Picard, Max. The World of Silence.
Chicago: Regnery, 1989. (U.S. ed., English translation)

This classic work is so filled with aphoristic passages that it is easy to lose sight of the larger premise. That premise, that silence is not the absence of noise, the absence of something, but is a phenomenon in itself, was startlingly clear only when this work first appeared in 1948.

As a German Swiss Catholic theologian, Picard is strongly influenced by the Catholic phenomenologist Gabriel Marcel, who wrote the preface to this edition, but also by related philosophers such as Heidegger, and by the whole thrust of lyric German poets like Rilke and Holderlin. Equally strong, however, is the influence of the post-war atmosphere of cautious post-modern conservatism, at home in, say, Gilson, Maritain, and Thibaud - reconstructionists and rehabilitators of a broken world.

To Picard the theologian, then, silence is to be contrasted with language, the gift of consciousness that distinguishes the rational being from the universe, capable of silence and noise. Silence is the context of consciousness, language is the expression of creation. Picard sees language not as the product of the evolution of consciousness but as the gift of God, a divine jump-start for consciousness.

Through the many short chapters of his work, Picard offers impressions of the role of silence in balancing human effort and conserving virtue. But Picard's insistence on the supremacy of language versus the noise of modern technology (from construction noise to the radio) is a weak protest against time and change.

While Picard is to be commended for rescuing silence from its philosophical enemies, several resources for breaking the paradox that he proposes may be found elsewhere. For example, Ricouer's transcendence of modernity as a path, or the Zen limnology that breaks the absolutized boundary of language with silence. There are other channels into which we can navigate without depending upon language or our present "reality."

We can see Picard's hesitancy in a passage in the chapter "Nature and Silence":

The silence of nature is a conflicting silence from the human point of view. It is a blessed silence because it gives man an intuitive feeling of the great silence that was before the world and out of which everything arose. And it is oppressive at the same time because it puts man back into the state in which the word might be taken away from him again into that original silence.

But isn't this exactly what death is, this "taken away from" and return to "original silence"? This state must be explored not because it can be posited but because it suggests the natural restful state of the universe, wherein lies the consciousness we enjoy, wherein is found God. But Picard's orthodoxy makes him wary of approximating his discovery of silence, pushing it metaphysically or theologically to reveal itself. This is the ultimate irresolution of an otherwise breakthrough work.

This work is invaluable in inoculating us against the fear of silence, in seeing silence as a natural state, in preparing us for a life of silence if we choose, the beginning of a mysticism of silence and solitude, and a death which is, after all, silence.

Picard's compelling and even beautiful passages in favorite chapters such as "Nature and Silence," "Poetry and Silence," "The Plastic Arts and Silence," and "Illness, Death and Silence" show us that Picard has a solid instinct. Here are three samples.

Chinese pictures are like figures in a moonlit mist over the world of silence, woven from moon threads over the silence.

The seasons move in silence through the changing year. Spring does not come from winter; it comes from the silence from which winter came.

In the fables of the Golden Age we are told that men understood the language of all animals, trees, flowers, and grasses. That is a reminder of the fact that in the first language that had just come from the fullness of silence, there was still the all-containing fullness.