Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, December 09, 2014

The Quality of Mercy is not Strained...

Justice and fairness are not always the same thing, but unless our idea of justice is informed by an intuition of what is right and good and noble, then it becomes nothing more than an empty creed. This is what inspired Luther to nail his 95 theses to the door of his church. The execution of Gretchen may be a manifestation of human justice, but it has nothing to do with God's justice. Let's not confuse the idea of order with the idea of sanctity. We have an intuition about what is good for society but that intuition is not universal. It varies from one society to the next. Part of the confusion derives from our attempt to impose theology on jurisprudence. We need to keep the realms of divine justice and civil justice separate in our minds, because we do not live in a theocracy; we are citizens of a democratic republic. In this country, we have no state sponsored religion, so we need not concern ourselves with applying the Vatican's idea of justice to the fate of Gretchen and Faust.

The idea of a "fair" trial is also beside the point.  Where the law is concerned, justice is not fairness. Institutional justice is about enforcing the laws of the land. But there are such things as extenuating circumstances and courts of equity. Even in criminal law, if you act under the influence of drugs or alcohol, you are not considered to be acting in your normal state of mind. Likewise, we do not apply the same standards of culpability to the mentally ill as we do with ordinary people who are presumably acting in their "right mind." Trial courts are about establishing the facts. Did the defendant act on his own or was he encouraged (or tricked) into doing something he (or she) would not ordinarily do.  This is why entrapment is considered grounds for dismissal under most criminal codes.  Let's consider whether Gretchen acted under her own "free will."

There is a lot of mischief in this story, much of it the result of Mephistopheles distorting reality and using magical powers to manipulate Faust, Gretchen and others into doing things against their will (or their better judgment). None of us know for certain what God's idea of justice is. We inherited the law of Moses from the Jews, and adopted many of their traditions. But we are not a religious state. We have a constitution and the laws we live under must conform to that document. What are the exact circumstances of the crimes that Gretchen committed? We don't know. Were there any eye witnesses? All we have is a scene in which Faust tries to persuade Gretchen to escape from her jail and avoid her sentence of death. But Gretchen is convinced that she must atone for her crimes. But is she in her right mind? In our society today, Gretchen would be in a hospital under the care of a psychiatrist.

So who is the guilty party here? Mephistopheles is the obvious choice. But Faust, also, must be held accountable. He seduced Gretchen and then abandoned her. In moral terms, who has committed the greater offense? Mephistopheles or Faust? I would say that Faust is the most despicable of the two. After all, Mephistopheles has acted exactly as one might expect, with no regard for human suffering. Faust, on the other hand, ought to know better. He has not only ruined himself, but he has destroyed an innocent person. That is something that Socrates cannot be accused of doing, even though some people  blamed Socrates for Alcibiades betrayal of Athens in the Peloponnesian war.

Ultimately, each one of us has to answer for our own crimes. We cannot shift the blame for our mistakes to our parents or our government. The moral life consists in a recognition that fate or invisible gods are not the cause of our unhappiness. What is it that makes life worth living... pleasure? Fame? Wealth? Honor?  Truth? This is something that Faust could not answer. Discontent drove Faust into the arms of Mephistopheles, which turned out to be nothing less than a betrayal of humanity and a rejection of life. As far as the Faustian search for universal knowledge goes, some doors are better left closed.


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