Tragic Freedom: Murdoch on the Sublime

Guest post by Meredith Drees

In 1959 Iris Murdoch wrote “The Sublime and The Good,”[1] in order to sketch a “definition [of art] through a consideration and criticism of Kant’s” (S&G, 43). Murdoch’s general view of aesthetics is strongly influenced by Kant’s, but she argues that his theory must be rejected because it “fails to account for the greatness of tragedy” (S&G, 48). My aim in this essay is to examine Murdoch’s main argument in “The Sublime and the Good,” and to draw out some important points of connection, as well as points of distinction, between her view and Kant’s.  Murdoch argues that Kant’s theory “must be wrong” because a proper account of aesthetics should allow for crisis and conflict as they are especially represented by tragic art (S&G, 49). “The true view of the matter,” according to Murdoch, is that:

Art and morals are…one. Their essence is the same. The essence of both of them is love. Love is perception of individuals. Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality. What stuns us into a realization of our…destiny is not, as Kant imagined, the formlessness of nature, but rather its unutterable particularity; and most particular and individual of all natural things is the mind of man (S&G, 52).

It is for this reason, Murdoch insists, that tragedy is the “highest art.” It is the art most concerned with individuality. It harbors “the true sense of that exhilaration of freedom which attends art and which has its more rarely achieved counterpart in morals” (S&G, 52). Murdoch wants to show that this is because tragedy allows us to apprehend and appreciate other individuals (MGM 104-105).[2] However, we may fail to see this because we are

sunk in a social whole which we allow uncritically to determine our reactions…we are completely enclosed in a fantasy world of our own into which we try to draw things from outside, not grasping their reality and independence, making them into dream objects of our own (S&G, 52).

Murdoch argues that fantasy is the enemy of true imagination. The enemies of art and morals, and hence, love, are selfishness and egotism. One must overcome oneself, fantasy, and convention, and one way that this is possible is by experiencing tragic art such as King Lear, which is

exhilarating. It is also…painful. It is very like [respect] Achtung.[3] Kant was marvelously near the mark. But he thought of freedom as the aspiration to a universal order consisting of a pre-fabricated harmony. It was not a tragic freedom. The tragic freedom implied by love is this: that we all have an indefinitely extended capacity to imagine the being of others…Love is the imaginative recognition of, that is respect for, this otherness (S&G, 52).

Murdoch wants aesthetic experience to connect with this kind of freedom—the recognition of our capacity to imagine the being of others. The art of tragedy is connected with humility because it involves a presentation of the idea of death. The idea of death and the realization of it, leads to a humbling experience, namely, the realization of death plays a role in defeating the selfish part of us. Tragedy shows us the truth about human life (and death) without consolation, and the realization of this truth brings with it something “very like Achtung.” This wakes us from the egotistic dream for eternal power and happiness, and we begin to see what is beyond (or at least other than) such concerns. We are then able to notice something that we have not noticed (or truly appreciated) before, namely, other individuals. 

Red cliffs on the island of Santorini, Greece. Photo taken by Meredith Drees.

Murdoch thinks that Kant makes a wrong move in connecting the sublime with reverence for human reason. This connection, Murdoch argues, makes sublimity something about the subject encountering itself; that is, what we have is a theory of sublimity that is about reason being reminded of its own freedom. This is problematic, Murdoch suggests, because it does not allow for any connection between experiences of sublimity and a certain kind of conflict that takes place between human individuals; she insists that when sublimity is understood properly, it is seen as relevant to this kind of conflict. 

Specifically, Murdoch wants to show that the freedom connected with an experience of sublimity should be understood as “tragic freedom”—the “exercise of the imagination in an irreconcilable conflict of dissimilar beings” (SOG, 217).[4] We should understand sublimity, and the boundlessness that it involves, as representative of the infiniteness of the task of particular individuals trying to understand each other—not just as rational beings that are similar to oneself, as Kant would suggest—but as beings distinct and other than oneself. 

Murdoch wants to show that morality involves becoming aware of free persons in conflict, and that tragedy, in particular, provokes such an awareness. With this in mind, Murdoch’s aim is to retain the “core” of Kant’s theory of sublimity, so that the essence of morality—the perception of individuals and “the realization that something other than oneself is real”—will also be the essence of tragedy. Murdoch sees value in Kant’s theory of sublimity insofar as she agrees that the limitlessness of sublimity is connected with morality. She suggests that in this way the sublime has “a superior spiritual function,” and it is able to connect us with experiences that are “on a higher level [than base desires and inclinations],” i.e. moral experiences (MGM, 9).

However, Murdoch interprets the value of sublimity differently from Kant: She argues that the object of our feeling of elation at the limitlessness of sublimity is the unlimited variety of free individuals. Sublimity takes us from Achtung to respect for others, and it points to the task of particular individuals trying to understand each other as different from oneself. Sublimity makes us aware of the possibility of overcoming oneself, which, she argues, is thetask of love. What Murdoch wants to transform is the Kantian idea that sublimity provokes “pride in our free moral nature” (MGM, 9). She argues that:

[Kant] attempts to make the act of moral judgment an instantiating of a timeless form of rational activity; and it is this, this empty demand for a total order, which we are required to respect in each other. Kant does not tell us to respect whole particular tangled-up historical individuals, but to respect the universal reason in their breasts (S&G, 51). 

As her essay, the “The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited”[5] brings out, Murdoch wants to show that what sublimity provokes is not a sense of the power of Reason, as Kant suggests, but instead a sense of humility and “the un-self-centered…agnosticism which goes with tolerance” (SBR, 283). Thus, while Murdoch and Kant share the view that the connection between sublimity and morality is grounded in its limitlessness, an important distinction between the Kantian connection between sublimity and morality and the Murdochian connection between sublimity and morality can be drawn: Murdoch means to argue that sublimity carries us to look away from ourselves and toward others conceived of as they really are—as individual beings with their own particularities. On the other hand, Kant means to argue that sublimity carries us to look away from self-love and self-conceit and toward the moral law in everyone. Hence, I have argued in other work that sublimity, as Kant describes it, should best be interpreted as a symbol of moral dignity.[6]

The bell tower of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence, Italy).
Photo taken by Meredith Drees.

Kant recognizes that things that bring about well-being and comfort and sustenance will be liable to appear to us as good even if morality requires that we not engage in them. This means that within our nature, there will be certain competing conceptions of good. Yet, we are aware of our obligation to the moral law, which commands us to persistently fulfill our duty. In cases when we follow our inclinations, we are acting in accordance with what Kant calls “self-love.” Self-love is acceptable so long as it does not conflict with the moral law. However, there are times when we desire to act in accordance with our inclinations even when the moral law has directed us to do otherwise. In this kind of case, self-love has given rise to a certain illusion; we develop a mistaken supposition that there is something more important about ourselves, personally, than moral action. This illusion, Kant argues, is called “self-conceit” (CPrR 5:74).[7]  

In the Critique of Practical Reason, Kant argues that the consciousness of the moral law “strikes down self-conceit” (5:73) and “humiliates every human being when he compares it with the sensible propensity of his nature” (5:74). This awareness “deprives self-conceit of its illusion.” Achtung is an attraction to what makes it possible for us to overcome the inclinations and sensuous desires; it is something that humiliates a part of our nature, and this humiliation is difficult to endure. Awareness of the moral law is not something that is easily experienced. It is difficult, and painful: Kant uses the following example to shed light on this point:

Before a humble common man in whom I perceive uprightness of character in a higher degree than I am aware of in myself my spirit bows, whether I want it or whether I do not and I hold my head ever so high, that he may not overlook my superior position. Why is this? His example holds before me a law that strikes down my self-conceit when I compare it with my conduct, and I see observance of that law and hence its practicability proved before me in fact (CPrR 5:76-77).

The thought here is that in this person, I perceive a higher degree of character than that of which I am aware in myself; that is, I perceive this person’s moral superiority. Kant wants to show that when I observe the moral law in a humble and common human being, who is comparatively less well-off than myself, I am humiliated. In fact, I feel badly; the experience is not a fun one. The humiliation involved in this experience is caused both by the fact that this person, like me, is subject to the moral law, and by my realization that this person conforms to the moral law better that I have done. This experience is painful; “it strikes down my pride” (CPrR 5:77). Hence, this consciousness of the moral law is a humbling experience. Though I held my head high, “my spirit bowed,” as a result of Achtung

Horseshoe Falls (part of Niagara Falls). Photo taken by Meredith Drees.

Kant argues that we call something sublime because it brings to the forefront our power to regard the objects of our natural concerns (our inclinations) as small and comparatively unimportant (CJ 28:262).[8] Sublimity gives us the feeling of Achtung which is the feeling that “strikes down self-conceit.” Thus, part of Kant’s connection between sublimity and morality can be found in the analogy between an experience of sublimity and the experience of the humble, common person that I noted above: Both of these experiences give rise to a humbling of the selfish parts of us. The advantage of having an experience of sublimity is that it makes Achtung pleasurable, even though it is a negative pleasure. This attracts us to an awareness of the proper relationship between our cognitive faculties, and hence, can attract us to moral action vs. immoral action. 

However, as I have shown, Murdoch wants to get something different out of a theory regarding the relationship between sublimity and morality. She wants to argue in favor of a connection between sublimity and an awareness of other people and their individual particularities—a connection between sublimity and human conflict, and the realization that other people (in addition to ourselves) must embark on a moral pilgrimage that is difficult for them, due to their different points of view; indeed, “it matters how we see other people” (MGM 463). We must see that other people, as well as ourselves, are “constantly in process of recognizing the falseness of our ‘goods’, and the unimportance of what we deem important” (MGM 430). 

Murdoch does not agree with Kant that sublimity makes us aware of the moral law in all people; rather she argues that sublimity makes us aware of those people themselves. While Kant acknowledges that rational beings have lower-level inclinations in addition to the rational part, and that Achtung brings us to overcome those lower parts of ourselves, he does not argue that it brings us to recognize that other people also have them. 

Yet, this is the very point that Murdoch wants us to recognize in a theory of sublimity. For her, instead of recognizing something about ourselves (i.e., that we have the faculty of reason), we need to recognize something outside of ourselves, namely, other individuals, and their situations. This involves being humbled, which involves overcoming oneself and paying attention to other individuals outside of oneself. Thus, as I discussed earlier, this is why Murdoch wants to connect sublimity with the art of tragedy. Tragedy shows us the way things really are; tragedy does not console us. It shows us the truth about death, and it breaks down the ego. Tragedy shows us that reality for us as human beings is uncomfortable and full of conflict and misery, and that the human condition is frail and transient. We begin to notice others when our egos are defeated (and, to borrow Kant’s phrase, when self-conceit is “struck down”). We begin to grasp the fact that “others are, to an extent we never cease discovering, different from ourselves” (SOG, 216). It is at this point that we are able to see that those particular individuals should be given our loving attention. 


[1] Iris Murdoch, “The Sublime and the Good,” Chicago Review. vol. 13, No. 3 (1959). (Hereafter S&G)

[2] Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as A Guide to Morals, (NY: Penguin Books, 1993). (Hereafter MGM)

[3] By Achtung Kant means “respect,” especially for what we are as rational beings. Achtung is respect for our shared faculty of reason. 

[4] Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good, (NY: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971)

[5] Iris Murdoch, “The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited.” The Yale Review (1959). (Hereafter SBR)

This essay is meant as a companion essay to “The Sublime and the Good.”

[6] See my article, “Sublimity as A Symbol of Moral Dignity,” Aesthetics Research Lab:

[7] All of my references to this text are to Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[8] All of my references to this text are to Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar, (IA: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987).

Works Cited/For Further Reading:

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar, (IA: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987).

____. Critique of Practical Reason, (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Murdoch, Iris. Metaphysics as A Guide to Morals, (NY: Penguin Books, 1993).

____. The Sovereignty of Good, (NY: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971).

 ____. “The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited.” The Yale Review (1959).

 ____. “The Sublime and the Good.” Chicago Review. vol. 13, No. 3 (1959).

About the Author:

Dr. Meredith Drees has spent her philosophical career studying the connection between aesthetic experience and morality. Her view is that aesthetic experience has an ineluctable moral component, which enables it to play various roles in moral education and development. She specifically focuses on the work of Plato, Kant, and Iris Murdoch. Dr. Drees is currently the chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Kansas Wesleyan University. She is also the Director of Experiential Learning and the Wesleyan Journey Program. Dr. Drees earned her Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Kansas in 2014. Her areas of specialization are Ancient Philosophy, Aesthetics, Ethics, Kant’s Critique of Judgment, and Iris Murdoch. She has additional interests in C.S. Lewis, Simone Weil, and Feminist Theology. 

Twitter: @meredith.drees

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