by Emmanuel Foroglou
Goethe devoted the greatest part of his long productive life to the composition of “Faust,” his magnum opus and one of the greatest literary masterpieces ever written. In Goeth’s Faust, the central character Faust agrees to hand over his soul to the devil, in exchange for having his desires satisfied. Written in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century, Goethe’s “Faust” provides a fascinating Enlightenment spin on the much earlier, medieval myth of Dr Faust.
Faust is a scholar who spends his entire life locked up in his study, meticulously mastering every field of knowledge under the sun. Near the end of his life he realizes that he has missed out on the experiences of life.
To make up for this, he signs a contract with Mephistopheles, an evil demon who is the equivalent of the devil in German mythology. According to this pact, Mephistopheles will make Faust young, and grant his every wish as long as he is alive. BUT . . . when Faust dies, his soul will belong to Mephistopheles.
Mephistopheles satisfies Faust’s range-of-the-moment desires, but when Faust seeks fulfillment in CREATIVE ACHIEVEMENT, Mephistopheles is incapable of providing it.
Thus their contract breaks down and, when Faust dies, it is the ANGELS who come and take his soul away – leaving Mephistopheles screaming – with the contract in his hand!
Unlike the medievals, Goethe does not treat Faust’s quest for experience through the pact with Mephistopheles as an act of blasphemy and rebellion against God. Instead, Faust emerges as a heroic champion of the indomitable human spirit, and his ultimate victory is a glorious symbolic triumph of good over evil and secularism over the supernatural.
Although Goethe was a contemporary of Kant and Hegel, the German philosophers who buried the Enlightenment and resurrected mysticism with a vengeance – in contrast to them, Goethe was a full-fledged Enlightenment thinker who upheld reason as man’s greatest glory.
“Faust” is Goethe’s grandiose hymn to the awesome power of the human mind – in sharp contrast to Kant’s thesis (which still dominates contemporary culture) that the mind is impotent, since it is by its nature incapable of knowing reality.