On Beauty, and saving the world
I was sixteen years old when I first saw something so beautiful it made me weep: the snow-capped Rocky mountain range as seen from above, through the thick window of a cramped and stuffy airplane. The experience was profound, leaving me inspired and amazed, and afterward, somewhat abashed (I was after all, still a teenager). Since then, I have been reduced to tears countless times when witnessing true beauty, ranging from the mundane to the truly sublime: ferocious thunderstorms, vivid rainbows reminiscent of “double rainbow all the way”, the birth of my daughter, and yet also cheesy rock operas, poetry, and roses.
This begs me to ask—what makes something truly beautiful, as opposed to merely pretty? What are we experiencing when we are moved by beautiful art, music, nature, and craftsmanship? Is it these beautiful moments that Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin is referring to when he claims “the world will be saved by beauty”, and does he speak the truth?
The intersection of order and chaos
The Ancient Greeks used two of their Gods to personify the concept of true beauty and art: Apollo, the ordered and knowledgeable “God of individuation and just boundaries” (according to Nietzsche), and Dionysus, the passionate God of fertility, ecstasy, chaos, and madness. Author and journalist Michael Pollan, explains that they believed that “Great art is born when Apollonian form and Dionysian ecstasy are held in balance, when our dreams of order and abandon come together…One tendency uninformed by the other can bring forth only coldness or chaos. Our eyes and ears quickly tire of any strict Apollonian order that isn't shadowed by some hint, some threat, of trespass or waywardness. The most beautiful flowers are ones that also partake of their opposing element. The most breathtaking rose or peony is the one in which the tumbling profusion of its petals is held in check by some kind of form or frame; the slightest suggestion of symmetry keeps the bloom from going slack.”
The ancient Greeks were not the only ones to use gods and religious symbolism to express the inherent and necessary duality of the world. This same duality can be found in the Hindu gods Shiva and Kali, Egyptian gods Apophis and Ra, Sumerian gods Tiamat and Apsu, and the Chinese Yin and Yang. The Jungian concept of the self and the shadow, and the dichotomy between the masculine and feminine, romantic and classical, good and evil, are all similar ways of expressing this phenomenon of duality that is a cornerstone of reality.
On the inevitability of suffering
Like the Greeks believed, must these two forces come together to create true beauty? Won’t the Apollonian force of order, knowledge, light, and goodness suffice? Why do we need a balance of order and chaos, of good and evil? Why is it necessary to have that small black dot of yin in the sea of yang? Do we need an understanding of pain to appreciate our health, of sadness to experience joy?
Let’s suppose we were to remove all the suffering in the world, leaving the scale forever tipped to one side. As Stanislav Grof postulates in the Cosmic Game, remove all the atrocities that plague the Earth, like pain, disease, and poverty, and you also remove the human compulsion towards bravery, strength, and resilience in the path of adversity—qualities that amount to the nobility of the human spirit. With no disease there is no need for medicine; no adversity means no triumph or celebration; likewise, with no fragility there is no preciousness; no death, no life. All our human achievements in medicine, scientific discovery, philosophy, humanitarianism, and even art would have no cause to exist, and the world as we know it would cease to be. Remove the chaos that is uncertainty and fear, erase those dark nights of the soul, and gone forever too are all our hopes, dreams, and potential. Without the Dionysian force of chaos, without any struggle, we are left with nothing.
The miraculous nature of existence
The limitless potential that stems from the deep unknown abyss makes life meaningful, precious, and beautiful. Life is beautiful because of, and not in spite of the impermanence, fragility, and suffering it contains. Perhaps what we experience as true beauty is simply the opening of our eyes and heart to the miraculous nature of existence, a nature that persists undeterred by the suffering banality and endless samsara of life. If true beauty lies in the balance of chaos and order, it is because their intersection reminds us, even momentarily or subconsciously, that our ability to persist and overcome our struggles makes those very same struggles worth experiencing.
Art, nature, beauty and meaning
That I can be moved to tears by a snow-covered mountain range may be explained by the mountain's sheer scale and grandeur, contrasted with its vast capacity to shelter life (alpine meadows and forests) and destruction (avalanches, inhospitable winters). A mountain’s insistent and improbable here-ness, its ruggedness and agelessness remind us of our own smallness, of our own impermanence and fragility, and bring us in direct contact with the present moment and the miraculous nature of reality.
This explains why music is at its best when it is a dance of tension and resolution, why the most profound works of art point towards possibilities yet achieved, why the most fragrant perfumes contain dank and musky notes, and why the greatest adventures are about the journey and not the destination. If we know how to look, true beauty can be found everywhere, in the minutia and in the grand, in the banal and the profound, in the intricate veins of a leaf and the methodical work of the dung-beetle, in the umbral whorl of a flower and the prick of her thorns, in a single snowflake and a snow-capped mountain range.
Prince Myshkin was no fool for believing beauty could save the world, because a world with beauty is a world with meaning, a world with meaning is a world worth living, and a world worth living is a world already saved.
“…We gazed even farther into the blossom of a flower and found something more: the crucible of beauty, if not art, and maybe a glimpse into the meaning of life. For look into a flower, and what do you see? Into the very heart of nature’s double nature–that is, the contending energies of creation and dissolution, the spiring towards complex form and the tidal pull away from it. Apollo and Dionysus were names the Greeks gave to these two faces of nature, and nowhere in nature is their contest as plain or as poignant as it is in the beauty of a flower and its rapid passing. There, the achievement of order against all odds and its blithe abandonment. There, the perfection of art and the blind flux of nature. There, somehow, but transcendence and necessity. Could that be it–right there, in a flower, the meaning of life?" ~ Michael Pollan
Banner photo: Apollo and Dionysus by Leonid Ilyukhin