A popular quote we often hear but find hard to understand is “beauty will save the world.” How will beauty save the world? The line comes from Dostoevsky’s novel, The Idiot, attributed to the main character, Prince Myskin. The prince, an epileptic Russian nobleman, serves as a Christ-like figure, who stands apart for his innocence and even naiveté. Out of the mouth of this idiot comes a clearer vision of beauty and reality than those around him, his clarity heightened even in the midst of his sickness.
The saving power of beauty in the prince’s life could not overcome his sickness, but nonetheless illumined his vision: “What matter though it be only disease, an abnormal tension of the brain, if when I recall and analyze the moment, it seems to have been one of harmony and beauty in the highest degree—an instant of deepest sensation, overflowing with unbounded joy and rapture, ecstatic devotion, and completest life?” In the midst of his suffering, he glimpsed, though in a paradoxical manner, the heart of reality.
Are the prince’s words on beauty the words of a mad idiot or of a prophet?
In Solzhenitsyn’s Noble lecture, he notes that after dismissing the quote for years, he realized that “Dostoevsky’s remark, ‘Beauty will save the world,’ was not a careless phrase but a prophecy. After all he was granted to see much, a man of fantastic illumination. And in that case art, literature might really be able to help the world today?”
If that is not enough, Pope John Paul II quoted the line in his Letter to Artists, under the heading “The Saving Power of Beauty”:
People of today and tomorrow need this enthusiasm [of wonder] if they are to meet and master the crucial challenges which stand before us. Thanks to this enthusiasm, humanity, every time it loses its way, will be able to lift itself up and set out again on the right path. In this sense it has been said with profound insight that “beauty will save the world” (§16).
Can the words of an idiot set the tone for our response to the modern world? In a mad world, maybe only the idiot is sane. It seems we can and even must trust him, now that the words of an idiot have become the words of a Pope!
Upon reading Pope Francis’s first encyclical, Lumen Fidei, I was struck most of all by its literary quality. The encyclical does not offer much theological innovation, but is remarkable for its engagement of culture: classical, medieval, and above all contemporary. It seems to follow Dostoevsky’s vision for the power of beauty. In our world that has largely rejected the ability of reason to know the truth and the moral order toward the good, is it a privileged moment for beauty? The encyclical seems to point to this reality, using literature and art to underscore its points.
Pope Benedict XVI, the primary drafter of Lumen Fidei, emphasized the absolutely essential role of beauty in human life in his “Meeting with Artists.” Guess who he turned to for support?
Dostoevsky’s words that I am about to quote are bold and paradoxical, but they invite reflection. He says this: “Man can live without science, he can live without bread, but without beauty he could no longer live, because there would no longer be anything to do to the world. The whole secret is here, the whole of history is here” (quoting from the novel, Demons).
Is it not clear that we are missing this key element of human life? And if we are, what does this mean for the life of faith?
Lumen Fidei does not explicitly draw out the significance of beauty for the light of the faith. Rather, it is demonstrated by the style of the encyclical itself. Once again, Dostoevsky makes a crucial appearance:
In Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Prince Myskin sees a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger depicting Christ dead in the tomb and says: “Looking at that painting might cause one to lose his faith.” The painting is a gruesome portrayal of the destructive effects of death on Christ’s body. Yet it is precisely in contemplating Jesus’ death that faith grows stronger and receives a dazzling light; then it is revealed as faith in Christ’s steadfast love for us, a love capable of embracing death to bring us salvation. This love, which did not recoil before death in order to show its depth, is something I can believe in; Christ’s total self-gift overcomes every suspicion and enables me to entrust myself to him completely (§16).
This quote is significant in relation to Dostoevsky’s vision of beauty for a number of reasons. Like “beauty will save the world,” it comes from The Idiot and refers to Prince Myskin. Second, it points to a central theme of the novel, the struggle with beauty, physically and spiritually, in the midst of suffering. Third, this struggle and tension between physical and spiritual beauty becomes a central motif in the engagement of modern culture. In the midst of sickness, how can one perceive beauty clearly? Beauty should be a path to truth, and thus faith, but the modern world itself is disfigured and trapped in darkness. It has a kind of spiritual epilepsy, an internal, maddening sickness, which, unlike for Myskin, impairs the perception of true beauty.
Looking back to Benedict’s vision, we can see how beauty itself is luminous. The light of beauty is meant to illuminate the path toward the light of faith. In Benedict’s “Meeting with Artists,” we see both the darkness of the modern eclipse of beauty and true beauty’s ability to lead to sight:
Too often, though, the beauty that is thrust upon us is illusory and deceitful, superficial and blinding, leaving the onlooker dazed; instead of bringing him out of himself and opening him up to horizons of true freedom as it draws him aloft, it imprisons him within himself and further enslaves him, depriving him of hope and joy…. Authentic beauty, however, unlocks the yearning of the human heart, the profound desire to know, to love, to go towards the Other, to reach for the Beyond. If we acknowledge that beauty touches us intimately, that it wounds us, that it opens our eyes, then we rediscover the joy of seeing, of being able to grasp the profound meaning of our existence.
Literary and artistic references in Lumen Fidei show just this twofold engagement with beauty. The encyclical quotes Nietzsche, Rousseau, and Wittgenstein to demonstrate how illusory beauty focused on the self (finding one’s own way) traps within subjective experience. In this false beauty, there is no motion beyond the self to the true and the good, but rather a truncation and darkening isolation. True beauty is also employed in the encyclical to show that the light of beauty sheds its rays toward the true and the good. The poetry of Dante and T.S. Eliot are used to provide images of the light of faith and of faith’s role in society respectively.
The fight for beauty is a true battleground of the soul and intimately linked to the crisis of faith. Dostoevsky himself indicates this in his masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov: “The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.” What appears as beautiful may not be, and what appears terrible, such as the corpse of Christ, may indicate true beauty. Dostoevsky manifests this tension by placing his prophet of beauty in the midst of suffering and even insanity.
For good or ill, beauty has power. This power can be used to illumine the path toward the truth and goodness, or to pull one down in the vain pursuit of self. If beauty does not point toward the true and the good, it becomes a darkness, a turning inward. Another line from The Idiot reveals this ambiguous power of beauty: “Such beauty is real power…. With such beauty as that one might overthrow the world.” This beauty is the beauty of a woman, which may have such power (think of Troy), but when beauty sheds its light in the right direction, it should save the world, not overthrow it!
Francis and Benedict chose the line from The Idiot on Holbein’s painting for a reason. It is precisely in its realistic portrayal of suffering that it arrests and challenges the characters in the novel. This realism can be a scandal, but also an opportunity. As we contemplate our own disfigurement in the modern world, we have the same dilemma. We must overcome the darkness imposed by illusory beauty, along with the spiritual disfigurement it has created. Maybe our perception of beauty must begin with a more genuine experience of suffering. In contemplating the suffering of Christ, in particular, we see a beauty which took on our infirmities and overcame their darkness. It is a challenging beauty, but a powerful one—with power to transform our own suffering and lack of beauty. It is a beauty that shakes us to the core, which illuminates us, and ultimately is the beauty that will save the world.
Editor’s note: Above is a detail from Hans Holbein the Younger’s painting “The body of the dead Christ in the tomb” painted between 1520 and 1522. Click here to view the whole painting.