Dostoevsky and the beauty capable of saving the world

Cy Twombly, The Song of the Border Guard, 1952


The statement that “beauty will save the world” is much more demanding and less suited to our postmodern tastes.

“Gentlemen,” he shouted aloud to everyone, “
the prince claims that beauty will save the world! […]
What is the beauty that will save the world? […]”
The prince examined him attentively and did not answer him.

For Dostoevsky, in his own words, “beauty is an ideal” [2]. This statement must be understood conceptually. As usual among Russian intellectuals of his time, the Hegelian aesthetic was, for him, a central reference and, in particular, the concept of ideal that designates the sensible manifestation of the absolute – which, according to Hegel, is the same as saying the beautiful of art. Note that this beauty of art or ideal, as conceptualized by Hegel, goes beyond the limits of what is commonly understood by art. Because the ideal art is, like religion and philosophy, a form of apprehension of the absolute, that is, one of theForms” in which the absolute (or truth) is brought into consciousness as its object. Unlike the others Forms, however, in art, the absolute is brought to consciousness as intuition and sensitivity. The ideal of art or artistic beauty is thus adequacy between exterior and singular form and interior and universal content, or even the sensitive exteriorization adequate to “an interiority infinite in itself”. Its configurations are like an “Argos with a thousand eyes”, in which “the inner soul and spirituality” are seen “at all points” [3]. There being no separation between universality and sensibility, the truth is then presented immediately.

There are limitations on the degree of elevation to which this great rationalist places art. For us “moderns”, he says, art as a field of manifestation of truth belongs to an already outdated stage of the spirit. And he adds: we may even “hope that art will always progress further and consummate itself, but its Form has ceased to be the highest need of the spirit” [4]. Such dating and limitation could not be shared by Dostoevsky; for whom, regardless of the era, the true artist aims for the ideal. See, for example, his formulation that “it is possible to recognize the high quality of a work of art”, in “the fact that in it we can see the fullest harmony between the artistic idea and the form in which it is incarnated” [5]. Or when he refers, both in letters and in essays, to the content of his novels as idea, which distinguishes it from crafts. Or even his separation in the artistic work between the poet who conceives the idea and the artist who polishes the form [6].

Dostoevsky not only understood art as a search for the ideal; for him, the craving for truth could never be satisfied exclusively through the "Form of pure thought". First, because rationality is, in all its modalities, necessarily a means and never an end; second, because beauty is, for human beings, a need as primordial as eating and drinking to the point that without it, they would simply not accept living in the world: “without the ideal of beauty, man would be anguished, he would die, he would go crazy, he would beat himself or throw himself into pagan fantasies” [7].

In a sentence: the demand for the ideal has never ceased and will never cease to be the highest need of the spirit. Hence his interpretation of the miraculousness of Christ in the light of the ideal and beauty. For in the same letter in which he declares that “the beautiful is an ideal”, he asserts that “only a figure in the world is positively beautiful: Christ, so that the phenomenon of this figure […] is in itself an infinite miracle”. According to the author of The Idiot, the entire Gospel of John is the “manifestation of beauty” in the “miracle of Incarnation”. The biblical expression “Word became flesh” is deciphered by him in light of the notion of ideal: Christ is the manifestation of beauty, because he is the universal (Word) adequate to the form of singularity (flesh). Hence also his note: “not the morals of Christ, not his teaching will save the world, but precisely the faith that the Word became flesh”[8].

When referring to the beauty of Christ, Dostoevsky qualifies it as “positive”. This is his main reformulation or recreation of the Hegelian concept of ideal – because, for this author, there is a positive ideal of beauty, but also a negative one. In The Karamazov brothers, this distinction between two forms of beauty, for example, appears under the insignia of the ideal of Madonna and the ideal of Sodom, and in The demons of the ideal of the god-man and that of the man-god. Briefly stated, while the positive ideal of beauty consists of the sensible and particular configuration of the universal while the true, the negative would be the sensitive and particular configuration adequate to the denial of the truth of any and all universals – which, in Dostoevskian terms, is directly related to the non-existence of God and the immortality of the soul. See, in this sense, the formula expressed in The Brothers Karamazov:

for every particular individual, […] who does not believe in God or in his own immortality, the moral law of nature must immediately be converted into the total opposite of the previous religious law, and selfishness, reaching to the point of crime, must not only be allowed to man but even recognized as the indispensable and almost the most noble way out of his situation. [9]

The negative ideal of beauty is far from meaning the simple annihilation of the positive ideal of beauty. If the positive ideal of beauty has as its spiritual content the very god who is truth itself; if the opposite is true, namely, that god and the immortality of the soul do not exist, then whoever embodies the non-existence of god and the immortality of the soul in a suitable way (which inevitably flirts with crime) will himself be beautiful. A negative hero, a cursed idol – who, although he does not bring with him the good news of another life, brings the promise that before the eternal and necessary darkness for all of us, that of death devoid of immortality, it is possible to reach even if for a while brief instant, by a “hair”, the hour of essential desire and satisfaction, whether or not it is an aberration of piety. As Nietzsche asked so well, to our complete bewilderment: could it be that we have ever experienced a “great instant” capable of making us want to live our life over and over again, for all eternity, without changing anything? [10]

That "court colossal” is, from a certain perspective, the one in which the adequacy between interiority and exteriority, the ideal, is reached even if in an instant; an instant that would supposedly be able to aesthetically justify an entire non-ideal life, since it is the moment when the individual becomes an idol. “And why become an idol?” asks Dostoevsky himself, while he answers: “Because the need for beauty is felt most strongly when man is at odds with reality, in a state of disharmony, in conflict ” [11]. Or, as Nietzsche once again asks: if we are all “murderers” of God, “should we not ourselves become gods, to at least appear worthy of him?” [12].

In a world devoid of divine universality, reaching for an instant, concretely and sensibly the ideal is not a small matter – which explains the fascination that the negative beauty of the heroes Nastácia Filippova de The idiot and Stavrogin of The demons inspire the other characters and us, their readers. “[Before you,] it's as if I were standing before the True One,” confesses one of the characters to Stavrogin. “Everything about you is perfection… even her thinness and pallor… one would not want to imagine her otherwise…” [14] – declares Nastasya Filippova, a passionate prince who, instead of a superficial compliment to her physical beauty, , is with these words recognizing its ideal condition.

For the self-declared Christian Dostoevsky – who, in a letter, confessed that he would forever remain a child of unbelief and doubt even to the grave – the rope that stretches between animal and animal Ubermensch leads, in the end, to psychological and spiritual breakdown, if not also social. The hero forged by himself under the impact of the news of the “death of god”, achieves nothing much more than his own destruction. Nastácia dies insane, murdered by her new husband, who she knew beforehand was going to murder her. Stavrogin commits suicide, affected by a kind of lucid madness, after committing the crime of pedophilia to prove himself free.

Fortunately or unfortunately, one of the teachings contained in Dostoevsky's literary works is not so much that God undoubtedly exists as an extra-psychic reality, as most hasty readers of Crime and punishment who, in an overly direct interpretation of Raskolnikov's conversion, forget that his characters both lie and deceive themselves. His teaching before is closer to what the starietz Zózima said to Ivan: “If you cannot resolve yourself in a positive sense, you will never resolve yourself in a negative sense, you yourself know that quality of your heart; and in that is all his torment.” [15]

Yes, the declaration that “beauty will save the world” is much more demanding and less suited to our postmodern tastes than our enthusiasm and commotion provoked by it would like.

*Mariana Lins Costa is a postdoctoral researcher in philosophy at the Federal University of Sergipe (UFS).

Originally published on the website of ANPOF.



[1] Dostoevsky. The idiot. São Paulo: Editora 34, 2001, 427.
[2] Dostoevsky. Complete Letters: 1868-1871. New York: Ardis Publishers, 1990, 121.
[3] Hegel. Aesthetics Courses I. São Paulo: Edusp, 1999, p. 167; 166.
[4] Same, 117.
[5] Dostoevsky. occasional writing. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 101
[6] Dostoevsky. Complete Letters: 1868-1871, 161.
[7] Dostoevsky apud Jackson, RL Dostoevsky's quest for form. London: Yale University Press, 1966, 55.
[8] Same, 56.
[9] Dostoevsky. The Karamazov Brothers. São Paulo: Editora 34, 2008, 110.
[10] Nietzsche. Gaia Science. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2001, 341.
[11] Dostoevsky. occasional writing, 124.
[12] Nietzsche. the gay science, 147-8.
[13] Dostoevsky. The demons. São Paulo: Editora 34, 2004, 260.
[14] Dostoevsky. The idiot, 172.
[15] Dostoevsky. The Karamazov Brothers, 112.


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