Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, November 24, 2014

GOETHE: Faust (Scene 3: Translating The Word)

After spending the afternoon with the busy holiday crowd in Scene 2, Scene 3 takes us back to Faust’s quiet study. This seems to be his more natural element. Faust is restless after all the partying and now he wants “to treasure the things of the spirit” as he puts it. He says things of the spirit “nowhere flames with more dignity, more beauty, than here in the Gospels.” The Great Books series uses the Gospel of Mark but Faust turned to the Gospel of John instead. Why the Gospels? Faust explains, “I feel that I must open the fundamental text: must try, with honest feeling, to set down in my own beloved German that sacred original.” Let’s step back for a second and consider what’s going on here. The text Faust is reading is probably a Latin translation from an original Greek text. What he wants to do now is translate Latin into German. And we’re reading an English translation of Goethe’s play written in German. That’s a lot of translations. How do we know we’re getting what Goethe and John the Apostle really said?
Faust gets hung up on the first sentence: “In the beginning was the Word! Already I have to stop! Who’ll help me on? It’s impossible to put such trust in the Word! I must translate some other way if I am truly enlightened by the spirit.” So Faust tries three different terms. Instead of using “the Word” as the Gospel of John says, Faust tries substituting the terms Thought, Power, or Deed. Would any of those terms work just as well, or better, than using “the Word”? We should put the terms within context of the rest of the passage and see what happens. Maybe Faust quit too soon. If we pick up the Gospel where Faust left off we find the KJV saying, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” How would Faust’s terms fit now? Instead of “the Word was God” what if we used “Thought was God” instead? Does it make any difference in the way we understand the nature of God? How about if we use “Power was God”? Or “the Deed was God”? Who (or what) is God?
Faust was a theologian. To say The Word is God is a very different thing from saying that Power is God. Words matter. Remember Faust himself is the one who asks “Who’ll help me?” When he’s confronted by real spirits where does he turn for help? To words. In his own words Faust says, “I’ll need first, to confront the beast, the Incantation of the Four.” When he’s confronted with real danger Faust turns to what he knows best: words; incantations. Go back to the three terms Faust wanted to use instead of The Word. How well would they work now? Are Words the same as Thoughts? Can Thoughts beat down spirits? Do words have Power? Can they move mountains as well as human hearts? Can they drive out spirits? And how do Words relate to Deeds? What’s the relationship between saying something and actually doing it?
Well. Why all these translations? Why all this quibbling over words and the meaning of words? We soon find ourselves lost in a virtual verbal labyrinth. Mephistopheles could not devise a more clever method for keeping Faust lost in confusion and darkness. How did Mephistopheles (disguised as a serpent) confuse Eve in the Garden of Eden? With words and sly implications: Did God really say that? Maybe Adam made it all up. Or maybe he misunderstood what God meant. How do we know if Adam translated The Word correctly? Before long Eve is lost in confusion and darkness, just like Faust. Verbal deception is a very old trick and Mephistopheles is very good at what he does. The Gospel of John says “In the beginning…the Word was God.” The very first chapter of the very first book of the Bible says “God said let there be light” and a whole universe came into being out of nothing. If words really do matter then “The Word” may still be the best term for Faust (and us) to understand God, the cosmos, and ourselves.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

GOETHE: Faust, Part 1 (Scene 2: Order and Chaos)

In the Prologue the Archangels Raphael, Gabriel and Michael are all busy praising the Lord and singing wonder at the awe of creation. This is as it should be. That’s what angels do. At least that’s what good angels do. It’s the natural order of things; or to be more precise it’s the supernatural order of things. The universe isn’t just some random jumble of assorted galaxies and angels and empty space. There’s an order to it all. This order triumphed over the primordial chaos described in Genesis where darkness was upon the face of the deep.
Out of this chaos came the world as we know it. It’s where we live. It’s our home. But sometimes it doesn’t look very orderly. The crowd in Scene 2 seems like a random jumble of students and maidens and burghers. But underneath the apparent chaos of life is a recognizable human order. Darkness is not upon the face of the deep. The male students want to go where there’s good beer, good smoking and easy women; much like college students today. The burghers are small business owners and middle class tradesmen with middle class values and middle class brains. They talk about politics and taxes and war and national security; much like the middle class today. But underneath the partying and working and struggling is a shared set of values; a common core of principles that holds this little German republic together.
And this is also the cultural heritage Faust inherited. He studied Law, Medicine, Philosophy and Theology. These are the subjects that bring order to a random collection of German students and maidens and burghers. Law brings order to society by the administration of justice. Medicine brings order to the body by maintaining health. Philosophy brings order to the mind by establishing right principles of thinking. Theology brings order to the soul by defending the faith of our fathers. For Faust this wasn’t enough. His mind was certainly up to the task and he had mastered all of these subjects. But bringing order out of chaos is a laborious process. Faust didn’t like the answers he got. Answers that satisfied burghers weren’t good enough for Faust.
Plato’s Symposium is a good example of the traditional quest for wisdom. In the Symposium the specific topic was love but the concept could be applied to other forms of wisdom too. Plato’s point was this: there’s an orderly progression from simpler subjects on to more complex ones. We start with simple things and once we’ve meditated on and mastered those we move one rung up the ladder to the next step. Magic is an attempt to circumvent this process and get to the top without all the sweat and tears of climbing all the individual rungs up the ladder. Why bother working so hard? Use magic instead. But even if we get to the top this way we wouldn’t have the experience to handle the power magic promises us. Faust is a “doctor” and should know this.
In Scene 1 we learn that Faust has lost his faith; not only in the God of his fathers but also in the Germanic Christian culture where he lived. Fair enough. A crisis of faith is not unusual, especially in the 18th century Age of Reason. But instead of consulting Nostradamus maybe he should have read old Dante instead. In Canto 20 of the Inferno he would have read the final fate of magicians and those who try to look into the future: “the neck was twisted, their faces looked down on their backs; they had to move ahead by moving backward, for they never saw what was ahead of them…” For Dante the punishment always fits the crime. Practicing magic isn’t exactly a crime punishable by law. But it’s a sin, a mortal sin, according to Dante. Magic tries to bend the divine will for human gain. For the old masters this was never a good thing. It upsets the natural order and leads us back down the road to the primordial chaos of darkness.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Faust: A Journey of Mind and Spirit

 People are often confused about what they want out of life. Some want fame or power, others want financial success or pleasure. Almost everyone, regardless of where they live, desire things that they cannot have.  Over time, we learn to deal with it. That's what maturity brings, when you finally accept your human limitations and settle for what you have, rather than struggle to obtain what is beyond your reach. So often in life, we find that our reach exceeds our grasp, and we either accept our mortal limitations and move on, or we become obsessed with what lies beyond our grasp and continue to struggle, making ourselves (and those around us) miserable in the process.  People who persist in following these crazy ideas are called fanatics. But history shows that every now and then a few of these fanatics actually succeed in what they aspire to. They manage to break through the inertia of doubt and change the world in ways that most of us can scarcely dream of.

As I read Goethe's Faust, I find myself wondering if this is a story of another crazy fanatic, or man who will change the world in ways we could never imagine. In one sense, Faust is a man seeking redemption. What does he have to feel bad about? He is a highly educated scholar and seems to have a pretty good life. He may be the most intelligent man on the planet. But he is not satisfied. In fact, he is miserable. Life seems a great disappointment to him. He wants to know things about life that no man can understand, even Faust. In other words, Faust is a philosopher, and it is the burden of every philosopher to desire knowledge that is beyond his grasp. The failure of human knowledge, which is also the failure of philosophy, is demoralizing to Faust. He wants to know what only God knows: the secrets of the universe and the meaning of life itself. Faust has decided that unless he can understand God's creation, then his life has no purpose. He is bored with traditional knowledge and so he turns away from philosophy towards the realm of black arts. When reason cannot supply you with the answers you seek, you look elsewhere.

Faust is on a journey of the mind and spirit. After many years of studying the classics, Faust reached a dead end with reason. Now, he looks to the dark side in hopes of learning things that lie beyond reason's grasp. Philosophy has not given Faust the knowledge he seeks. Perhaps, magic will. Though, magic comes with a heavy price. When you abandon reason for magic, you're headed down a different path. Magic doesn't yield wisdom, but it does give power. And if there is one thing that all philosophers know, it's that power abhors a vacuum. What exactly does Faust want out of life? Even he doesn't seem to have an answer. The only thing he knows for sure is that he is bored with life, and he needs a reason to keep living. He is about to meet Mephistopheles who is never bored because he has the entire human race to amuse him. Mephistopheles certainly has the power to relieve Faust of his boredom.

So where is God in this tale? As with Job, God has become the silent onlooker who sets things in motion, and then sits back, like Zeus, to observe humanity in all its confusion and terror. As Wagner says of the dog which Faust observes,

"It's just a poor dumb animal.
Stand still and he will wait for you;
Speak to him, and he will jump up on you.
Drop something, and he will bring it back.
He'll jump in the water after your stick."
 Faust replies, "You're right. I see no sign of any spirit-- it's only training."

Sunday, November 09, 2014

GOETHE: Faust, Part 1 (Scene 1: Magic)

In the Prologue to this play Satan accuses Man of becoming “beastlier than any beast.” The Lord disagrees. He has confidence that Faust is different from most men. The Lord says Faust “serves me, these days, in bewilderment. But soon I shall lead him into the light.” That’s when a bet takes place between Satan and the Lord. The bet is for the soul of Faust. The Lord has confidence in Faust because “A good man, struggling in his darkness, still knows the one true way.” That’s the background to the play. Throughout the story we should occasionally pause and remember to ask: is Faust a good man? Will he find his way? The curtain opens…
Faust sits alone late at night in his armchair. He’s brooding in darkness. He studied all branches of knowledge and spent years trying to understand the deepest subjects: law, medicine, philosophy and theology. And what has it all brought him? Faust claims he’s “no wiser than I was before.” We’re reminded of the Preacher’s lament in Ecclesiastes: all is vanity. Faust thought wisdom would bring him peace and contentment. But he’s not peaceful or content either, just restless. A reader of Great Books should consider: is peace of mind one of the fruits of wisdom? Wisdom is hard. What do I get out of it? Why should I even try to be wise? Faust is just the latest restless soul asking the same old question: what is the meaning of life? As we grow up most people finally just give up and get on with ordinary life. Faust doesn’t give up.
It’s not that he’s unhappy, not really. Faust isn’t worried by “doubts nor scruples” and says he’s not afraid “of Hell or the Devil.” But here’s what’s strange. He goes on to say “And because of it, all joy is torn from me.” Faust is something of an intellectual free spirit. He keeps an open mind and doesn’t get hung up on superstitious dogmas or creeds meant for simple minds. Faust is a doctor in the old sense of the term. Aristotle once said Man by nature desires to know. And Faust knows nearly everything worth knowing. But he’s still not happy. Why not? Maybe Faust should answer the most fundamental question first. What’s worth knowing? Faust thinks there’s not “anything that I can teach to make men better, give them faith…” Why does Faust think it’s his job to make other men better or give them faith? Is making men better the government’s job? (The Federalist Papers) Is building faith the church’s job? (Augustine: The City of God) Maybe Faust already has his hands full with his own problems.
Since he’s not finding answers in the traditional paths of History, Science, Reason or Religion, Faust decides to look elsewhere. Why does he turn to magic for answers? He should know better. Faust claims he wants wisdom. Can we get wisdom through magic? He claims he wants to help people. Does magic help people? Why are so many people fascinated by occult writings, including highly intelligent people like Faust? Nostradamus, for example, is still a bestseller in a highly scientific age. People seem to have always been drawn to the occult whether it’s pre-historic Exodus, Sophocles’ Greece, Goethe’s Germany or modern-day America. There seems to be something in the human mind that wants to seek out forbidden knowledge. It could just be simple curiosity. Or it could be something more sinister; more deadly. Faust has no idea what’s going on in the spiritual world. He asks rather innocently “Where shall I grasp you, infinite Nature?” A man as smart as Faust should know he can’t grasp a spirit. You can’t hold on to an angel. They’re stronger than we are and smarter too. Genesis says the Lord “placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword…” Angels aren’t cuddly little cupids with wings. They’re ferocious warriors. They use flaming swords. Even good angels are scary. Faust is about to meet one of the bad ones. He doesn’t know he’s getting in way over his head.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

GOETHE: Faust, Part 1 (Prologue)

There’s a conversation in Heaven between God and Satan. They’re talking about how things are getting on in the world. Sound familiar? If you think that was from the Book of Job you’re right. If you think it’s from the Prologue of Goethe’s Faust you’re also right. From the very beginning of this play there’s already a big question. Why is Goethe starting out with something that’s already been done? He’s writing a story that’s already been written. Isn’t that plagiarism? No. What Goethe is doing is taking a theme from the Western literary tradition and reshaping it in his own form. That’s not plagiarism. Shakespeare did it all the time. In The Republic Plato refers back to Homer. Aristotle uses Sophocles to talk about the artistic principles of tragedy. This is all part of what the Great Books calls The Great Conversation. These authors don’t steal from one another. They talk to each other. They build upon one another. We can only listen in.
That is unless you’re someone like Goethe. He read widely and thought deeply then jumped into The Great Conversation himself. The introduction to this selection shows where he may have gotten his inspiration for Faust. Goethe’s mother once said, “Write books? No, I cannot do that, but in telling over what others have written I can beat them all.” Goethe took his idea for the prologue to Faust straight from the Book of Job. In the Book of Job the Lord asks Satan, “Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?” Satan replies, “put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face.” In Faust the Lord asks Satan (Mephistopheles), “Do you know Faust… my own servant?” Mephistopheles replies, “You don’t say so! An odd sort of servant.” In both stories a wager takes place between God and the devil. That’s where the stories begin to diverge and Goethe turns it into a different tale. Job suffers a great deal physically. The older ancient virtue was to endure pain and overcome evil. But Faust suffers mentally. So the newer modern virtue is to withstand the temptations of pleasure and overcome evil. In both cases God defends mankind while Satan accuses.
In Job Satan points out how utterly selfish and self-centered men are: “Skin for skin, yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life.” Job’s Satan says people will do anything to save their own skins. In Faust Mephistopheles expresses his utter contempt for humanity, “All I see is how men torment themselves. The little god of the world (man) is the same still, as odd as on the first day. He’d live a little better without his glimmering of heavenly light. He calls it Reason but he uses it to be beastlier than any beast.” This is all a prelude to the struggle between good and evil that serves as a focal point throughout the play. In both stories the Lord sees the potential goodness in Man; Satan only sees the actual badness. In both stories life is a battlefield in an ongoing struggle between spiritual adversaries. Job and Faust are just pawns in a much bigger war.
This is a war that’s out of our pay grade. In the greater scheme of things human beings can’t possibly understand what’s going on. The angels can’t understand it either; even archangels. Raphael says the Lord “works out his predestined round. Though no angel fathoms him…” Gabriel also admits some things are too high for angels and men, things too fast, things “swift, past all understanding swift.” The Lord knows all this. That’s why his response isn’t too surprising. “Faust serves me, these days, in bewilderment. But soon I shall lead him into the light.” In this play the real war is against darkness and ignorance. The Lord knows Faust is struggling just as Job struggled in his own day. But the Lord says “A good man, struggling in his darkness, still knows the one true way.” Is Faust a good man? Satan says we shall see.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Some Early Thoughts on Faust

As with the Book of Job, Mephistopheles (or Satan) makes an early appearance in Goethe's Faust. So what exactly is his role in this tale? Let's face it. Satan's role in creation is a problem. It's a theological problem because he shouldn't exist at all. The orthodox view of God is that He (God) is all powerful and completely good. And he has some reason, known only to himself, why he created man.
But, we can't help wondering why Satan, who opposes God and does everything in his power to make mankind miserable, is allowed by God to play an active role in the affairs of men. Of course, Milton made a gallant attempt to justify Satan's role in creation. But even if Satan lacks the power to defeat God, he has the ability and the will to destroy man, and he will take every opportunity to undermine God's plan to elevate man to some higher moral ground. Yet, one might still wonder, why does Satan exist? If God is truly all powerful, why doesn't he just get rid of Satan and allow his favorite creature (or pet) to develop naturally into a higher spiritual being? This is the basic question percolating under the action of both Goethe's Faust and the Book of Job.

If you believe, as I do, that nothing in creation is worthless or without purpose, then Satan has a role to play. What exactly is that role? Satan is the antihero of creation. He moves the plot along by setting obstacles in the path of mortal creatures like Faust. He represents everything that human beings think they want out of life: pleasure, power, freedom. In other words, self-indulgence. Men like Faust want to shed their inhibitions and let their id free. This is what every child born into the world does naturally, before the social conventions of shame and guilt take hold. In this respect, Mephistopheles promises Faust a return to childhood. That's essentially what power is: the ability to do what you want without any fear of punishment. The Book of Job uses Satan as the means by which Job's faith in God (or God's authority) is tested. Job passes this test because he is willing to endure all the pain and suffering that Satan can inflict upon him. With Faust, the test will take a different form. If pain and suffering are not sufficient to undermine faith, then what about unlimited pleasure (or power)? Is it even possible for a man to get everything he wants, and still be aware of his obligations to God? And just what are these obligations? Nietzsche would say that any moral obligation is an act of cowardice. A true man who stands on his own feet will bow to no man (or god). By that definition, doesn't that make Mephistopheles a true man, in fact, the only true man who has ever existed, and ever could exist. A creature who refuses to bow even to his creator.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

KAFKA: The Metamorphosis (What Is A Book For?)

A theme that pops up fairly regularly in Great Books discussions is the notion that Man is just a highly complex animal. It’s easy to see why someone would say that. Man is a physical creature just as all animals are physical creatures. We eat and drink, we sleep, we procreate and we die as all animals do. Seems simple enough; especially after reading Darwin. But if we push the idea a little further it’s not so simple. If a man is just a complex animal does that mean an animal is just a complex bug? Is a bug just a complex plant? And are plants basically just complex dirt? Maybe we should rephrase the question of Man being an animal and ask (when all is said and done) is Man at bottom really just complex dirt? To put it another way, is Man just a material being? If we define Man as “just” a complex animal then we might define Kafka’s book as just a complex combination of paper and ink. But Aristotle would point out that paper and ink describe a book’s “substance.” Substance is what a thing is made of. A (print) book is in fact made of paper and ink. We want to know what a book’s “essence” is; what kind of a thing is it? How would we define a book’s essence (its book-ness)? Put another way, what makes this thing a book and not just a random collection of paper and ink? Think of the following sequence. Letter. Word. Sentence. Paragraph. Chapter. Book. Does it make sense to say a book is just a complex combination of letters? That’s one way of looking at it. But that misses the whole point, the primary purpose, of a book; which is to transmit information or knowledge and wisdom to the reader. Now consider the Western tradition of a chain of being which follows this orderly sequence: Inanimate objects. Plants. Insects and reptiles. Animals. Man. Angels. God. Does it make sense to say Man is just a complex animal? No. Man is a different kind of being. To say Man is just a complex animal is to confuse separate categories in the great chain of being.
With that background let’s consider Kafka’s book (or story) The Metamorphosis. Gregor’s family (and the reader) is shocked by the very first sentence: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” This sentence is not just some random splattering of black ink on a white page. It’s a very precise and orderly arrangement of symbols (letters) to form a sentence which expresses a coherent thought. And Kafka’s thought is a disturbing one. People don’t fall asleep one night and wake up the next morning as bugs. It just doesn’t happen; not in the real world. People are people. Bugs are bugs. Animals are animals. And that’s that. Kafka poses this great question: why? Why do people stay people and not turn into bugs or animals? He wants us to consider the “essence” of one man, Gregor, and think about what Gregor-ness means. What sets Gregor apart from angels and animals and bugs in the great chain of being? What makes Gregor unique in the whole chain of creation? He’s a dull person but even dull people do very human things. Gregor has a job. He travels. He reads the newspaper. He keeps a picture of a sexy woman on the wall in his bedroom. Animals don’t do these things. Not even complex animals. Why do people do them? That’s what makes us human. Think of a book again. We can read it or we can use it to make a fire or to hold open a door. Books aren’t made to build fires or hold doors open. They’re made to pass on knowledge. So what are human beings made for? That’s the question Kafka is asking. He doesn’t give a complete answer but he does hint at what we’re NOT made for. We’re not made to be economic robots. Kafka detests the modern tendency to standardize life and judge everything and everyone by the standard of utilitarian values. It de-humanizes us. We’re people, not bugs, says Kafka. And according to Kafka people are not just complex animals either. If we believe they are then we shouldn’t be surprised if people act like animals and we shouldn’t complain if we’re treated like animals.