Western humans have been fascinated since at least the latter portion of the thirteenth century by the notion of a man who makes a pact with the devil. The two most famous stories of this pact deal with the marginally fictional character of Faust. I say “marginally fictional” because there were stories going about during the medieval period concerning an actual magician by the name of Dr. Johann Georg Faustus who sold his soul to the devil for personal advantage.
In Christopher Marlowe’s version of Faust, the main character agrees to sell his soul to the devil for pleasure, money and power. In its way, it is a story of a man who succumbs to the temptations offered to Christ in the New Testament. Marlowe’s Faust is very human and, unlike Christ, is unable to resist the temptations, though his struggle generates a tragic story that is extremely well told. Some would say this portends the story of modern man who has succumbed to the same temptations and is therefore doomed to spend eternity in Hell. But most of us are far too sophisticated to listen to such gloomy predictions. Besides, it’s just fiction.
But more interesting, and in its way much more profound, is the story of Goethe’s Faust, a story that Goethe spent 50 years writing and which tells of a pact between the brilliant scholar Faust and Mephistopheles (the devil). Not only is Mephistopheles an intriguing character as Goethe presents him to us, with his humorless, cold, uncaring demeanor, but the character of Faust is fascinating as well. Like Marlowe’s Faust, Goethe’s character is driven and every bit an egoist. Unlike Marlowe’s Faust, however, Goethe’s main character is saved in the end. He is saved because while he initially succumbs to the temptations the devil offers him, seducing a young woman and abandoning her after she has killed their illegitimate child, in the end, after spending years wasting his time in pointless pleasures, he turns his attention outward and finds meaning in an otherwise meaningless existence: he is saved through his works. More to the point, he is saved because he finds satisfaction in doing something he loves that benefits others. He finds himself by losing himself in good works. It’s a thoroughly Christian message, as found in the epistles of St. Paul, but it is one we could all learn from, since we seem to resemble Marlowe’s Faust so much more than we do Goethe’s.
Marlowe’s Faust wants pleasure, money, and power. Goethe’s Faust is simply bored. He wants to discover an activity that is totally absorbing, so much so that his boredom disappears and his delight in the moment is such that he wants it to last forever. He finds that moment in helping the Dutch (presumably) recover their land from the encroaching Oceans — another prescient message for us moderns, should we choose to listen! Goethe’s is the more profound story because, while initially succumbing to the temptations of Mephistopheles, he is able in the end to turn his back on them and find salvation by devoting his life to good works. Marlowe’s Faust simply makes a deal and then wallows in pleasure and debauchery. He struggles in the end, because he realizes what his pact entails; but he is lost.
It is fascinating to think that stories written so long ago can have application today. But human beings don’t really change, and great minds sense the problems that we all face now and in the future. Their stories are timeless. Both Marlowe and Goethe sensed that the modern era would bring with it temptations on an order never before witnessed. Marlowe was convinced humans would succumb; Goethe held out the hope that by imitating Christ humans could save themselves in the end, by working to help other humans who are worse off than they. Christ rejected the temptations of the devil. Goethe’s Faust initially succumbed to them, but realized that these were fleeting and ultimately unsatisfying — that way did NOT lie happiness — and then turned his mind toward the needs of others. The devil was confounded: he thought they had a deal! But Faust escaped from his clutches, not because he was a good Christian (in so many ways he was not), but because in the end he was a good man.