Beauty will save the world
‘Beauty will save the world’, declared Prince Myshkin, more than 150 years ago. And they called him an idiot!*
Is this really true?
Beauty – is that the answer to all the barbarities that surround us? These days, beauty, the kind that takes our breath away, seems to have been swept away, and to be in great danger of oblivion. The lack of beauty in political discourses, in media programming, on the streets, in the latest fashion and in children’s toys – why is it so?
Our daily bread seems to be baked from intellectual poverty, forgotten history, the loss of common sense, reductionism, excessive consumption and competition. Every day requires a new effort to find delicacy amidst contemporary words and attitudes.
Vile behaviour and violence that assail us from the time we get up in the morning: from the plight of refugees to continued strife in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, the DRC, and so many other places, to plastic in the entrails of deep sea creatures. These are all reduced to cold and ugly statistics and yet still hold the uncanny ability to create fear and hate. I find no beauty here.
What is beauty?
Beauty is commonly defined as ‘something’ that conforms to the ideal version of aesthetics. Well maybe this is adequate for those too busy to imagine, but for me, beauty is more subtle than this rather arid definition. Beauty is a feeling that goes beyond objects. It is a gentle smile and the clouds moving along the sky. It is a tender kiss on a cheek wet from tears. It is a silent gesture of compassion within the harshest environment. It is the giving of love without asking for anything in return.
And above all else, beauty means respect and dignity. Without these two, there is no beauty no matter what the object may be. As Rumi has so often tried to teach us, beauty and wisdom come from the same source and ‘the universe is brimming with [them]’.
Taking care of the hurt.
So, to restore some sense to it all, I will turn to François Cheng, a sage of our times, who wisely wrote:
In these times of permanent misery, of blind violence, of natural or ecological catastrophes, to talk about beauty could seem incongruous, inconvenient and even provocateur. Almost a scandal. […] Beauty includes the taking care of the hurt of the world, the extreme demand of dignity, of compassion, of a sense of justice, as well as the total opening to universal resonance. **
So, Prince Myshkin may have been right after all. He may have lost his ‘common sense’ according to his friends, but in my view he had not. Prince Myshkin was smart enough to recognize that beauty held the inspiration and the very essence of our intrinsically compassionate nature.
Maybe I like to think of myself as a humble version of Prince Myshkin … with, I should insist, absolutely no qualms about being called an idiot. Maybe we should all be, so that we may answer to hate, fear and violence with compassion.
Thank you for reading.
* From The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, published in 1864.
** From Cinq méditations sur la beauté by François Cheng, published by Albin Michel, France, 2006 – my translation.