The title of Gregory Wolfe’s excellent collection of essays, Beauty Will Save the World, is based on a much-quoted line from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. In its context it appears only in indirect speech, being attributed by one of the other characters to the “Idiot” of the title, Prince Myshkin. Thus in its original context its meaning is ambiguous, or at least ill-defined. That makes it doubly appropriate for Greg’s title, since he is arguing against the “ideologues” of today’s culture wars in favour of a literary and imaginative approach to the truth. Conservatives have succumbed to philistinism, and fail to appreciate modern art, he argues. Great literature, and art in general, explores the world—and today that means the modern world—from the inside. It is not preachy or moralistic; as a result, conservatives of a Puritan or pragmatic bent often find it unedifying, or even profane. But it is legitimate, Greg believes, for art to shock, to revolt against established conventions, to make explicit what others may hesitate to look upon. In many cases this may be the only way for the artist to discover a “redemptive path toward order.”
A particular target of the book seems to be those conservatives who can see nothing good coming out of modernity except the Inklings. I suspect Greg numbers me among them, although in reality my tastes are much broader than the things I tend to write about. But it is the case that my interest is less in literature and the arts, important though these are in posing the right questions and exploring the ambiguities of our time, than in philosophy and theology, where we legitimately search for answers to those very questions. This is not the same as seeking an ideology, though of course a theology can be rendered ideological easily enough. Theology at its most authentic is not a fortress of ideas, but more like a path across a landscape, a route map, or a system of signposts. It is intrinsically mystical, it is of the spirit not the letter.
Greg has developed a strong aversion to the kind of conservatism that rejects the modern world and gives up on modern culture, pretending to saw off the branch on which it sits. The importance of “Beauty” is that she is the only one of the ancient “transcendentals” that still speaks to us through modern culture. She is our way back to the vision of the whole, to a meaningful universe. But she has become separated from her sisters, Truth and Goodness, and thus relativized and subjectivized. Lacking a sense of transcendent Truth and Goodness, our culture is easily dominated by purely political and economic forces—power and money are the new transcendentals. He has a good account of how this happened, beginning with the Nominalists. But through it all, Beauty remains eloquent, calling us back to an awareness of Being and therefore of the reality our ideologies have squeezed out of the picture. The artist is the one who keeps us hearing this call to meaning, which is the breath of life.
The artist awakens the question of meaning, and takes us to the threshold of understanding. He speaks to the imagination, which is far more important than the rationalist in us admits. Imagination is our faculty for comparing and connecting the various parts of the world to make some kind of whole, a narrative in which we have a part to play, or an icon of the self we have lost. The imagination, Greg says, “works through empathy.” It is by empathy that the artist passes over from his or her own experience to that of another, and through that transcendence of self attains a glimpse of common or universal humanity beyond the reach of solipsistic individualism.
This is all very well, but will Beauty, will the imagination, “save the world” on its own? I doubt it very much. Beauty may prepare the world to be saved; it may crack the walls of our prison. But to pass through that crack we need something more. To step out of the cave and into the light we need the will to do so, and that can only be engaged if Beauty is reconnected with Truth and Goodness. Greg himself sees this. He is more than familiar with Balthasar’s warning of the consequences of separating Beauty from her “two sisters”, and he writes of artistic creativity as a “call” or “invitation” to virtue. It is a point that is hard to develop further without falling into moralism. The arts and literature are preparatory, even essential in some ways, to the life of the spirit, but nevertheless some more radical engagement with the world is necessary, and that is found in spirituality, in the inner life, in mysticism, in metaphysical intuition. That is not to say we must all become “intellectuals”, because that word now refers to a kind of book-learning and cleverness that is very far from what I have in mind. We must become more open to a light that we only half remember, which comes from a horizon beyond the achievements of human culture however noble, and which answers the cries of the human spirit to which the artist gives a voice.
I see this as one possible meaning of another work by Dostoevsky, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man. In this short story, a man intending to commit suicide dreams of an unfallen world of human beings living in peace with each other, with nature, and with God. But he also dreams of how he introduces sin and corruption into this world, until it becomes as bad as his own world, so that in a desperate desire to atone and heal he teaches them to make a cross and implores them to crucify him.
Awake again, his love of life is restored. “For I have seen the truth,” he writes:
I have seen and I know that people can be beautiful and happy without losing the power of living on earth. I will not and cannot believe that evil is the normal condition of mankind. And it is just this faith of mine that they laugh at. But how can I help believing it? I have seen the truth—it is not as though I had invented it with my mind, I have seen it, seen it, and the living image of it has filled my soul for ever.
Here we see the role of the imagination, of the arts, which is ultimately to show us an image that our soul will recognize as true. But then we must act, we must become apostles, we must become “ridiculous.”
The chief thing is to love others like yourself, that’s the chief thing, and that’s everything; nothing else is wanted—you will find out at once how to arrange it all. And yet it’s an old truth which has been told and retold a billion times—but it has not formed part of our lives! The consciousness of life is higher than life, the knowledge of the laws of happiness is higher than happiness—that is what one must contend against. And I shall. If only everyone wants it, it can be arranged at once.
This review first appeared Thursday, September 27, 2012 on the Beauty in Education website and is reprinted with permission.