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.

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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 is professor emeritus of Saint Jerome’s University and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He is a regular columnist for the Saint Austin Review and the author, most recently, of Reflections on the Covid-19 Pandemic: A Search for Understanding.

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