The Silence of Goethe and Aquinas

by on November 9, 2015

Josef Pieper wrote a great book on the silence of Goethe. Goethe’s great stress on the need for silence came as a surprise to Pieper since Goethe is perhaps the most prolific writer in the German language. How could a man with the gift of beautifully expressing what others could only dream of writing find silence to be more valuable than all expression, and say shortly before his death: “Our best convictions cannot be expressed in words. Language is not capable of everything.” Pieper observes that Goethe’s near death remarks are similar to Aquinas’ remarks (Pieper interestingly wrote a similar book on Aquinas called The Silence of St. Thomas) on finding everything he had written to be like straw in comparison to the mystery of God. Aquinas made these remarks shortly before his death as well. Both Goethe and Aquinas wanted to truly listen to reality beyond its mere noise, finding language, while necessary as a mediator of reality, often to be an obstacle in hearing the true music of the world.

We all know this. Often times verbosity can get in the way of reality. The person who wants to hide something typically talks all the time, not letting the truth to reveal itself. Pieper points out that the refusal to be silent and the tendency to chatter are linked to despair. He says that the discipline of silence serves as a training in hope. Silence forces us to let go of the need to control things. It is the choice to let things be. And by letting things be we express our hope that being is good and beautiful. From this we can surmise that the compulsive talker is afraid of being and does not truly find it good and beautiful at its core. The best thing such a person could do is to shut up and go on retreat.

Good seminarians are often in silence, either praying or studying. Both of these practices are meant to draw them into the depths of being which portrays for us our fundamental relation to God as creatures. This is the practice of discipleship. Disciples are the silent ones who listen to the Logos and, if required to speak, speak the truth in the confidence of its goodness and beauty. We will do ourselves a favor if we learn from the listening silence of Goethe and Aquinas. Sharing in the purpose of the seminarian’s silence, we will become better disciples (i.e. hearers of the Word).