Beauty will save the world!
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the great, Russian novelist, places this redemptive quote in the mouth of Prince Myshkin—the loving, honest, “idiotic” hero of The Idiot, one of Dostoyevsky’s four great later novels. The Idiot recounts the conflicts between a person’s aspiration to high ideals—truth, goodness, love—and the cruel realities of this imperfect world. Prince Myshkin is above all motivated by the ideal of love. His innocence and kind-heartedness, as well the large fortune he stands to inherit, makes him attractive to Petersburg society. But Myshkin finds that others’ flaws prevent him from living a pure and purposeful life. The Idiot depicts a world of impurities running counter to love’s ideal. Myshkin’s platonic, sympathetic love, extended to the novel’s emotionally challenged heroine, Nastasya Filippovna, proves more pure than her wounded soul can yield.
The novel ends tragically, with the heroine murdered by the infatuated Rogozhin, whose passion for Nastasya and envy of Myshkin push him over the edge. Prince Myshkin himself is then seized by another of his epileptic fits and relapses into his original state of mindlessness. With this, he leaves the stage of action in the world, where his good nature appears to have produced only blight for himself and others. Is Prince Myshkin an example of what happens to good people in an ugly world? His life’s path might best be assessed according to the ideal he famously asserts: “Beauty will save the world.” On the one hand, this phrase invokes an absolute level of salvation. But on the other, it calls to mind redemptive paths in the historical moment. Like Myshkin, Dostoyevsky saw meaning in personal attempts to bring beauty into the world of the here and now. The Idiot shows that a seeker of beauty may indeed become a unique incarnation of the beautiful, and that the inner beauty of Myshkin—an “idiot”—is more true, more redemptive, and more prophetic than the inauthentic beauties that triumph in our material world. Could Myshkin’s righteousness somehow serve to protect the world’s integrity against these false promises of beauty? The reader may find the dark framing of “beauty” in The Idiot reasonably faithful to life. The beauty of a person’s inner world, which sometimes receives expression in words, does not find easy continuation in our external reality. Beginning with birth, each person confronts this deficiency time after time. Within the bounds of The Idiot, as well as life generally, inner beauty achieves no clear victory over outer imposters. But the novel continues to entrance readers by virtue of the light manifested in the image of Prince Myshkin. He carries his being among people who scarcely understand him. And we ourselves may recognize life’s sacredness in him. The ideals he holds within himself affirm life’s intrinsic value. When those ideals take root in us, the “world” no longer appears as an abstraction outside of us; the “world” is also each one of us, and may come to depend on any of us. In this way, “Beauty will save the world” loses any sense of cloudy remoteness. It takes on concrete meaning, and the leap of faith it summons us toward no longer seems so great — all the more so if we recall that the Russian word for “world,” mir, has a second meaning: “peace.”