The Sublime Definition of Beauty That Leo Tolstoy Pooh-Poohed

In which I encounter one of the most sublime definitions of beauty–because God cares about art.

In the last two decades of the 19th Century Leo Tolstoy went on a philosophical and polemical tear, attacking the Russian church, landowners and even the Gospels. It culminated in a book called  

To say this book is intense is a gross understatement. He condemns Pushkin, Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe, Raphael, Michelangelo, Bach and Beethoven. As well as his own novels.

He considers What Is Art? a challenge “hurled at all educated men.” He wants to strip art of mystery, irrationality and ambiguity.

What does he suggest as a substitute? China dolls, door knobs, chickens. Peasant women singing to the clanging of scythes. Sentimental genre paintings–like ?

If he lived half a century later he might have been chums with who penned “the red wheelbarrow”:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Or who wrote “The Snowman”:

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Or even Marcel Duchamp who submitted a porcelain urinal to the 1917 Society of Independent Artists exhibition and called it “.”

That may be pushing it.

The Beauty Definition in Question

The third chapter of the book, after a compelling narrative of a disgruntled visit to see the rehearsal of an opera that spans the first two chapters, he runs through the philosophical definitions of beauty.

He skips the ancients and medieval philosophers and starts with Enlightenment thinkers like Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten.

What follows is a catalog of these thinkers views. Most of these views are abstract and confusing. You can ignore them. Until you reach a fellow named .

Hemsterhuis is Dutch and a follower of German aestheticians like Goethe. His thoughts on art fascinate me to know end. I quote Tolstoy:

According to his teaching, beauty is that which gives us the greatest pleasure, and that which gives us the greatest pleasure is that which gives us the greatest number of ideas within the shortest amount of time.

This is pragmatism. This is efficiency. And the stuff of .

Hemsterhuis may have enjoyed living in our generation where . He may have been just as comfortable in Athens during the :

And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.’ Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.

Naturally Tolstoy dismisses Hemsterhuis’ definition, as well as the dozens of others he provides. He prefers art to be religious in the same way that Charles Murray described it in his New Criterion article :

By “religiosity” I do not mean going to church every Sunday. Even belief in God is not essential. Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism are not religions in the conventional sense of that word—none postulates a God—but they partake of religiosity as I am using the word, in that that they articulate a human place in the cosmos, lay out understandings of the ends toward which human life aims, and set standards for seeking those ends.

I think it would be safe to say that Tolstoy believed that God cared about art.

But Tolstoy was not an orthodox Christian. Neither was he evangelical. He was a moralist and an anarchist. And a tormented soul striving to balance wealth, fame, family and asceticism.

What Is Art? is a product of that torment.

For grins, here is one of the , a movie about the end of Tolstoy’s life in which he abandoned his wife and family.

2 thoughts on “The Sublime Definition of Beauty That Leo Tolstoy Pooh-Poohed

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