In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, the oft-quoted line that “beauty will save the world” is attributed to the ethereal Prince Myshkin. Our world is certainly one in need of saving, with the complete degradation of beauty across all facets of life. The severance of beauty from culture has had a profound impact on the way we live, and is linked inextricably to our current moral confusion. Myshkin shows us a way out. He transcends those around him through his sufferings, and by his life conveys deep ethical verities about beauty and reality. Dostoyevsky imparts to us through Myshkin the idea that with beauty we can confront the vast emptiness of the modern world, with all its vanities.
There is, however, another figure in the Dostoevsky corpus who can aid us in the struggle for beauty. In The Brothers Karamazov, the novice monk Alyosha Karamazov displays through his moral nature and person a profound contrast to the wiles of the world. The work is a supreme paean to the relationship between the true, the good, and the beautiful. The central debates concerning faith, doubt, love, and despair, are incredibly pertinent to the position in which we find ourselves in the post-Christian West. Through Alyosha the beauty of Christ is radiated, contra the tortured figure of his brother Ivan, whose pure and manic rationality leads him to affirm the creed – now seemingly ubiquitous in the Western world – that “if God is dead, everything is permitted.”
Alyosha stands as a moral beacon above the machinations of his fellow men. Sent forth into the world by his superior, he is able to bring hope to the hardships of his family and the wider community. Ivan, meanwhile, torments himself over the unjust sufferings in the world and flirts dangerously with nihilism. He points specifically to the pains of children and animals, and the nature of free will. Alyosha shows us a way out of the depths of this abyss, by making it clear that true freedom requires the possibility of evil. The dignity of man is impossible unless it is so.
Dostoyevsky ultimately answers Ivan’s protestations through Alyosha’s actions. The novice monk’s love for the people with whom he interacts echoes Christ’s love for all men. He makes it clear through his life that each person is ultimately responsible for all. Alyosha manages to attain a deathbed reconciliation between the young nihilist Kolya and his friend Ilyusha, and Kolya is profoundly affected. He begins to rethink his perspective on the world, and eventually cries out that “Oh, if I, too, could sacrifice myself some day for the truth!” Alyosha, through his beautiful nature, leads others beyond themselves, and to absolution.
Of course, it is not only through literature that beauty can save the world. There are other spheres in which beauty can lead us to a greater understanding of our place within the cosmos, to order, contentment, and redemption. One thinks of aesthetics. Modernity has decisively set its face against beauty in the realms of art and architecture. Indeed, it has become a heresy to assert that objective standards of beauty exist, and that the artist should strive toward them in his work. A Titian is considered to be no greater than Hurst’s diamond encrusted cast of a skull. One has only to attend an exhibit at a university art department, or a gallery of modern art, to see how far we have fallen. The vulgar and the scatological are exalted. This aesthetic decline is particularly apparent in opera. When faced with some of the greatest works of art in human history, the modern producer seems to have a narcissistic desire to pervert their beauty. Mozart and Wagner are consistently desecrated in this way. The libretto speaks of love and beauty, which the producer without fail sets to the untrammelled delights of brutalist sex and violence.
Dostoyevsky was correct in thinking that beauty can save us from such things. For this to happen, there must be a return to the idea that the true, the good, and the beautiful are an intertwined trio of values. This idea stems from Platonism, and was later incorporated into Christian thinking. It has to be rediscovered that, in the words of Roger Scruton, “beauty is an ultimate value – something that we pursue for its own sake, and for the pursuit of which no further reason need be given.”
Plotinus held that this trio of values are features of God, and that through them man can attain an understanding of the divine. St. Thomas Aquinas carried this forward and applied it to a Christian understanding of the world. This type of thinking, with its theological underpinning, is rather alien to the modern mind. It can, however, be unveiled and discovered once again.