The Richness of the Word

A most remarkable scene unfolds in Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s great drama, Faust, in which Dr. Faustus labors to translate the opening sentence of St. John’s Gospel.  It is important to note that at this juncture of the play the translator’s mind is in a state of confusion.  Faust has rejected the true meaning of the Joannine Prologue and has become susceptible to the suggestions of the Tempter who harbors a special hostility towards the words of St. John.

Faust reflects on the opening sentence:  “In the beginning was the Word” (In principio erat Verbum).  He substitutes Thought for “Word,” reasoning that a word is an expression of thought and therefore must be prior to it.  His preference does not last very long and replaces “thought” with Power, since, upon further reflection, he realizes that thought by itself is powerless to create the world.  But “power” is also unsatisfactory for him because it is a mere potency as contrasted with Act.  So he then writes:  “In the beginning was the Act.”

The three substitutions that Dr. Faustus makes, in his confused state, bear interesting associations with three of the most influential, though dangerously one-sided, thinkers of the modern world:  René Descartes, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Karl Marx.

Descartes’ famous dictum, “I think therefore I am,” re-defines the human being as a “thinker,” rather than as a “knower,” and represents a transition from man knowing the world of sensible things to man thinking abstract thoughts in separation from existence.  “Thinking,” in this sense, according to the Thomistic philosopher, Anton C. Pegis, is nothing but “dis-existentialized knowing”.  In addition, the Cartesian “thinker” represents an isolation of the “thinker” from a community of persons—Thought devoid of relationship.  Nietzsche wrote extensively about the “will to power.”  He asserted that the exceptional individual should, by the sheer strength of his will, rise above the conventional norms of good and evil.  Nietzsche desired Power without restriction.  Marx famously declared that we must no longer be interested in understanding the world—the futile preoccupation of philosophers—but in changing it.  Marx wanted Act without understanding.

Thought without relationship with others, Power emancipated from morality, and Act devoid of understanding are the unhappy legacies of Descartes, Nietzsche and Marx.  They are one-sided, capricious, and calamitous, as history has shown, and consequently unrealistic.  They are unrealistic because they are radically incomplete and as such remain isolated parts of a dissevered whole.

John’s choice of “Word” (Verbum in Latin, Logos in Greek) represents, on an historical level, the integration of Hellenic, Hebrew, and Christian thought.  For the Greeks, logos meant a divine utterance, emanation, or mediation, as well as reason or meaning.  According to the Septuagint, the term logos is used for the Word of God as His manifestation and revelation of Himself either in creation, deeds, or prophecy—“By the word of the Lord the heavens were made” (Psalm 32:6).  In the New Testament, Christ is the true Word existing from eternity through Whom grace and truth come into the world.  By its application to Jesus of Nazareth, logos no longer denoted simply the permeation of all being by meaning;  it characterizes the Man who is the Word made Flesh.

Taken together, these conceptions of the Word point to the One who is both “the radiance of [God’s] glory” and “the exact representation of his nature” (as the New Testament writer to the Hebrews expresses it).  In other words, this One about whom John writes is, on the one hand, an “utterance” coming from the Father and, on the other hand, simultaneously One which so perfectly mirrors and manifests God that He is, in fact, God, but in the person of Jesus Christ.  Here, we begin to appreciate the mystery of the Trinity as well as the rich meaning of “Word” both historically and theologically.

Goethe was being unintentionally prophetic when he anticipated the fragmented philosophies of Descartes, Nietzsche, and Marx.  When Mephistopheles appeared to Faust, he identified himself as “a part of the part which was originally everything, a part of the darkness which chose to give birth to light.” Mephistopheles is a champion of the part and a sworn enemy of the whole.  Fragmented philosophies are truly diabolical insofar as they deny the whole while presenting the part as if it were the whole.  Therefore, they are deceptive and fraudulent.  It is most fitting that the etymological meaning of “diabolus,” referring to the devil, is “broken into pieces.”

Against these tempting, though unworkable and unrealistic philosophies, stands the integrated Christ, the Word made flesh, the unification of thought, power, and act.  At the same time, mysterious as the “Three-person” God is, He is nonetheless, a role model for all human beings.

In our own human lives, a kind word is both an image of the Trinity as well as a synthesis of thought, power, and act.  The genesis of our words is in thought.  When they are spoken, they are brought into act.  When they are seasoned with kindness, they communicate the power of love.  Our own words will be rich if they mirror the eternal Word.  “All my words for the Word.”  This is the maxim by which the once celebrated journalist and novelist, Eddie Doherty wrote. He understood, as should other Catholic writers, that the paltriness of their own words take on greater and perhaps even lasting significance when they are subordinated to the power and richness of the Word of God.

Editor’s note: The image of St. John’s Gospel was obtained from Shutterstock.

Donald DeMarco


Donald DeMarco, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow of Human Life International who writes for the St. Austin Review and the Truth and Charity Forum. He is Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, CT.

  • Martin

    I believe that you have badly misrepresented Descartes. His philosophies are much more inline with Thomism than you give him credit for. “Cogito, ergo sum” is not about thinking, it is about knowing. I think, therefore, I can be certain of my existence. I am not a figment of someone’s imagination, nor am I dependent on my senses to reach this conclusion.

    Because he could start with this simple absolute truth, he could then use reason to confirm other absolute truths, including the existence of God, and man’s relationship with God. In fact, he states that knowledge of God’s existence is required for having any absolutely certain knowledge.

    To be called “dis-existentialized” by a Thomistic philosopher, is high praise. It is the Existentialism of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Sartre that proposes that the individual is responsible solely to himself; that he is the only one that can give his life meaning. A philosophy that removes God and neighbor from these things is truly diabolic.

    Finally, Goethe would have a hard time being prophetic with respect to Descartes. Descartes lived nearly two hundred years before Goethe.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    What is really wrong with Descartes is that, if it were true that all we really think about are internal, mental, objects, we are not in touch with the world at all, and this seems absurd. Second, the postulation of an intermediary does not solve the problem. To answer the question “How do I think about things?” by saying “You think about them by thinking about representations or images of them,” both leaves a gap between me and the object of thought, and worse, creates a second gap waiting to be bridged — the gap between the representation and the thing.

    That is before we consider what Descartes’s “I” refers to. If I say, “I am jumping up and down,” can I verify it by pointing to this body, jumping up and down? Well, what shows me which body? Why should I point to this particular one? The truth is I have reflexive consciousness of my own actions, the actions of a living human body.

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  • Ford Oxaal

    I love the Faust analogy. And my oldest son is translating John in his Latin class in 9th grade. (He says its easy compared to Livy. I have officially been reduced to unlettered hillbilly) But I do have to pay homage to Descartes. Descartes’ premise is undeniable, but perhaps better phrased as “one cannot deny consciousness”. From there it is an elusive but simple matter to prove the external world, that is, something other than consciousness (hint: this requires the assertion of a second undeniable but different premise: “change happens”). Then a proof of God. Then a secondary proof of the external world. And so on and so forth. It’s all there in an ebook on google play called “Philosophy in Defense of Common Sense”. It also includes the “Geometry of Visual Perception” which also is a matter of certainty and easily demonstrated. I only hope someone will read it before the clock runs out on civilization :).