Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Max Picard

Swiss Writer, Catholic Theologian and Visionary

"Silence is man's centre... Today silence is malfunctioning noise."

"Suffering only becomes unbearable when, separated from the great silence in the world, it is merely a part of the noise of history, and then has to bear its burden alone."

"The language of the child is silence transformed into sound: the language of the adult is sound that seeks for silence."

"The world of silence without speech is the world before creation, the world of unfinished creation. In silenced truth is passive and slumbering, but in language it is wide-awake. Silence is fulfilled only when speech comes forth from silence and gives it meaning and honor."

"Silence is needed that man may be whole. If a man has within himself the substance of silence, he need not always be watching movements of his heart or ordering them by his will."

"In every age man has been in flight from God. What distinguishes the Flight today from every other flight is this: once Faith was the universal, and prior to the individual; there was an objective world of Faith, while the flight was only accomplished subjectively, within the individual man. It came into being through the individual man's separating himself from the world of Faith by an act of decision. A man who wanted to flee had first to make his own flight. The opposite is true today. The objective and eternal world of Faith is no more; it is Faith which has to be remade moment by moment through the individual's act of decision, that is to say, through the individual cutting himself off from the world of the Flight."

"Whithersoever they may flee, there is God. Wherever they find themselves, once more they flee away, for God is everywhere. Ever more desperately they flee; but God is already in every place, waiting for them to come...Ever more desperately they fling themselves away, but they can only fling themselves so far, because they have torn themselves away from God...Yet God's power is still manifested in man's tearing himself away from God...They are being hunted by God and they can move so swiftly only because he hunts them. Even this is God's love, that he, he and no other, wills to pursue the fleeing, so that he, the swiftest, may always be the nearest to those in flight."

"Today words no longer arise out of silence, through a creative act of the spirit which gives meaning to language and to the silence, but from other words, from the noise of other words. Neither do they return to the silence but into the noise of other words, to become immersed therein."

"Not until one man speaks to another, does he learn that speech no longer belongs to silence but to man. He learns it through the Thou of the other person, for through the Thou the word first belongs to man and no longer to silence. When two people are conversing with one another, however, a third is always present: Silence is listening. That is what gives breadth to a conversation: when the words are not moving merely within the narrow space occupied by the two speakers, but come from afar, from the place where silence is listening. That gives the words a new fullness. But not only that: the words are spoken as it were from the silence, from that third person, and the listener receives more than the speaker alone is able to give. Silence is the third speaker in such a conversation. At the end of the Platonic dialogues it is always as though silence itself were speaking. The persons who were speaking seem to have become listeners to silence."

"In every moment of time, man through silence can be with the origins of all things."

"Silence contains everything within itself. It is not waiting for anything; it is always wholly present in itself and it completely fills out the space in which it appears."

"When the substance of silence is present in a man, all his qualities are centered in it; they are all connected primarily with the silence and only secondarily with each other. Therefore it is not so easy for the defect of one quality to infect all the others, since it is kept in its place by the silence. But if there is no silence, a man can be totally infected by a single defect so that he ceases to be a man."

"The language spoken by men in cities does not seem to belong to them any longer. It is a mere part of the general noise, as if the words were no longer formed by human lips but were only a scream and a shriek coming from the mechanism of the city. It is said today that people need only go into the country to reach the "quietness of nature" and silence. But they do not meet the silence there; on the contrary, they carry the noise of the great towns and the noise of their own souls out into the country with them. That is the danger of the "Back to the Land" movement: the noise that is at any rate concentrated in the big towns, locked up as in a prison, is let loose on the countryside. To decentralize the big towns is to decentralize the noise, to distribute it all over the countryside."

"There are no longer any silent men in the world today; there is no longer even any difference between the silent and the speaking man, only between the speaking and the non-speaking man. And because there are no silent men there are also no longer any listeners. Man today is incapable of listening; and because he is incapable of listening he can no longer tell a story, for listening and true story-telling belong together: they are a unity."

"There is a difference between ordinary noise and the noise of words. Noise is the enemy of silence; it is opposed to silence. The noise of words is not merely opposed to silence: it makes us even forget that there was ever any such thing as silence at all. It is not even an acoustical phenomenon: the acoustic element, the continual buzzing of verbal noise, is merely a sign that all space and all time have been filled by it."

"There is an immeasurability in happiness that only feels at home in the breadth of silence. Happiness and silence belong together just as do profit and noise."

"When the substance of silence is present in a man, all his qualities are centered in it; they are all connected primarily with the silence and only secondarily with each other. Therefore it is not so easy for the defect of one quality to infect all the others, since it is kept in its place by the silence. But if there is no silence, a man can be totally infected by a single defect so that he ceases to be a man. "

"Meditation is a mental discipline that enables us to do one thing at a time."

"Poetry comes out of silence and yearns for silence. Like us, it travels from one silence to another. It is like flight, like a circling over silence."

"Language has become a mere mechanical vehicle transporting the outward signs of language. Language has ceased to be organic and plastic, ceased to establish things firmly. Words have become merely signs that something is being fetched out of the jumble of noise and thrown at the listener. The word is not specifically a word. It can now be replaced by signs—colour signs or sound signs; it has become an apparatus, and like every mere apparatus it is always facing the possibility of destruction. And therefore the man who does not live directly from the word, but allows himself to be dragged along by the apparatus of noise, also faces destruction at any moment."

"Verbal noise is neither silence nor sound. It permeates silence and sound alike and it causes man to forget both silence and the world. / There has ceased to be any difference between speech and silence, since one single noise of words permeates both the speaker and the non-speaker. The silent listener has simply become a non-speaker. / Verbal noise is a pseudo-language and a pseudo-silence. That is to say, something is spoken and yet it is not real language at all. Something disappears in the noise and yet it is not real silence. When the noise suddenly stops, it is not followed by silence, but merely by a pause in which the noise accumulates in order to expand with even greater force when it is released. / It is as though the noise were afraid that it might disappear, as if it were constantly on the move, because it must always be convincing itself that it really exists. It does not believe in its own existence. / The real word, on the contrary, has no such fear, even when it is not being expressed in sound: its existence is in fact even more palpable in the silence."

"Just as the word no longer arises by a special act of creation, but exists all the time as a continual noise, so human actions no longer happen as a result of special decision, but as part of a continuous process. The process is now the primary, man is a mere appendage of the process. This "labour process" is so secure that is does not seem to depend on man at all: it seems to be a kind of natural phenomenon, almost independent of man altogether. And this never-ending process that is somehow outside man’s control, corresponds absolutely to the never-ending process of noise. This labour process penetrates everything so much that it seems to continue inaudibly even in the intervals of work. / The point is not the purpose of the labour process, but the fact that it never stops. Just as the word is ground down in the general noise, so the creative energy of man is stamped out in this labour process. There is no human purpose left in this never-ending labour process. A new kind of being has arisen here, a pure being without purpose, which is taken for granted only because of its apparent continuity. It is taken so much for granted that it is not discussed at all. And this is the great power of the labour process: that it has established itself outside the sphere of discussion."

"Man is not even aware of the loss of silence: so much is the space formerly occupied by the silence so full of things that nothing seems to be missing. But where formerly the silence lay on a thing, now one thing lies on another. Where formerly an idea was covered by the silence, now a thousand associations speed along to it and bury it. In this world of today in which everything is reckoned in terms of immediate profit, there is no place for silence. Silence was expelled because it was unproductive, because it merely existed and seemed to have no purpose. Almost the only kind of silence that there is today is due to the loss of the faculty of speech. It is purely negative: the absence of speech. It is merely like a technical hitch in the continuous flow of noise."

"Nothing has changed the nature of man so much as the loss of silence. The invention of printing techniques, compulsory education - nothing has changed man so much as this lack of relationship with silence; this fact that silence is no longer taken for granted, as something as natural as the sky above or the air we breathe. Man who has lost silence has not merely lost human quality, but his whole structure has been changed thereby."

"Go where silence is and say something."

"Silence stands outside the world of profit and utility. It cannot be exploited for profit; you cannot get anything out of it. It is “unproductive,” therefore it is regarded as useless. Yet there is more help and healing in silence than in all useful things."

"Noise is manufactured in the city, just as goods are manufactured. The city is the place where noise is kept in stock, completely detached from the object from which it came."

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

"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."

"It is not waiting for anything; it is always wholly present in itself and it completely fills out the space in which it appears."

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

"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."

"Where silence is, man is observed by silence. Silence looks at man more than man looks at silence."