Beauty Will Save the World – But Which Beauty?

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There are some quotations so arresting, so perfect in simplicity, that they never leave the memory. They are honeyed phrases for the mind: “Beauty will save the world,” says a prince in Dostoevsky’s unfortunately-titled The Idiot.[1] The prince speaks as one having authority: beauty will save the world. Or there is Keats in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: ” ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’-that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”.[2] Or St. Augustine saying to God in his Confessions, “Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new”.[3] It is yet more surprising to find Genesis in league with each of the above, for in Genesis‘s opening chapter the refrain so quietly insistent, “And God saw that it was good,” contains a Hebrew word which may be translated either as good or as beautiful.[4] The feel of the whole chapter changes if one hears God proclaim that the light, the sun, the greenery, the animals are all beautiful, and mankind very beautiful.

Ah, the riddle of beauty and the craft of these writers in phrasing that riddle. Indeed, our prince in The Idiot is asked, immediately after his triumphal statement about beauty, just which beauty will save the world? That is a much harder question, but the Prince affirms in response who will save the world. In considering “the Good, the True, and the Beautiful”-our 2005 conference’s title-a temptation arises to forget the Person in view of the principles. Abstract ideas, concepts, and theories can take the place of God who quite physically incarnates those principles. “Beauty is the splendor of truth,” (veritatis splendor) announces Plato, and he has the Forms in mind here, literally Ideas. As compelling as Plato’s picture is of Beauty and Truth being like two slopes to a mountain, this is far different in nature from a God-Man who also announces, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”.[5] The latter statement makes the transcendent incarnate. Again, if Beauty will save the world, in Dostoevsky’s view, it will be a person.

Moreover, every man and every woman strongly desires this beauty, mediated (as Gerard Manley Hopkins would put it) in ten thousand places. C. S. Lewis is no exception. The appetite for beauty comes inscribed into every soul and it is a very large appetite. “By nature men desire the beautiful,” says St. Basil the Great (circa 379 A.D.)-and I might stress that they desire it immensely.[6] One knows already about the thousands of books Lewis owned by the end of his life, many thousands in fact-books that held up the walls of The Kilns. But why he owned so many is a theological question. Why did he want so many? What archetypal story did he want to read? What was he searching for when he lovingly described the binding size and price of a new book to Arthur Greeves during their teenage pilgrimage? And once owned, why re-read them so assiduously (The Iliad up to 10 times)? Plato himself describes the phenomenon in a famous section of his Symposium.[7] Men, Plato writes, have a thirst or an eros for the beautiful, and there are lesser satisfactions: endless beautiful bodies if one is a decadent Athenian, endless new ideas (analytic or imaginative) if one is a bookish Athenian, or endless C. S. Lewis conferences if one is an Anglo-philiac Athenian.

Appetites, however, want substance, and thus we come to the main course of this paper. The appetite for beauty is potentially misleading. Whether it is the character John in The Pilgrim’s Regress finding false joy in multiple brown girls or the millionaire finding transient beauty in his third car (or wife!), how can one see what kind of beauty satisfies? Which beauty will save the world? It was a dilemma of which Lewis was keenly aware. In one instance, he particularly admires J.R.R. Tolkien’s assertion in “On Fairy Stories” that “evil and ugliness seem indissolubly allied. We find it difficult to conceive of evil and beauty together. The fear of the beautiful [faerie] that ran through the elder ages almost eludes our grasp”.[8] Yet beautiful deceptions run throughout Lewis’s own storytelling. Thus one meets the indomitably beautiful Queen Jadis in Narnia; Edmund Pevensie was not an entire fool, for the queen is “a great lady, taller than any woman that Edmund had ever seen. She also was covered in white fur up to her throat and held a long straight golden wand in her right hand. Her face was white-not merely pale, but white like snow or paper or icing sugar, except for her very red mouth. It was a beautiful face”.[9] Evil and beautiful are here linked: and thus the directors have chosen Nicole Kidman to play the Queen in the coming film.