The writer of the Epilogue to my copy of Goethe’s Faust*, Hanns W Eppelsheimer, refers to “human arrogance, rising up against the deity, in order to seize a piece of the divine omnipotence for itself, with the aid of wizardry and magic,” as “a very old theme”. He adds: “At the beginning of modern times, when in the 16th century the Renaissance set science free, the simple desires for power, wealth and sensual pleasure came to be joined by the new striving for unlimited knowledge.” Enter the historical Faust (the name is a pseudonym), the semi-biographical stories about his life – and (in due course) the works of Christopher Marlowe and Johann Wolfgang Goethe (Faustus and Faust, respectively).
[*Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, Munich, 1962]
Let’s go much further back in time. At the beginning of the ancient Biblical Book of Job, the “sons of God” – and Satan (the “Adversary” [REB]) – come before God. God addresses Satan and says to him, “And the Lord said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job?” (1:8, [AV/KJV]). In Martin Luther’s translation, the wording is: “Hast du achtgehabt auf meinen Knecht Hiob?” (Note the word “servant”.)
God confirms the fact of Job’s goodness. Satan counters that Job is good only because he is in receipt of God’s favours. If he were to suffer (instead), he would curse God. God empowers Satan to test Job by making him suffer. Job loses his family and his animals and his health and retains only the company of his wife. His wife urges Job to curse God, but he steadfastly refuses.
The story ties into the problem of why good people suffer.
In the Prologue to his Faust Part 1 (actually, the Prologue in Heaven), Goethe borrows a theme from Job, Chapters 1 and 2. Before God there appear the heavenly hosts, the Archangels Raphael, Gabriel and Michael – and Mephistopheles. The latter makes disparaging remarks about the people down on Earth. God cuts through this and singles out Doctor Faust for special mention:
Der Herr: Kennst du den Faust?
Mephistopheles: Den Doktor?
Der Herr: Meinen Knecht!
The Lord: Do you know Faust?
Mephistopheles: The Doctor?
The Lord: My servant!
God maintains that Faust serves him, through his striving, despite the mistakes he makes (and is sure to make); and Faust remains aware of the correct path to take through life. It is good that, rather than relaxing his efforts, he should be tested. God, indeed, permits Mephistopheles to try to divert Faust from his “Urquell” (fountainhead or wellspring). Mephistopheles appreciates the favour and sets to work.
What Goethe is saying (through his God character) is, firstly, that humans are expected to “strive”, and secondly, that as long as they do strive, they are following the right ethical path through life. (Mistakes matter little.)
And then we meet Faust himself, alone in his study at night, at the beginning of the drama proper, and he speaks for himself:
Habe nun, ach! Philosophie,
Juristerei und Medizin
Und leider auch Theologie
Durchaus studiert, mit heiẞem Bemühn….
Ah, now I’ve studied philosophy, jurisprudence and medicine, and alas, theology as well, ardently and painstakingly, from beginning to end.
[Translated by David Luke, editor, Goethe, Penguin Poets, 1964]
He has learnt a great deal; but he wants to learn more, beyond the bounds of handed down knowledge – metaphysics, perhaps, or the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.
Early in Part 1 of the drama, Faust makes his own bargain with Mephistopheles: if he ever relaxes from his striving and wishes to stay still, in the beautiful moment, then Mephistopheles can take his soul.
At this stage, Faust resembles Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus. The close parallel may be explained with reference to the semi-biographical material, available to both Marlowe and Goethe. As for the “servant of God” theme, Goethe has borrowed it from the Book of Job but has changed it out of all recognition. In Job, the plight of the protagonist is stark and extreme: the suffering imposed on the truly good man is poignant. Goethe’s protagonist, on the other hand, is not made to suffer: rather, new ways of enjoying life are opened up to him. Unfortunately, Faust’s own enjoyment can be at the expense of other people. (The tragedy of Part 1 is that of Gretchen and her family.)
In Part 2, Faust engages in good works, notably, the reclamation of low-lying land from the sea. There arises, though, from the writings of the New Testament, the question as to whether good works are sufficient to ensure salvation – a Christian theological debating point. St Paul explores this in his Epistle to the Romans: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (3:28, AV/KJV). Luther’s German translation (doubtless available to Goethe) says: “So halten wir nun dafür, daẞ der Mensch gerecht werde ohne des Gesetzes Werke, allein durch den Glauben.” Luther is saying here that “a man is justified, without the deeds of the law, only by faith.” Luther adds the “only”; and this decision ties in with Lutheran theology. On this view, Faust’s good works cannot be sufficient for his salvation. We can add that Faust does not have faith, either.
Finally, at the end of the drama (in Part 2), Faust does have one moment of relaxation, and, accordingly, Mephistopheles tries to arrest his soul. But, in the event, Mephistopheles is cheated of his long-sought-after prize – by the intervention of angels, including a transformed Gretchen. Faust is enabled to ascend to Heaven. Faust’s salvation, on Goethe’s terms, relies upon his own striving, the operation of the “eternal feminine”, and the words of forgiveness uttered by his female victim (Gretchen).
It as if Goethe has been influenced, here, by the thinking of Humanism and the Enlightenment, rather than by Judaism or Christianity. This approach, however, comes across as optimistic, undramatic and far from tragic, in comparison with the powerful, challenging, moving stories (however different) of Job and of Marlowe’s Faustus – the former about the man who survives and is compensated for his losses, the latter about the man who sadly, magnificently, but inevitably, follows the path to damnation in Hell.
Let’s talk briefly about the nature of the completed Faust. It is almost entirely in verse. It is very long. Whereas many verse (or verse and prose) dramas of Shakespeare and his contemporaries average roughly 2000 lines, and the Faustus A version has about 1,500, and the B version about 2,100, Part 1 of Faust has 4,612 lines, and Part 2 has 7,499! Moreover, Part 2 has literally hundreds of parts. Therefore, either Part poses great challenges, whenever a staging is contemplated.
I conclude, indeed, that Faust is a poem, and not a play, a drama or a tragedy as ordinarily conceived.