Notes on the Ambiguity of Beauty

The Ambiguity of Beauty

Are you aware that mankind can do without the English, that it can also do without Germany, that nothing is easier for mankind than to do without the Russians, that it can live without science or even bread? Only beauty is absolutely indispensable, for without beauty there is nothing left in the world worth doing. Here is the entire secret; all of history, right in a nutshell.

Dostoyevsky, The Possessed, Vol. III

Here we have the expression of Dostoevsky’s deeply felt conviction about Beauty. Aristotle believed that tragedy purifies the passions, and Plato said that music and poetry make the spirit more virile. The reason behind these opinions is that the perfection of forms is not a stranger to truth and goodness. Taken together, these three opinions form the theoretical basis of an aesthetic utopia, that is, the idolatrous belief in the theurgic power and magic of art. Is it not the power of Beauty alone that gives Art its transfiguring power? Take for example a single ray of the divine light shining on the earth; is not the face of the world changed merely by its shining? This was in any case the faith of the young Gogol when he said that “if Art is not able to transform the soul of the person miraculously who looks at it, then it is only a fleeting passion” . But here is the paradox: even though truth is always beautiful, beauty is not always true.

Evdokimov (trans. Bigham) The Art of the Icon: a theology of beauty, Clerk, Herts, 1990