Thomas Aquinas, who devoted some two million words to spelling out, in the Summa Theologica, the nature of the world, God’s purpose in creating it and our fate in traversing it, ended his short life (short by our standards, at least) in a state of ecstasy, declaring that all that he had written was of no significance beside the beatific vision that he had been granted, and in the face of which words fail. His was perhaps the most striking example of a philosopher who comes to believe that the real meaning of the world is ineffable. Having got to this point, Aquinas obeyed the injunction of Wittgenstein, whose Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus concludes with the proposition: “that whereof we cannot speak we must consign to silence.” But Aquinas was exceptional. The history of philosophy abounds in thinkers who, having concluded that the truth is ineffable, have gone on to write page upon page about it. One of the worst offenders is Kierkegaard, who argues in a hundred ways that the ultimate is inexpressible, that truth is “subjectivity,” that the meaning of life can be given by no formula, no proposition, no abstraction, but only by the concrete experience of surrender whose content can never be given in words.
Moreover, this aspect is of the first importance. Our loves and hopes in some way hinge on it. We love each other as angels love, reaching for the unknowable “I.” We hope as angels hope: with our thoughts fixed on the moment when the things of this world fall away and we are enfolded in “the peace which passes understanding.” Putting the point that way I have already said too much. For my words make it look as though the world beyond the window is actually here, like a picture on the stairs. But it is not here; it is there, beyond the window that can never be opened.
But a question troubles me as I am sure it troubles you. What do our moments of revelation have to do with the ultimate questions? When science comes to a halt, at those principles and conditions from which explanation begins, does the view from that window supply what science lacks? Do our moments of revelation point to the cause of the world?
When I don’t think about it, the answer seems clear. Yes, there is more to the world than the system of causes, for the world has a meaning and that meaning is revealed. But no, there is no path, not even this one, to the cause of the world: for that whereof we cannot speak, we must consign to silence — as Aquinas did.