Pieper: The Silence of Goethe

August 28, 2017

The Silence of Goethe
Josef Pieper
(St Augustine’s Press, 2009)
xii + 67 p.

Some time ago I noted the origins of this little book: Pieper, finding himself confined in a German POW camp, but with access to the complete works of Goethe, passed the time by reading the volumes in their entirety. This in itself was remarkable, but perhaps even more striking was that he then put pen to paper to write about the silence of Goethe.

Silence was a theme that attracted Pieper; another of his books, and a rather good one, is The Silence of St Thomas (the subject of which is, once again, one of the most prolific authors in history). But whereas in that case Pieper focused on what Thomas’ silence — that is, the topics he did not write about, or that he thought could not be written about — told us about his metaphysics and his theology, in this book on Goethe the themes are more modest, the silences of Goethe, like his words, not being as pregnant as those of St Thomas.

In this book Pieper reflects on what Goethe said about the relevance of silence, and of reticence more generally, to a well-lived life. It takes the form of a series of brief reflections on passages gleaned from Goethe’s works.

One of the themes that emerges is that silence is necessary for the health and flourishing of an inner life, for it is a hidden source from which one draws strength:

“What is best is the deep stillness in which, against the world, I live and grow, and gain what it cannot take from me by fire and sword.”


“There is deep meaning in the mad notion that it is necessary to act in silence in order to raise and take possession of a treasure properly; it is not permitted to say one word, no matter how much that is shocking and delightful may appear on all sides.”

This reminds me of something I once read in St John of the Cross in which he counselled his readers “never to reveal to another what God is doing in your inmost heart”, for by such revelations one risks distorting or destroying that delicate reality. And Goethe, too, seems to have felt that one should be circumspect about the highest things, lest one speak of them inadequately. Writes Pieper, “Even with his closest and dearest friends he remained silent about the most exalted things.” His friends noted that he became silent when talk turned to divine matters, saying, “Our best convictions cannot be expressed in words. Language is not capable of everything.”

Part of what Goethe understood by silence was public silence — that is, staying out of the public eye. “You live properly only if you live a hidden life.” Again, there is a certain irony here inasmuch as Goethe was forever putting his books before the public, and he was one of the best-known men in Europe, but his books were not himself, were not about himself, and so retained a kind of reticence. But it seems he enjoyed the contrast he cultivated between private reserve and public persona: “This is then the great charm of the otherwise questionable life of an author: that one is silent with one’s friends and at the same time prepared a great conversation with them which reaches out to every part of the world.”

He also maintained a prudent silence because he thought that the public did not, by and large, deserve to know his thoughts on various matters, being too preoccupied with gossip and sensation. This might be thought contemptuous, but Pieper defends him by drawing on St Thomas, who, in his Commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics, said of the magnanimous man that “in his attitude to the throng he uses irony” and that he is rightly contemptuous of mean-spiritedness. “Such contempt is as little at odds with humility as it is at odds with truth, since no one’s just claim to honor is being injured.”

In the deepest sense, Goethe saw silence is a preparation for listening, for perceiving and receiving reality more clearly and fully. Says Pieper, “This listening silence is much deeper than the mere refraining from words and speech in human intercourse. It means a stillness, which, like a breath, has penetrated into the inmost chamber of one’s own soul. It is meant, in the Goethean “maxim”, to “deny myself as much as possible and to take up the object into myself as purely as it is possible to do”.” Pieper comments that “It is here that Goethe represents what, since Pythagoras, may be considered the silence tradition of the West”. There is a kind of hope implicit in this silence, since it waits in expectation of something true and good.

The second half of this (already very brief) volume consists of short excerpts from Goethe’s letters. Some of these continue the theme of silence, but others wander further afield. Since they present no clearly unified picture, I’ll conclude by simply quoting a few of those that struck me most forcefully.


“For we really ought not to speak of what we will do, of what we are doing, nor of what we have done.”

“A person who is used to silence remains silent.”

“What a person must do allows him to show what he is inwardly like. Anyone can live arbitrarily.”

“We can do no more than build a stack of wood and dry it properly. Then it will catch fire at the right time and we ourselves will be astonished by it.”

“If I had nothing to say except what people want to hear, I would be completely silent.”

“There are three kinds of reader: one who enjoys without making a judgment, a third who judges without enjoyment, and, in the middle, one who judges while enjoying and enjoys while judging. This middle one reproduces a work of art anew.”

“An individual has to give an account of himself. No one comes to his aid.”

“To see people and things exactly as they are and to say exactly what is on our mind — this is the right thing. We should not and cannot do more.”

11 Responses to “Pieper: The Silence of Goethe”

  1. Janet Says:

    Thank you for this. You know I love Pieper, and also, I am at present reading The Power of Silence by Cardinal Sarah. I am at home alone on Mondays and today, instead of watching a movie or listening to a book as I usually do on these days, I am trying to keep everything silent.


    • cburrell Says:

      I’ve been interested in that book by Cardinal Sarah too. Are you finding it good? I’ve been watching the local library to see if they’ll acquire it, but so far no banana.

      • Janet Says:

        I’m really loving it.


      • Janet Says:

        The only movie I have watched is one about Jerzy Popieluszko. I think it was good, but I don’t know how accurate it is. I really want to read about him.

        Movies about the saints are so frequently grossly inaccurate that I’m fairly cautious about them. There’s on about St. Philip Neri that completely misleading.

        There is a documentary on Formed about the Divine Mercy produced by the Knights of Columbus called, I think, The Face of Mercy. I was kind of miffed when I was sort of coerced into watching it at a retreat but then I thought it was really good.

        I am loving this Sally Read book. Have you gotten to the part where she is reading I Capture the Castle? That quote about religion being art?


  2. cburrell Says:

    As it happens, I just found it on Formed.org as a free e-book. Do you have Formed.org in the US? Many parishes up here have subscriptions for their parishioners. Books, talks, movies, etc.

  3. cburrell Says:

    Have you watched any of the movies on Formed? I was looking at a few of the ones about Popes, but I’m not sure they would be worth my time.

    • Janet Says:

      I see my response about the movies ended up way at the top.

      Anyway, there is also a Lection series by Dr. Brant Pitre about the Eucharist in which he talks about every reference to the Eucharist from Genesis to Revelation which I thought was very good. He also references the Jewish sacred texts: Mishna, Midrash, Talmud, etc. It’s not often that after reading about the Eucharistic for 40 years I hear something I’ve never heard before, but I learned things from this series. It’s quite long, ten talks and each talk has two or sometimes three videos.


  4. cburrell Says:

    I did get to the part in Night’s Bright Darkness where she describes the Church as a poem, and religion as a kind of art. I think it’s a helpful image for us because of the general disregard for aesthetic standards within the Church (and outside the Church, too, in fairness). Thinking of the Church as a poem, though of course it is not the whole story, does encourage us to be attentive to her in ways that we might not normally be.

    Thanks for the pointer to the lectures by Brant Pitre! I heard a YouTube lecture by him once, and I found it fascinating. The course on Formed looks much more comprehensive. I think my wife and I will try to listen to it, somehow.

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