Faust’s Bargain

While many who even think about the character Faust and the bargain he made with the devil confuse Christopher Marlowe’s Faust with Goethe’s — as I noted in an earlier post — the Faust of Goethe resembles in remarkable ways many of us and is thus more worthy of serious consideration. Marlowe’s Faust simply sells his soul for pleasure and wealth (and that does describe many of us, I confess). But Goethe’s Faust agrees to give up his soul only if the devil can provide him with an activity that is so engrossing that he will no longer experience the ennui, the boredom, that is deeply affecting him as the play opens. He is a thoroughly cynical and jaded person, bordering on the suicidal. As he makes his bargain with the devil, Faust says:

“If I be quieted with a bed of ease,

Then let that moment be the end of me!

If ever flattering lies of yours can please

And soothe my soul to self-sufficiency,

And make me one of pleasure’s devotees,

Then take my soul, for I desire to die:

And that is the wager!

To which Mephistopheles says “Done!”

According to Arthur Schopenhauer (who had read his Faust carefully) this is a profound and meaningful bargain that so many contemporary men and women have made with the devil. According to Schopenhauer, most of us are lead primarily by a will that seeks pleasure and satisfaction., We confuse pleasure with happiness and after willing satisfaction in a certain pleasure — say a good meal — afterwards we are bored and must find another motive to direct the will elsewhere. And so on. Life for most of us, as Schopenhauer sees it, is a relentless attempt to avoid becoming bored, seeking one pleasure after another, one diversion after another to keep us from being alone with our thoughts, much like Goethe’s Faust. The only escape, for Schopenhauer, is to find release in poetry, philosophy, and music, the world of Ideas:

“the beauty of nature, i.e., pure knowing free from will, which certainly as a matter of fact is the only pure happiness, which is neither preceded by suffering or want nor necessarily followed by repentance, sorrow, emptiness, or satiety.”

Of course as a philosopher Schopenhauer would say that! Many a philosopher has said the same thing before and many a critic has noted that this is self-serving. But it is worth considering, since it is possible that he is correct and that the rest of us are missing something. One thing is certain, and that is that until we have experienced what he is talking about we cannot possibly be in a position to judge him to be incorrect.

In any event, Goethe’s Faust finds happiness, not in “the beauty of nature,” but in immersing himself in the problems of others and working toward a solution; he finds happiness in “the Deed.” Toward the end of his life he becomes engrossed in helping the citizens of Holland keep the ocean from swallowing up their land. As he lies dying he says :

“And so, ringed all about by perils, here

Youth, manhood, age will spend their strenuous year.

Such teeming would I see upon this land,

On acres free among free people stand.

I might entreat the fleeting moment:

Oh tarry yet, thou art so fair!”

Mephistopheles is delighted because he thinks he was won the bargain! He has gained Faust’s soul. But, wait! God intervenes and takes Faust up to Heaven because he has not actually said he wishes the moment to tarry, he only has said that if certain things take place he might then want the moment to tarry. It’s a verbal trick and it infuriates the devil as it has puzzled commentators over the years. Did the devil win Faust’s soul or did he not?

Whatever the answer to this question, and I have my own theory, it is clear that in Goethe’s mind the man who loses himself in helping others is worth saving. Such a man can find true happiness not by seeking pleasure or endless diversions (as Schopenhauer correctly pointed out), but by directing the will toward the happiness of other people. True happiness consists in forgetting about our own happiness and committing oneself to the well-being of others.

An interesting notion and something worth pondering as the year comes to a close.