Are You Stodgy, Middling, or Wild?

Somerville College Dining Hall

The Dining Hall in Somerville College during the war years, courtesy of the Principal and Fellows of Somerville College, Oxford



In Metaphysical Animals, a young Iris Murdoch sits with three pals in the dining hall of their college. They are up at Oxford to study philosophy. The young men who would have elbowed them aside are braving World War II, so the four women have unexpected freedom to think, unusual attention from the remaining tutors, and time to observe human nature.

Hierarchy, for example, is made visible by the seating arrangements of the dining hall. The dons sit at High Table, carrying on self-consciously erudite conversations. Third-year students are awarded the window tables. Second-year students get stuck in the middle, and the lowly freshers eat near the serving hatch. That much is simple. But the young philosophers also notice that the tables closest to the dons are “occupied by anxious girls, dressed mostly in navy and beige, who would troop in en bloc from the library when a meal began, and troop back when it ended.” They are painfully serious, obedient, overeager, and dull, so they are nicknamed “bunnies” (a term that has yet to absorb Hugh Hefner’s connotations).

Those who seat themselves farthest from the dons are “long-haired doe-eyed lovelies, variously but always intriguingly dressed and often late for meals.” These young women are not serious at all.

And in the middle, where “things were pretty much intermediate,” sit our four friends: Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot, Elizabeth Anscombe, and Mary Midgley. Their lives will eventually be chronicled by two friends who are also philosophers, Dr. Clare Mac Cumhaill and Dr. Rachael Wiseman.

Metaphysical Animals is not a dry book about philosophy; nor is it a juicy book about women’s friendships and lovers. It is both, in perfect balance. The authors sneak in just enough information about the backdrop: the dice-and-chop reductive analysis of modern classical philosophy and the posturing games about whether the chair your fanny rests on is actually there. Into that world come four impatient, bright young women, and they find a powerful motive to do philosophy in a new way. Daily reports reach them from the front lines, accounts of human depravity without precedent. Looking at photographs from the concentration camps, Foot insists on the possibility of a moral judgment that is more transcendent than logic-bound empiricism and more powerful than analytical philosophy’s coolly detached, tongue-clucking disapproval. By emphasizing lived and heartfelt experience, the four women reanimate the discipline.

This is a trivial pursuit by comparison, but if their ghosts could return to the dining hall, I would love to hear them think aloud about Murdoch’s tossed-off categories, because they apply to so much of life. Stodgy, middling, and wild: you can find the three-part division in any classroom, any office, any family, any political party, any musical genre, any random group of investors.

When is the best time to be wild—in youth, when you will be forgiven, or later, when you have enough sense to not get killed, pregnant, or miserably hung over? What defines stodginess—a noble seriousness of purpose or an inability to laugh at oneself, cut loose, and play? The middle seems like the safest place, so why is it so hard to stay there, like steering a canoe straight when the river runs fast and the person in back is paddling the wrong way?

In school, I always placed myself as squarely in the middle as I could, yet I was never content to be only in the middle. The extremes were more interesting: the exploits of the wild kids, the conversations of the brainy premeds. I dipped into their worlds but withdrew fast, like I had touched a hot skillet.

Now I admire the serious and treasure the eccentrics, the wild souls and free spirits who scared me as a kid. Now I feel a little wild myself, craving outdoor adventure just when many of my friends have grown so fond of comfort that they recoil from wind, rain, and extreme temperatures; craving indulgence just when they have given up sugar, salt, fat, gluten, dairy, and alcohol.

Even in my wildness, though, I am middling. Aristotle’s urging of moderation makes sense to me. I make most decisions by picking from the middle. Buying an appliance, I avoid both the most expensive and the cheapest. If a friend suggests meeting at 10 and I blurt 11 in the same breath, I say, “Split the difference, what about 10:30?” Such solutions are satisfying; they anchor power and control between us, accessible to both, instead of sliding it back and forth like a hockey puck.

Politically, I sometimes wonder if the moderate middle is the best place to be—or an unimaginative and timid compromise that hopes for approval from both sides and wins it from neither. Depends on the issue, I suppose. Somehow, though, I nearly always land close to the middle. It feels essential to my temperament, a peaceable compromise aimed at avoiding conflict and bringing everyone together.

Or maybe I just want to think I am middling because I have spent so many decades trying to eradicate the bunny? I am finally less docile, but plenty would call me stodgy if they saw how frugally I live. My cell phone plan gives me a whopping 1GB of free data. Our TV is thirty years old and boxy, not flat. And no, for the last time, we do not have or want Amazon Prime. Surely its lack does not make me dull? Being cheap requires a certain creativity, as does staying low-tech. Elizabeth Anscombe would approve: she was so poor, early on, that her friend Ludwig Wittgenstein paid to furnish her apartment, saying briskly, “You are a writer, you have to have a wastepaper basket.”

We all have bits of all three categories in us. The most bombastic control freak turns docile in the presence of an authority they respect; the most serene guru can be impetuous when upset. Even our four middling philosophy students poached one another’s ex-lovers yet pored, earnest as bunnies, over abstract philosophy.

The art lies in choosing with the situation, relying on lived experience and not the place where you happen to sit.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.