Beauty Will Save the World
This famous and much discussed phrase from Prince Lev Nikolyaevich Myshkin in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot is that beauty will save the world. Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrestled with the enigmatic idea in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1970. It is the title of numerous books and articles on classical art, theological/religious aesthetics, and the natural world. Many are mesmerized with this phrase, idea, image, or desire. Beauty will save the world. Hard to believe, yet is an intriguing union of ethics and aesthetics.
My interest here is not about art, philosophy, or religions. It is not particularly lofty. It is about beauty, mostly in the natural world, and how it transforms the self. Throughout my life, from a young child to now, (just a few years) the intricacies of nature—the incredible presence(s), and dazzling, deep, vibrant, and dynamic beauty—have often seized my attention and time. I have had remarkable, profound, and transformative experiences within nature. I have trekked to mountain vistas, caves, canyons, and waterways; sailed for weeks in the wind, waves, and silence of the Atlantic ocean; watched whales and swam with sharks; studied elephants in South Africa, Botswana, and Kenya; camped in the African bush and Canadian forests; and canoed wilderness waterways. I am acutely cognisant of these incredible privileges. Further, such experiences are the energy, and companions, and often reasons, that have propelled and sustained over thirty years of environmental work.
Of course there are terrifying, exhilarating, demanding, and dreadful experiences of the natural world. Many lives are filled with endless effort to survive, and now, on a diminished planet. Climate change is inducing fires, drought, storms, and immeasurable losses; countless ecosystems and species are struggling to adapt, or just live. It is difficult to offer a reflection about beauty, and how beauty is transformative, without seeming to be callous and uncritical of privilege, or oblivious to ecological stress and anthropogenic climate change. But, in one sense, that is the point of this reflection: to remind us that there is sublime beauty, usually not far, and it can be restorative, or at least offer reprieve or respite.
Like many others, my last year has been lived very locally. Attending to this locus vitae (local life) has expanded and strengthened my interest in the claim that beauty will save the world. Where I live (Ottawa, Canada), the seasons are distinct and authoritative, from -40 (C/F) to +40 C (104 F). People have been unable to travel far during COVID times, with severe long-term lockdowns in most of Canada. The consequences are that the outdoor spaces have been overrun with new nature lovers (interfering in the solace of those who savour the quiet). Yet, it is noteworthy that people are ‘discovering’ the natural world. A further discovery, for many, is that birds exist. Birdwatching has become an epidemic, one could say. I too succumbed to birdwatching, with now four feeders in my (small) backyard. And they came: songbirds, flocking birds and couples, solitary Blue Jays, and the bullies—Grackles and Starlings. Another COVID induced outbreak has been backyard and balcony gardening. I also try to grow flowers that provide gorgeous colors and scents, in addition to their ecosystem duties. This brings with it a renewed awareness of the balm of beauty and the vitality of the locus vitae.
What is required is attentiveness, quiet, discretion, and observation. Nature is never static. Life is animate. Colours dance from sunrise to sunset. Vegetation bends with the wind. Flowers develop from germination to blossoming to regeneration, always on the move. Birds flit. They are private and uninterested in humans, as are many—most—other species. Insects are busy.
There are innumerable publications on these topics. Tips on gardening skills, and recent research on the benefits of gardening—vitamin D infusions, reduced stress, and decreased dementias, loneliness, addiction cravings—are popular. There are myriad birding encyclopedias, blogs, sightings sites, etc. The information gathered about the natural world over the past 100 years or so is monumental. While essential, my focus here is on the ability to be drenched with beauty. Even for a moment. Butterflies and dragonflies appear, and are gone; trees sway majestically in panoramas of green in lush areas. Beauty is transformative: to one’s health, mindset, spirit, and preoccupations. It evokes gratitude, and for some, reverence. Attending to the beauty in—not only information about—nature, is restorative. Beauty will save the world.
This is not a perfect remedy, of course. In Ontario, we are inundated with gypsy moth caterpillars and ticks. While a few of these pesky critters evoke beauty, and they are modes of divine presence, they, like locusts, Asian carp, murder hornets, and red ants, could flourish a bit less, without a reduction of beauty. Also, the interpretative tension here is not between nature as nurturing or nasty, beneficial or burdensome. The question is ‘where is the place for a meaningful consideration of beauty’ in our research and reflections?
Academics are trained to be critical: to deconstruct, find fault lines, omissions, bias and shortcomings. These are all important skills. They can, however, become a habit of mind that inhibits other modes of knowing, such as experiencing beauty. Countless times people notice a glorious sunset, appreciate it, and then return to the real work of dissecting and analyzing, scrutinizing theories, evaluating and judging. Experiencing beauty is … nice … but not relevant to social change, climate justice, and factual considerations. I think this is incorrect. Experiencing beauty is integral to human knowing, well-being, and ethical optics. Beauty expands and informs ethics. However, it is ignored as incidental, soft knowledge, too subjective, not transferrable, barely fathomable, and deteriorates under critique. Yet beauty is a robust human experience that enlightens and transforms the human spirit.
Tensions between an emphasis on critique or vision, on de- or reconstruction, and on whether analysis, action, or inspiration are decisive, continue in some religion and ecology (and other) discourses. The debates persist that if you attend to the relevance of cosmology, you might be ignoring injustices. If you consider the importance of evolution, you might be oblivious to the socio-political-economic systems that are undercutting many societies. If you care about animals you might not care about people… and on and on. This is superficial at best, tiresome, often mistaken, and obstructive to amplifying comprehension.
For myself, after several decades of critical investigations, ideological exposures, analytic deconstructions, socio-political critiques, attending to the worst of human social constructions and behaviors, and witnessing and resisting the severe degradation of the natural world, taking a pause on the depth and dynamics of natural beauty is a welcomed alternative. Yet it is also alarming that the deterioration of the natural world results in a parallel deterioration of beauty. The impact spreads if the human spirit, capacities, and ability to feel beauty and reverence also diminish.
There are longstanding traditions in most cultures that connect aesthetics with ethics. Nevertheless, these have been by-passed in much work on ecological ethics. Some writers such as Henry David Thoreau, Gaston Bachelard, Rachel Carson, David Abrams, Anne Dillard, Thomas King, and Gary Snyder, write intelligently and elegantly about the centrality and vitality of beauty blended with ethics. While such nature writers are usually respected, the emphasis on experiencing deeply the natural world, and reveling in beauty, is often considered lovely, but extraneous; something akin to being momentarily refreshed by Mary Oliver’s exquisite poems. However, there are insights emerging from new materialisms, positive psychology, and research on how experiences of wonder are healing, that offer some promise to (re)unite ethics and aesthetics.
I am skeptical that beauty will save the world. I don’t know what save the world means in this era of overlapping eco-crises. And, I am unconvinced that critical analyses will offer deep transformation. I do know that attending to the beauty of the natural world, even the flowers and birds of our locus vitae, can lift spirits, expand interiority, calm anxieties, offer clarity, and inspire ethical insights. Perhaps we can add a medicinal dose of beauty to each day and see where that takes us. It can’t hurt. We may be surprised by the joy, inspiration, radical hope, and gratitude that experiences of beauty can nurture.
Heather Eaton, PhD, is a professor at Saint Paul University, Ottawa, Canada. Research areas: religion and ecology; gender/feminist, ecology aspects of social conflicts; nonviolence; animal rights. Select publications: Advancing Nonviolence and Social Transformation, with Lauren Levesque; The Intellectual Journey of Thomas Berry: Ecological Awareness, Exploring Religion, Ethics and Aesthetics, with Sigurd Bergmann; Introducing Ecofeminist Theologies: Ecofeminism and Globalization, with Lois Lorentzen.
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Photo credits: Blue Jay, Ottawa, Canada, © Heather Eaton, 2021