EngagePerspectives“The World will be Saved by Beauty”
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“The World will be Saved by Beauty”

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s words, “The world will be saved by beauty,” speaks to our current moment. This quote, said to be one of the social activist’s Dorothy Day’s favorites, points out deep flaws in the world. The world needs to “be saved.”  Yet Dostoevsky offers hope of where the rescue will come from; from a source that is both abstract and sublime: beauty.

The sentiment is one I share.

image of stacked eggs of different sizes

The world will be saved by beauty.

—Fyodor Dostoevsky

Beauty wrought from pain

A writer able to capture scenes of great beauty, Dostoevsky was no stranger to suffering. When he writes of the world needing to be saved, he writes from his own experiences of pain. Accused as a young man of participating in “socialist study circle,” in 1849 he was imprisoned and sentenced to death by firing squad. He was actually in the middle of being tied to a wooden pole, about to be executed when a sudden summons altered his sentence to hard labor in Siberia. He would go on to experience the death of his first wife and two of his four children. Throughout his life he lived in relative poverty due to a gambling addiction. These experiences deeply changed him and influenced his writings which exquisitely examine such issues as redemption and morality.[1]

Beauty inspiring service

Dostoevsky’s ability to write clearly and to capture beauty and pain inspired the service-oriented activism of Dorothy Day. In 1973, she wrote in The Catholic Worker, “I do not think I could have carried on with a loving heart all these years without Dostoevsky’s understanding of poverty, suffering, and drunkenness.”[2] A century later and in a very different culture, Dorothy Day’s advocacy and direct service of others was inspired and sustained by the stories of Dostoevsky. Not only did Dostoevsky call for beauty to save the world, the beauty he created connected to something within Dorothy Day and she set off to do her part to work to save others.

Beauty and connection in 2020

Hearing about Dorothy Day’s appreciation of Dostoevsky’s novels fills me with a sense of deep connection as I also have been inspired by them. Complicating the concept of beauty to incorporate wrenching pain also gives me hope as this moment. The country is experiencing deep pain, but viewed from the redemptive lens of beauty, I find hope.

Beauty is not a concrete concept with one definition. It is a concept that opens your imagination, that makes you pause, behold and wonder. The exact opposite of information rabbit holes which take you down ever narrow algorithmic corridors; beauty widens and expands and allows for connections that defy linear analysis. There is freedom in beauty’s infinite expression. I can marvel at your creative process and I can choose to share mine or I can watch as nature unfolds countless processes all around us.

At this moment when so much of our society seems broken and dysfunctional, where there is so much fear, anger and sadness, there is much to be gleaned from Dostoevsky’s faith in beauty to rescue us. It is brave to create beauty when there is fear and it may just save someone else.

[1] Robert Ellsberg All Saint: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets and Witnesses for Our Time (New York: Crossroads Publishing, 2004).
[2] https://cjd.org/2000/06/01/dorothy-day-and-the-light-from-the-east-eastern-christianity-fathers-of-the-desert-dostoevsky/

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