Faust’s Wager

Faust’s wager with the Devil was straightforward: Faust declares that “If to the fleeting moment he could say, ‘stay yet awhile, thou are so fair,’ then he would yield his soul to Mephistopheles forever since traces of his earthly being would linger for all eternity.”

Faust, unlike his author Goethe, was a traditional Christian believer: he believed in God, communicated directly with him, believed in the Holy Scriptures and the rituals of the Holy Church; he also believed in the existence and reality of the Devil, Mephistopheles, and in his supernatural powers — enough at least to strike a bargain with him. Faust had indeed studied all the sciences, immersed himself in the wisdom of the past and the venerated ancient writers of Greek antiquity. Despite all that, his learning could not answer many “foundationalist” questions: why life, why colour, why innocence and sin, why beauty and horror, what creates ecstasy and bliss — and why doubt nags one’s inner composure, one’s certainty about one’s beliefs.

The terms of the wager between Faust and Mephisto sound straightforward and can be interpreted in several ways. The bourgeois century, which witnessed the wholesale transfer of power from the landed aristocracies of Europe to a new class of merchant princes and their minions, interpreted Goethe’s Faust as a chronicle of unrepentant (male) ambition and greed mitigated occasionally by feminine compassion. But the two prefaces to the play — rarely performed — tell another story. The second of these is wonderfully cheerful in its depiction of God and the Devil. Both have a great sense of humour and in their debate about whether God created a wholesome, morally defensible universe, strike their own wager about God’s ultimate creation, Man. Is he morally sound, or do his ambitions, his unbridled lusts for power and sensuality destroy the world he was given as his playroom? Man need not “believe” in God, worship Him as a creator and source of wisdom, but his test is whether he will pursue his quest for knowledge and blend this with his sense of compassion. This, as we learn, was God’s plan.

A good man, says der alte Herr — the old gentleman — to his former servant, the Devil, is aware at critical moments of his ultimate obligations towards others and to future generations and their well being. So there are good men — but also evil men; the former are non-seduceable, but others certainly are. Each must be judged by their deeds and intentions — and must be judged by others than the devil who has a glaring self—interest in the outcome of such judgement: the devil is guilty of the same sins which defeat so many men in their strivings: he has an insatiable lust for power and glory, not an urge to achieve worthy goals. He is the paragon of evil.

The debate about what is “worthy”, about what can or even should be be approved by us, is as old as humanity, or as old as there have been creatures whose actions towards one another are not only guided by what used to be called “blind instinct” but by a calculus of desirability. God made instincts, but humans were also given judgemental powers that they could decide between actions and make judgements based on the merits of each case. If modern science draws a portrait of humans as animals which have a choice about which actions to pursue, especially actions which influence the well-being of others, it supports a humanistic philosophy, not a theology. The issue is entirely about the scaling of ends and the evaluation of means seen in the light of desirable ends.

In the story of Faust (as told by Goethe), the Devil loses his wager with God: Faust, now frail, blind and old, yields momentarily to the bliss of the moment as he visualizes his ultimate achievement, the sounds of workers erecting under his direction an Utopian city he had planned for humans. It is not the city of God — but a city which will be governed by men and women exercising good will and compassion, rather than acting through the forces of greed and self-interest. (Goethe wrote before the rise of the press-barons of the 19th and 20th century, or the industrial financial and multi—media barons of the 21th century!)

Salvador Dali: Vieux Faust

During this banter between God and Mephisto the two make a wager whether man — even wise men like Faust — can be seduced by the promise of glory and boundless pleasure. “Easy!” says Mephisto; “Not so,” claims God. Man, God proclaims, is aware of the difference between self-centered pleasure,self-interest, his own sensuality, and selfless dedication to broader goals, even goals which he is unable to articulate at the time of his actions — and which may cost him his life. At the end it is God who wins the wager, not by deviousness — the method favoured by the devil — but because Faust when left to his own devices orders his priorities in a manner which favours the rights and wellbeing of future generations. The city is built for future generations and its purpose is to enable a better life to be lived than experienced by its architect and builder, Faust. It is a vision which is close to godly — and God approves, as does Goethe.

One can speak loudly in the name of the Devil, but only cautiously in the name of one’s god. Goethe appears to proclaim that the godless know evil as well as those who believe in a transcendental being, but that to know evil is not a license to practice it. So Rabbi Hillel (c.30 BC) was right that the only rule required is to act in a manner compatible with how one would expect others to act towards oneself. It is certainly not a rule which applies to the world as a whole, but is limited to the interaction between people. Its status as a guide to conduct stands on its own merits.

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