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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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How Faust has become a mythic figure for modern
man, and “Faustian” (German: faustisch) an accepted
synonym for “insatiable,” “Promethean,” “dynamic,”
etc., is the theme of this article.


Various documents of the first decades of the six-
teenth century mention a contemporary necromancer
calling himself Faust. In 1507 the abbot J. Tritheim
wrote in reply to an inquiry:

Georg Sabellicus... is a worthless fellow... who should
be castigated to stop his proclaiming of abominable and
sacrilegious doctrines.... He has chosen to call himself
Magister Georgius Sabellicus, Faustus junior, fons necro-
manticorum, astrologus, magus secundus, chiromanticus,
aëromanticus, pyromanticus, in hydra arte secundus

] ad diversos, Hagen [1536], p. 312; see A. Tille, Faust-
Berlin [1900], no. 1).


“Sabellicus” and “Faustus” may be humanist latiniza-
tions of a German place name and a German family
name (or of two family names), but both “the Sabine”—
for ancient Rome the Sabine Hills were the country
of witchcraft—and “the Fortunate” are traditional
epithets of magicians.

Tritheim reports having been in Gelnhausen the year
before at the same time as Faust and hearing from
clerics there Faust's boast that, “if all the works of
Plato and Aristotle... had been lost, he through his
genius would, like a second Esra, restore them entire
and better than before.” In Würzburg, Tritheim con-
tinues, Faust even claimed that he could perform all
the miracles of Christ; subsequently he was appointed
schoolmaster at Kreuznach because of his vaunted
alchemical learning, but had to flee when his debauch-
ery of his pupils was discovered.

In 1509 a Johann Faust from Simmern (a principality
incorporated into Württemberg in 1504) received the
A.B. at Heidelberg; if he was Tritheim's Faust, later
tradition was right in claiming that the astrologer was
born at Knittlingen (the chief town of Simmern) in the
early 1480's. In 1513 Conrad Mudt (Mutianus Rufus,
supporter of Reuchlin and friend of Melanchthon) saw
and heard Georg Faust at Erfurt; he wrote to a fellow
humanist that this “immoderate and Foolish braggart,”
calling himself the “demigod from Heidelberg,” before
astonished listeners “talked nonsense at the inn.” The
accounts of the bishopric of Bamberg record a payment
in 1520 to “Doctor Faustus” for casting the Prince-
Bishop's horoscope; in 1528 the town council of Ingol-
stadt forbade the soothsayer Jörg (i.e., Georg) Faust
to remain in their city; and in 1532 the junior burgo-
master of Nuremberg recorded denial of entry to “Dr.
Faust, the great sodomite and necromancer.” From
1532 to 1536 the same “philosophus” practiced medi-
cal alchemy and soothsaying in the Rhineland and
Lower Franconia with some success; he is reported to
have died in 1540 or 1541 at a village in Württemberg.


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.


The Historia is a prose morality largely compiled
from sixteenth-century books of travel description,
magic, demonology, theological discussion, religious-
moral edification, proverb lore, and humorous anec-
dote. Its central action, more concentrated on a single
protagonist (and a single antagonist) than earlier magus
stories, had dramatic possibilities that Christopher
Marlowe and others immediately recognized and ex-
ploited. (A late fifteenth-century Faust play performed
at Liège is mentioned in the article “Jesuit Drama,”
Oxford Companion to the Theatre, ed. P. Hartnoll, p.
416; the account of a Nuremberg carnival procession
of 1588 reports that Venus was attended by the girl
“whom Doctor Faust in the play abducted.”) In his
Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (ca. 1590; 1st ed.,
1604; 2nd ed., with important textual variants, 1616),
Marlowe largely follows the morality-play tradition,
though treating his hero, who is certainly a glorious,
at times gloriously lyrical, Renaissance malefactor, with
an empathy lacking in the Faust-book. (V. Errante has
suggested that Faustus has traits of Giordano Bruno,
who was well received in London in the early 1580's.)

More wilfully wicked than his German model,
Marlowe's Faustus rebels with obviously youthful
arrogance against conventional modes of thought and
feeling. Sated with traditional learning and having
turned to necromancy as the potential source “Of
power, of honor, of omnipotence,” he offers his soul
through Mephistophilis [sic]—appearing at his sum-
mons only because it has involved blasphemy—to
Lucifer “So he will spare him four and twenty years,/
Letting him live in all voluptuousness.” Mephistophilis
is thus the agent of the sin of Luciferian pride that,
together with insufficient faith in divine mercy, will
ensure Faustus' ultimate damnation, despite repeated
warnings from Mephistophilis and the morality figures
of his Good and Evil Angels, and despite a repulsive
masque-like parade of the Seven Deadly Sins shown
him as a “pastime” by Lucifer, Belzebub [sic], Mephis-
tophilis. Unlike the protagonist of the Historia, Faustus
shows no intellectual curiosity once he has signed his
blood-pact, chiefly occupying himself with demon-
strations of his magical powers (largely pranks) that


culminate in the showing of Helen of Troy to student
admirers. A last warning to repent momentarily re-
duces him to the thought of suicide, but despairing
of mercy he reaffirms the blood-pact on condition he
have Helen as paramour, and soon he is borne off by
Devils through the hell-mouth of medieval art and
stage. (In the 1616—perhaps partly earlier—text, his
mangled limbs are returned to his chambers so that
they may be discovered, as in the Historia, by the
horrified students.)

Through traveling actors Marlowe's play soon
reached Germany and became the source of a long
series of sensational dramas (including, with the eight-
eenth century, puppet shows). It thus directly or in-
directly inspired both English and German popular
stage spectacles (harlequinades, operettas, ballets) until
well into the later eighteenth century. Broadsides from
the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (including
English sheet music) generously testify to the continu-
ing familiarity of the story of the heretic or villain who
is damned because he has preferred evil to good.

In the age of Enlightenment, however, damnation
was no longer a matter of wide vital concern. Evil,
for Luther the instrument of God, had become an
obscuring of truth by passion (Descartes) or even, with
Leibniz, a sensed deprival of perfection grounded in
awareness of a discrepancy between any part and the
whole. (Ugliness and incongruity were to be integral
to the visual and literary arts in G. E. Lessing's aes-
thetics, and the essential function of dissonance had
long been recognized by musical theorists.) To relativ-
istic and materialistic thinkers, evil was but a necessary
concomitant of the good; an obdurate sinner like the
traditional Faust no longer seemed to have serious
human significance.

In the 1750's Lessing, seeking indigenous themes that
might aid the liberation of German drama from a
stifling French neo-classicism, began a “Faust”—its
central action apparently was to be a dream—whose
hero gains redemption because a genuine thirst for
knowledge and truth cancel out ambition and self-
seeking. Lessing later repudiated the conception of
drama as a moral-didactic medium, and the play was
never completed.


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.


Surveying subsequent treatments of the Faust theme,
in 1910 W. A. Phillips declared:

... [Goethe's] Faust remains for the modern world the final
form of the legend out of which it grew, the magnificent
expression of the broad humanism which, even in spheres
accounted orthodox, has tended to replace the peculiar
studium theologicum which inspired the early Faust-books

(Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed., art. “Faust”).

Other “Fausts” appeared during the composition and
publication of Goethe's drama or shortly thereafter,
notably dramatic works by Friedrich Müller (1778),
J. H. von Soden (1797), J. F. Schink (1804), C. D.
Grabbe (1829), a novel by F. M. Klinger (1791), a lyric
scene by Pushkin (1826), and a verse story by Nikolaus
Lenau (1835f.), but none can be said to add important
new dimensions to the legend.

Publication in 1790 of Faust, ein Fragment—some-
what less than half the text of Part I—established the
preeminence of Goethe's poem, which the speculative
philosopher F. W. von Schelling immediately hailed
as Germany's “characteristic poetic work,” as an ex-
pression of the ambivalent feelings arising from a
peculiarly German Begier nach Erkenntnis der Dinge
(“thirst for cognition”). (In Faust II Goethe satirized
the hunger for spiritual infinitude attributed to his
protagonist in Schelling's Philosophie der Kunst
[1802].) Thanks to romantic philosophy, by its very
nature “mythic” (glorification of the Absolute without
any strict theological frame of reference; speculative
indifference to the evidence of empirical science),
Goethe's Faust was soon to become itself a myth. Mme
de Staël's response to Faust I (De l'Allemagne, Part
2, Ch. 23) is cooler than that of the German romantics
and her mentor A. W. Schlegel, but despite an obvi-
ously neo-classical literary bias she concludes her influ-
ential discussion of the work and its author with the

... when a genius such as Goethe's rids itself of all tram-
mels, its host of thoughts is so great that on every side they
go beyond and subvert the limits of art.

Goethe's Faust, regarded as a work both uniquely
German and sui generis, was thus long admired (as by
Shelley and Byron) or condemned (chiefly by Christian
moralists) according to the worth attached to secular
German thought and culture. The Faust of Grabbe's
Don Juan und Faust is not only a “profound” thinker,
but also a German nationalist and a scientific positivist,
and even Nikolaus Lenau's romantic-philosophical hero
derives his stature in the first instance from his
preeminence in research (Forschen). As Germany, es-
pecially after the establishment of the Second Empire,
ceased to be “the land of poets and thinkers” only,
Goethe's poem was read ever more frequently as a
glorification of action, which alone could permit full
realization of individual and social values; if Faust still
symbolized all mankind, mankind's best interests were
facilely equated with those of Germany. Elsewhere
Faust still stood for German romanticism's “mystical
faith in will and action” (the formulation is that of
Santayana, frankly hostile to idealistic and vitalistic
systems of German philosophy from Fichte on, in Three
Philosophical Poets,

Faust was also to stand for the power of modern
science and technology to create a better world (Élie
Metchnikoff, Goethe et Faust, 1907), or—this was
closest to the spirit of Goethe, except when equated
with the cult of the Superman (Übermensch is used
in Goethe's text only with pejorative irony)—for a
fruitful religious or ethical liberalism. German artists
depicted Faust as a Teutonic hero, while in France—
and for musicians—he chiefly remained a symbol of
human frailty or spirituality.


Few nineteenth-century interpreters of Goethe's
work shared Kierkegaard's view that Faust's (to him:
also Goethe's) unqualified glorification of activity was
compensation for a sickness of the soul. In the twen-
tieth century, however, both the positive values long


attached to the “Faust myth” (Jakob Burkhardt, 1855)
and the propriety of regarding Goethe's Faust as its
supreme artistic expression have been seriously ques-
tioned. Adulation of Faust's ruthlessness as an empire
builder was condemned even when not recognized as
contrary to the tenor of Goethe's text. The benefits
of science and technology that Faust long symbol-
ized—G. W. Hertz even interpreted the work as
natural-scientific myth (Goethes Naturphilosophie im
1912)—began to seem ever more uncertain. And
a theological resurgence made doubtful even the heroic
stature of so self-concerned, or at least so strong-willed,
a figure. (Only esoteric and theosophic interpretations,
notably those offered by the anthroposophist Rudolf
Steiner from 1902 on, now minimized the theme of
ethical choice in Goethe's drama.) “Faustian” could
thus variously mean “Promethean,” “superhuman”
(Hermann Hesse lectured on “Faust and Zarathustra”
in 1909), “dualistically torn between (or simultaneously
impelled by) pleasure principle and cognitive desire,”
“mystically monistic,” “socialistically progressive” (cf.
A. V. Lunacharsky's play Faust i gorod [Faust and the
], 1918), as well as “German in its best—or, at the
height of World War I, worst—sense.”

With the publication of Oswald Spengler's The De-
cline of the West
(1918 and 1922) “Faustian” acquired
a new meaning. In his morphology of civilizations
(Kulturen) Spengler opposed the Faustian culture-soul
of the West to the Apollonian (or Euclidian) and
Magical souls of Greco-Roman and Arabian culture.
His Faustian soul knows the lure of infinitude and
transcendence, has an ethic of instinct or voluntarism
rather than of reason, and its heroes are men of action
with Nietzsche's morality of masters. (If Goethe's Faust
translates logos as Tat [“deed,” “action”] rather than,
say Ordnung [“order”—for Goethe a highest value],
he does not do so in a moment of supreme insight!)
Although the importance that Spengler's concept of
the Faustian attributes to practical achievement is that
of later historicism and scientism, romantic elements
predominate in his thought, which is thus more
German than Western (Dabezies, p. 152). For H.
Trevor-Roper (Historical Essays, London, 1957),
Burckhardt is a “Faustian historian.”

Simultaneous with the explanation of history in
symbolic and mythic terms was an ever more frequent
reading—and creating (Thomas Mann)—of liter-
ary works as forms of symbolic and mythic expression.
Beginning with his Psychologische Typen (1921), C. G.
Jung encouraged the interpretation of Goethe's Faust
as a visionary work, i.e., not as mere poetic invention,
but as the expression of archetypal truths (Faust vari-
ously as hysteric, as magus-magician, as savior-sage,
and—after World War II—as subhumanly ignorant of
ethical emotion, the protagonist of a work revealing
a characteristically “German” alienation from all con-
crete realities). Following both Freud and the earlier
Jung, Maud Bodkin (Archetypal Patterns in Poetry:
Psychological Studies of Imagination,
Oxford, 1934)
could still recognize that Goethe's poem “is not wholly
removed in spirit from such tragedy as that of Shake-
speare,” deriving its strength from such archetypal
figures—“expressions of the sense of self in relation to
forces that appear under the names of God, or Fate,
and of the devil”—as Margarete (woman as symbol of
a transmutation of sentiment or feeling into spiritual
values) and Mephistopheles (“an apt embodiment of
forces that threaten the ideals of the more concrete
persons of the drama”). Her interpretation of Faust's
final “ascension” as the archetype of human “feigning
for individual lives, after bodily death, the renewal that
we know [to be] true of the life-force within them”
is particularly apt, since this was the meaning Goethe
seems consciously to have attached to it.

Under National Socialism Faust could conveniently
symbolize service to the state and humanity (Alfred
Rosenberg), the supreme value of action (Hitler), and
of course the German genius and Führer-principle. The
irony of this did not go unappreciated abroad, and in
Dorothy Sayers' morality The Devil to Pay (premiere:
1939) Faust's worst crime is having tried to play god.
Paul Valéry's Mon Faust (1941; 1944f.), comprising
Lust, ou la Demoiselle de Cristal and Le Solitaire, féerie
(both uncompleted), transposes Goethe's
“chief figures”—for Valéry these are Faust and
Mephistopheles, the extremes of the human-humane
and the inhuman—into a modern world. In Lust (the
name is that of Faust's attractive secretary) the un-
creative impotence of reason (science? rationalization?)
is accepted as bitter reality, although Faust—poet,
thinker, and “member of the Academy of Dead Sci-
ences”—brilliantly displays reason's power in his dis-
cussions with Mephistopheles, who contracts not to
serve him, but to receive his services. Mephistopheles
cannot even tempt one of Faust's young admirers (“the
Disciple,” whom Faust has cautioned against emotion-
alism) with offers of knowledge and power, or of love.
Yet Faust himself seems capable of something like love
or affection, although Valéry chooses—this is clearly
a corrective to vitalistic interpretations of the Faust
figure—to emphasize the centrality of thought and
memory to human awareness, even to that of immedi-
ate experience.

In Le Solitaire—the figure is a nihilistic philosopher
who, scorning Faust's, and any, intellectualism, con-
sistently destroys himself—the central theme is even
more Goethean: awareness of the potentiality of re-
generation (although its Faust is too wise to accept


the chance to relive life). The dispute for Faust's soul
which was to conclude this play was never written,
but what exists of Mon Faust is a timeless challenge—
there is no mention of purely contemporary events—to
perversely irrational and pretentious interpretations of
the Faust myth.

In contrast to Valéry's “Faust,” that of Thomas Mann
concerns itself directly with the ideological and politi-
cal forces that, producing Nazism and the cultural
debasement of Germany, culminated in the catastrophe
of World War II. Mann's title, Doctor Faustus: The
Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as
Told by a Friend
(1943-46, published 1947), refers to
the Historia of 1587, which is the inspiration of his
protagonist's German style and final musical composi-
tion, and from which derive the main “traditional”
motifs that structure his novel. (Goethe's Faust was
insufficiently apocalyptic to serve Mann's thematic
needs; a writer long devoted to interpreting mythic
archetypes, Mann may have shared the regret—
occasionally expressed earlier, as by Heine in notes to
his Faust ballet [1851]—at Goethe's failure to adhere
closely to the original Faust legend.) Leverkühn's pact
with the devil is his fantasy that syphilitic infection
is the price of heightened creative powers. (Mann had
long thought to discern a connection between disease
and artistic creativity, and had first conceived in 1901
the idea of portraying a syphilitic artist as a Faust fig-
ure.) Doctor Faustus repudiates nationalistic and nihi-
listic interpretations of Faust and the Faustian; parallels
in it to recent developments in historical, philosophical,
theological, psychological, and scientific speculation
insist that the cultivation of musical abstraction by its
coldly intellectual hero also symbolizes a general
alienation from humane values that only a spiritual
breakthrough may possibly overcome.

Mann's return to the Faust-book form of the legend
coincides with a widespread trend to doubt the
exemplary significance of Goethe's Faust. Some theo-
logically-minded critics, still reading it as a glorification
of ruthless activity, condemned it as an expression of
humanistic amoralism, while others interpreted it as
a morality play warning against the destructive conse-
quences of human effort unredeemed by theological
grace. Although Marxists largely continued to see in
it a paean to progress and secular human values, and
although there seems to be a positive connotation in
F. R. Stannard's use of “faustian” to characterize a
mirror- or reverse-time universe (Nature [August 13,
1966], 693ff.), pessimistic interpretations of the poem
prevailed immediately after World War II—hence the
frequently expressed subjective preference (e.g., E. M.
Butler, A. Dabezies) for pre-Goethean forms of the
legend in which the “existential” distinction between
good and evil is made with (naive) clarity. Goethe,
however, interpreted the Faust story in a tragedy, not
in a morality play, and the lasting significance of the
Faust legend will surely again be recognized as deriv-
ing not from the theme of existential despair (which
it shares with many other tales and myths), but from
the paradox of self-limiting and even self-destroying
aspiration which, as Goethe knew, the legend symbol-
izes with apparently unique distinction.


Translations, unless otherwise noted, are by the author
of this article.

The fullest bibliography, to contain some 13,000 entries,
is Hans Henning, Faust-Bibliographie (Berlin and Weimar,
1966-). Teil I: Allgemeines. Grundlagen. Gesamtdarstel-
lungen.—Das Faust-Thema vom 16. Jahrhundert bis 1790

records earlier bibliographies, collections of texts and docu-
ments, works about or containing references to the historical
and legendary Fausts (including works of art and music),
and discussions of such parallel figures as Ahasuerus,
Prometheus, Simon Magus, Cyprian, Twardowski, and Don
Juan. Teil II (Goethes Faust), 2 vols., and Teil III (1790 bis
zur Gegenwart. Namen- und Sachregister
) are in preparation.

Most accounts of Faust as a literary figure (see below)
also treat the historical and legendary Fausts and their
prototypes. P. M. Palmer and R. P. More, The Sources of
the Faust Tradition from Simon Magus to Lessing
(New York,
1936; reprint 1965), cites or summarizes in English transla-
tion the major documents. Specialized discussions are: E. M.
Butler, The Myth of the Magus (Cambridge, 1948), and
Ritual Magic (Cambridge, 1949); H. G. Meek, Johann Faust,
the Man and the Myth
(London, 1930).

H. Henning has edited the first Spies Faust-book (Halle,
1963), and William Rose the English translation of 1592
(London, n.d., in the series “Broadway Translations”). H.
G. Haile, Das Faustbuch nach der Wolfenbüttler Handschrift
(Berlin, 1963), reproduces a manuscript possibly antedating
Spies; he indicates by typographical devices the parts that
may derive from an earlier Latin or German life of Faust.

Recent surveys of Faust as a figure or theme in literary
or other art forms and of interpretations of the legend
include: E. M. Butler, The Fortunes of Faust (Cambridge,
1952); Vincenzo Errante, Il Mito di Faust, Vol. I, Dal
personaggio storico alla tragedia di Gœthe
(Florence, 1951);
Geneviève Bianquis, Faust à travers quatre siècles (Paris,
1955); Charles Dédéyan, Le Thème de Faust dans la littéra-
ture européenne,
4 vols. in 6 parts (Paris, 1956-65); André
Dabezies, Visages de Faust au XXe siècle: Littérature,
idéologie et mythes
(Paris, 1967); J. W. Kelly, The Faust
Legend in Music
(Evanston, Ill., 1960); Wolfgang Wegner,
Die Faustdarstellung vom 16. Jahrhundert bis zur Gegenwart
(Amsterdam, 1962), which may be supplemented by Franz
Neubert, Vom Doctor Faust zu Goethes Faust, mit 595
(Leipzig, 1932).

An excellent selective bibliography (updated in each new
printing) for Goethe's Faust and the secondary literature


relevant to it is that in Goethes Werke, Band III, ed. Erich
Trunz (Hamburg, 1949), available separately as Goethes
the edition includes the text of the “Urfaust.”
Goethe's Faust, ed. R-M. S. Heffner, et al., 2 vols. (Boston,
1954-55), has an introduction and notes in English. The
classic English translation is that of Bayard Taylor; there
is a modernized version of it by S. Atkins, 2 vols. (New
York, 1965-67). The interpretation in the foregoing article
is largely that of S. Atkins, Goethe's Faust: A Literary Anal-
(Cambridge, Mass., 1969).


[See also Alchemy; Astrology; Demonology; Enlightenment;
Evil; Gnosticism; Love; Motif; Myth; Romanticism; Sin and
Salvation; Tragic; Witchcraft.]