Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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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."


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