Will Beauty Save the World?

Art that presents truth as a living force is irrefutable

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Philosophy

A character in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, tempted to despair, asks an intriguing question. Will beauty save the world? There are a couple of reasons to answer “not likely.”

Here’s a first reason. Since there are sharply differing accounts of the nature of beauty, it probably isn’t any one thing. But if it isn’t any one thing, then it lacks the unity to do anything, much less save the world. Well, that’s a weak argument. Disagreement about the nature of something hardly proves that it has no nature. Maybe it shows that we should work harder to figure out what the nature of something really is.

Here’s a second reason. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Given the number of beholders, nothing in their collective eyes will save anything. If beauty is a set of wholly subjective perceptions, then it’s detached from the world around us and in no position to save it. But that’s another weak argument. Maybe the beauty in the eye of the beholder really shows that there’s objective beauty that gives rise to its subjective perception.

An old teacher of mine, a bit of a cynic, was fond of saying “There’s nothing so persistent as a bad reason masquerading as a clever idea.” Relativism and subjectivism, in their various forms, are surely persistent. It’s no surprise that they put beauty at risk!

Beauty, however, has its friends. Indeed, a pair of friends offer reasons for thinking that, yes, beauty will save the world. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn contends that beauty is harder to betray than truth and harder to subvert than goodness. “Conceptions which are devised or stretched,” he writes, “come crashing down [and] convince no one. But those works of art which have scooped up the truth and present it to us as a living force—they take hold of us, compel us, and nobody, not even in ages to come, will appear to refute them.”

The prospects for beauty saving the world also look brighter if God created the world so that, as the song says, everything is beautiful in its own way. There is something more persistent than bad reasons masquerading as clever ideas. It’s our human capacity to delight in that which is. Another friend of beauty, Jacques Maritain, observes that “as being is everywhere present and everywhere various, the beautiful likewise is scattered everywhere and everywhere various.”

Postscript: Scattering, of course, isn’t shredding. Blanky’s shredding of Girl with Balloon, upon its sale for 1.37M pounds, calls for its own post. Coming soon!

 

 

Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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