Rationalist Annual

I bought this a few years ago and then promptly forgot about it until this evening when I walked past my book shelf. I turned to the essay with the most promising title – Aesthetic Experience and the Problem of Evil by Margaret Knight – and found this:

The basic principle of ethics states that the value of a complex whole is not directly proportionate to the value of its parts in isolation, since the relations between the parts, as well as the nature of the parts, are relevant to the whole. It states, further, that in some cases the value of a complex whole is increased by the addition of elements that, in themselves, are evil; just as the sublimest musical effects may contain elements of discord, and our most valued aesthetic experiences, such as those we derive from tragedy, may contain elements of pain.

In the hedonic sphere the working of the principle is obvious. Many physical pleasures depend in some degree on suffering, or at least deprivation. Enjoyment of rest is increased by fatigue, and of eating hunger. It might be argued that in these cases deprivation is merely a pre-condition of the pleasant experience, and not an ingredient in it. But if we consider some of the more complex human enjoyments, such as ski-ing or rock-climbing, it is clear that an element of strain and danger is an actual part of the experience and heightens its pleasure.

This section could prove useful for thinking about Salingaros’ comments about violence in Tschumi’s texts. The following section resonates with some of my interests in Buddhism.

There are occasions when we derive aesthetic pleasure from real events even though they may be painful or horrifying. But for this to happen the events must usually occured at such a distance in space or time, and be so completely beyond our intervention, that we can regard them with something of the detachment with which we regard the events of a tragedy…In certain rare states of consciousness, however, we achieve what has been aptly termed “physical distance.” Many people enjoy, from time to time, short-lived but profoundly satisfying experiences when they seem in some strange way to have got out of themselves and out of time, and when eveyrthing around them acquires a profound amd moving significance. These experiences, with which few people are quite unfamiliar, are mystical experiences of a rudimentary kind; and what may (we suggest) be happening, both here and in full mystical experience, is that we have slipped momentarily “out of gear” with our practical life and are reacting to the things and events around as we do a work of art. Hence the profound sense of harmony and integration. We have abandoned our dual allegiance; we have slipped momentarily into the cosmic attitude; we are “in tune with the universe” to the extent that we, like the rest of Nature, have become blind for a time to all but aesthetic values.

I haven’t really had chance to digest it yet. I may come back later and hyperlink it to give it some context.

It would be remiss of me to offer you this without having done a bit of Googling first. I found out that this work was part of a lecture series delivered on the BBC in 1955 called ‘Freethought’. Objectivethought.com says that it ‘…drew harsh public protests.’

Over at positiveatheism.org they have a series of quotes from Margaret Knight, such as:

At the time of the broadcasts, I held two assumptions that were common among the more highbrow type of sceptic. These were: (i) that Jesus, though he was deluded in believing himself to be the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, was, nevertheless, a great moral teacher, and a man of outstanding moral excellence, and (ii) that though Christianity is now rapidly being outgrown, it was a great force for good in its day. In the light of wider knowledge, both assumptions now seem to me to be false. I now incline to the view that the conversion of Europe to Christianity was one of the greatest disasters of history.

And who should I find listed below her? None other than the irrepressible Arthur Koestler – who seems to be watching my every move at the moment. Spooky.

images: image 1 is the cover, image 2 is an advert from the back of the book

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