Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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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.


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