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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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During Faust's earlier years, i.e., before the Refor-
mation, humanists and theologians gave little or no
credence to the pretensions of the shabby exploiter of
contemporary interest in magic. In the course of time,
however, some successes—and, obviously, unflagging
self-advertisement—established his reputation as a
soothsayer and necromancer, and various Protestant
theologians, among them Luther and Melanchthon,
alluded seriously to his diabolical powers. Soon after
his death it was said that he had been destroyed by
the Devil, with whose demons he claimed to have
consorted, and many traditional tales of the super-
natural became attached to his name. Some were col
lected, ca. 1575, by Christoph Rosshirt in an illustrated
manuscript still preserved, by which time there was
possibly in circulation a Latin or German manuscript
account of his life. From this hypothetical work may
derive the story-line of the earliest published work
exclusively devoted to the Faust legend:

Historia von D. Johann Fausten... Gedruckt zu Franckfurt
am Mayn, durch Johann Spies. M.D.LXXXVII
(The History
of Dr. Johann Faust, the notorious magus and nigromancer:
how he indentured himself to the Devil for a stated period,
what strange things he therein saw and himself instigated
and performed, until he finally received his just deserts.
Chiefly compiled from his own posthumous writings and
published as a horrid example, frightful instance and well-
meant warning to all arrogant, cocksure and godless men.
[Motto:] James 4:[7.] “Submit yourselves to God. Resist the
devil, and he will flee from you.” Printed at Frankfurt by
Johann Spies. 1587).

This first Faust-book, the work of an anonymous
Protestant with theological training, immediately be-
came a best seller. There were several printings of it,
including an unauthorized edition with additional ma-
terial, in 1587; by 1600 it existed in English, Danish,
French, and Dutch translations, as well as in further
modified and augmented German versions. The last
lengthy Faust-book (1674) was reprinted as late as
1726, only to be replaced in popular favor by a shorter
chapbook (1725) whose anonymous author (ein
Christlich Meynender,
“a man of Christian principles”)
interpreted the legend as a demonstration of the harm-
ful consequences of pre-Lutheran superstition.

Popular interest in Faust thus coincided almost ex-
actly with the heyday of general belief in witchcraft
as a punishable heresy. The story of the Renaissance
charlatan (or self-deluding magus) became a conflation
of folkloristic motifs of greater and lesser antiquity,
all now attached to a recently contemporary exemplar
of man damned for using forbidden powers. In many
societies tales have been told of sorcerers and magi
who, if not deified, came to terrible ends because they
failed to control the natural forces they unleashed
(legend of Pope Sylvester II; Frankenstein motif), or
because they insufficiently propitiated the supernatural
beings who enabled them to control these forces. Fear
and envy of a successful elite well explain the universal
fondness for myths of this type, although conservative
piety and a deepfelt human need of religious mystery
may also underlie them.

Faust's vagrant life made him an elusive and myste-
rious figure whose supernatural attainments could nei-
ther be verified nor disproved, and he quickly became
the protagonist of a modern magus myth—its hero
insofar as he represented the thirst of an age of geo-
graphical and scientific discovery for new knowledge


and power, its villain insofar as these threatened
accepted religious and theological assumptions. For
although some men thought of magic as applied science
(H. C. Agrippa, De occulta philosophia [1531], Ch. 42:
“Natural magic is... nothing but the chief power of
all the natural sciences... —perfection of Natural
Philosophy and... the active part of the same”;
Giordano Bruno: Magus significant hominem sapientem
cum virtute agendi,
“A magician signifies a man of
wisdom with the power to act”), science itself seemed
frightening for many more, so that even the most
reputable alchemist or other scientist could arouse
ambivalent feelings.

Magic, though widely practiced in later antiquity,
had been regarded by intellectuals as vulgar super-
stition (cf. Theocritus' and Vergil's Thessalian eclogues,
and Lucian's Philopseudos, §14) and was used as a
serious literary motif chiefly to heighten the depiction
of mythical and historical horrors (plays of Seneca;
Lucanus' Pharsalia). As oriental religions permeated
the Greco-Roman world, however, and their exponents
vied for influence, a literature of theological propa-
ganda developed in which rival magics occupied a
central place. The most important of these religions
was Christianity, which claimed exclusive rightness for
its own magic, labeling all other “illicit” (Augustine,
De civitate Dei xii, 14).

Like the theologians of Faust's century, that of the
Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the early
Church Fathers used great learning and subtlety to
demonstrate either the illusory or the evil nature of
alien divinities, and there were soon many stories
vividly illustrating the greater efficacy of the true faith.
The New Testament tells how the newly converted
Simon Magus vainly attempted to buy from Peter the
gift of the Holy Spirit and then immediately repented
his error (Acts 8:9-24), but soon an apocryphal gospel
(and Clement of Alexandria) reported Simon's igno-
minious failure to demonstrate his boasted power of
flight. This new story presumably reflects confusion of
the earlier Simon with Simon the Gnostic, in his turn
denigrated by an account of putative sexual relations
with Helen of Troy, who was credited with the birth
of his child. Gnosticism, moreover, introduced forms
of dualistic thought that continued into Manichaeism,
a still greater threat to Christian orthodoxy, and various
Saints' legends illustrate the dangers of regarding any
power of darkness as the equal of the one God. A
fourth-century story tells how, despite recourse to
demons, including the Prince of Hell himself, a magi-
cian named Cyprian fails to win for a pagan lover the
pious Justina, a simple girl with many counterparts in
the Apocryphal Acts of Apostles and Saints, and how
he is subsequently converted to Christianity. There
were also legends of another Cyprian (of Antioch—
later confused with the Carthaginian martyr) who
repents his vain use of illicit magic to achieve knowl-
edge and love and later dies a bishop-martyr. (The
version of this story in which the demon who has
promised the Christian girl's love is constrained to offer
a quickly unmasked demon-substitute [“Egyptian
Helen” motif] is the ultimate plot-source of Calderón's
martyr drama El mágico prodigioso.)

Toward the end of the fifth century a new motif
appears: the pact with a single demon or devil. The
“Life of Basil of Caesarea” tells how he redeems a slave
who through the services of a magus had assigned his
soul to a devil in order to marry his master's pious
daughter. As his wife, she notices his avoidance of
church and seeks Basil's conversive help; discovering
the truth, the saint prescribes effective penance and
after some effort routs the devil and his minions. (The
struggle between good and evil forces for a soul, later
so important in art and literature, is here subordinate
to the theme of the need of atonement and the power
of grace; the urgency of countering Manichaeism ex-
plains the new stature of the single devil-figure.) In
later legends still higher intercession is required:
Theophilus of Cilicia, repenting of his recourse to
magic, is saved only by the Virgin Mary. Until after
the Reformation, however, the repentant mortal regu-
larly found redemption through contrition, penance,
and good works even if he had signed away his soul
in blood (a motif introduced in the thirteenth century)
and even though, from Saint Thomas Aquinas on,
witchcraft was more and more often officially consid-
ered heresy.

If Faust was less fortunate than his precursors, the
blame must be placed not on him but on the religious
schism that began with Luther. For those who ob-
durately clung to “false” doctrine there was now no
alternative to eternal damnation. Copernican astron-
omy cast doubts on a traditional cosmogony, humanism
glorified pagan moral philosophers and much morally
dubious pagan literature, Neo-Platonic and Pansophic
mysticisms taught “natural” revelation and even the
possibility of man's unaided achievement of salvation,
Trinitarianism was openly repudiated—leaders of the
Unitarian movement were Laelius Socinus and his
nephew Faustus (1539-1604)—and advocates of
libertinism and atheism were beginning to be less cau-
tious than in the later Middle Ages. With so many rival
beliefs urging irreconcilable claims, witchcraft could
exert a more powerful spell than ever before over the
minds of persons of all social and intellectual classes.
The Council of Trent might reaffirm Saint Thomas'
doctrine that neither charms nor conjuring can have
effect on the free will, but Protestants accepted


Luther's denial of absolute human freedom at the very
time they were deprived of all effective external inter-
cession with their God. For them, Faust's eternal dam-
nation was only too real a possibility: significantly,
sixteenth-century legend associated Faust with Wit-
tenberg, where Luther had taught the reality of the
Devil and where Giordano Bruno was allowed to lec-
ture (1586ff.) after having been denied that privilege
at the theologically stricter university of Marburg.
Faust represented many things that were anathema to
good Christians, but above all a new and challenging
secular intellectualism. (The long identification of Faust
with Johann Fust, Gutenberg's collaborator, first found
in a Dutch chronicle of 1531, was an unconscious
euhemeristic recognition of printing's revolutionary
importance for the dissemination of new ideas.)

In the Historia, although he is an “Epicurean” or
sensual materialist, Faust's greatest fault is “specula-
tion”—scientific theorizing and skeptical philos-
ophizing that make him intellectually and spiritually
incapable of faith; he may fear Hell (Catholic-
theological attritio) but will prove incapable of contri-
tion as preached by Luther. His story falls into three
large sections. The first tells how, having studied theol-
ogy, he turns to magic and medicine (cf. Paracelsus).
Soon, however, magic completely engrosses him, and
through his conjurings he makes contact with emissar-
ies of Hell. After various quasi-theological disputations
he abjures Christianity, signing a blood pact that
barters his soul for twenty-four years of magical powers
and the services of the devil Mephostophiles [sic], who
provides both high living and copious lore about Hell
and its torments. The second section describes Faust's
successes as astrologer and soothsayer, a visionary visit
to Hell, and magical flights to various parts of the earth.
(At Rome he plays pranks on the Pope, from the
Caucasus he surveys paradise and its four rivers—the
large place occupied by travel motifs reflects an im-
portant interest of the Age of Discovery and, perhaps,
the unsettling effect that glimpses of dissimilar civili-
zations had on sixteenth-century man.) It concludes
with accounts of astronomical, meteorological, and
spirit lore.

The final and longest section recounts Faust's last
eight years. He performs many feats formerly attri-
buted to earlier magicians, especially during a stay at
the court of the emperor Charles V: he conjures up
Alexander the Great and one of his wives, causes horns
to grow out of a courtier's head, makes a haywain and
its horse vanish, furnishes aerial transportation, builds
a castle in an inaccessible place, and shows a group
of students Helen of Troy. Defying the warning of a
mysterious old man to turn again to God, he renews
his pact with Hell. His life now becomes more pro
fligate than ever. When but two years remain to him,
he takes as paramour Helen of Troy; she bears him
a son with precocious prophetic gifts who vanishes
with his mother at Faust's death. In his final days Faust
vainly laments his evil ways and the imminent torments
of Hell; in the last hours before he is horribly killed
by supernatural powers he urges student companions
from Wittenberg to resist the Devil and lead godly
lives with faith in Christ.