Ellis Washington
On Goethe's Faust
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By Ellis Washington
April 4, 2015



Professor Faust tempted by Mephistopheles

To think is easy. To act is hard. But the hardest thing in the world is to act in accordance with your thinking.

At the moment of commitment the entire universe conspires to assist you.


~ Goethe

Biography of Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), a German writer, poet, lawyer, scientist, statesmen and artist. One of the most prolific writers of the Weimar Classicism School, his collected works includes lyric and epic poems of all styles and meters; poetry and prose dramas; memoirs; an autobiography; aesthetic and literary criticism; treatises on color, anatomy, and botany; and four novels makes him a true Renaissance man. We have in addition to numerous literary and scientific fragments, more than 10,000 letters, and nearly 3,000 drawings. Following the triumph of his first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), Goethe's prodigious literary talents were supported beginning in 1775 by affluent sovereigns like Karl August, the Duke of Saxe-Weimar. A key figure in the Sturm und Drang literary movement, Goethe served as a member of the Duke's Privy Council, was an administrator on the war and highway commissions, managed the silver mines, and implemented a series of organizational reforms at the University of Jena. Goethe's work contributed to the rebuilding and development of Weimar's botanical park after a fire in 1774 and the reconstruction of its Ducal Palace which was in 1998 designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In 1788 Goethe published his first major scientific work, the Metamorphosis of Plants, after concluding a successful tour of Italy. In 1791 he was appointed managing director of the theatre at Weimar, and in 1794 he started a fruitful collaboration with the Friedrich Schiller, the great German philosopher, historian and dramatist who wrote the libretto to Beethoven's immortal Symphony No. 9 ("Ode to Joy") and until Schiller's death in 1805, Goethe premiered all of Schiller's plays. Other literary works during this period were his second novel, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1796), the verse epic Hermann and Dorothea (1797), and his most celebrated dramatic poem, Faust, Part I (1808).

Goethe was a force of nature whose collected literary works provided the essential foundation for virtually every great German writer, philosopher, composer, poet of the late eighteenth and nineteenth century including – G. W. F. Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. Goethe's poems were often set to music throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by many great classical composers including Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Boito, Gounod, Wagner, Hugo Wolf, Mendelssohn and Gustav Mahler.

Goethe's Faust

Faust, Goethe's magisterial dramatic poem in two parts – Faust, Part One (1808), Faust, Part Two (1831), is his greatest work. Despite the fact it is based on the popular medieval myth of a man who sold his soul to the devil, it is derivative of modern man's sense of alienation and his existential longing to resolve the promised utopia with the tragic reality of the dystopia world in which he lives.

The Faust legend is one of the most enduring narratives in western literature, but it has extended in urgency particularly in modern times. Each generation must discover once again the boundless grotesqueries of human nature, alienation, duplicity on the hopeful path to contentment – Faust tells us the most compelling way to start this self-examination is to rediscover First Principles of classical antiquity. Goethe's revelation may not offer the best or the singular resolution, however it provides a foundation of inspiration to many readers for more than 200 years and reveals the feelings, beliefs and experiences of the genius of Goethe: the giant of German Romanticism of the 19th century and one of its most dynamic and exceptional philosophers.

Heinrich Faust, a professor and scholar, comes near the end of his long life yet despite his numerous attainments he has no joy and is left in a state of despair. Faust cries out for the meaning of absolute truth and the meaning of life, yet still finds no answers. Faust then tries magic in his desperate efforts to discover the meaning of life, before finally making a deal with the devil. Faust agrees to sell his soul if in return the devil promises him one experience that is so wonderful that his sense of alienation is ended and that moment of contentment will remain with Faust for eternity.

In Faust, Part One, Professor Faust endeavors, with the devil's support, to find pleasure through emotional relationships. He meets a woman named Gretchen, falls in love, yet this affair ends in her tragic death. Nevertheless, Faust has learned a valuable lesson by this experience and vows not to repeat his many mistakes. In Part Two Faust seeks to gratify his lustful urges through temporal actions and by experiencing all worldly pleasures, both of ideas and physical gratifications of the flesh. He acquires a coveted position at the Imperial Court, obtains knowledge from the great figures of classical antiquity, flatters Helen of Troy, triumphs in war, and is celebrated throughout the world for his humanitarian works, yet none of these great acts brings him any consolation. Faust dies bitter and disappointed. Eventually he goes to heaven by God's grace, in payment for his ceaseless striving after righteousness, truth, the meaning of life, and his firm resolve to have faith in the reality of spiritual existence that transcends earthly existence and materialism.

Character development in Faust

Faust – While Faust is obviously a man of flesh and blood possessing human characteristics, yet he is bigger than life. He represents all of the complexities of man and human nature, and thus he is a symbol of all humankind. Faust appears in virtually every scene, however he only reveals his true self most manifestly through his soliloquys and through his dialogues with Mephistopheles. This exposes a man without contentment in mind, body or spirit, always struggling, always striving for the unattainable. Faust is a man obsessed. He wants more knowledge, more power, more experience. In the Prologue Goethe introduces the idea that man must be always striving. It is through this striving toward absolute truth and contentment that leads man toward his highest development. However, the most venal sin for Goethe is sloth (inaction, laziness), or fatalism which is accepting any condition of life as acceptable, even if inwardly you hate this condition of life.

Mephistopheles – derivative from the Greek, Me-phaustophiles, meaning "no friend of Faust" or from the Hebrew Mephiztophel, "corrupter and liar." Although it is a paradox, yet Mephistopheles, the Devil, is more human than Faust. Mephistopheles is a skeptic, an empiricist, a materialist, yet he is not an atheist or agnostic and has the ability to manipulate anything and any person using his diabolical logic. In Faust, Mephistopheles is the spirit of negation, "the spirit that always denies." In this context, reminiscent of Dante's Inferno and Milton's Paradise Lost, the Devil must always be the opposite of God, who is the spirit of creation.

Margarete, or Gretchen – is a more realistic character than Mephistopheles and Faust; she is a simple, unaffected, modest girl who dutifully lives at home and helps her mother. She demonstrates moral fortitude in the scene where she at first refuses of Faust's amorous advances. Her innocent yet sincere religious faith is derivative of the form idealized by Romantic writers to such a brilliant extent. Goethe is unclear about the cause of her ruin, but the reader knows it is somehow tied to the damnation of Faust and his corrupting nature.

Wagner – known as Faust's "famulus," a dualism of servant and research assistant who lives and studies close to Faust, his mentor. Wagner is always trying to calm down Faust with praise of his father and has the character of the kind of person you are compelled to admire, yet cannot tolerate for very long.

Goethe in modern history

Goethe's effect on German Romanticism was dramatic and comprehensive for he understood the European emotional response, a growing emphasis on sense perception, the theatrical, the macabre, and the passionate. He praised individual restraint and believed that excess was a disease: "There is nothing worse than imagination without taste." In his scientific experiments Goethe theorized that a "formative impulse," which he believed is functioning in every organism, makes an organism to form itself according to its own separate laws, and so rational laws could not be enforced at all from a metaphysical, spiritual domain. Goethe's proto-naturalism worldview put him at odds against the prevailing theories of the Age of Enlightenment where people attempted to form "enlightened" monarchies for example, King Joseph II of Austria based on "rational" laws, natural law and a synthesis of legality and morality.

Goethe's writings and philosophy were the catalysis that caused the paradigm shift in19th-century thought – organic instead of geometrical, evolving over created, and ideas established on feeling and instinct as opposed to obedience to a hierarchical order, concluding in, as Goethe said, a "living quality," in which the subject and object are synthesized and duality dissolved. Forsaking deterministic (cause) and teleological (purpose) worldviews, Goethe followed a worldview that develops through existential, external, and internal conflict. Furthermore, Goethe did not like mechanistic philosophies popular with his scientific and philosophical contemporaries, and thus he repudiated rationality's dominance as the singular arbiter of reality. Believing that the essential nature of the world is aesthetic, Goethe declared that all knowledge is connected to humanity through only its functional value and that knowledge assumes a subjective quality. Since Goethe was an anti-foundationalist, he did not believe in traditional Christianity and his religion is more akin to 'religious paganism,' meaning that he has religious feelings but doesn't follow any specific beliefs.

In conclusion, what lessons can we in our vaunted technological age learn from the ancient legend of Faust. First the dualism of human nature in all of its genius and reckless insanity are juxtaposed throughout Goethe's Faust heightened by that ubiquitous deal Professor Faust made with the devil (Mephistopheles) in the opening of Part I. Likewise, what deal has America made with the devil? For example, President Barack Obama is desperately trying to make a nuclear deal with Iran which to many has the effect of giving the demonic nation of Iran the genocidal weapon it covets to "wipe Israel off the map." In domestic policy it can be argued that America made a deal with the devil under FDR's New Deal, LBJ's Great Society and now Obama's Obamacare – three socialist programs designed to "help the poor" costing between $45-$50 trillion. Conceivably Faust could ask this Socratic question: How many Black lives have been stifled, ruined or destroyed because of socialism slavery by Progressive Whites acting like Mephistopheles, not for the good of Blacks, but for control, domination and destruction?

That's the tragic lesson of Faust trying in vain to solve spiritual problems with human vanity and material resources; to allow people with evil intent (politicians, Supreme Court Justices, Congress, lobbyists, pressure groups, etc...) to exploit our lack of knowledge of history; to trick us into selling our soul to the devil for the promise of immortality, when from the conception in your mother's womb you were already immortal. This existential war between the forces of light vs. darkness, good vs. evil, truth vs. lies, Christianity vs. the Socialist mob, natural law vs. positive law, conservative vs. progressive, Faust vs. Mephistopheles, can be summed up by Goethe when he says, "At the moment of commitment the entire universe conspires to assist [deconstruct] you."

*N.B.: This essay is based in part on ideas from Encyclopedia Britannica Great Books of the Western World, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Editor-in-Chief (University of Chicago, 1952), Vol. 2, Chap. 25 – Experience; Vol. 2, Chap. 38 – Immortality; Vol. 3, Chap. 68 – Pleasure and Pain; Vol. 3, Chap 69 – Poetry; Vol. 47 – Goethe.


Book Notice

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Invitation for manuscripts

I am starting a new a program on my blog dedicated to giving young conservatives (ages 14-35) a regular place to display and publish their ideas called Socrates Corner. If you know of any young person who wants to publish their ideas on any subject, have them send their essay manuscripts to my email at ewashington@wnd.com.

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Ellis Washington

Ellis Washington is a former staff editor of the Michigan Law Review (1989) and law clerk at the Rutherford Institute (1992). Currently he is an adjunct professor of law at the National Paralegal College and the graduate school, National Jurisprudence University, where he teaches Constitutional Law, Legal Ethics, American History, Administrative Law, Criminal Procedure, Contracts, Real Property, and Advanced Legal Writing, among many other subjects... (more)

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