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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The transmutation of morality play into symbolic
drama was Goethe's achievement. He began Faust, in
the spirit of Storm-and-Stress primitivism, as a loosely
constructed play in what was in his youth considered
the Shakespearean manner (numerous short scenes in
verse and prose). It was to be “popular” in tone, al-
though the theme of an intellectual hero's full self-
realization demanded representation of levels of
thought and experience irreconcilable with this inten-
tion. The so-called Urfaust (a manuscript comprising
parts and groups of scenes written in the 1770's) briefly
introduces Faust as he turns to magic in the hope of
transcending sterile intellectuality through intuitive
understanding, then shows him in the company of
Mephistopheles as he woos, wins, and causes the death
of Margarete (Gretchen) even as through love he begins
to intuit the full complexity of life.

In subsequent decades Goethe completed The First
Part of the Tragedy
(false-title in 1808 ed.), reconciling
the obligatory folkloristic elements of the legend with
his conception of Faust as the symbol of man seeking
the meaning of life and the maximal realization of its
possibilities. He replaced the traditional—and theo-
logically unsound—pact with Hell by a challenge: if
Faust, who regards himself as representative of all men,
is ever satisfied by shallow pleasures or by a sense of
having achieved all he would and could, he will gladly
renounce this life, the only meaningful existence he
can conceive of. Mephistopheles, now defined in a
prologue in heaven as the spirit of negation, embodies
all inner and outer forces hostile to human aspiration
and achievement, and functions as the machinery
allowing Faust a wide variety of representative human
experiences. The Lord (God, the Good) is also antici-
patorily defined—in terms that reflect the historical-
genetic interests of the Enlightenment and the increas-
ing importance of evolutionary biology in the later
eighteenth century (Buffon; Lamarck; Goethe's own
theories of metamorphosis)—as creativity, becoming
(Werden), and love, the potentialities of self-realization
on every level of being to which man has access by
virtue of his innate impulse to strive and aspire. The
dramatic action has become Faust's achievement of a
symbolic totality of experience, and the poem as a
whole shows his ever increasing understanding of the
order of Nature and of Man as immanently meaningful.

By 1800 Goethe had begun the second and final part
of Faust, most of which was written 1825-31. Like
Part I, it is loosely structured and composed in a variety
of dramatic and poetic styles. Ideologically, its function
is to show Faust's involvement in less narrowly private
or personal spheres of human concern than those of
Part I. Faust interests himself in the German Emperor's
state affairs (finance in Act I, war in Act IV), but like
his legendary prototype he is constrained to provide
court entertainments. These include magical feats, but
they are primarily important as attempts at artistic
self-expression and artistic communication. In Act I he
stages first an allegorical masque, the chief theme of
which is prudent distinction between tangible and
intangible wealth or values, then a stately dumbshow
of the Rape of Helen at which he himself confuses


illusion with reality; his attempt to “rescue” Helen—or
Beauty—from Paris produces an explosion that volatil-
izes the two figures and paralyzes him for an indeter-
minate period. The central action of Part II thus takes
place outside the normal world of time and successively
represents—possibly as two dream plays of Faust in
a trancelike state—the realms of myth and history.

Myth—in the Classical Walpurgisnight of Act
II—includes not only the legends of gods and heroes,
of animal and human creatures symbolic of hostile or
friendly natural forces, but also (early) philosophy,
science, and art as modes of expressing man's intuition
of a meaningful cosmic order. Faust, the would-be
winner of Helen, is the spokesman of the heroic, but
he plays a minor role in this Aristophanic comedy.
Mephistopheles is also of secondary importance, being
chiefly the dupe of his own lusts and of illusion and
superstition. The main interest shifts to a mythopoeic
symbol of potential life, their companion Homunculus
(an artificial synthesis of organic substances achieved
by the successor to Faust's professorship), and to the
eager aspiration of this miniature Faust for normal
physical existence and constructive activity.

History—in Act III, “Helen”—is represented with
radical syncopation as the unbroken continuum of
Western culture from the Greek heroic age to the
Greek Wars of Independence. Helen, to escape the
vengeance of Menelaus, takes refuge with northern
invaders (the Migration of the Peoples merges into the
medieval establishment of Near Eastern kingdoms)
whose leader Faust, ceding her suzerainty over Greece—
and, as Beauty, over all the world—woos and wins her.
When military threats presage far-reaching political
changes (the rise of national states, but also the re-
structuring of Europe in the Napoleonic era), Faust
and Helen withdraw to a timeless Arcadia where a son
is born to them. Faust briefly enjoys family happiness,
but his son Euphorion, a Byron-like poet-hero, escapes
into life to fight and die for his country's freedom. The
idyll ends abruptly, Helen vanishes, and Faust returns
to Germany (to historical reality) again attended by

The episode of Helen has been an “aesthetic educa-
tion” in Schiller's sense, has revitalized Faust's resolve,
made after Margarete's death, to seek a worthy outlet
for his energies. Envisioning a state or society unfet-
tered by the past, with Mephistopheles' assistance he
crushes a rebellion against the Emperor in return for
the privilege of winning from the sea new land that
he can colonize. (The past is inescapable, however, for
the Church immediately secures its right to traditional
levies—Goethe was less optimistic than many of his
contemporaries about the realizability of socialistic
utopias.) The final act shows Faust outwardly successful
and prosperous, but inwardly dissatisfied with an
achievement that cannot be entirely credited to his
own finite powers. His irritation is momentarily
directed against pious Christian neighbors, whose de-
struction he causes by his impatient eagerness to re-
settle them elsewhere; although not directly guilty of
their death—the agents of his will are Mephistopheles
and (men of) violence—he now abjures further recourse
to supernatural assistance and again accepts human
mortality. Faust, suddenly a blind and dying old man,
still hopes to complete his grandiose reclamation
project, but he dies even as he envisions its benefits
enjoyed by future generations of self-reliant men, like
himself free from subservience to a purely speculative-
transcendental or a merely primitive-magical system
of belief. His formulation of a social-religious humanis-
tic faith is his supreme insight, but the conclusion of
the drama insists that it be recognized as an expression
of faith (rooted in the feeling that men can know the
divine only as immanence). After Mephistopheles has
logically pointed out that all achievement is transitory
and death the empty end of any life, Faust's “immortal
part” is snatched away from eagerly expectant devils,
and we are granted a final vision (Faust's?) of a world
of saints and angels, of Margarete and the Virgin
Mother, in which Faust is vouchsafed further striving,
activity, and spiritual growth.

In its cautious optimism Goethe's Faust is still a work
of the late Enlightenment, but in its communication
of the sense of the unfathomable complexity of human
experience it is also an expression of European roman-
ticism. Goethe was not, however, consciously a roman-
tic, and so he sought to represent a totality of critical,
emotional, aesthetic, and ethical experiences not as a
romantic infinitude, but as a symbolically comprehen-
sive finitude (German Classicism). He imbued the Faust
legend with broad mythical significance: magic is no
longer mere wish-fulfilment or make-believe, nor sim-
ply a convenient poetic device serving to create at-
mosphere or to further a plot, but the legitimate
though paradoxical symbol both of man's religious
intuitions and of his ever limited freedom. If Goethe
presents Faust sympathetically as an aspiring idealist,
he also makes clear that idealism and aspiration can
be the expressions of dangerous subjectivity, of aliena-
tion from reality: only Faust's insight into his own
finiteness, his recognition that lofty intentions do not
guarantee the avoidance of error, seems to be repre-
sented without dramatic—or other ironical—ambiva-
lence. Man is redeemed by insight, not by achievement,
and only through consciously directed activity, wise
or foolish, successful or unsuccessful, can this insight
be gained.

Faust is thus a tragedy of being—and hence perhaps


of “divine discontent”—but not of the will to power
or knowledge, or of mere aspiration and romantic
longing. Its parts may be loosely connected and some
even potentially discrete, but all illustrate facets of this
central theme, which as the paradoxical failure of high
aspiration appears in every important action or sub-
action of the poem. Faust's will—or that of some
analogous figure (Homunculus, Euphorion, even
Mephistopheles)—is repeatedly frustrated. Not success,
however, but the power of self-regeneration that he
shares with all life (a point more than once made
explicit) is his salvation. If this was not clear to Goethe
as he began Faust, he nevertheless knew it intuitively,
for the larger part of the “Urfaust” concerns itself with
the tragedy of Margarete, a motif for which the Faust
legend to all intents and purposes offered no source:
a destructive seduction by love is a more universal
experience than seduction by learning or magic, by
wealth or power, and Gretchen, whose Christian faith
is transparently naive, through instinct rather than
reason finally achieves full moral autonomy when she
refuses to evade her responsibility, her atonement of
guilt, by fleeing with Faust. In the end, Faust heroically
accepts finitude too.