How Dostoyevsky Came to Believe that Beauty Will Save the World

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How did Dostoevsky come to believe that beauty will save the world? He served his four-year sentence in a labor camp in Omsk where I was born. The barracks where the prisoners were kept are still there to this day and now form the “historical part of the city” with Dostoyevsky’s monument at the entrance.

Four years of hard labor in Siberia in the middle of the 19th century were tantalizing. And yet, in this furnace, Dostoyevsky’s main philosophical ideas were forged, which he later fleshed out in Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.

Scholars agree that during this time, a radical shift happened in his thinking from looking for external solutions to the world’s problems to discovering beauty as the only solution to evil.

The pinnacle of his “beauty-will-save-the-world” narrative is his poem The Great Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov.

The 90-year-old cardinal arrests Jesus and makes a strong case for why the system of the world based on worshiping external authority is the only solution for those weak and unruly human beings to live happily. He scoffs at Jesus for believing in humans too much. They don’t want freedom. They want bread and someone to bow down to.

We – the system of the world – provided them with all that. Don’t you dare ruin it! It’s the only way to keep evil in check. Jesus doesn’t respond. He is silent. After the old man finishes his tirade, Jesus stands up and kisses him gently. The old man doesn’t execute him as he promised. He lets him go. Why?

Because he met with the ultimate beauty. Jesus’s kiss awakened him to a sudden realization that haunted his dreams for many years. Suddenly, he knew in his heart that all his arguments were a bunch of baloney.

There’s beauty in the world that makes a man forget all about bread and security. It is the beauty of seeing someone readily becoming a willing sacrifice for you. The Grand Inquisitor understands that Jesus is ready to die again as many times as necessary so people can be free. So, he lets him go, unable to resist the inner call of Beauty.  

Dostoyevsky’s famous phrase “Beauty will save the world” sums up his whole philosophy and strangely resonates with the insights of other great thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries. One of them was Victor Hugo, who, according to Dostoyevsky, was his source of inspiration.

Why did Victor Hugo write Les Miserables?

In the introduction to Les Miserables, Victor Hugo said that he wanted to write a Gospel for ordinary people. How did he do it?

His story starts with Bishop Myriel becoming a willing sacrifice for Jean Valjean. And the rest of the story is Jean Valjean becoming a willing sacrifice for Cosette. The whole narrative hinges upon Jean Valjean’s “chance” meeting with the bishop of Digne. By becoming a willing sacrifice for Valjean, the bishop redeemed his soul from evil – which is the only way to nip evil in the bud.

All great stories hinge upon the same eternal motif – someone becoming a willing sacrifice for someone else, which is the ultimate Beauty. No story worth reading works without this motif. It lives in the collective subconscious, representing the irresistible call from beyond the walls of the world.

The third interesting intersection of this idea is with J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Third Theme” in the Music of Iluvatar. Tolkien opens his cosmogonic myth of The Silmarillion with the Music of Iluvatar which consists of three themes.

What is the story of The Silmarillion all about?

The Silmarillion opens with a prophetic vision called the Music of Iluvatar. This Music is a prophecy, a vision for everything else that would come.

The First Theme is the jubilant theme of creation when all the Ainur (the Powers in Tolkien’s world) join in singing the Music of Iluvatar. They sing together aright until it enters the heart of Melkor (the mightiest of the Ainur and a Satan figure) to raise his voice above that of his brethren. He creates a cacophony called “the discord of Melkor.”

In the Second Theme, the “two musics” were proceeding simultaneously – one was the music of the Ainur and the other one was the “braying” of Melkor. And there was strife between them until Iluvatar arose and his face was terrible to behold.

Anticlimactically, he didn’t pour his wrath upon Melkor. He didn’t even stop him from disrupting the harmony.

Then again Iluvatar arose, and the Ainur perceived that his countenance was stern; and he lifted up his right hand, and behold! a third theme grew amid the confusion, and it was unlike the others. For it seemed at first soft and sweet, a mere rippling of gentle sounds in delicate melodies; but it could not be quenched, and it took to itself power and profundity. And it seemed at last that there were two musics progressing at one time before the seat of Iluvatar, and they were utterly at variance. The one was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came

The Third Theme of Iluvatar was the theme of immeasurable sorrow and immeasurable beauty. It was a theme that foreshadowed the coming of the Second-born, men, to whom Iluvatar gave “strange gifts.” The sorrow and beauty of this theme introduced Iluvatar’s strange gifts of mortality – the gifts of letting go.

As if in a prophetic vision, Tolkien weaves into his legendarium the immeasurably sorrowful and immeasurably beautiful theme of a willing sacrifice, culminating in Frodo and his quest. Tolkien says that the discord of Melkor would not be destroyed by force – it would be gently woven into the beauty of The Music.

The “music” of Melkor

…essayed to drown the other music by the violence of its voice, but it seemed that its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern.

The loudest, most triumphant, and violent notes of Melkor were taken and woven into the sorrowful pattern of the Third Theme. Eru does not simply end the braying of Melkor. No. The braying – the strife of the Second Theme – continues.

The most triumphant notes of evil will be “taken and woven” into the soft and solemn beauty of the Third Theme. But why?

Even before Melkor had a chance to go down into Arda and mar the good creation of the Music, Eru foretells,

And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.

The ultimate beauty gently weaves the discord of Melkor into itself. It is bigger than all. It encompasses all. Like the kiss of Jesus, it dissolves evil, making it an instrument of devising things more wonderful than can be imagined.


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