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Alex Murdaugh, katharsis, and authentic freedom

To be free, I must see myself as I am, but I can only do that if I am both rational and honest: my mind must be in the right relation with reality, and this of course includes God, the Source of reality.

(Images: Screenshots from various media sites)

Alex Murdaugh, an erstwhile South Carolina, Low Country prominent lawyer, was put in prison for life in early March for killing his family. Yet, in videos from happier times and even on the stand in his own trial, he seems a nice, middle-aged Southern man. But the trial revealed a trash-pit of theft and lies—rotting fruit with a wax overlay that has, like Lenin’s fake preserved face, fooled many with its apparent peace and control, confident in the “freedom” to act, to twist, to manipulate.

I was a bit obsessed by the Murdaugh case (The rhetoric alone! And such Southern Gothic, complete with defense attorneys pointing guns at prosecutors!), and I began, today, to wonder why: perhaps Alex’s Oedipal–circus, namely, the revelation of family horror, was doing what the Greek tragedies were meant to do for the individuals in a polity: strike a tragic human chord, break through our wax visions of ourselves, cut tumors from us through katharsis.

I turned first to Socrates for help; in the Republic, Socrates relates the “Myth of Er” (about Er, a man who saw the judgment of souls in the afterlife), to illustrate that justice is about harmony producing Truth, Beauty, and Goodness in the soul. Alex Murdaugh seems to show up in this myth, like a wraith, as one of the souls whose disorder is revealed by his choice of a life at a pivotal moment:

The drawer of the first lot at once sprang to seize the greatest tyranny . . . and failed to observe that it involved the fate of eating his own children, and other horrors . . . For he did not blame himself for his woes, but fortune and the gods and anything except himself. He was one of those . . . who had lived in a well-ordered polity in his former existence, participating in virtue by habit and not by philosophy. (Republic 619c-d)

Socrates here is nailing, in my opinion, the problem with those able to interweave themselves into a polity via privilege, position, convention, and not through the rigorous self-reflection derived often through struggle and suffering and a desire for truth. I thought about the conflicted self of a man who perhaps both loved and hated his own family, and my own “struggle with two wills” that St. Augustine explains with such raw power in The Confessions:

The consequence of a distorted will is passion. By servitude to passion, habit is formed, and habit to which there is no resistance becomes necessity. . . The new will, which was beginning to be within me a will to serve you freely and to enjoy you, God, the only sure source of pleasure, was not yet strong enough to conquer my older will, which had the strength of old habit. (Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick [Oxford 1991], 140)

We all struggle with these two wills: we all live at times in our lives in the dark wood with Dante, faced with our wild appetites and the inability to go forward into genuine, generous self-gift.

However, if we try to free ourselves by simply doing what we think others, even God, want of us, we may become a craven, misshapen copy of the truly free, because we are not doing it from genuine generosity. God does not want, I don’t believe, a grudging, fake, wax gift of the self, one that we think looks good to Him and to others. Thus God takes us through the inferno of our heart, with its penchant for prison walls, and then along the purgatorial path, with a new drive to travel the seven-story mountain, drawn up a hard path through gates upward to a garden where we can choose, finally, in some freedom, to submerge ourselves in the Lethe, that stream of self-forgetting…and finally, finally, expanding beyond the boundaries of our physical existence, to a place where no walls are needed, no gates, where human wills, original creations, order themselves to the will of God: self-gift. Freedom for. Freedom—

God wants us to give this true gift of self as a magnanimous gift; He loves us enough to want us to give ourselves from a place of true freedom, not even from what we think He wants. He wants us to be real, to face ourselves; He wants the real thing. Who of us can be truly free when we are sinful creatures, creatures often misshapen by our modern culture, often educated in a factory model to be good, productive cogs in the economic and political machine, as perhaps Alex Murdaugh was?

God made us as angel-beasts, a rational bridge between the physical creation and the deeper, more real, formative sources of reality. We, among all creatures, are able to see the Whole from the Parts and yet also live embodied within the creation. The body is not a prison, therefore, but a vocation. We must, to be free, first be that person, express that person, know that person, in both the glorious and the grasping parts, in the parts of deep love and shallow, mis-fired desires. To be free, we must know ourselves as we are, as God sees us within our own wreckages. This is freedom, because we are in a relation to reality, or truth, and the truth sets us free; because only from truth can we hope to love with our whole being, in reality, connecting fully with all that exists connected to us.

So, to be free, I must see myself as I am, but I can only do that if I am both rational and honest: my mind must be in the right relation with reality, and this of course includes God, the Source of reality. This is humility, humus, “on the ground.” Only then, in the fullness of truth, seeing the beauty, acknowledging the rot, asking for healing, can I truly give myself with generosity and magnanimity.

Prior to this is an imperfect gift muddied by unreality–about myself, others, the world. To be free, to become mature, we must have a sense of how our own minds actually work, and the connection between this mind and reality. Thus, the liberal arts are part of our Christian patrimony; it is no mistake that these arts were nascent in the means of Christian education, from Irish monasteries deep in the first millennium (Alcuin) to the full-fledged resurgence of Greco-Roman arts in the early Renaissance. We must connect through speech (grammar); we order our minds to reality through logic, and make the heart sing as “only the lover sings” (Augustine) through rhetoric and its subset, poetics.

The flowering of logic is in philosophy, which is the mediate end to a truly harmonious soul. Using the “Myth of Er,” Socrates explains what the fate of the chimeric, conventionally “just” man, the non-philosophical man, should lead us to ponder:

It should be our main concern that each of us, neglecting all other studies, should seek after and study this[:]. . .the knowledge to distinguish the life that is good from that which is bad . . . so that with consideration of all these things [we] will be able to make a reasoned choice between the better and the worse life, with [our] eyes fixed on the nature of [the] soul, naming the worse life that which will tend to make it more unjust and the better that which will make it more just . . . for this is the greatest happiness for man.(Republic 618c-619b)

However, philosophy is not the only element leading to freedom; freedom must ultimately come through habits that purge the self of dross and dispose one to see God. Socrates muses about this in the Meno when he tries to define virtue. The best answer to the unanswered questions he raises about how to teach virtue—which is the habit, ultimately, resulting in the freedom to then give oneself freely and magnanimously to God and to others—is the following: there is no verbal answer possible when Socrates asks yet again, “Can virtue be taught?”

One can be educated to think clearly through logic, and one can be persuaded toward the good by various forms of philosophy, rhetoric, and poetry. But, ultimately, one must know it and desire it with the whole heart, and I mean in the biblical sense of knowing: to be in the throes of becoming and loving the good. I thought of Socrates, perhaps an almost perfectly just man who remained just, even though he had to face a slew of attacks and slander. If I am able to see, to love, Socrates even in his shame and ignominy, would I be on the way to virtue? Is it a sight, perhaps made possible in part by the liberal arts? After all, Socrates taught the fundamental art of dialectic.

What about the One for whom Socrates begs the question, literally and figuratively? What about the One who was truly just but was thought the most unjust as He hung like a criminal, viewed by His own people as we view Alex Murdaugh? And so was the most perfectly just because, gaining nothing from it, He thirsted for souls in absolute poverty: Eloi, Eloi lama sabachthani? Is the freeing of ourselves only truly possible if we unveil ourselves freely to God from the ground at the Crucifixion, as we look at the epitome of true authority divested of any earthly power we might desire?

Christ knew to go beyond dialectic, as Socrates sometimes did: Christ was the master of rhetoric, the art that dialectic prepares for, the crowning art of the liberal arts; He was and remains a living persuasion, a poem, the most powerful, skilled dramatist, producing the katharsis to end all katharses; He goes straight to the heart like a rhetorical missile, knowing that the scandal of the Cross  separates those who could, and would, see Him from those who refused.

All education falls short here. Perhaps, though, it can pave the way, like St. John the Baptist, even though it itself, to be a good education, must know—like the Baptist—that it is not fit to tie the sandals of His shoes.

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About T. Renee Kozinski 2 Articles
T. Renee Kozinski holds an M.A. LA from St. John's College, Annapolis, and has been teaching at the secondary and tertiary levels for twenty-something years. She has published articles in StAR, The Imaginative Conservative, The Latin Mass, and a chapter in Love in the Ruins: Modern Catholics in Search of Ancient Faith.


  1. Although to be in “life prison” is absolute confinement, Alex my feel free of the agoney of his life that looked absolutely hopeless. Time, which is all he has, could bring him the ability to use himself to the better good; whatever that could be. For us the wrath that he committed is hard to forgive.

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