What did Fyodor Dostoevsky mean in The Idiot when one of his characters asserts, "Beauty will save the world?" Taken at face value, it's a claim that beauty plays a role in the salvation of us all. It also contains the implication that the culture surrounding us, as the platform where much of the world's beauty is displayed, fits into the plan of our salvation.Our unending delight is found in the beauty of God, in His presence to our souls. Yet beauty is also part of the journey, not just the destination.
WASHINGTON,DC (Catholic Online) - What did Fyodor Dostoevsky mean in The Idiot when one of his characters asserts, "Beauty will save the world?" Taken at face value, it's a claim that beauty plays a role in the salvation of us all. It also contains the implication that the culture surrounding us, as the platform where much of the world's beauty is displayed, fits into the plan of our salvation.
There are quite a few Christians, of all denominations, who would respond to both claims with skepticism, if not outright denial. Beauty, they would say, is more like the road to ruin than the path to God. With beauty comes attraction to what may be destructive, especially to the lower appetites, as they used to be called.
I call these skeptics the "religious despisers" of beauty. I'm reversing the approach of the well known book On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (1799) by Friedrich Schleiermacher. Those cultured despisers of religion still exist, of course, but it's the despisers of beauty, motivated by religious earnestness, that I want to address. They, I believe, are not only missing the deepest significance of our desire for beauty, but they are also putting unnecessary limits on their witness to faith in Jesus Christ.
May we begin the argument by acknowledging that beauty is part of everything we do, not just our enjoyment of the arts. We are creatures wrapped in constant aisthesis or sensation, from which the term aesthetics is derived. Sensation makes our awareness of beauty possible, from the everyday appreciation of the world around us, to the moments of overwhelming beauty that caused a reorientation of our lives. Who can deny that beauty can elicit in us such a sense of aspiration that we resolve to live in a different, and better, way?
Such moments come to many of us from works of art as well: a film, a novel, a poem, a play, a painting or sculpture, a ballet or musical, a building, or - as it did for me - an architecturally arranged place like the Piazza del Campo in Sienna, where it is said the Mother of God laid down her cloak to mark its boundaries.
Remember that aspiration you feel as you are lifted up and out of yourself, when you experience the ecstasy of beauty. You aspire to live in accord with something you glimpse at that moment - something you sense is real and within your grasp. The chorus at the end of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, the "Ode to Joy" can serve as a common reference point. Few pieces of music inspire as much aspiration towards lasting friendship among persons and nations.
The 9th Symphony is one of those great works of art that have been transforming those who hear it for centuries. The Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn argues that works of art have an advantage over unadorned concepts in changing lives. He has in mind the kinds of ideas and concepts used in philosophy, theology, and politics. For example, Aristotle taught me a theory of virtue and vice, but it was Shakespeare who taught me about human nature (and I wish I had paid more attention)!
Solzhenitsyn writes, "Concepts which are manufactured out of whole cloth or overstrained will not stand up to being tested in images, will somehow fall apart and turn out to be sickly and pallid and convincing to no one." Works of art, he argues, that are "steeped in truth" and are "vividly alive will take hold of us, will attract us to themselves with great power - and no one, ever, even in a later age, will presume to negate them."
What is the source of this power? according to Solzhenitsyn, it's "that old trinity of Truth and Good and Beauty," the basic transcendental properties of all being and beings. In other words, everything that exists has truth, goodness, and beauty, and they are unified in every being. This is what makes possible, from a metaphysical point of view, for beauty to become an agent of salvation.
Catholic philosophers consider this oneness a demonstrable fact of metaphysics, unaided by faith. Theology, however, provided the ultimate cause for the unity: the doctrine of creation. When God creates, He shares His being, His existence - an existence that is perfectly true, good, and beautiful. It's their status as properties across all beings that make them "controvertible," meaning wherever you meet one you encounter the other.
Those "religious despisers" of beauty would welcome someone they meet who is searching for the good or the true. So why not also welcome those who search for the beautiful? The despisers do not understand that underlying the hunger for beauty is the search for God.
It is God's beauty that will be seen in the Beatific Vision, the state of eternal happiness where our infinite desire meets the only infinite object: God. As Dante says, at the end of the Paradiso, it is impossible to turn away:
And as I gaz'd, I kindled at the sight;
No Mortal from the glorious view could turn,
Paradiso. (Canto XXXIII)
Our unending delight is found in the beauty of God, in His presence to our souls. Yet beauty is also part of the journey, not just the destination.
If a friend weeps at what is beautiful, don't tell them they are wasting their tears. If you deny a person beauty, in the name of God, that person may reject Him, He who is beauty itself. If you say beauty belongs to the Evil One, you are aiding in Satan's most devious ploy.
Instead, Christians should tell these pilgrims that their desire for beauty is as natural to the creature as the hunger for goodness and truth. Tell them that beauty can be the way, and then tell them about the beauty of Christ and His cross.
Even better, Christians should show them the cultural artifacts that Christians have produced to glorify Him - works so great and lasting that it is gazed upon every day by millions who don't even share the faith that inspired it. This is not meant as a dispensable addendum to faith or to the evangelical witness; the fullness of our Christian witness demands it.
1. Very religious people often have a skepticism toward the consideration of beauty as a way to God.
2. Human beings are constantly in a state of sensation -- aisthesis -- as the world presents itself to the mind through the senses.
3. Beauty as a way to God is metaphysically grounded in its status as a transcendental property of being in union with truth and the good.
© Deal W. Hudson, Ph.D
Deal W. Hudson is president of the Morley Institute of Church and Culture, Senior Editor at Catholic Online, and former publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine.This column and subsequent contributions are an excerpt from a forthcoming book. Dr. Hudson's new radio show, Church and Culture, will begin broadcasting in February on the Ave Maria Radio Network.
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