Concepts of Tolerance in Unconventional Ideas in Faust

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At the beginning of Goethe’s Faust, how do the Dedication, the Prelude in the Theater, and the Prologue in Heaven set in motion a series of dialectical opposites–that is, furiously opposed opposites that create important, unresolvable (perhaps) tensions in the creative and philosophical life?

The Dedication sets a nostalgic tone for the play evoking images of youth and of old friends rising from “out of haze and mist” (Goethe, p.3) and focuses attention on happier times through an epitaph of a well-lived life (“You bring the images of happy days with you and many beloved shades arise, first love and friendship rising with them too, like an old story caught before it dies” (Goethe, p.3)). There is a stark difference between the Dedication and the Prelude in the Theater in that while the Dedication sets the tone and stirs the emotions, the Prelude creates distance and reminds the audience what we are about to experience is a contrived act whose sole purpose is to entertain. Before our eyes, the director, poet, and comic discuss how this should best be achieved. This representation and reminder that what we are about to experience is planned, written, and created by men in order to provide a momentary distraction creates additional distance and stresses that this is a means of entertainment. The beginning of the play, the Prologue in Heaven, creates even more distance as the Prologue makes the wager between Mephisto and God into a comic event (“My thanks for that. For with the dead my wish to mix was never very strong….on days when corpses call I don’t receive” (Goethe, p.14) and implies that Faust and the rest of humanity are on a predetermined course (“As human beings strive, they will go wrong” (Goethe, p.15), making the distinct statement that this play, like our lives, is already planned out and therefore out of our control.

These conflicting themes of nostalgia and youth and the setting of the stage, so to speak, gives the impression that Goethe is attempting to focus the audience’s attention on the idea that human nature is paradoxical and composed of both destructive and constructive forces and is constantly in opposition to itself. This idea runs throughout Goethe’s Faust and can be seen in many aspects of the play. For example, one way we can see this is through Goethe’s focus on the human condition of ceaseless striving through Faust who ultimately meets Mephisto and changes his life’s focus from words to deeds. In the course of Faust’s experiences, his pursuit of connection, happiness, and satisfaction will lead him to commit to a series of questionable actions that only bring about momentary flashes of pleasure. This human need to act, to create, to strive is in direct opposition to the very real human desire of peace, happiness, and satisfaction and are very rarely compatible. This contrasted theme, like the play, shows how God and the Devil are strange bedfellows as they both contradict and complement each other and serve as useful tools to guide human growth (“because man’s energies flag all too easily…I like to make the devil his companion” (Goethe, p. 15)).

Alternatively, this concept can also be seen represented both in Gretchen’s dual nature and inner conflict between good and evil as well as within the relationship between Faust and Mephisto that is reminiscent of the indifferent relationship between earthly desires and pleasures and the pressure of responding to these desires and circumstances through indulgence or abstinence. Ultimately, the Prelude to the Theater frames this tension best when the director calls for action and sums up the idea that what will be offered in this play is a figurative and yet literal representation of humankind’s fall from grace, stating “Within the girdle of these walls confined pace out Creation’s whole round and with a measured haste propel yourselves from heaven through the world to hell” (Goethe, p.11).

When Faust is alone in his study at Night, what is the main source of his restlessness?

Faust, isolated and discontent is ultimately seeking a connection/relationship with the world through truth, nature, and the universe and it is this disconnection with the universe that is ultimately the source of his discontent. Having found his knowledge and learning provide nothing of great worth, he is now committing himself to death in order to “see what in its innermost gathers the world and holds it fast” (Goethe, p.17). Having once believed in God and having abandoned his faith in order to find comfort in educational pursuits, Faust is not looking for a religious solution to this problem but more of an understanding about the essential presence contained within reality, something that formal education and status has been unable to give him. It’s odd that Faust, entombed by “reek and moulder” and the dry and dust covered past, intuitively knows what he needs to find this connection (“Oh my sad friend, could I but walk the mountains, high in your beloved light, could I hover at mountain caves with ghosts, weave in the meadows in your milestones, slough off the dross of knowing and in your dew bathe myself well again” (Goethe, p.17)) and yet seeks out more death in pursuits such necromancy and eventually the devil. Far from actually living life and the invigorating effect that life and nature and the rebirth of spring will have on Faust, he turns to other avenues only to discover that not only can he not face the spirit of nature he is unable to ultimately face himself or his conflicting desires (“You are like the spirit you can comprehend, not me” (Goethe, p.21)).

Goethe once said, ‘All of us live life, few have an idea about it.’ This memorable statement serves as the epigraph to the Yale University Press edition of Goethe’s Faust, Part I. How does Goethe’s statement inform the reading of Faust?

I take this to mean that all of us live life but very few of us every really understand what life is about and is a reference to humanity’s creative potential. We create the world we live in by making sense of and finding and assigning meaning to it all while trying to connect and form a relationship with the source of that meaning. Overall, this idea informs Goethe’s Faust as the play ultimately represents this search for connection and a deeper relationship with the universe through the resolution of inner conflict as well as provides a warning about being led astray and creating a meaningless reality.

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As stated before, the main source of Faust’s restlessness was that he seeks a connection with the knowledge of the world, a relationship deeper than academic thought can provide and expresses this early on when he speaks of longing to see what gathers and holds the “innermost” of workings of the world and his desire to “spy all the workings and the seed, the power” (Goethe, p.17). Because of this, Faust, in an attempt to understand the mysteries of nature, is ultimately willingly led astray by the illusions and manipulations of Mephisto just as humanity has been led astray in their creation of an objective reality divorced from the powers of creation, delegating meaning to the principles of science who has deemed that we are a product of natural selection and genetic mutation. Because of this we find ourselves inevitably cut off from our origins by a disillusioned and spiritually bereft civilization.

Moreover, Goethe’s Faust provides a warning regarding the limitations of the rational mind to commandeer instead of revere nature. By relegating the mysteries of living to measurable quantities and causes and effects, we create a type of moral free zone that divides us from those mysteries. Faust’s knowledge of the world, like humanity, needs more than the dry and dusty tombs of the past, it needs the value of connection and creation and spiritual essence of nature (“Where is the heart that made a world and held and harbored it within and swelled on shocks of joy to be with us, the spirits, equal?” (Goethe, p.16)) for it to be able to truly experience what life has to offer free from illusion.

What pact does Faust make with Mephistopheles (Mephisto)?

The wager Faust makes with the Devil is a straightforward one. The Devil will do Faust’s bidding “tirelessly” in order to produce Faust with an experience of happiness and contentment, an experience that will persuade Faust to end his endless striving (“If ever I settle on a bed of ease let me be done for there and then. If you, by lying flattery, can please me with myself and can impose, by means of pleasure, upon my mind – there and then let my days end. I offer you this wager” (Goethe, p.57)). If Faust ever “settles on a bed of ease” then Faust will be condemned to do the Devil’s bidding tirelessly, “if and when” their “paths cross over there” and demonstrates the extent of Faust’s profound despair. As his “joys well from this earth alone and on my sufferings only this sun shines,” he has little concern with either Heaven or Hell as he considers himself already cursed (“The god indwelling in me causes deep turmoil innerly but he, the lord of all my energies, can move not one thing outwardly. So my existence is burdensome, death to be wished, life loathsome” (Goethe, p. 53)) and enslaved to a world he can’t connect with (“I am a slave as I am now, yours or who else’s, all one” (Goethe, p.58)).

Ultimately, the wager between Mephisto and Faust is a particularly curious bargain as it hinges on Mephisto’s ability to ease Faust’s restless mind and ceaseless striving by bringing him into the physical pleasures and pains of the human experience. This puts Mephisto, the Devil, in a position of extolling the pleasures of life to Faust instead of attempting to seduce Faust into sin (though in excess the pleasures of life can easily turn into irredeemable sin). In fact, Mephisto’s role in this wager seems to be a facet of God’s plan for Faust as God had originally stated “What if he serves me in confusion now? Soon I shall lead him into clarity” (Goethe, p.14) and then states “Because man’s energies flag all too easily and peace and quiet are soon his sole ambition I like to make the devil his companion to prick and work and be a mover willy-nilly” (Goethe, p.15). This gives the impression that Mephisto’s role is that of redeemer, as both his wager with God and his wager with Faust serves the overall purpose of redeeming and saving Faust. While Faust might believe he is damned one way or other, win or lose, Faust according to God’s plan may ultimately be saved.

How does Faust respond to Gretchen’s question about whether he believes in God? In what way does his response test religious authority and convention?

Gretchen, perhaps through her instinctual dislike of Mephisto (“It queers my blood when he is there…inside I fill with dread of him” (Goethe, p.125)) or perhaps having noticed that Faust never participates in religious rites has become concerned with the state of Faust’s soul. When she asks whether he believes in religion, Faust’s answer is ultimately ambiguous, evasive, and, while truthful, only serves to overcome a potential barrier. He ultimately discusses his tolerance for conventional religion (“In faith and feeling all men are free” (Goethe 123)), defining God as the creative spirit of the universe and describing his faith in nature and emotions as a manifestation of this guiding force, ultimately stating “Then call it what you will. Call it happiness, the heart or love or God, I have no name for it. The feeling is all, names are a noise and a smoke obscuring heaven’s flame” (Goethe, p.124). Clearly, his answer, as given to Gretchen, demonstrates a certain dislike for conventional religion (“Ask a priest or sage. Their answer will only seem to mock the questioner” (Goethe, p.123)) and demonstrates that Faust believes God can only be known by intuition and feeling and not through rituals or systems of belief and to recognize it is to worship it. Therefore, naming it is not important.

What Faust discusses in his answer demonstrates concepts that identify a pantheist viewpoint in that he describes a tolerance for conventional belief systems and ultimately describes God as a guiding force of nature (“He comprehends all things and holds in place all things. Does he not comprehend and hold in place you, me, himself? Is not the arch of heaven over us and the firm earth under us? And the everlasting stars do they not rise, friendly in aspect, over us?” (Goethe, p.124)) and ultimately reflects the viewpoint that “God is everything and everything is God.” These ideas directly challenge conventional religious authority in three distinct ways. First, it challenges the Christian concept of God as an entity present and yet outside of the universe, secondly it challenges the idea of God’s personhood as creator of the universe, and thirdly it challenges the religious authority of the church directly in that the “God” Faust speaks of is not the kind of entity that can have beliefs or desires or even intentions and has no will as what Faust describes is a clockwork-like glue that can be sensed and revered without conventional roles of worship and the guiding hands of “priests or sages.”

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