And thus, everything in the whole drama, all its incidents and all its characters, become episodes in the rounding out of this grand, all-comprehensive personality. Gretchen and Helena, Wagner and Mephisto, Homunculus and Euphorion, the Emperor’s court and the shades of the Greek past, the broodings of medieval mysticism and the practical tasks of modern industrialism, the enlightened despotism of the eighteenth century and the ideal democracy of the future—all this and a great deal more enters into Faust’s being. He strides on from experience to experience, from task to task, expiating guilt by doing, losing himself and finding himself again. Blinded in old age by Dame Care, he feels a new light kindled within. Dying, he gazes into a far future. And even in the heavenly regions he goes on ever changing into new and higher and finer forms. It is this irrepressible spirit of striving which makes Goethe’s Faust the Bible of modern humanity.
BY CALVIN THOMAS, LL.D.
Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures, Columbia University
The central theme of Goethe’s Faust may be put in the form of a question thus: Shall a man hate life because it does not match his dreams, or shall he embrace it eagerly and try to make the best of it as a social being? Goethe’s answer is at once scientific and religious, which partly explains its vital interest for the modern man. To be sure, his answer is given at the end of a long symbolic poem which contains much that is not exactly relevant to the main issue. It must never be forgotten that Faust is not the orderly development of a thesis in ethics, but a long succession of imaginative pictures. Some of them may seem too recondite and fantastic to meet our present-day demand for reality, but on the whole the poem deals with vital issues of the human spirit. At the end of it Faust arrives at a noble view of life, and his last words undoubtedly tell how Goethe himself thought that a good man might wish to end his days—unsated with life to the final moment, and expiring in an ecstasy of altruistic vision.
Goethe was about twenty years old when his imagination began to be haunted by the figure of the sixteenth century magician Doctor Faust. In 1772 or 1773 he commenced writing a play on the subject, little thinking of course that it would occupy him some sixty years. The old legend is a story of sin and damnation. Faust is represented as an eager student impelled by intellectual curiosity to the study of magic. From the point of view of the superstitious folk who created the legend this addiction to magic is itself sinful. But Faust is bad and reckless. By the aid of his black art he calls up a devil named (in the legend) Mephostophiles with whom he makes a contract of service. For twenty-four years Faust is to have all that he desires, and then his soul is to go to perdition. The contract is carried out. With the Devil as comrade and servant he lords it over time and space, feeds on the fat of the land, travels far and wide, and does all sorts of wonderful things. At the end of the stipulated time the Devil gets him.