Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Faust and Human Frailty

Here's a philosophical question to ponder: Is the origin of the universe a transformitive process of bringing order out of disorder, or is it a divine act of creation "ab nihilo" (bringing something from nothing)?

One of the basic concerns for Faust is to investigate what makes life worth living. Why should there be something rather than nothing? Faust, alone, despite his great intellectual gifts is unable to solve this riddle. He wants answers but reason alone is unable to provide those answers. Faust, who is a kind of scholarly genius, is forced to admit that human reason alone is unable to provide an explanation for itself. So, if reason (or nature) is unable to provide an adequate explanation for existence, then perhaps magic can. Magic transcends reason in the same way that faith does; it works by means of  the supernatural. This idea, that the realm of the supernatural is greater than nature, takes hold of Faust. And this is the opening for which Mephistopheles has waited. He enters the story and offers Faust access to things (namely, power and pleasure) that were formerly unavailable.

Now, the belief in a "fallen world" is a doctrine based on a tautology: everything that exists comes from God the creator. Thus, all matter (everything that exists) is good because the Creator is good, and nothing evil can be derived from something good. But this doctrine has a fatal flaw. How do you explain evil if everything in creation is good? Well, the Manicheans had an answer: everything in creation is not good. In fact, creation itself is only an aggregate of two separate but equal forces, one of which is good and the other evil. Faust is struggling to hold on to what he believes is the good, which for him means a rational explanation of a world created by God. In this rational world, there are rules (the Decalogue) and there is divine punishment for breaking those rules (human suffering and death).

But where does pleasure come in? The orthodox Christian view is that pleasure is a temptation of the flesh which leads to sin and damnation. Therefore, one should resist all temptations which lead one away from the path of righteousness and into the arms of Satan. But the problem with this view is that it ignores everything it cannot explain. The whole problem of evil is explained by a fable concerning the pride of Lucifer who decides to oppose God and put himself on the throne.

At its heart, Faust is a story which attempts to address the struggle between good and evil. Faust, the man, is unhappy with his life. He believes that something essential is missing. What? He doesn't know. But reason alone can't provide the answer. So he enlists the aid of Mephistopheles to show him something that is worth living for. Pleasure alone turns out not to be very satisfying. But what about love? When Faust finally lays eyes on Gretchen, he sees something that might just be the answer to his prayer. Is it lust or love? Maybe it is some combination of the two, for no man can truly know
where one leaves off and the other begins.

But what is love? In many stories, we read that infatuation is a kind of madness where a man (or a woman) takes leave of one's senses and ends up behaving like a fool. Is that the big truth which Faust has been seeking? Moral virtue is grounded in the belief that one's own pleasure ought not to rule one's life, that there are higher principles (such as courage and honor) which ought to guide one in life. So, when Faust falls for Gretchen, has he become "love sick" and lost his bearings? If so, doesn't that make him a kind of comic figure like Sancho Panza? If he is unable to rise above his own desires, isn't he doomed to insignificance? What separates Don Quixote from Sancho Panza is that his own eyes are focused above the horizon of ordinary men. He believes in courage, beauty and romance. What does Faust believe in?


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