Can Beauty Save the World?
Neither Dostoevsky nor Prince Myshkin Makes the Case by Vigen Guroian
Twenty years ago, in a small but important book titled On Beauty, Elaine Scarry arraigned what she called the "banishing" of the study of beauty in her own field of English and among the humanities in general. According to her, the complaint against beauty was that study of it, somehow or other, detracts from attention to real suffering in this world and thus also hampers the pursuit of social justice. What is more, even the "look" or the "stare" at a person or thing for its beauty is condemned because that "look" or "stare" objectifies or "reifies" the person or thing that is the subject of the look.
These are silly arguments, but there are many silly arguments that process in academic robes. The ideologically motivated exclusion of beauty as a subject for contemplation and study is, in the last analysis, ridiculous. To her credit, Scarry calls it out as such. Rightly, she argues that an appreciation of and attention to beauty can be unselfish and not self-centered, and may therefore prompt us to take note of the suffering in the world and do something about it, to act fairly towards others and pursue a broader justice.
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Vigen Guroian was, until his retirement, Professor of Religious Studies in Orthodox Christianity at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. His books include Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child's Moral Imagination (2002) and The Orthodox Reality: Culture, Theology, and Ethics in the Modern World (Baker Academic, 2018).
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