|Justifying the Means
I just finished reading Faust, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It is touted as one of the greatest works in German literature, and is full of themes about heaven and hell. I liked it, but knew very little about what I was getting in to. This play puts the “T” in tragedy. Here’s a quick overview:
In heaven, God agrees* to allow Mephistopheles (the devil) to try and foil Faust, a brilliant physician that was restlessly searching for inner peace and infinite knowledge. Frustrated, Faust resorts to magic to conjure up a spirit to help him in his search. Unwittingly, he summons Satan. Mephistopheles initially appears in the innocuous form of a poodle, which Faust brings home to his study. The poodle transforms into Mephistopheles and Faust recognizes him as the devil. Faust is titillated and invites him back not once, but three times. Mephistopheles then persuades Faust to a wager, which he signs in his own blood. The devil will serve Faust and bring him knowledge and power, but at the moment Faust wishes to stay in the moment forever, he will die and forfeit his soul.**
Faust falls for Margaret, a beautiful and virtuous god-fearing girl. With the assistance of Mephistopheles, Faust makes use of magic potions, bribery, lies and flattery to seduce her—and impregnate her. To make things worse, the potion they used to make Margaret’s mother sleep ends up killing her. Things continue to unwind when Faust kills Margaret’s brother, who finds out about the sordid affair. Faust and Mephistopheles flee and when they return, find that Margaret is in prison and sentenced to death for drowning her illegitimate child. Faust immediately offers to free her. But, racked with guilt, Margaret refuses and calls on God for forgiveness. We hear a voice from heaven announce that Margaret is saved as Faust and Mephistopheles simply run away. It’s not exactly a Princess Bride ending.
In the beginning, Faust wanted good things: knowledge and understanding. Yet, he was so desperate to get them that nothing was off-limits. Faust actively conjured up a devil and sacrificed his spiritual values for power and knowledge—things he deemed good. But his methods caused him to rapidly lose sight of his lofty goals. In no time he was bogged down in things that he would have found abhorrent before his compromise. Nothing good ever happens in this story.
This is by no means the first Faustian pact, but Goethe’s story is so memorable that it now defines the genre. Though we may not conjure up a devil and sell him our soul, it is very easy to place ourselves in his company. Our choices and compromises so easily force away the Holy Spirit, leaving us alone with the likes of Mephistopheles. It’s not long until we find ourselves comfortable in his presence, and repeatedly inviting him back for a visit. As Cervantes*** wrote:
“Tell me thy company and I will tell thee what thou art.”
So what is my point? It seems that our Christianity is increasingly replaced by Faustianity: the relentless pursuit of our selfish goals without regard to ethics or spiritual values. We take little heed of the casualties we create along the way—so long as we are able to get away safely. I see it as supreme selfishness and blind ambition, and it is very much the up-and-coming thing. It may be the fastest growing religion on earth.
* Shades of Job 1:6-12
** This is one of most famous parts of the work:
When thus I hail the moment flying:
“Ah, still delay–thou art so fair?”
Then bind me in thy bonds undying,
My final ruin then declare
*** Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha, LVI:1021