Lectures on the Harvard Classics. The Harvard Classics. 190914.
IV. The Faust Legend
By Professor Kuno Francke
THE FAUST legend is a conglomerate of anonymous popular traditions, largely of mediæval origin, which in the latter part of the sixteenth century came to be associated with an actual individual of the name of Faustus whose notorious career during the first four decades of the century, as a pseudoscientific mountebank, juggler, and magician, can be traced through various parts of Germany. The Faust Book of 1587, the earliest collection of these tales, is of prevailingly theological character. It represents Faust as a sinner and reprobate, and it holds up his compact with Mephistopheles and his subsequent damnation as an example of human recklessness and as a warning to the faithful to cling to the orthodox means of Christian salvation.
From this Faust Book, that is, from its English translation, which appeared in 1588, Marlowe took his tragedy of Dr. Faustus1 (1589; published 1604). In Marlowes drama Faust appears as a typical man of the Renaissance, as an explorer and adventurer, as a superman craving for extraordinary power, wealth, enjoyment, and worldly eminence. The finer emotions are hardly touched upon. Mephistopheles is the mediæval devil, harsh and grim and fierce, bent on seduction, without any comprehension of human aspirations. Helen of Troy is a she-devil, and becomes the final means of Fausts destruction. Fausts career has hardly an element of true greatness. None of the many tricks, conjurings, and miracles, which Faust performs with Mephistopheless help, has any relation to the deeper meaning of life. They are mostly mere pastimes and vanity. From the compact on to the end hardly anything happens which brings Faust inwardly nearer either to heaven or hell. But there is a sturdiness of character and stirring intensity of action, with a happy admixture of buffoonery, through it all. And we feel something of the pathos and paradox of human passions in the fearful agony of Fausts final doom.
The German popular Faust drama of the seventeenth century, and its outgrowth, the puppet plays, are a reflex both of Marlowes tragedy and the Faust Book of 1587, although they contain a number of original scenes, notably the Council of the Devils at the beginning. Here again, the underlying sentiment is the abhorrence of human recklessness and extravagance. In some of these plays the vanity of bold ambition is brought out with particular emphasis through the contrast between the daring and dissatisfied Faust and his farcical counterpart, the jolly and contented Casperle.
In the last scene, while Faust in despair and contrition is waiting for the sound of the midnight bell which is to be the signal of his destruction, Casperle, as night watchman, patrols the streets of the town calling out the hours and singing the traditional verses of admonition to quiet and orderly conduct.
To the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, then, Faust appeared as a criminal who sins against the eternal laws of life, as a rebel against holiness who ruins his better self and finally receives the merited reward of his misdeeds. He could not appear thus to the eighteenth century. The eighteenth century is the age of Rationalism and of Romanticism. The eighteenth century glorifies human reason and human feeling. The rights of man and the dignity of man are its principal watchwords. Such an age was bound to see in Faust a representative of true humanity, a champion of freedom, nature, truth. Such an age was bound to see in Faust a symbol of human striving for completeness of life.
It is Lessing who has given to the Faust Legend this turn. His Faust, unfortunately consisting only of a few fragmentary sketches, is a defense of Rationalism. The most important of these fragments, preserved to us in copies by some friends of Lessings, is the prelude, a council of devils. Satan is receiving reports from his subordinates as to what they have done to bring harm to the realm of God. The first devil who speaks has set the hut of some pious poor on fire; the second has buried a fleet of usurers in the waves. Both excite Satans disgust. For, he says, to make the pious poor still poorer means only to chain him all the more firmly to God; and the usurers, if, instead of being buried in the waves, they had been allowed to reach the goal of their voyage, would have wrought new evil on distant shores.
Much more satisfied is Satan with the report of a third devil, who has stolen the first kiss from a young, innocent girl and thereby breathed the flame of desire into her veins; for he has worked evil in the world of spirit, and that means much more and is a much greater triumph for hell than to work evil in the world of bodies. But it is the fourth devil to whom Satan gives the prize. He has not done anything as yet. He has only a plan, but a plan which, if carried out, would put the deeds of all the other devils into the shadethe plan to snatch from God his favorite. This favorite of God is Faust, a solitary, brooding youth, renouncing all passion except the passion for truth, entirely living in truth, entirely absorbed in it. To snatch him from Godthat would be a victory over which the whole realm of night would rejoice. Satan is enchanted; the war against truth is his element. Yes, Faust must be seduced, he must be destroyed. And he shall be destroyed through his very aspiration. Didst thou not say he has desire for knowledge? That is enough for perdition! His striving for truth is to lead him into darkness. With such exclamations the devils break up, to set about their work of seduction; but, as they are breaking up, there is heard from above a divine voice: Ye shall not conquer.
It cannot be denied that Goethes earliest Faust conception, the so-called Urfaust of 1773 and 1774, lacks the wide sweep of thought that characterizes these fragments of Lessings drama. His Faust of the Storm and Stress period is essentially a Romanticist. He is a dreamer, craving for a sight of the divine, longing to fathom the inner working of nature, drunk with the mysteries of the universe. But he is also an unruly individualist, a reckless despiser of accepted morality; and it is hard to see how his relation with Gretchen, which forms by far the largest part of the Urfaust, can lead to anything but a tragic catastrophe. Only Goethes second Faust2 conception, which sets in with the end of the nineties of the eighteenth century, opens up a clear view of the heights of life.
Goethe was now in the full maturity of his powers, a man widely separated from the impetuous youth of the seventies whose Promethean emotions had burst forth with volcanic passion. He had meanwhile become a statesman and philosopher. He had come to know in the court of Weimar a model of paternal government, conservative yet liberally inclined, and friendly to all higher culture. He had found in his truly spiritual relation to Frau von Stein a safe harbor for his tempestuous feelings. He had been brought face to face, during his sojourn in Italy, with the wonders of classic art. The study of Spinoza and his own scientific investigations had confirmed him in a thoroughly monistic view of the world and strengthened his belief in a universal law which makes evil itself an integral part of the good. The example of Schiller as well as his own practical experience had taught him that the untrammeled living out of personality must go hand in hand with incessant work for the common welfare of mankind. All this is reflected in the completed Part First of 1808; it finds its most comprehensive expression in Part Second, the bequest of the dying poet to posterity.
Restless endeavor, incessant striving from lower spheres of life to higher ones, from the sensuous to the spiritual, from enjoyment to work, from creed to deed, from self to humanitythis is the moving thought of Goethes completed Faust. The keynote is struck in the Prologue in Heaven. Faust, so we hear, the daring idealist, the servant of God, is to be tempted by Mephisto, the despiser of reason, the materialistic scoffer. But we also hear, and we hear it from Gods own lips, that the tempter will not succeed. God allows the devil free play, because he knows that he will frustrate his own ends. Faust will be led astrayman errs while he strives; but he will not abandon his higher aspirations; through aberration and sin he will find the true way toward which his inner nature instinctively guides him. He will not eat dust. Even in the compact with Mephisto the same ineradicable optimism asserts itself. Fausts wager with the devil is nothing but an act of temporary despair, and the very fact that he does not hope anything from it shows that he will win it. He knows that sensual enjoyment will never give him satisfaction; he knows that, as long as he gives himself up to self-gratification, there will never be a moment to which he would say: Abide, thou art so fair! From the outset we feel that by living up to the very terms of the compact, Faust will rise superior to it; that by rushing into the whirlpool of earthly experience and passion his being will be heightened and expanded.
And thus everything in the whole drama, all its incidents and all its characters, become episodes in the rounding out of this grand, all-comprehensive personality. Gretchen and Helena, Wagner and Mephisto, Homunculus and Euphorion, the Emperors court and the shades of the Greek past, the broodings of mediæval mysticism and the practical tasks of modern industrialism, the enlightened despotism of the eighteenth century and the ideal democracy of the futureall this and a great deal more enters into Fausts being and is absorbed by him. He strides on from experience to experience, from task to task, expiating guilt by doing, losing himself, and finding himself again. Blinded in old age by Dame Care, he feels a new light kindled within. Dying, he gazes into a far future. And even in the heavenly regions he goes on ever changing into new and higher and finer forms. It is this irrepressible spirit of striving which makes Goethes Faust the Bible of modern humanity.3