Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, December 08, 2014

GOETHE: Faust (Scene 25: Justice)

Justice is one of the primary themes in many selections from the Great Books Series.  Faust makes an excellent case study to see how well we can answer the question what is justice?  That’s the same question Socrates asks at the beginning of The Republic.  And for him this wasn’t just some theoretical academic subject.  In The Apology we see him at a real-life trial where he’s convicted and eventually executed.  Almost every single reader of The Apology believes an injustice occurred.  Why?  If readers believe that an injustice has taken place then they’d better have a good grasp of what justice is in the first place.  Faust provides a good framework for examining what justice can and cannot do.

The facts are these.  Gretchen is in prison and she’s about to be executed.  Her crime?  Murder.  Who did she murder?  Her mother and her baby.  Pop quiz: what would be justice in this case?  What should the punishment be for someone who kills not only a parent but also their own child?  Most readers probably believe there are extenuating circumstances in this particular case.  We know the background.  Faust should carry most of the blame.  And behind Faust is Mephistopheles, the root cause of all the problems.  If that’s the case then Gretchen’s basic legal argument is this: the devil made me do it.  If that’s Gretchen’s argument then the State can respond: and it’s the same devil that’s making us punish you for doing it.  The idea that justice is fairness won’t work.  What’s fair and what’s just may be two different things.  So we’ll need to look elsewhere.

Maybe we should try this approach.  Maybe justice really has two different levels: human justice and divine justice.  While Gretchen is sitting in a cathedral an Evil Spirit whispers to her: “Gretchen!  Have you gone mad?  What crime is in your heart?”  No civil justice system can detect crimes in the heart; no system of divine justice can dismiss them.  Gretchen isn’t in prison for what she was thinking in her heart.  She’s there for what she has done.  It might not seem fair and Faust himself says “her crime was only a fond illusion.”  That may be.  But the deaths of two people are not an illusion.  Gretchen herself has admitted “I’ve killed my mother.  I’ve drowned my baby.”  Those are the kinds of issues human criminal justice has to deal with every day.  The job of human justice is to make sure everyone gets their day in court.  In human justice “fairness” consists of making sure all the proper procedures are followed.  If the ruling goes against you then so be it.  You had a fair trial and that’s the best the State can offer in this imperfect world.  That was the case in Socrates’ trial in The Apology, for example.

Divine justice is another matter.  In a few weeks we’ll be reading Inferno from Dante’s Divine Comedy.  Inferno can be a real eye-opener.  Many people have ended up in hell for doing much, much less than murdering mothers and killing babies.  Stealing and cheating, for example.  And yet in this play Gretchen “Is saved!”  How can that be?  If we’re unqualified to understand human justice then how can we possibly understand divine justice?  Short answer, we can’t.  But we can catch a glimmer of it in this scene.  Gretchen knows she’s guilty.  In her heart she has already convicted herself.  She has no defense so where does she go for help?  She says, “I give myself up to the judgment of God!  I am thine Father!  Save me!  You angels!  You heavenly hosts!  Stand close to me, protect me!”  Throwing herself on the mercy of God is a desperate measure but she’s a desperate woman; and it works.  A Voice (from above) says, “Is saved!”  Is this justice? 


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