Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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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.


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