Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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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.


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