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.

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