Faustian Ethics

In Marlowe’s Faust we come to find a man that was in search after power and lust; a man who desired to be twenty for life, sleep with every woman, and have the power to do as he will. What we find in Goethe’s Faust is very different. Faust is a wise man, a polymath, who has studied everything from Philosophy and theology to law and medicine. However, he finds the scholar’s life stiff and empty, and his study room feels as though it were his tomb with the walls closing in on him. So, when the devil is at his doorstep, he welcomes him in. The devil then asks what Faust will sell his soul for. Faust is a learned, erudite man. Therefore, he won’t sell his soul for anything world, nor will it be found in the utilitarian calculus–but for an experience that will arrest time and space, and force him to say, “Ah, linger on, thou art so fair!”

When the devil and God meet, in the prologue, the devil says of mankind that, with the divinity of Reason, man has become, “[M]ore brutal than any brute.” This is because, with the tools of reason, we justify our greatest ills. Reason has become the driving force to divide us, because human nature is so corruptible. Man believes reason is what makes them better than brutes, but what man must first have, to steer reason with good purpose, is to have a good nature. God sees this potential in Faust, and asks if the devil knows of him. The devil responds with, “[H]e serves you most peculiarly,” and God replies, “The gardener knows, when verdant grows the tree, that bloom and fruit will deck the coming year.” Mephistopheles is an unwitting agent of God’s who is blinded in the fact that he can’t feel love at all. The devil then asks for a wager, just as in the Bible’s Book of Job. God replies with affirmation and says, “Man errs as long as he doth strive,” and just as motion entails friction, mankind’s striving entails error. Striving is central to the epic of Faust. Goethe’s faust is about motion, it’s about action, it’s about–no matter what–ceaseless striving, moving past existential dread, suicidal ideation, shame, guilt, or any other obstacle Faust finds along his path. Faust, in this epic, makes tragic mistake after mistake, and falls on hard times. However, what is redeemable in Faust is that he always finds the strength to pull himself together, so that he may continue to show up and fight each day anew. “In the beginning was the Act.” Faust translates the Bible as, as action is key to German Romanticism. One of the father’s of German Romanticism was Fichte, a Disciple of Kant’s. The “I” that posits itself is an active, organizing, creative thing that mysteriously moves inside of us and what makes us a morally free being. Freedom was key to the Romantic movement.

When Mephistopheles reveals himself to Faust in his study, they begin to make a wager over Faust’s soul. However, Faust isn’t a fool and is prepared to settle for an agreement, not for something as transient as wealth or power, but for something that transcends the material world of nuts and bolts. Faust tells the devil:

Faust. If I ever lay me on a bed of sloth in peace,

              The instant let for me existence cease!

              If ever with lying flattery you can rule me

              So that contented with myself I stay,

              If with enjoyment you can fool me,

Be that for me thing final day!

That bet I offer!

              Mephistopheles. Done!

Faust. Another hand-clasp! There!

             If to the moment I shall ever say:

               “Ah, linger on, thought art so fair!”

                 Then may you fetters on me lay,

                 Then will I perish, then and there!

                 Them may the death-bell toll, recalling

                   Then from your service you are free;

                  The clock may stop, the pointer falling,

                             And time itself be past for me!

Faust originally may have thought ultimate goodness would be found in the scholar’s life, but he found that to be false and a great folly. In Faust’s Study, the devil says:

Mephistopheles. Cease with your brooding grief to play

That, like a vulture, eats your life away.

The worst of company will let you find

That you’re a man among mankind.

Which means the meanest company will let you feel as though you are but just another man amongst men. That’s the worst they can remind you of. The Faust saga, which the devil prods on, as he says, “Forward! Forward!” begins at the bottom of a bottle, in a cellar filled with men who seek pleasure in alcohol, but Faust will have none of it. Faust is impatient to leave, because alcohol’s affect is so fleeting. It only numbs the pain of a life which has brought only suffering and sorrow.

              When a student comes to Faust, the devil disguises himself as a professor and writes in the young man’s album, “Ye shall be as God, knowing Good and Evil.” This biblical passage comes from the book of Genesis 3:5, when the serpent–the cousin of the devil–tempts Eve to eat the fruit of the tree. Eating the fruit is like taking the red pill in The Matrix. It pulls the curtain of innocence away. Henceforth, Adam and Eve is given the vision to see Good and Evil. She is able to recognize the self, and the Evil that was always a potential in humanity is now realized. It’s this point where the humanity falls from a sinless form of life and paradise is lost. Faustian ethics, however, tells us to shun regret and guilt and replace the biblical Good and Evil for restless striving, a life of activity rather than passivity. Activity as defined in Spinoza’s Ethics as a virtue or power that Where one knows thyself and their place in nature, that’s when one acts as a free agent and has attained the virtue to be in accordance with God. Goethe says this better when he writes, “There is nothing more frightful than ignorance in action.” Whereas passivity is chthonic and when one is driven by emotion. The active striving must entail a person with a good nature to wield reason towards something higher than something mere earthly. The ultimate Good is when the chase becomes the quarry.

When Faust and the devil leave the gothic study behind, he and the devil visit a witch. There Faust is given a potion from the witch’s brew, and turns back into a young man. When he’s out and about, he is captured by the beauty of a young girl named Margaret. He feels the vigor of youth in her presence. Margaret is pious and is the very symbol of innocence, where Faust is the symbol of experience. Even the devil appeals to reason, so that Faust doesn’t damage the young woman, but Faust is arrested by Gretchen’s beauty so much that passion trumps reason.  After the two meet and court, Gretchen and Faust begin to fall in love. They have a discussion in a garden where she asks Faust inquiring questions. Faust reveals himself as a Romantic priest. She asks:

Margaret.           Do you believe in God?

Faust.     My darling, who dare say:

“I believe in God”? You may

As priest or sage, and you’ll receive

What only seems to mock and stay

The asker.

Margaret. So you don’t believe?

Faust.     Sweet vision, don’t misunderstand me now!

Who dare name Him?

And who avow:

              “I believe in Him”?

              The All-Enfolder,

              The All-Upholder,

              Enfolds, upholds He not

              You, me, Himself?

              Do no the heavens over-arch us yonder?

Does not the earth lie firm beneath?

Do not eternal stars rise friendly

Looking down upon us?

Look I not, eye in eye, on you,

And do not all things throng

Toward your head and heart,

Weaving in mystery eternal,

Invisible, visible, near to you?

Fill up your heart with it, great though it is,

And when you’re wholly in the feeling, in its bliss,

Name it then as you will,

Name it Happiness! Heart! Love! God!

I have no name for that!

Feeling is all in all;

Name is but sound and smoke,

Beclouding Heaven’s glow.

“Feeling is all” is the romantic mantra, because feelings are immediate and unquestionable. You can’t deny when you are in love or when you are in pain. Here Goethe brings Spinoza’s pantheism to life, not just as super rational but bodily with sense. Reason, as William Wordsworth put it, is a meddling faculty because of its constant questionability. Call feeling what you will, but take comfort—even in pain—that you can feel.

Faust is far from perfect. He falls for a young girl, he gets her pregnant, and then deserts her to follow Mephistopheles into the witches’ Brocken. He is then disturbed to see an allusion of Gretchen’s death and leaves in haste. Faust then finds Gretchen in a prison cell for committing infanticide. She is crying out like Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Her brother condemned her. Her community condemns her. She believes she is responsible for her mother’s and brother’s death. She can’t live with the pain of all the sins she believed she committed. Faust finally arrives and opens the cell door. He tries his damnest to help Gretchen escape, but she can’t forgive herself. She feels like the hearthless, stateless, lawless person. He feels the guilt too. He tells Gretchen that the prison door is open, all she needs to do is walk out, and follow him away from this wretched place. All she has to do is have self-compassion–that’s the key–but she can’t forgive herself. Faust and the devil must leave before the jailers come and take Gretchen and himself away. After Faust and the devil leave, Gretchen is murdered by her own community, because she couldn’t get an abortion, nor live with herself, nor live in a place where the community completely rejects her.

              The beginning of part two starts with Faust trying to gain a semblance of peace after that tragedy of Gretchen. Nature lifts his spirit, and he reaffirms his power to strive on. What we learn from this is that guilt and regret shouldn’t stop us from moving forward, we must look forward and strive on. On his journey he returns to his university and meets his aid named Wagner who now has taken Faust own’s place. Wagner is seen creating a life. However, a life that was created without love. This being created is called homunculus, and when it experiences true beauty it discovers it’s too much for him, and the glass which contains him then breaks into a thousand pieces and he dies.

At the end of the Faust saga, Faust rules over a people. Faust tells his men to extend the boundaries of his land, to rescind the ocean, so he can give over his land to the people. It is then that Faust is blinded. He may not have the sight of seeing this world, but now he is able to see with a moral sight. He says:

Faust.   To wisdom’s final fruit, profoundly true:

Of freedom and of life he is deserving

Who very day must conquer them anew.

Thus here, by danger girt, the active day

Of childhood, manhood, age will pass away.

Aye! Such a thing I fain would see,

Stand on free soil among a people free.

Then might I say, that moment seeing:

“Ah linger on, though art so fair!”

The traces of my earthly bring

Can perish not in aeons—they are there!

lofty moment I now feel in this:

I know enjoy the highest moment’s bliss.

This moment of transcendence arrests Faust heart. With this moment, the devil now claims his prize. However, the devil is denied Faust’s soul, for Faust—in his striving—has stumbled across something truly divine when he gives freedom to a free people, so that they may thrive and strive on their lands and reconquer freedom each day. What God saw in Faust is what the devil could have never imagined, because the devil is a tragic character, who will never understand love. What saves Faust’s soul is the gift of giving. This entire story of Faust has him toiling and troublingly over what will bring meaning to his life, and it is found in the most divine thing as giving people land so they can plot out a life for themselves. This profound action is seen by the holy penitent one, which is Gretchen, and she saves Faust from the grasp of the devil. Faust ends with these few lines:

              Chorus Mysticus.

                             All Earth comprises

                             Is symbol alone;

                             As fact here is known

                             All past the humanly

                             Wrought here in love;

                             The Eternal-Womanly

                             Draws us above.

              In this ending, like so many great works–we find love conquers all–and that it is the eternal feminine that saves Faust from the clutches of hell. Like Odysseus’ Penelope, Theseus’ Ariadne, Socrates’ Diotima, the Bible’s Virgin Mary, Dante’s Beatrice, and so it is with Faust’s Gretchen that becomes the new symbol for the Eternal Feminine, which saves a man from the clutches of disaster. Over time symbols change, but what they stand for does not. Faust at the end of Part Two understands love, but the devil does not, and that is his ultimate failing, and why Faust is saved at the end. Faust conquers his internal and external world, and that his striving and intellectual restlessness prods Faust on until he understands good and evil, and acts in accordance with the good to aid his fellow man in giving them land to strive on so that they may mark out a life for themselves. What is universal in mankind is their freedom, so Faust made it possible that these beings may strive on to conquer freedom each day anew. Faust sees the divinity within himself, breaking his solipsism, by externalizing freedom. This is when the chase becomes the quarry in faustian ethics.