Waking up to Wisdom
In Stillness and Community

Can Beauty Save the World?

--by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Dec 14, 2015)

Dostoyevsky once let drop the enigmatic phrase: “Beauty will save the world.” What does this mean? For a long time it used to seem to me that this was a mere phrase. Just how could such a thing be possible? When had it ever happened in the bloodthirsty course of history that beauty had saved anyone from anything? Beauty had provided embellishment certainly, given uplift—but whom had it ever saved?

However, there is a special quality in the essence of beauty, a special quality in the status of art: the conviction carried by a genuine work of art is absolutely indisputable and tames even the strongly opposed heart. One can construct a political speech, an assertive journalistic polemic, a program for organizing society, a philosophical system, so that in appearance it is smooth, well structured, and yet it is built upon a mistake, a lie; and the hidden element, the distortion, will not immediately become visible. And a speech, or a journalistic essay, or a program in rebuttal, or a different philosophical structure can be counterposed to the first—and it will seem just as well constructed and as smooth, and everything will seem to fit. And therefore one has faith in them—yet one has no faith.

It is vain to affirm that which the heart does not confirm. In contrast, a work of art bears within itself its own confirmation: concepts which are manufactured out of whole cloth or overstrained will not stand up to being tested in images, will somehow fall apart and turn out to be sickly and pallid and convincing to no one. Works steeped in truth and presenting it to us vividly alive will take hold of us, will attract us to themselves with great power- and no one, ever, even in a later age, will presume to negate them. And so perhaps that old trinity of Truth and Good and Beauty is not just the formal outworn formula it used to seem to us during our heady, materialistic youth. If the crests of these three trees join together, as the investigators and explorers used to affirm, and if the too obvious, too straight branches of Truth and Good are crushed or amputated and cannot reach the light—yet perhaps the whimsical, unpredictable, unexpected branches of Beauty will make their way through and soar up to that very place and in this way perform the work of all three.

And in that case it was not a slip of the tongue for Dostoyevsky to say that “Beauty will save the world,” but a prophecy. After all, he was given the gift of seeing much, he was extraordinarily illumined.

And consequently perhaps art, literature, can in actual fact help the world of today.

Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn from this article.

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Previous Reflections:

On Dec 13, 2015 david doane wrote:

(Curious that I seem to struggle more with what to say about this topic than with any topic so far.)   For me, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or more accurately, in the soul of the beholder.  Beauty is that which catches my attention and touches my soul in a positive way, and I feel some amount of awe, joy, and appreciation.  There is a Greek saying that a thing of beauty is a joy forever.  Beauty stimulates my senses and imagination, and I am caught up in it, present to it and with it and disconnected from other realities of life for a few or many moments.  For me, an example of Beauty is a ballerina performing impeccably with grace and balance which simultaneously opens me to the impeccable grace and balance of Truth and Good.  The practice of being in the present, seeing and responding to what is happening brings Beauty into my work and life.  I suppose what appears as beauty pulls out a sliver of Beauty that is in the beholder.

On Dec 15, 2015 Rashmi wrote:

 Beauty certainly pulls me towards it.

On Dec 15, 2015 Craig wrote:

I feel that there is a truth to what Dostoyevsky said, but that it is far more esoteric than what Solzhenitsyn has written about here. My sense is that Beauty resonates with us in a way that is beyond the intellectual mind, under the table of the ego. As Rashimi wrote, Beauty pulls us toward it perhaps because it reminds us that we are one with it already; Beauty tickles our hearts in that place where we are not separate from anything.

I felt a bit saddened reading this piece. Did Solzhenitsyn contradict his meaning with his form? To my ear, the way he expressed his ideas did not sing or dance. Where did the poetry go? Was his beauty was lost in translation? Or is beauty so relative, as David has suggested, that another reader found beauty here that I missed, because I did not have the ears to hear it?

I will continue to ponder the notion that untrue ideas cannot fit into a beautiful form—yet I see an attempt to convey that very thing in advertising on a daily basis. And many of us are hooked by it, seduced...

The ancient Hindu story of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk is a wonderful story to study when we wish to look at the place, the need, and the power of Beauty. It's a tale of how Beauty did save the world. In that myth, Divinity alternates between manifesting and hiding, between the numinous and the seductive, found among the perceptual world—then hopelessly lost—and only recovered again by going deep, deep within.

On Feb 3, 2016 Ramesh Narayan wrote:

 What did Dostoyevsky mean by Beauty? Beauty is a very relative term. What is beautiful for me might not be so for someone else. Everyone has his or her own definition of beauty. Beautiful eyes, beautiful face, beautiful grace, beautiful body language, beautiful occasion, beautiful nature, beautiful morning, beautiful crowd, beautiful music, beautiful this, beautiful that.....Yes, beauty is certainly a blend of truth, good and many more things that are beautiful.

On Oct 28, 2017 Marc wrote:

This question will generate a different answer from different people, but perhaps beauty is something that invites us to rise up beyond what we thought possible, because it speaks truth. I am a huge fan of music, and I tend to listen for beauty in music, which is to say that I like to feel that the artist is expressing what is truth to him/her. I have also read books that are beautiful. I try to bring this beauty into my work and life by remembering to be true to my values and ideals. This is often a challenge, since many forces pull us in directions that encourage us to be someone else, but when I can remember, it is empowering to feel this beauty.