Beauty will save the world. Those are the words of Fyodor Dostoyevsky from one of my favourite novels of all times, “The Idiot” from 1869. The protagonist, Prince Myshkin, who makes this claim in the novel, is a portrait of a “completely beautiful human being” as the author himself wrote to a friend in a letter. He is a totally pure and unselfish person in a complex world of plots, passions and desire. Doesn’t a good man in this kind of a world become simply an idiot Dostoyevsky seems to ask us? It might sound crazy at first, of all things needed to save the world, beauty surely not seems like one of the most important things. Suffering, poverty, injustice, inequality and environmental pollution are things to be addressed urgently to make this a better world for everyone, long before troubling ourselves with aesthetically values. So how could beauty save the world? Isn’t beauty just the icing of the cake when the basic needs are provided for?
In every society known to us, artistic craftsmanship has always been an important part. Our prehistoric ancestors decorated their belongings almost as far back as we can trace human activities. It is clear that such workmanship existed 40,000 years ago in the Upper Palaeolithic era. Cave paintings, figurines, beads, decorated tools and utensils are found from this oldest part of what is popularly called the Stone Age. In year 2000, archaeologists in Zambia found pigments and paint grinding equipment believed to be between 350,000 and 400,000 years old. This would show that early humans used paint for aesthetic purposes far earlier than we ever imagined. And even older is the zigzag engraving on a mussel’s shell found on a riverbank in Indonesia. Analysis suggests this engraving to be at least 430,000 years old and thereby the oldest piece of art ever found. This would mean that it was made by Homo erectus, a predecessor of Homo sapiens.
Today, half a million years later, we still use pigments and zigzags to adorn our clothes and utensils! Why? Because beautiful things are essential to human beings. We cannot live without beauty. It is a basic need, as much as food or sleep (maybe not as urgent to survive initially, but surely in the long run). We have to take a step closer to see what this really means. Eckhart Tolle, a German author of spiritual books on mindfulness writes: “The first recognition of beauty was one of the most significant events in the evolution of human consciousness. The feelings of joy and love are intrinsically connected to that recognition. ” Nature itself gives us the blueprint of true beauty. Tolle says, “Seeing beauty in a flower could awaken humans, however briefly, to the beauty that is an essential part of their own innermost being, their true nature.” So here is an important clue to why beauty is essential for human beings. The recognition of beauty unlocks our ability to feel joy and to love. It also reflects the beauty inside each one of us, a profound revelation that makes us truly humble as we recognise this beauty in each other as well. In doing so, violence is completely impossible! Violence is the root of the problems mentioned above, an act by humans who never recognised beauty within themselves or in others.
Maybe Prince Myshkin wasn’t an idiot after all! So I would like to celebrate a few people that create stunning work to make the world a more beautiful place to live in. I’ll be featuring artists that are a huge inspiration to me, so don’t miss the next post in this series: Beauty will save the world.
© maria larsson 2015
So nice to encounter your website, Maria. Yes, I definitely agree: Creators of beauty are called upon to save the world.
You may be interested in an idea that was advocated by the late philosopher Denis Dutton. Here’s a short YouTube video, where he explains that a love for beauty is part of our genetic inheritance!:
Hello Steve, thank you for your nice comment and the very interesting link! Being a former archaeologist I’m fascinated of how the desire to create is visible in the archeological record almost since our earliest finds of humans. Could expand much more on the subject! I’m so happy to get a little greeting from someone who read this, thank you again!
Thank you, Martha, happy to hear that you find this as interesting as I do! Making arts and craft has always been an important part of my life and, as I used to be an archaeologist, I’m very interested in the long term history of man when trying to understand why we do what we’re doing. I think the spiritual aspect is very significant as well to understand the importance of art and beauty to human beings:-)
Thank you for that reflections. I often wonder about Dostoevsky`s profound questions. I seems almost afraid to say that he miss an essential point being so close, so close to the next step, not even step but discovery which is beautifully captured by Ekhart Tolle`s quotes. Brilliant, just brilliant.