“Beauty will save the world” is a well-known quote from Dostoevsky’s novel, The Idiot. Furthermore, the “idiot” speaks that particular line. But most readers dismiss it as creative hyperbole, a totally impractical weapon against the ever present evil one encounters.
However, when fellow Russian, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, could not leave the Soviet Union in 1970 to accept his Nobel Prize for Literature, he used Dostoevsky’s line in an acceptance letter as a spring board for sharing himself with the world beyond the Iron Curtain.
In his introduction, the former prisoner of the infamous Gulag admitted that he had downplayed the importance of that statement for years. Like most of the rest of the world, it seemed unrealistic – perhaps even idiotic. The stark horrors of life and death in the prison camps belied the possibility that beauty was anything more than ornamental.
But when he tried to write about those years and testify to the brutality encountered and the heroism observed, Solzhenitsyn began to reealize that beauty could effect change. How could anyone but a fellow prisoner understand the depravity inherent in forcing harsh government control over individuals without expressive writing? In other words, the presentation of his and others’ experiences must be beautifully written if the reader is to enter into their experience and learn from it.
Beautiful literature can at least begin changing the world.
Another towering figure of the twentieth century, Pope John Paul II, also referenced Dostoevsky’s belief about beauty in his Letter to Young Artists in 1999. First he acknowledges that each person is building his own life with every decision made and action performed. Hopefully all build lives of loving integrity that become works of art. He explains that while each person faces daunting challenges throughout life, the energy and enthusiasm needed to overcome them is found in beauty. In fact, he insists that “beauty will save the world” is a profound insight.
But the focus of the letter eloquently encourages artists to develop their talents for the common good, fully aware their work echoes God’s creativity. It will encourage present and future generations since beauty not only delights, but exhilarates.
Pope John Paul II’s closing sentences themselves inspire his readers:
““From chaos there rises the world of the spirit.” These words of Adam Mickiewicz, written at a time of great hardship for his Polish homeland, prompt my hope for you: may your art help to affirm that true beauty which, as a glimmer of the Spirit of God, will transfigure matter, opening the human soul to the sense of the eternal.”