Faust and Faustianism

Most people who have heard the name Mephistopheles have gotten it from a 1980’s Police song, Wrapped around Your Finger. Sting, of course, was an English teacher, and he took the character Mephistopheles from Goethe’s Faust. Mephistopheles is Satan. Goethe had gotten the character from Christopher Marlowe, but also an anonymous volume entitled Faustbuch, published in 1587 (Marlowe worked off a translation of the Faustbuch). Faust, as many readers know, made a deal with the devil: in Marlowe to acquire knowledge, but also gratification; in Goethe, Faust has despaired of any knowledge that could be had by the mind and wanted knowledge of an entirely different type, but also, as can been seen by the terms of the deal with Mephistopheles, he wanted one moment where he could feel satisfaction. Mephistopheles would bring him every form of pleasure (particularly of the sexual type), and should it ever happen that Faust should say of the moment “Linger, thou art so fair,” then the devil could require his soul of him. I thought of this phrase one night some years back while out to eat with my daughter, just she and I, when she was about 4. I was having such an enjoyable time with her – – we were eating at Wendy’s – – when I said to myself “stay thou art so fair.” I am sure all of us have had those moments. But Faust did not. He had exhausted learning, apparently having Doctors degrees in Medicine, wissenschaft, and Theology. But all his learning had led him only to despair of ever really knowing anything, and thus his deal with Mephistopheles.

Faustus in Latin means lucky, or favorable, and was a nom de plume assumed by a number of late medieval and renaissance characters, but one in particular stands out, who was known and popular in the early sixteenth-century. Luther even made reference to him. This fellow seems to have been a quintessential Renaissance character: alchemist, philosopher, astrologer, a dabbler after the secrets of Hermes Trismegistus. In the mind of Luther, Melanchthon and the Faustbuch, moreover, he was the natural and logical end of Roman Catholic superstition. And the name Faust itself may well have been a designation imputed to the character by his detractors. One of the reasons to think this is because we have too many characters who people have thought this Faust was. The original Faust, the one for whom our Faust was named, was a late fourth-century Manichee, and an interlocutor of St. Augustine. Because of the status that the great saint acquired in the West, it turned out that anytime there was an odor of dualism in a particular heretic’s speech, they would be labeled a Manichee. Thus, any sort of Gnostic tendency would become absolute dualism (and the Manichees were absolute dualists).

And this brings out another interesting aspect about the Renaissance Faust, and this was his love of ancient learning, and especially his love of the Greeks. At the time Goethe was writing the second part of his work, the Greeks were at war with the Turks for their independence. Goethe brings this out in two ways: at the very end of the work Faust is able to raise land from water in order for the Greeks to have a place to live as free men and women (more on this in a moment). The other means is the person of Helen of Troy. Helen plays but a minor and almost wholly sexual part in the Faustbuch and in Marlowe. In Goethe she becomes the object of Faust’s desire in every way, for she is not only beauty, but the locus (or loca) of ancient and mystical knowledge. This is not the first time that Helen had assumed such cosmic significance.

We have several sources from the early Church about Simon the Magician, whom we first meet in Acts 8. He was called “the great power of God” and is cited by both St. Justin Martyr and St. Irenaeus as the founder of Gnosticism. There is much to write on this last point, but we must hasten to the denouement. Simon, after his confrontation with St. Peter, becomes the nemesis of the chief of the Apostles. That is, until a confrontation with St. Peter in Rome, where Simon Magus by the power of demons took flight, and St Peter by a prayer brought him crashing down. Before this however, and after the first confrontation recorded in Acts 8, Simon Magus had traveled the Mediterranean teaching all who would hear about how he had come to reveal the secret knowledge of God. It seems that God’s first thought, his epinoia, had been degraded by the jealousy of the archons, and made to hide on earth. It had assumed several forms, most notably it had been incarnated most suitable as Helen of Troy. In Simon Magus’s time she had taken up residence in a prostitute named Helen that Simon had found (either in Tyre or Sidon), and who now accompanied him as he traveled in order to illuminate all who desired it. It seems that Protestant polemicists used Faust and Simon Magus as shorthands for the pope and papal religion (see Bernard Pouderon’s “Docteur Faust et Maître Simon” in Le Rider and Pouderon, eds., Faust Homme Renaissance).

When we come to the end of Goethe’s Faust, Faust with the aid of Mephistopheles raises the land for the Greek peasants. With this last effort Faust dies, but with the words upon his lips “linger, thou art so fair.” With this Mephistopheles comes to take his prize, but then the angels of God descend, basically call Mephistopheles a bugger for lusting after the Cherubs, and take Faust’s soul to heaven. Goethe was a strange character, and there is no time to talk at length about him. I would recommend Jaroslav Pelikan’s fine little book, Faust the Theologian. The main thing here, however, is to see Goethe the romantic: he despised bourgeois culture, thought book learning inadequate to understand life, believed man infinitely redeemable, but nonetheless havered between hope and despair.

What I have taken away from my thoughts on Faust is the notion about how deceptive our longings and restlessness are, how so many things in life bring but momentary satisfaction, and how even Goethe could see that the promises of unbridled sex were nothing but great deceptions. The story of Faust, whether the Renaissance or the Romantic, was one of longing for a knowledge about a life outside of the parameters established by God. Goethe weaves Christian thought in and out of his book, but he is at best a wayward Protestant, and one whose faith was worn lightly. He confessed to being a pantheist as a scientist, a polytheist as a poet, but a monotheist as a moralist (he never confessed any love or inclination to atheism).

Goethe provides much food for thought, even though I often find him a bit unbearable. But most of my students could say that of me. Pelikan confessed to reading Faust once a year. As I am getting ready to shove off for a week of fishing and relaxation, I take with me the knowledge that this is a respite, something to help steel me for the rest of the summer. It is not an end in itself. Knowledge, that is the accumulation of facts, of whatever kind, is but a means to an end. So also sex, which has only a life within God’s boundaries. If Faust is anything, he is a rebel against God, and this is why the book ultimately leaves me cold: yes the raising of the land was a selfless act, but a selfless act whose end built on notions drawn from the French Revolution, and from the secular millennial thinking of his day. Knowledge of the world held apart from the sacramental reality of life in Christ can only ever be, in the end, a Faustian bargain.

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About Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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One Response to Faust and Faustianism

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