivers a wickedly funny survey of things Randian, focusing especially on an earlier film based on The Fountainhead, but also taking opportunity to skewer her philosophy and manner of philosophizing:

Rand was so eerily ignorant of all the interesting problems of ontology, epistemology, or logic that she believed she could construct an irrefutable system around a collection of simple maxims like “existence is identity” and “consciousness is identification,” all gathered from the damp fenlands between vacuous tautology and catastrophic category error. She was simply unaware that there were any genuine philosophical problems that could not be summarily solved by flatly proclaiming that this is objectivity, this is rational, this is scientific, in the peremptory tones of an Obersturmführer drilling his commandoes.

That’s not very nuanced, but, for all I know, perfectly fair. It is pretty fun in any case.

For a less rhetorically supercharged response to Rand, I recommend reading two posts written by friend-of-this-blog Maclin Horton after he had finished reading Atlas Shrugged: Ayn Rand, Crank and A Few More Notes on Ayn Rand. As usual, Maclin is thoughtful and balanced. If you are brave, you can also read the nearly 400 comments that piled up in response to his remarks.

Finally, I simply note that the Atlas Shrugged film has been savaged by the critics. Does that mean that this post amounts to little more than kicking Ms. Rand when she’s down? I’m not sure. Maybe.

Books briefly noted

April 14, 2011

Frederick Buechner (HarperSanFrancisco, 1980)
178 p. Third reading.

This little book is a long-standing favourite of mine, and it was a pleasure to revisit it again after an absence of several years. Buechner is a very fine writer, and he is at his best in this rough-hewn, wondering, unsentimental tale about the medieval English ascetic, Godric of Finchale. The story is based on surviving legends about St. Godric, to which Buechner cleaves quite closely, yet he tries to get behind the hagiography to the raw, unvarnished truth that he believes lies behind it. It is not a ‘debunking’ story, though, in any usual sense, for despite the violence and vulgarity and caustic humour that he introduces into Godric’s character, he does not efface the man’s repentant heart and thirst for righteousness. It is truly a wonderful book. I wish I had written it.


The Diary of a Country Priest
Georges Bernanos

I read this novel once, and I need to read it again. The book goes deep, deep, deep into a spiritual crisis suffered by a young French priest. It is not the spiritual crisis that one might expect — not a crisis of doubt — but something much more ambitious and even intimidating: spiritual transformation through suffering. As in Buechner, there is little overt piety on display, yet somehow it manages to penetrate deeply into the heart of the Christian mystery. What must an author be thinking when he undertakes to tell the story of a saint in the first person? Bernanos is someone to be reckoned with.


Edward Feser (Oneworld, 2009)
215 p.

Over the years I have read a handful of ‘introductory’ books on the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas (by Copleston, Gilson, Maritain, Pieper, Kenny, and Chesterton). The fact that I keep reading introductory texts no doubt says something unflattering about my philosophical acumen. In any case, Feser’s effort belongs with the best of them, especially for the way in which it brings Aquinas’ thought into conversation with contemporary analytic philosophy, cognitive science, and naturalism. The main topics of discussion are Aquinas’ metaphysics, natural theology, psychology, and ethics. Feser wants to emphasize that Aquinas’ arguments (and those of medieval philosophers more generally) are frequently misrepresented because sufficient care is not taken to understand their terms. In this connection he revisits each of Thomas’ famous ‘Five Ways’ for proving the existence of God, arguing that the usual counter-arguments are without force once one understands Aquinas’ language correctly. There are quite a few provocative claims made in the book — for instance, that the mind/body problem, which has so preoccupied modern philosophy, is a consequence of the early modern rejection of the full panoply of Aristotelian causes, and simply did not exist for medieval philosophers like Aquinas. Feser self-identifies as a Thomist, so his approach is lively and sometimes mildly combative vis-a-vis modern philosophy, but the style is precise, articulate, and, so far as this knuckle-dragging reader could ascertain, fair. The book really deserves more and more careful attention than I am giving it here. Alas, time is a thief.


An Introduction to Ethics
Bernard Williams (Harper & Row, 1972)
121 p.

This is a rather rambling and diffuse essay on various topics in moral philosophy. Remembering, perhaps, that “Everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler”, Williams critiques dominant schools of moral philosophy — relativism, subjectivism, divine command, utilitarianism — arguing that each leaves something essential out of consideration. His basic stance seems to be that moral reasoning is complex, and that we should not be too hasty to impose a system upon our moral life. He even suggests that the only medium capable of adequate moral inquiry is literature. There are some witticisms in the book, such as a utilitarian argument against believing in utilitarianism, or his description of moral relativism as “the most absurd view to have been advanced, even in moral philosophy”. There are moments when the clouds disperse and a clear judgment emerges, to devastating effect (“The central confusion of relativism is to try to conjure out of the fact that societies have differing attitudes and values an a priori nonrelative principle to determine the attitude of one society to another; this is impossible.”). But, for the most part, the discussion seems to meander from one thing to another. Only near the end does he get around to a question that one would have thought essential (‘What is morality about?’). After turning the last page, I was left feeling empty-handed.