Appeared in Spring/Summer 1996, Vol. XXII, Nos. 1.2 Download PDF here   

Goethe’s Faust is traditionally seen as a paean to and the epitome of German Idealism. According to this reading, Faust is the archetypal Modern Western Man who, by dint of his ceaseless striving, creates himself and his world by an act of sheer will, thereby attaining the highest goal of mankind, realizing the purpose or end of all human activity, which is seen as the self-achievement of individual perfection, the cultivation to an ultimate degree of all one’s latent potential. Thus Faust becomes an absolute, so it is said, whose will is sovereign-a law unto himself, a modern Prometheus.l      

But this interpretation of Goethe’s magnum opus is not theonly possible one. In view of the lavish use of traditional Catholic themes and imagery which pervade the play, one is perhaps led to discover in Faust a more traditional view of man and of the purpose of life. Using epistemology as a key, the present paper attempts to unlock the mystery of Faust by showing that Goethe’s protagonist undergoes a development taking him beyond Idealism to an essentially Realist understanding of the world, but a Realism which goes beyond Aristotle to see that creation is in a profound sense symbolic, or, in an analogous sense, sacramental; and that fulfillment comes not from the hubris of unbridled self-realization but rather from a humble acceptance of the human condition as a given rather than a project, a humble submission, that is, to the Natural Law and the Laws of Nature.

As far as the Catholic atmosphere of the play is concerned, Goethe presents us (with one exception reminiscent of Martin Luther, to be discussed in a moment) not only with the thoroughly Catholic milieu of Germany on the eve of the Reformation, but a Catholic ambience on the transcendental plane as well. The play begins and ends in heaven which forms the frame for the earthly action. The beginning celestial scenes are based on the first chapter of the The Book of Job, verses 1-12. In Goethe’s version Mephisopheles bets the Lord that he can lead Faust to perdition, but God is confident that Faust, His servant, will persevere. Thus earthly life is seen as a time of trial where one works out one’s salvation in the face of constant temptations and occasions of sin which the Adversary lays in one’s path. In the final heavenly scenes we meet the Blessed Mother, Choirs of Angels and Archangels, and such saints as Pater Seraphicus, Maria Aegyptiaca from the Acta Sanctorum, and Doctor Marianus. No Puritan paucity here!

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

But let us turn now to Dr. Faust himself and chart his development in the sense of what was said a moment ago about the purpose of this paper.

We first meet Faust, the ageing professor, under the narrow gothic vaults of his study and alchemist’s laboratory. He is at the end of his tether and has decided to commit suicide. The cause of his profound despair is the fact that he has failed in his life’s goal. Faust had committed himself to what might be called the gnostic quest-that is, the achievement of sheer omniscience, the direct, unconditional, and absolute Wesensschau, the understanding of pure essences as they are in themselves: a secular version, one might say, of the beatific vision, happening hic et nunc in time and space. Let us hasten to remark that Faust thought he could attain this vision by his own efforts, unaided by grace, and without recourse to divine revelation. The hubris implicit in such a project is matched by that of Faust’s all-or-nothing determination to take his life when this impossible quest fails.

What prevents the senescent scholar from drinking the poison he has put to his lips? He has forgotten that it is the night of Holy Saturday. In the church next door the Easter Vigil is being celebrated. When Faust hears the resounding chant, “Christ is risen!” the fond memory of the faith of his youth causes him to put down the goblet. The crisis overcome, Faust now begins his quest anew. If before he had sought absolute knowledge first through the conventional means of academic study, and then, when this tack failed him, through magic, the chastened Faust now turns to revelation. Like Martin Luther, Faust begins to translate the Bible into his “beloved German.” And like Luther, he is no less arbitrary than the reformer when dealing with holy writ. How is he to translate Chapter 1, verse I of John’s gospel? How is he to render the Greek logos of “In the beginning was the word”? He rejects “Word,”then “Sense,” then “Power” before settling on “In the beginning was the deed.” This translation of “deed” for logos is of great significance and we shall be returning to it later.2

It is just after the biblical translation scene that Mephistopheles appears. Goethe has keenly transformed the traditional pact with the devil of the Faustus legend into a more dynamic, less cut-and-dried wager. Faust will be doomed-thus the terms of the bet- if the devil can ever lull him into a state of complete contentment, a state where he would wish the moment he was experiencing never to end, saying to that moment, “Tarry a while! Thou art so fair!” (41), a state, that is to say, when Faust would cease striving and lapse into a smug self-satisfaction. This settled, Faust is taken to a witch’s kitchen where a magic potion transforms him into the man of his youth. His new life with Mephisto can now begin!

The temptations the devil offers Faust are three: gluttony, lust, and power. The carousing with students in Auerbach’s pub in Leipzig-a traditional Faustus motif Goethe retained-only bores Faust, so Mephistopheles realizes he must resort to stronger stuff: sex. Here too there are three facets. Faust is tempted first with Gretchen, who represents the epitome of pure, innocent German maidenhood, then with raw lust at its most orgiastic in the Walpurgisnacht scene, when the devil holds his annual conclave with all his witches-a motif Goethe borrows from German folklore-and lastly with Helen of Troy, the epitome of classical beauty, whose shade Faust conjures up from Hades. Faust rejects the debauch with the witches; he is not so crude as to be gotten at by such means. But with Gretchen and Helen it is a different story, and Mephisto almost succeeds. “Almost” because it is not only lust that consumes Faust. Towards Gretchen he feels real love, albeit not so strongly as to prevent him from abandoning her when she becomes pregnant with his child. And Faust sees in Helen not just an object of his carnal desire, but also an ideal, the quintessence and incarnation of the beautiful. But in the last analysis neither feminine purity nor womanly beauty can be the source of ultimate satisfaction for Faust. To settle down with Gretchen as a family man and burgher within the narrow confines of German town life would be too constraining. And as for Helen, it is significant that she is but a shade or ghost. She is too ethereal, she lacks concreteness and reality. As the ideal of beauty she is, as it were, too much form and too little content. Goethe seems to be telling us here that the beautiful (as art) does not exist for its own sake (no 1’art pour 1’art for him) but that it must be the medium of a moral and socially useful content. The beautiful, that is to say, must be the purveyor of the true and the good. (From here it is but a step to Schiller’s converse concept, that the true and the good are best made accessible to man through the beautiful, that the beautiful is the symbol-in the profound, epiphanic sense-of the true and the good.) This Helen lacks and so she cannot fulfill Faust.

The third temptation, power, takes us to the center of the German body politic, to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor himself, where, with a little help from the devil, Faust becomes the ruler’s right-hand man. This is fine as far as it goes, but as long as the emperor is on the throne, Faust’s position will always be that of a subaltern. This he cannot accept. He must be a sovereign in his own right, so Faust is given a feif. Nominally, of course, he is still subject to the emperor, but on his territory Faust is absolute lord. We will see in a moment how this situation does ultimately satisfy Faust, but in such a way that he does not lose the wager with Mephistopheles. First, however, we must take up again the thread of charting Faust’s progress in his search for the absolute, his “gnostic quest” as we have called it.

Again there are three aspects to be considered, three ways in which Faust attempts to appropriate the absolute. These are: first through intellectual knowledge (Faust’s via gnostica in the strict sense), then through feeling or emotion, and finally through action, the “deed” of the bible translation. Let us examine each of these approaches in turn.

We have seen how Faust’s attempt to reach the absolute through conventional academic study (Faust has an M.A, and a Ph.D.) failed, and we have seen how Faust’s idiosyncratic relationship to revelation led him to translate logos as “deed.” But something has yet to be said about Faust’s use of magic in his attempts to unlock the secrets of being. His greatest feat in this regard is his conjuring up of the Spirit of Nature, the Erdgeist himself. (Since Geist is a masculine noun, we are tempted to call the Erdgeist not Mother Nature, but “Father Nature” if that were allowed.) But far from revealing his secrets to Faust, the Erdgeist contemptuously rejects the would-be adept as too puny. Faust can have no power over such a great spirit. The apparition vanishes. Faust has failed.

If his intellect cannot comprehend the Erdgeist, the Spirit of Nature, perhaps Faust can reach his goal from the opposite side, through feeling, emotion. In a marvelous scene called “Forest and Cavern” we see Faust the pantheist. In an expansive and mystical mood his soul reaches out to nature and he feels at one with it; hen kai pan, all is one, as the philosophers say. But the spell is soon broken by the approach of Mephistopheles who, with a few cynical words, interrupts Faust’s communion with nature. Now it is Gretchen’s turn. Perhaps Faust can possess the natural through the love of the unspoiled innocence of a pure, virginal maiden. But instead of returning her pure love, Faust the despoiler seduces the young woman as we have said. The experience of beauty via the liaison with Helen of Troy also fails because in the aesthetic realm, feeling alone is, as we have seen, insufficient. Not even their son Euphorion has enough substantiality to remain long on earth. Helen returns to Hades to be with him.

As for poor Gretchen, her fate is tragic. So that she and Faust can be undisturbed, she secretly puts a sleeping powder into her mother’s evening drink (she was given it by Faust who got it from Mephistopheles), but it was apparently poison, for the woman never wakes up. Next Gretchen’s brother shows up to confront Faust. In the ensuing duel Faust fatally runs him through. Now Gretchen feels that not only has she killed her mother, but that her brother was killed because of her as well. With this burden of guilt, and Faust having fled, she faces the birth of her illegitimate child utterly alone. Alone, that is, on the earthly plane. Gretchen does turn to the Blessed Mother for help in a poignant scene at a small Marian shrine, and we learn at the end of the play, when we meet her in heaven, that her prayer has been answered. Nevertheless, Gretchen cracks under the strain, and in an attempt to hide her shame she drowns her newborn. Of course in her small community the infanticide cannot be kept a secret for long. Gretchen is arrested, tried, and sentenced to death. When Faust hears of this he hurries to her cell where, with Mephisto’s help, he would be able to free her and flee with her. But Gretchen refuses to budge. She has accepted her death as a just punishment for her sins; she offers her life in expiation, praying for forgiveness. When the ever cynical Mephistopheles presumes to usurp the divine role and judge Gretchen by saying that she is condemned, a voice from heaven contradicts him and pronounces that she is saved. Faust and his satanic companion must now leave Gretchen’s prison cell, which she has rightly called a holy place. Faust.Part Oneends with this scene.

The scene at the beginning of Faust.- Part Two comprises a crucial step towards Faust’s salvation, the decisive insight that will remove the hubristic obstacles that the gnostic questor had been placing in the way of divine grace. Faust awakens from what seems to have been a long therapeutic slumber after the Gretchen tragedy. He is lying on a lovely meadow by a stream and waterfall. As he awakens he attempts to gaze at the rising sun, but it blinds him painfully. He turns his back on the sun and notices that the spray of the waterfall which had been be hind him refracts the sunlight, creating thereby a beautiful rainbow. The symbolic significance of the rainbow dawns on Faust with the power of an inspiration: “This mirrors all aspiring hu man action,” Faust proclaims. “On this your mind for clearer insight fasten:/That life is ours by colorful refraction” (121).

“Life is ours by colorful refraction.” Faust has now learned the truth about his attempts to approach the absolute directly, to get “behind” pheonomena, as it were, in order to see what Kantcalled the noumenal realm or the Ding an sich (essences, things as they are in themselves). He realizes that these attempts of his, be it through academic study, magic, feeling, nature, feminine innocence or female beauty, were all misguided, and he renounces them.3Man can no more see the Ding an sich than he can look at the sun directly. But does that mean that man can never know truth? That the relationship between the phenomenal and noumenal worlds, between, that is, things as they really are in themselves and as they appear to us, is, as many students of Kant have believed, the tenuous one of subjective impression determined by the very structure of the mind? Or that truth is just a creation of our mind? Absolutely not! For although the sun’s rays may hurt and blind us when looked upon directly, that same light may be seen, even enjoyed in its beauty, when refracted in the colorful rainbow. It is in this empirical world, Faust now realizes, that man contacts the absolute symbolically-and a symbol, we remember, is for Goethe a concrete, true manifestation in time and space of transcendental, eternal and infinite reality. Goethe believed only that to be real which is symbolic and vice-versa. Thus the ultimate message of Faust is that the real world as we perceive it, is the symbol, the epiphany, the quasi-sacrament, of the Divine, just as the refraction of a rainbow is the “symbol” of pure sunlight..

But Faust does not stop here. He is not satisfied with merely knowing this new truth-that would still be gnosticism, knowledge for its own sake. No-Faust will apply this insight, live it out in life. Here is exactly where “In the beginning was the deed” comes in. The deed, for Faust, stands for man’s duty to accept this world and work creatively within it, thereby recapitulating on a human level the divine act of creation on the cosmic plane. Faust, through the deed-that is, through socially useful, benevolent, humane activity-appropriates empirical reality to himself and makes life meaningful to himself and to the community entrusted by the emperor to his care. Faust, who once sought the absolute via the gnostic quest, now finds it through creating new land for his people, in building dikes, draining swamps, founding cities and sending out ships laden with goods.



It is man’s duty, we said, to accept this world and work within its temporal and spatial limits. In the humility of this acceptance lies also, Faust realizes, acceptance of the fact that the human project will never achieve consummation and perfection here on earth. All human endeavour, he learns by bitter experience, will be accompanied by sorrow, by want, guilt, worry and care; and by suffering. And since Faust’s use of power is now humble and directed unselfishly towards the benefit of others, Mephistopheles’ third and most potent temptation leads Faust not to perdition but to salvation. The devil has failed; Faust has won the wager. For even though he does finally, and in the last moment of his hundred-year life, utter the crucial words, “O tarry yet, thou art so fair,” announcing that his striving has reached its goal and can cease, this is said not about the present moment as such, but in anticipation of a time yet to come. For Faust, as he speaks, sees a vision of the future.

His fief will be a whole province inhabited by a free, industrious and prosperous people. With his dying breath Faust proclaims:

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 minute: Oh tarry yet, thou art so fair! My path on earth, the trace I leave within it Eons untold cannot impair. Foretasting such high happiness to come, I savor now my striving’s crown and sum. (294)

His striving now on the right path, as the Lord was confident it would be in the “Prologue in Heaven” at the beginning of the play, Faust is now worthy of salvation. Especially so since there are powerful souls in heaven, the Blessed Virgin, Gretchen (for Goethe God’s love is symbolized by the feminine) and heavenly hosts who intercede at the Throne of Grace for Faust. Therefore Faust is not saved by his own efforts alone. Goethe is not a neo-Pelagian. Grace is needed, and it is provided. Now the heavenly choir can chant:

Whoever strives in ceaseless toil, Him we may grant redemption.” And when on high, transfigured love Has added intercession, The blest will throng to him above With welcoming compassion. (303)

The title of this paper is “Reading Goethe’s Faust from a Catholic perspective.” Are we to say, then, that this is a Catholic drama? Is there real Christian content behind all the Catholic trappings? In a qualified sense, I believe the answer is yes.

Basic to the Catholic faith is a Realist epistemology. We see through a glass darkly here on earth, it is true, but creation does speak to us and it reveals its author. Unaided reason can prove the existence of God; natural theology is possible. The human intellect can know truth, and that knowing consists in conforming our minds to what is real. And that, in turn, involves accepting and trusting our logic and our senses. This affirmation leads not only to knowledge of the laws of nature, but to the Natural Law as well. For in accepting our senses and our intellect we are at the same time affirming, giving assent to, who and what we are. We are accepting our human nature. And since human nature thrives best when lived in conformity with the Natural Law, knowledge of the Natural Law is at least implied in our acceptance of our human nature. This applies directly to Faust and his renunciation of the gnostic quest. For what was that quest but a revolt against human nature, an attempt to transcend time, space, and causality which Faust felt to be a straightjacket. In attempting to supercede these confines Faust was attempting to transform his humanity into something higher, to become an LJbermensch, a superhuman man. In for swearing magic, etc. Faust finally accepts in all humility the human condition. As he puts it:

Could I but clear my path at every turning

Of spells, all magic utterly unlearning; Were I but Man, with Nature for my frame,

The name of human would be worth the claim. (289-90)

Faust now realizes that time, space, and causality, known to us via the senses and the intellect, are not limits to human fulfillment, but their preconditions, the parameters within which, and only within which, the deed, as defined above, is possible. Speaking of himself in the third person, Faust proclaims: “Let him stand firm and look about him here,/This world is open to every ear…/And what he perceives can be grasped down here.”4

When we add to this implicit Realism in Goethe’s play the fact that, as we have seen, Faust is saved through grace by dint of his meritorious works, his “deed,” and through the intercessory prayer of others, mentioned above, and also that Faust is aware that there can be no earthly paradise, that all human projects fall short and incur guilt, we could say that Goethe has written a drama with profound Catholic implications. It is true that Faust lacks Christian faith in a strict, dogmatic sense; but to give him this would be more than one should expect of Goethe who lacked it too. He took his Faust as close as he could to authentic Christianity, but no closer.5  


1 Instrumental in establishing this influential reading were Hegel’s discussion of Faust in his Phenomology of Mind, Schelling’s in his On Faust as Tragicomedy, and Friedrich Schlegel’s in his On Hamlet and Faustas Philosophical Tragedies, all of which are reprinted in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust: A Tragedy. Backgrounds and Sources. The Author on the Drama. Contemporary Reactions. Modern Criticism. A Norton Critical Edition. Trans. Walter Arndt. Ed. Cyrus Hamlin (New York: Norton, 1976), 435-440. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Faust are from this edition. The page number is indicated in the text in brackets after each quotation. It is also worthy of note that Nietzsche’s philosophy was profoundly influenced by the Ideal ist/Promethean reading of Faust.

2The translations of “Wort, “”Sinn, “Kraft, and “Tat”are my own, as is the phrase “mein geliebtes Deutsch” as “Mybeloved German” (lines 1223-37 ofthe play).

3 The reference to Kant here is not gratuitous. Part Two of Faust can be seen as Goethe’s answer to the Critique of Pure Reason.  

4The translation is my own. The pun on “grasp” is in the original. To grasp (“ergreifen”) means in English and German both to know and to take hold of with one’s hands. This pun implies Realism. What we know we grasp, what we know is real.

5Faust’s (and Goethe’s) faith is best expressed in Part One of the drama when Gretchen asks Faust if he believes in God. He answers: My dear one, who may say:

I believe in God?

Ask all your sages, clerical or lay, And their reply appears but sport Made of the questioner. (84)

To this Gretchen replies that he must, then, be an unbeliever. Faust’s response gives eloquent expression to his heterodox credo: Do not mishear me, dear my heart, For who may name Him

And go proclaiming: Yes, I believe in him? Who search his heart And dare say for his part: No, I believe him not? The All-comprising,

The All-sustaining,

Does he comprise, sustain not You, me, himself?

Are not the vaulted heavens hung on high? Is earth not anchored here below? And do with kindly gaze Eternal stars not rise aloft?Join I not eye to eye with thee, Does all not surge

Into thy head and heart, And in perpetual mystery

Unseenly visible weave beside thee?

Fill full your heart, all it will hold, with this, And when you’re all suffused and lost in bliss, Then call it what you will, Call it fulfillment! Heart! Love! God!

I have no name for it!

Feeling is all;

Name is but sound and fume Befogging heaven’s blaze. (84-85)