Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

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.


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