BEAUTY and other dangerous words

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his family and the Orthodox church.  Tolstoy founded schools, wrote treatises on pacificism, criticised the Russian state, and expounded upon the ideals of chastity and sexual abstinence. 

But for Tolstoy, Beauty was not to be trusted, because it could evoke sensuous desire and delight the decadent aristocracy.  The reverse snob in Tolstoy thought that ordinary workingmen or peasants were incapable of appreciating the painting, poetry, and music that delighted his noble friends and relations. He especially thought – which I think shows how much he knew about working men – that the amorousness of art would “evoke in a workingman only bewilderment and contempt”. He thought the Greeks “were so little developed morally that goodness and beauty seemed to them to coincide . . .” – and because beauty can be deceptive it has no business being conflated with truth. As we all know, Beauty can lead to pride, lust, or envy; Tolstoy thought it must therefore be avoided.   

Should no one love because Othello killed Desdemona? Should there be no religion because so many have died in the Name of God?  Should we not read the Bible because it contains incest, treachery, murder, and genocide? I think obnoxious subject matter, beautifully expressed, can take us beyond our personal lusts, envies and fears so that we can choose to live more wisely.

Wisdom is integral to the relationship of Beauty with Goodness, Love, and Truth.  Keats equated Beauty with Truth and Truth with Beauty; Plato equated Beauty with “goodness” or “the good” (in Greek the two words are interchangeable).  Yet as we all sadly know, things that look good and true  – and loving – are not always so. Beauty can be deceptive; in the absence of Wisdom, Beauty can be destructive. In the Kabbalah’s cosmic body Wisdom is the Sephirot dwelling at the head of that Divine Body; and in some traditions Wisdom is a Name 

of God.

Forests have been felled so that books could be written about what Wisdom is. I began this essay by considering how Beauty behaves, so I will let Cicero describe Wisdom in terms of what it does: “The function of wisdom,” the orator said, “Is to discriminate between good and evil.”  King Solomon had a similar sense of what wisdom is when he asked God – “Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart (mind) to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad.”

When dwelling with Wisdom – who is also called Sophia, the feminine counterpart of God – Beauty can save the world, for when Beauty dwells with Wisdom what is good and true and life-giving can be made contagious.   Beauty is compelling.  As the poet Richard Wilbur says: “The Beautiful changes. . .”

Wise beauty, which can emanate from 


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