Friday, July 31, 2015

How beauty can change the world-in less than 2000 words

While recently exploring First Things Magazine’s website, your humble blogger happened upon its essay contest page. Among the topics to respond to was this:

The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky famously predicted that “Beauty will save the world.”

Despite being ineligible to enter the contest, the challenge to respond to such a statement was too intriguing to pass up.  Why, you ask? Because there is so much to ponder on in such few words. To begin however, your humble blogger will concur with the famed author’s prediction. This assertion is on the grounds that the nature of beauty and salvation lends a logical credibility to the statement, especially in the context of humanity’s role in the world.

In order to explore how beauty will save the world, it is necessary to explore its definition.  Hamilton Reed Armstrong, paraphrasing St. Thomas Aquinas, defined it as “ …[the splendor] of the goods that each being ought to have according to its nature”. As he deftly explains (again citing Aquinas and Aristotle), understanding beauty “cannot be divorced from the knowledge of the True (what is) and the Good (what ought to be done)”, given the ability of the human intellect to understand them. How, then, can it be reasoned that beauty can save? Again, it would be apropos to explore the definition of “save”.

Merriam-Webster includes “to rescue or deliver from danger or harm” and “to preserve or guard from injury, destruction or loss” in its definition of the word save.  Given this, it is plausible to understand things that are dangerous, harmful, destructive and the like as being opposite of that which is and what ought to be.  Beauty, then, could be fairly asserted as having an inherent interest in protecting against that which isn’t good or true- in other words, having a saving quality. But wait, aren’t these abstract concepts? Not when adding humanity into the mix.

That man is a rational being goes without saying. To connect it with man’s capacity to act, Matthew Kelly has an interesting insight:

 When we connect the good and noble external acts of our lives with positive internal attitudes and intentions, we grow in virtue. As we begin to practice a virtue intentionally, it develops into habitual virtue…Eventually, the habitual effort to practice blossoms into spontaneous right action”.

Implied here is that intentions and behavior that are aligned toward that what is and what ought to be done will be geared toward protecting against that which is opposed to it, or that which is harmful. Not only do these tendencies “blossom” within the individual, it spreads from person to person. As Kelly notes, “ nobody does anything worthwhile without being inspired”. Acts of kindness serve as beautiful (pun intended) examples of this. As this inspiration spreads, it has the capacity to envelop the world and make a concrete impact. Such impact continues beyond well into the future.

A salient illustration of how the aforementioned ties together is in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assertion in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech that

 ...Alfred Nobel would know what I mean when I say that I accept this award in the spirit of the curator of some precious heirloom which he holds in trust for its true owners-all those to whom beauty is truth and truth beauty-and in whose eyes the beauty of genuine brotherhood and peace is more precious than diamonds or silver or gold.
It begins with the individual, who understands "beauty is truth and truth beauty". Such understanding, treasured within like jewels, manifests itself in the interaction between individuals as "genuine brothehood and peace". Humanity, hence the world, is in a state aligned with what is and ought to be. It is preserved from all that is injurious and destructive-in other words, saved.

Beauty is all around us. As rational and intellectual beings, humans are able to partake in it in a way unique to our species-namely, the ability to understand it in the context of the good and the true.  As beauty is the opposite of that which isn’t good or true, it’s easy to look at it as having a saving quality. When humans especially individuals tap into this quality by connecting internal attitudes with outward behavior ordered toward the good and the true, beauty manifests itself in a singular fashion. Beauty, therefore, will save the world.

Armstrong, Hamilton Reed. Art, Beauty & Imagination - A Catholic Perspective

Kelly, Matthew. Rediscovering Catholicism. 2010, Beacon Publishing 

King, Martin Luther Jr.  I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches that Changed the World. Edited by james Melvin Washington. 1992. San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco.

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