Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, January 05, 2015

FLAUBERT: A Simple Heart (Felicite and Faust)

John Stuart Mill once said “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”  It’s a famous quote and makes a good sound bite for philosophy class.  But is that really a fair choice?  If we take out “dissatisfied” and “satisfied” as adjectives we have the following choices.  Would we rather be a human being or a pig; Socrates or a fool?  Seriously.  A better question we might throw back at Mill would be this: Would he rather be Faust or Felicite?  Is it better to be a dissatisfied, immoral genius-poet; or a moral and satisfied illiterate peasant girl?     
It may be going a little too far to call Faust an immoral man.  And it may be a bit of a stretch to say Felicite was happy with her life.  But an objective comparison might be helpful.  What criteria can we use to objectively examine and compare two lives?  In one of the Great Books readings John Dewey takes the traditional Virtues as his criteria: Justice, Wisdom, Courage and Moderation.  How would Faust and Felicite compare?

Justice.  Faust was a doctor and the son of a doctor.  He had a fine education and lived in luxurious comfort.  And yet he complained about the human condition in general and his circumstances in particular.  He was directly or indirectly responsible for four deaths; Gretchen, their baby, Gretchen’s mother and her brother.  Felicite was an illiterate orphan peasant girl.  She was sent out to work tending cows “as a mere infant” and made her way through life as best she could.  She started with nothing.  But she worked hard and never complained.  And she was good to people.  Give one point to Felicite.
Wisdom.  As smart as he was Faust had no problem dealing with Mephistopheles.  Is it wise to make a deal with the devil?  And he also got his girlfriend pregnant out of wedlock.  How much wisdom does that take?  Felicite had no “book learning” but at least she knew how to keep from getting pregnant.  She also knew how to head off unwanted advances, run an efficient household, and handle drunken uncles.  Felicite leads 2-0.
Courage.  When the chips were down Faust had a chance to show his courage in a prison cell with Gretchen.  But when the chips were down he ran away.  When the Aubain family was threatened by a rampaging bull Felicite could have run too.  But she didn’t.  When the chips were down Felicite held her ground.  So it’s Felicite three Faust zero.
Moderation.  Part of Faust’s problem was he wanted to go to extreme limits of human experience.  That’s what prompted his deal with Mephistopheles; Faust wanted to go beyond normal human emotions.  The most extreme emotion Felicite felt in her young life was a broken heart; just a normal broken heart.  And she did what normal people do.  She grieved for awhile; then got on with a normal life.  It’s a shutout.  Felicite wins 4-0.

Maybe we can’t score life like we score a baseball game.  But there’s one more area where we can see the difference between them.  Faust had mastered theology.  But he was bored and cynical about religion.  Felicite?  “Of dogma she understood nothing; did not even try to understand.”  She couldn’t read but she listened intently.  “Felicite saw the Garden, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, cities all in flames, dying nations; idols overthrown; and these idols left her awed by the Almighty and fearful of His wrath.  She wept when she heard the story of the Passion.  …Sowings, harvests, winepresses, all the everyday things the Gospel speaks of, had their place in her own life; God, by His passage, had sanctified them…”  Felicite had a simple heart and a simple mind.  But Faust clearly missed all this in his studies.  In baseball Felicite would be ahead 5-0.


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