Where is Dante when we need him? Faust: A Tragedy is indeed a tragedy, but neither Goethe or Faust know it. The tragedy is that this Romantic tale lacks a tragic ending. We Christians earnestly, fervently hope that it does. The notion that there is no moral universe with no consequences, no cause and effect, invites inevitable chaos and nihilism that is so much a part of our Post-Modern world. Faust’s yearning for experience and knowledge created a type for the Modern (1900-1990) and Post-Modern (1990-Present) ages still known as the Faustian hero, though in reality Goethe’s Faust is more a villain than a hero; and the purported villain–Mephistopheles–is one of the most likable characters in the play. His yearnings draw him toward the heavens, yet he is also powerfully attracted to the physical world. Ultimately the tragedy of Goethe’s tragedy, is that mankind cannot have his cake and eat it too: we cannot reject Christ as Savior and suppose that we will spend eternity in his presence. The fact that Goethe thinks otherwise is remarkable in its presumptuousness.
Faust is a very learned professor, who is dissatisfied with human knowledge, which by its nature is limited. Using magic, he conjures up the Earth Spirit in his darkened study. Regarding himself as more than mortal, he tries to claim the Earth Spirit as a colleague, but the Spirit rejects him scornfully and disappears. Despairing, Faust contemplates suicide. He is saved by the sound of the bells welcoming Easter morning. He and his research assistant, Wagner, go out into the sunlight and enjoy the greetings of the crowd, which remembers the medical attention given to the people by Faust and his father. Faust is still depressed, denying the value of medicine and feeling torn between the two souls in him, one longing for earthly pleasures, the other seeking the highest spiritual knowledge. A dog follows Faust and Wagner home. The dog, of course, is Mephistopheles! The overall theme of this work is the struggle mankind undertakes to overcome evil and to discriminate between good and evil.
Faust Part One is a complex story. It takes place in multiple settings, the first of which is heaven. Mephistopheles makes a bet with God. He says that he can deflect God’s favorite human being (Faust), who is striving to learn everything that can be known, away from righteous pursuits. The next scene takes place in Faust’s study where Faust, despairing at the vanity of scientific, humanitarian and religious learning, turns to magic for the revelation of ultimate knowledge. He suspects, however, that his attempts are failing. Frustrated, he ponders suicide, but rejects it as he hears the echo of nearby Easter celebrations begin. He goes for a walk with his assistant Wagner and is followed home by a stray poodle. God is only one among equals—epistemology is more important than faith, truth is subjective, not objective. We are no longer enjoying sunsets with William Wordsworth and speculating on their origins—we are looking into Hell itself, the New Age, Modernism, what Nietzsche calls “the vacuum.”
With Goethe, we move forward four hundred years through the Reformation, through the Renaissance, and into the Enlightenment. The period of Neoclassicism and Romanticism, the greatest epoch in German literature, fell within the lifetime of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The age of Goethe went beyond the Enlightenment’s substitution of science for religion, inasmuch as it ascribed to science only a peripheral position in relation to the ultimate questions of life. It insisted upon the value of feeling in face of the limitations of reason. Impulse, instinct, emotion, and intuition acquired a quasi-religious significance as being the links that connected man with divine nature—one way to define Romanticism. The ideal of the classical age was that of the fully developed personality in which intellect and feeling should be harmoniously balanced. We see the enigmatic Doctor Faust representing all three movements. Three phases may be distinguished in the evolution of this new outlook: Sturm und Drang (storm and stress), Classicism, and Romanticism. Goethe belonged to and profoundly affected the Sturm und Drang movement, which aimed at overthrowing rationalism. There is, however, something that is modern: the emphasis on an amoral vision. We see the beginning of a Friedrich Nietzsche’s “survival of the fittest” mentality. It continues today . . .