The Salvation of Faust

by Questing Beast

by Monica Montanaro

Goethe’s Faust, the original story of a man’s wager with Hell, ends surprisingly.  The circumstances of Faust’s death near the end of the play are such that the devil seems to have won his soul, even in the devil’s own estimation; yet Faust is incontestably saved.  Either Heaven intervenes to save Faust against the terms of his own wager, then, or else he truly wins the wager.  A careful reading of the play shows that Faust does win his wager most spectacularly.  Through the story of Faust’s life, moreover, Goethe expresses an unusual idea about the fulfillment of man’s life on earth, which is in a certain way the fulfillment of his purpose as a man.  Goethe objects to the idea that man, a partially material creature who lives out his existence in material creation, must seek happiness and the fulfillment of his life in something sterile and distinct from material creation.  He cannot be satisfied with worldly things, but neither will he ever be able to rest, during this life, in something that causes him to ignore his earthly existence.  Rather, man’s fulfillment in this life consists of actions of a man as man, a creature essentially both soul and body.  This is not an absolute rest, but a resting sort of striving, which, in Goethe’s mind, corresponds more to the nature of man as he exists in this life than the absolute rest of a spirit does.  While Goethe’s idea of the end of man does not entirely correspond to the classical or to the Christian idea, it brings to light certain little-noticed aspects of that idea with extraordinary force.  Nevertheless, it must be qualified carefully.

At the beginning of the play, Faust is a frustrated academic.  His abiding desire has always been to know, since he sees the lack of fulfillment to be found in earthly pleasures with unusual penetration.  His desire, ever unsatisfied in his scholarly life, is to know nature not simply according to the dry, human knowledge of science, of Philosophy, and of Metaphysics, as he perceives those disciplines.  “Let me be blunt,” he says to his assistant, Wagner, a contented, plodding lesser scholar, “those sparkling speeches you admire, those paper baubles for mankind’s amusement, give no more solace than fog-laden winds that sough through withered autumn leaves!”

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Faust never quite loses sight of what he has always desired.  Rather, his experience of the world confirms his desire for the unattainable.

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Poor Faust, who knows that he is made for something better than earthly pleasures, and even something better than what usually passes for knowledge!  He sees and loves creation, and wishes to know it, but he cannot.  He is on the point of suicide when the sounds of Easter vigil bells and angelic choirs draw him back.  He does not refrain from suicide because of faith; he still has none.  Yet something in their beauty, in the memories of his past, in his love for creation compels him to live on.

At this unhappy juncture in his life, rejecting dissipated, worldly action and ‘false’ knowledge, but unable to gain the knowledge he desires, he meets a certain suave demon: enter Mephistopheles.  Mephistopheles has already discussed Faust’s fate with God.  He will be given the chance to win Faust’s soul, but God predicts that he will finally lose the battle.  To begin with, Mephistopheles enters into a contract with Faust which he feels he cannot lose.  Up until now, the devil thinks that Faust has not really tried the worldly life.  Mephistopheles promises to “cure him of his anxious fancies” and “teach him what life and freedom really are.”  In return for this service, Faust will serve him in the afterlife if Mephistopheles succeeds.  Faust does not really care about the afterlife.  He has always been frustrated in his pursuit of joy in this life, and he has no faith that there is anything beyond this life.  This is understandable, given his interest in man and all of creation as it exists in its natural, enmattered state.   However, neither does he think it possible that Mephistopheles can offer him any worldly good that will fully satisfy him, since he knows what he truly desires.  Why not enjoy Mephistopheles’ service, then?  What can it harm?  In a notably formal speech, he takes the bet.

If on a bed of sloth I ever lie contented, / may I be done for then and there!  / If ever you, with lies and flattery, / can lull me into self-complacency / or dupe me with a life of pleasure, / may that day be the last for me! / This is my wager! / …If I should ever say to any moment: / Tarry, remain!–you are so fair! / then I will gladly be destroyed! / Then they can toll the passing bell, / your obligations then be ended– / the clock may stop, its hand may fall, / and time at last for me be over!

Mephistopheles thinks to himself that, even if Faust does not succumb and rest in some pleasure, he will at last grow weary of striving.  He will despair, content not even to seek a greater good, and wish for the humble absence of struggle which one might call “rest” in no fulfilling sense.  This outcome, too, would damn Faust; which seems a sort of guarantee of his soul to Hell, one way or another.

Mephistopheles leads Faust through a life of “pleasure.”  They sample all the world has to offer.  Faust commits many wrongs, yet the devil never seems to be winning.  Faust never quite loses sight of what he has always desired.  Rather, his experience of the world confirms his desire for the unattainable.  In the lustful relationship Mephistopheles leads him to form with an innocent woman, he finds more than lust, some degree of honest, though imperfect love.  He sees this love as fitting into his desire to be one with nature, to know and enjoy what is good in creation.  Mephistopheles is mystified:  “Will it be long before you’ve had enough of this?” he says when Faust temporarily relapses and tries to contemplate nature again.  “How can this life continue to amuse you?”

Faust’s worldly success culminates in his dominion over a land which he himself has raised from below the sea.  He seems nearly corrupted by this power, almost satisfied.  All that he now desires is that one pious, old couple that owns a small plot amidst his holdings become tenants of his on other land, so that their land will be his too.  When Mephistopheles murders them, however, he becomes angry.  “I wanted an exchange, not theft.” One wonders at this strange tenderheartedness in the worldly, all-powerful lord of a massive domain.

In the next scene he is tempted by Care, the ordinary plague of the wealthy, powerful old man.  His reaction is not at all that of a man who is attached to his wealth and power, seeing his fulfillment in his worldly success and trying desperately to protect it.  Neither is he so worn down that he has finished striving.  If at this point Faust had despaired and sought only a sort of peaceful respite, rather than real fulfillment, he would be terrified to lose his goods, the semi-peace of his comfortable state.  The sort of man Mephistopheles expected Faust to turn out if he despaired is exactly the sort of man Care describes.  Faust tells Care that she has no power over him, however, and is left physically blinded by her curse, but paradoxically seems on the brink of the fulfillment of some desire.

The darkness seems to press about me more and more, / but in my inner being there is radiant light; / I’ll hasten the fulfillment of my plans– / only the master’s order carries weight.  / Workmen, up from your beds!  Up, every man, / and make my bold design reality!

Faust has found an action both possible and fitting for the earthly life of a man, which yet corresponds to his desire for something higher.   He will drain a great expanse of marsh for a city, in which men will be able to live safely and comfortably, allowed to work towards their own happiness.  To Faust, this great plan for the good of mankind seems to synthesize the goodness of human life on this earth and the necessity of action with his desire for knowledge.  Faust’s desire for knowledge of nature, though it is not quite what he was seeking in the beginning, has culminated in a love of mankind, the best part of nature, and in devoting his power over the rest of nature to a service for man’s benefit.  With full knowledge that the satisfaction he has found on this earth is fulfilling precisely because the value of the good he has found is far beyond a worldly value, Faust says the words that bring about his death; but he neither rests in something simply worldly, nor rests in despair of good altogether.  He rests in something in this world that begins to transcend this world.  With the triumph of fulfillment he says, deliberately using the very words that were supposed to condemn him to death and damnation:

If only I might see that people’s teeming life, / share their autonomy on unencumbered soil; / then to the moment, I could say: / tarry a while, you are so fair– / the traces of my days on earth / will survive into eternity!  / Envisioning those heights of happiness, / I now enjoy my highest moment.

Since this is the way that he dies, it makes a certain sort of sense that Faust is saved, and that Mephistopheles does not know why.  Faust’s salvation furthermore illustrates Goethe’s thoughts on man’s purpose in life.  Man is a creature essentially composed of body and soul, who is destined to live out his life in the world of material creation.  His end must reflect both aspects of his nature.  Since he has an immortal soul, strictly worldly pleasures cannot fulfill him; but since he has a body and an earthly life, he cannot be fulfilled by an incomplete knowledge of empty forms which requires him to ignore part of himself, either.  Perhaps a more familiar formulation of this concept is simply the idea that, while man is called to know and love God, the only way for him to do so in his life is by knowing God from creation, and working out his love of God in his actions towards his fellow creatures.

This presents itself as a paradox even in the works of the ancients.  Socrates tries to solve the difficulty by making man essentially a soul.  Aristotle thinks that man is essentially soul and body, and so cannot fully understand how there could be life after death for him, despite his proof of the immortality of his soul.  He also struggles with the idea that man’s end is contemplation, an activity which is grossly limited in this life by his materiality.  Because he sees the difficulty of contemplation in this life, while the community of men, their actions towards each other, and the moral virtues seem so important to him, he also commends the political life.  This is not so different from Goethe’s idea of man’s fulfillment being something active in this life, for the good of men and bound up with his existence as a man.

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Perhaps his faith in a real God is implicit; but it seems more likely that Goethe thinks Faust has achieved the sum of human fulfillment in his unified knowledge and active love of creation, and intends to reflect this by sending him to Heaven at the end of the play.

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One must wonder, nevertheless, whether Goethe may be giving too much weight to this unification with nature.  Although in this life man knows God from His effects, the divine in man is truly called to seek God.  An appreciation for the beauty and goodness of creation may be the beginning of this, but it is not the end of it.  Contemplation of the highest things for their own sake, while limited on earth, is still higher than all practical sciences. One might say that true unification with nature in all its glory really means knowledge and love of God.  If Goethe thinks this, however, he is misleadingly inexplicit about it.

We are bound to know God through creation, but God is not limited to this aspect of Himself.  Even in this life we can hope, by the power of our immortal soul, to transcend our material side to some extent, although we cannot abandon or condemn it as evil.  Aristotle was right to see man as a creature composed of body and soul.  Yet we, as Christians, believe that this will not limit our end to material nature itself, but that the material in us will be elevated.  A sign that Goethe may rather be thinking of nature itself as the highest god is the fact that Faust is saved by his actions for the love of creation and mankind without any manifestation of faith.  Perhaps his faith in a real God is implicit; but it seems more likely that Goethe thinks Faust has achieved the sum of human fulfillment in his unified knowledge and active love of creation, and intends to reflect this by sending him to Heaven at the end of the play.

Goethe’s Faust offers a compelling literary reflection on the goodness, depth, and importance of human action in earthly life.  It is right for man to embrace the necessary actions of his life in the world as the result of his contemplated love for God through creation.  Nevertheless, Goethe underestimates the capacity of the human soul for contemplation, and misunderstanding the contemplative life, values action at the expense of true contemplation.  This understanding of action must ultimately corrupt it too, since it fails to subordinate it to its proper end.

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